I found myself listening to the Farewell Address of President Harry S. Truman this morning as I was walking my dogs. (That's right, I'm a history geek! So sue me!) I have always put a lot of faith in the old saying "those that ignore history are doomed to repeat it".
The commonly used expression, "Those who ignore history are bound (or doomed) to repeat it" is actually a misquotation of the original text written by George Santayana, who, in his Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1, wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."As I was saying, I was listening to the man from Independence. Many of the things he stated in this speech had such resonance today. I felt I had to share it with others. It is my hope that both the Right and the Left can take something from this speech. Perhaps, remember a simpler more genteel time when the word gentleman meant something.
Santayana's quotation, in turn, was a slight modification of an Edmund Burke (1729-1797) statement, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." Burke was a British Statesman and Philosopher who is generally viewed as the philosophical founder of modern political conservatism.
I suggest that you listen to the entire speech, it is very enlightening. I also recommend this website from the Miler Center: Presidential Speech Archive you can find an entire archive of presidential speeches. It is an incredible resource. But I would like to share some passages that really struck me as relevant or just struck me.
The greatest part of the President's job is to make decisions—big ones and small ones, dozens of them almost every day. The papers may circulate around the Government for a while but they finally reach this desk. And then, there's no place else for them to go. The President—whoever he is—has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.Or as former President George W. Bush once said, "I'm the decider". That was the first thing that struck me as I head this quote. I immediately thought of that particular Bush-ism. This next quote isn't relevant or even that important but I found it a little humorous.
Of course, for more than 3 years Mrs. Truman and I were not living in the White House. We were across the street in the Blair House. That was when the White House almost fell down on us and had to be rebuilt. I had a study over at the Blair House, too, but living in the Blair House was not as convenient as living in the White House. The Secret Service wouldn't let me walk across the street, so I had to get in a car every morning to cross the street to the White House office, again at noon to go to the Blair House for lunch, again to go back to the office after lunch, and finally take an automobile at night to return to the Blair House. Fantastic, isn't it? But necessary, so my guards thought—and they are the bosses on such matters as that.Poor Mr. Truman. Back and forth and forth and back. It just struck me as a little funny as I thought of Harry Truman - one of our more down-to-earth Presidents going back and forth by car across a street. He probably thought it was ridiculous.
Next was this section. It showed me how very different Harry Truman was from all the Presidents there have been in my memory. The first I remember was Jimmy Carter, then there was Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and now Barack Obama. Six Presidents. But none as down-to-earth and immediate as Harry Truman. Don't misunderstand me. Truman is not my favorite president. If I had to choose one for the 20th Century, it would be either JFK or FDR. But there is a lot to admire in Mr. Truman.
I want all of you to realize how big a job, how hard a job, it is—not for my sake, because I am stepping out of it—but for the sake of my successor. He needs the understanding and the help of every citizen. It is not enough for you to come out once every 4 years and vote for a candidate, and then go back home and say, "Well, I've done my part, now let the new President do the worrying." He can't do the job alone.I add the emphasis because this really struck me. We have lost this respect for the President of the United States. Whether it was we on the left that who did not believe that President Bush was the popularly elected President, or those on the right who believed that President Obama was not even eligible to be President. We did not give either of them our complete support. Indeed. When members of the Congress pledge to make President Obama "a one-term President" or when Joe Walsh interrupts a Presidential speech with "You lie!", we have to wonder what kind of example we are setting. As others before me have said, you don't have to respect the man, but you should respect the office.
Regardless of your politics, whether you are Republican or Democrat, your fate is tied up with what is done here in this room. The President is President of the whole country. We must give him our support as citizens of the United States. He will have mine, and I want you to give him yours. [bold and italic added for emphasis]
I think President Truman hit the nail on the head. We need to support the President. Maybe not the policies but we do need to support the Office. He is our representative to other countries. He speaks for all of us when he talks with foreigners. If we show him disrespect, could we be surprised if others do? Additionally what are we showing to our children? If I showed the same disrespect some do to President Obama, to one of my schoolteachers or - God forbid - my parents... Well, let's just say I hope I would have made some arrangements ahead of time.
President Truman went on in his speech to talk about the Cold War - how it began in his term, how he believed that he had set the policies that would eventually win it. Much of this section was tarnished by knowledge of what had happened. But many of his standards, his policies, are ones I wish we had today. They were high ideals. Of course, this is before the military-industrial complex really took over. Before we had compromised ourselves totally with our foreign relations in suspect countries.
Truman referred to conflict against the Communists as:
...this conflict between those who love freedom and those who would lead the world back into slavery and darknessHe also believed that he had set the policies that could win it:
We have succeeded in carving out a new set of policies to attain peace—positive policies, policies of world leadership, policies that express faith in other free people.In today's world, we may consider this simplistic and idealistic, but many of the conflicts in today's world may have been avoided if we had used policies "that express faith in other free people." How many times have we sided with the dictator for reasons of trade or other circumstances?
He then goes on to talk on history, to remind his "fellow Americans" of the lessons history has taught us and that we need not make the same mistakes. I really enjoyed this section so I will quote it in full.
These are great and historic achievements that we can all be proud of. Think of the difference between our course now and our course 30 years ago. After the First World War we withdrew from world affairs—we failed to act in concert with other peoples against aggression—we helped to kill the League of Nations—and we built up tariff barriers that strangled world trade. This time, we avoided those mistakes. We helped to found and sustain the United Nations. We have welded alliances that include the greater part of the free world. And we have gone ahead with other free countries to help build their economies and link us all together in a healthy world trade.Inspirational, isn't it? Sometimes I think that our memory goes back only one generation and not even that. Many times I have found myself thinking of how history is repeating itself (and I'm not just bemoaning hairstyles from the 1970's and 1980's returning). Things I thought had been settled in my mother's time are still issues. There are still genocides and we still turn our backs. We see people struggling for autonomy, respect, and independence and we do nothing.
Think back for a moment to the 1930's and you will see the difference. The Japanese moved into Manchuria, and free men did not act. The Fascists moved into Ethiopia, and we did not act. The Nazis marched into the Rhineland, into Austria, into Czechoslovakia, and free men were paralyzed for lack of strength and unity and will.
Think about those years of weakness and indecision, and the World War II which was their evil result. Then think about the speed and courage and decisiveness with which we have moved against the Communist threat since World War II.
The first crisis came in 1945 and 1946, when the Soviet Union refused to honor its agreement to remove its troops from Iran. Members of my Cabinet came to me and asked if we were ready to take the risk that a firm stand involved. I replied that we were. So we took our stand—we made it clear to the Soviet Union that we expected them to honor their agreement—and the Soviet troops were withdrawn from Iran.
Then, in early 1947, the Soviet Union threatened Greece and Turkey. The British sent me a message saying they could no longer keep their forces in that area. Something had to be done at once, or the eastern Mediterranean would be taken over by the Communists. On March 12th, I went before the Congress and stated our determination to help the people of Greece and Turkey maintain their independence. Today, Greece is still free and independent; and Turkey is a bulwark of strength at a strategic corner of the world.
Then came the Marshall plan which saved Europe, the heroic Berlin airlift, and our military aid programs.
We inaugurated the North Atlantic Pact, the Rio Pact binding the Western Hemisphere together, and the defense pacts with countries of the Far Pacific.
Most important of all, we acted in Korea. I was in Independence, Missouri, in June 1950, when Secretary Acheson telephoned me and gave me the news about the invasion of Korea. I told the Secretary to lay the matter at once before the United Nations, and I came on back to Washington.
Flying back over the flatlands of the Middle West and over the Appalachians that summer afternoon, I had a lot of time to think. I turned the problem over in my mind in many ways, but my thoughts kept coming back to the 1930's—to Manchuria, to Ethiopia, the Rhineland, Austria, and finally to
Here was history repeating itself. Here was another probing action, another testing action. If we let the Republic of Korea go under, some other country would be next, and then another. And all the time, the courage and confidence of the free world would be ebbing away, just as it did in the 1930's. And the United Nations would go the way of the League of Nations.
When I reached Washington, I met immediately with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and General Bradley, and the other civilian and military officials who had information and advice to help me decide on what to do. We talked about the problems long and hard. We considered those problems very carefully.
It was not easy to make the decision to send American boys again into battle. I was a soldier in the First World War, and I know what a soldier goes through. I know well the anguish that mothers and fathers and families go through. So I knew what was ahead if we acted in Korea.
But after all this was said, we realized that the issue was whether there would be fighting in a limited area now or on a much larger scale later on—whether there would be some casualties now or many more casualties
So a decision was reached—the decision I believe was the most important in my time as President of the United States.
In the days that followed, the most heartening fact was that the American people clearly agreed with the decision.
And in Korea, our men are fighting as valiantly as Americans have ever fought—because they know they are fighting in the same cause of freedom in which Americans have stood ever since the beginning of the Republic.
Where free men had failed the test before, this time we met the test.
He goes on to talk about the atomic bomb and why he only used it in Japan. He even got letter about it.
Now, once in a while, I get a letter from some impatient person asking, why don't we get it over with? Why don't we issue an ultimatum, make all-out war, drop the atomic bomb?Such simple yet eloquent statements. Of course, Harry Truman had been to war. How many of our Presidents have actually seen combat? The senior George Bush served in the Pacific theater of World War II, as did John F Kennedy. Richard Nixon also served in the Navy but saw no actual combat. Jimmy Carter was US Naval officer in the submarine service, but this was in postwar time. Even Ronald Reagan was in the service, but saw no overseas duty due to bad eyesight. But Harry Truman saw service in the quagmire that was World War I. He also joined the service as a Private and worked his way to Captain. He was 33 when the United States joined the war. He did not need to go. But he re-enlisted in April 1917 leaving his mother and sister to manage the family farm. He was put in charge of a Field Artillery Unit and commended himself well. As I found on the Truman Library website:
For most Americans, the answer is quite simple: We are not made that way. We are a moral people. Peace is our goal, with justice and freedom. We cannot, of our own free will, violate the very principles that we are striving to defend. The whole purpose of what we are doing is to prevent world war III. Starting a war is no way to make peace.
But if anyone still thinks that just this once, bad means can bring good ends, then let me remind you of this: We are living in the 8th year of the atomic age. We are not the only nation that is learning to unleash the power of the atom. A third world war might dig the grave not only of our Communist opponents but also of our own society, our world as well as theirs.
Starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men.
Early in September 1918, the 129th Field Artillery undertook one of the longest and most brutal road marches of the war, from the Vosges mountains to the Argonne forest. The men guided their horses and equipment over one hundred miles of crowded, muddy back roads to the new American sector. This march and the five days of intense combat that followed were the ultimate test for Battery D. In the closing weeks of the war, the 129th Field Artillery moved into action for the final time on the old battlefields of Verdun. They fired their last shots fifteen minutes before the Armistice took effect. Battery D had fired more than 10,000 shells during the war.So, Harry Truman knew what war was like. He knew what the families went through. As a Captain, he probably had to write letters to grieving families. He was an ideal president to have at this time. Many times history has an aspect of serendipity to it. Where would we be if President John F Kennedy had not just finished reading The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman just before the Cuban Missile Crisis? And, in many ways, Harry Truman was the right person to have at the critical junctures of the end of World War II, the birth of the Atomic Age, and the start of the Cold War. War wasn't an abstract concept to him. He knew it, he had experienced, he had felt its influences. It is remarkable as the Cold War started that the United States never bombed Soviet Russia or even North Korea. (Though General Douglas MacArthur certainly wanted to do that as well as Red China.) Having a President of high moral fiber and not just a prominent statesman was quite an advantage. Pretty good for a former haberdasher.
When it came to the Cold War, apparently, he had great faith the American system would come through:
The Communist world has great resources, and it looks strong. But there is a fatal flaw in their society. Theirs is a godless system, a system of slavery; there is no freedom in it, no consent. The Iron Curtain, the secret police, the constant purges, all these are symptoms of a great basic weakness—the rulers' fear of their own people.A simple yet accurate description. Today, communism and socialism are dirty words and a sure way to drag your political opponent through the muck. But we need to realize that capital C Communism is the "godless" system of "slavery". Socialism is an economic system and even if an American endorses it, it does not taint our system. As long as we respect and honor our Constitution, we are safe. As long we are honest to our ideals - the ideals of Harry Truman - we will always prevail.
In the long run the strength of our free society, and our ideals, will prevail over a system that has respect for neither God nor man.
Truman had a "deep and abiding faith in the destiny of free men". He - like most Democrats - was a dreamer.
With patience and courage, we shall some day move on into a new era—a wonderful golden age—an age when we can use the peaceful tools that science has forged for us to do away with poverty and human misery everywhere on earth.In today's world, many politicians are ridiculed for dreams. They are told just focus on those of us at home. But what happens when you dream? JFK dreamed that we could to the moon. And what did we gain? Those of us at home? We gained a lot - and not just the fun that was Tang.
Think what can be done, once our capital, our skills, our science—most of all atomic energy—can be released from the tasks of defense and turned wholly to peaceful purposes all around the world.
There is no end to what can be done.
I can't help but dream out loud just a little here.
The Tigris and Euphrates Valley can be made to bloom as it did in the times of Babylon and Nineveh. Israel can be made the country of milk and honey as it was in the time of Joshua.
There is a plateau in Ethiopia some 6,000 to 8,000 feet high, that has 65,000 square miles of land just exactly like the corn belt in northern Illinois. Enough food can be raised there to feed a hundred million people.
There are places in South America—places in Colombia and Venezuela and Brazil—just like that plateau in Ethiopia—places where food could be raised for millions of people.
These things can be done, and they are self-liquidating projects. If we can get peace and safety in the world under the United Nations, the developments will come so fast we will not recognize the world in which we now live.
This is our dream of the future—our picture of the world we hope to have when the Communist threat is overcome.
LEDs, Infrared Ear Thermometers, Artificial Limbs, Anti-Icing Systems, Improved Radial Tires, Firefighter Gear, Cordless Vacuums, Water Purification, Global Positioning - these are just a few. Also, Lyndon Baines Johnson had a dream of his own. Yes, Vietnam detracted from his dream. But he still dreamed "to end poverty, promote equality, improve education, rejuvenate cities, and protect the environment." Quite a dream? Did he succeed? Many would say no. But as John Gardner, his Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, said:
"What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems."But we did get the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965,the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Social Security Amendments of 1965 (establishing Medicare and Medicaid), and the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.
Even our current President has had his own dreams. The Affordable Care Act being one example. It is too soon to tell what kind of impact it will have. It is very controversial. But so were the landmark legislation that LBJ enacted (pushing it through Congress). Even the much derided President George W Bush made a great impact on global health by making a commitment to fight the Global AIDS epidemic.
"I ask the Congress to commit $15 billion over the next five years, to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean." President George W. BushThis program, President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), has had a significant impact on the disease overseas.
So, I don't think we should criticize Truman for his big ideas. What if we hadn't thrown so much money at the military-industrial complex? Could Eisenhower and later Kennedy have made a dent in those dreams?
Then Truman lists some of the great strides they had made in the United States since he had been President:
We have 62 1/2 million people at work. Businessmen, farmers, laborers, white-collar people, all have better incomes and more of the good things of life than ever before in the history of the world.
There hasn't been a failure of an insured bank in nearly 9 years. No depositor has lost a cent in that period.And this was when Glass-Steagall was in effect.
And the income of our people has been fairly distributed, perhaps more so than at any other time in recent history.This time period was also known as the Great Compression.
We have made progress in spreading the blessings of American life to all of our people. There has been a tremendous awakening of the American conscience on the great issues of civil rights—equal economic opportunities, equal rights of citizenship, and equal educational opportunities for all our people, whatever their race or religion or status of birth.It strikes me as significant that these are aspirations that Americans still strive for. These are still our values. These are not radical, liberal ideas. These are ideas that came from the mouth of a haberdasher, ex-Army soldier from Missouri. Hardly a radical.
He concluded his speech as follows:
When Franklin Roosevelt died, I felt there must be a million men better qualified than I, to take up the Presidential task. But the work was mine to do, and I had to do it. And I have tried to give it everything that was in me.This brought to mind a recent speech President Obama made
Through all of it, through all the years that I have worked here in this room, I have been well aware I did not really work alone—that you were working with me.
No President could ever hope to lead our country, or to sustain the burdens of this office, save as the people helped with their support. I have had that help—you have given me that support—on all our great essential undertakings to build the free world's strength and keep the peace.
Those are the big things. Those are the things we have done together.
For that I shall be grateful, always.
And now, the time has come for me to say good night—and God bless you all.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business. you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.He was ridiculed, derided, and demonized for this. But I think the spirit is the same today as it was in 1953. It was referring to a sense of community. That the great things are never done alone. Whether it is a small or large business, a municipal project, the Space Race, the fight for Civil Rights, we all need each other. This country was built by people cooperating towards a common cause. Our Congress, State Legislatures, our school boards, our court system - they are all based on the tenet that together we can decide our own future.
This blog has lasted much longer than I thought it would. I hope you have borne with me and I welcome any comments you may like to post below. You can also visit me at Twitter or Google+. Finally I'd like to leave you with a final quote by President Harry Truman:
There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.