War Stories

Bush Isn’t Truman

And the next president won’t be Eisenhower.

George Bush. Click image to expand.
President George W. Bush

George W. Bush is reported to read many books about presidential history. Too bad he doesn’t understand them.

On Sept. 13, a few hours before his nationwide address on the surge in Iraq, the president called a group of TV news anchors and Sunday talk-show hosts to the White House family dining room for a chat. The conversation was off the record, but those attending were allowed to use the meeting to summarize his thinking. Peter Baker of the Washington Post talked with some of them and reported his findings in the “Trail,” his online “daily diary of campaign 2008.”

The big news of Baker’s blog post was that Bush said he admired Sen. Hillary Clinton, especially for her political tenacity, and he seems to think she’ll win the election. He has hinted at this before, most notably in an interview on CBS News in January 2006, when he mentioned how well his family gets along with the Clintons and then, in response to a question about the upcoming election, said, “Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton,” referring to the order of recent presidents—his father, Bill, himself, then, presumably, Hillary.

But more intriguing, and jaw-dropping, was Bush’s view of the role he thinks the next president will play. As Baker put it in his headline, “Bush to Hillary: I’m Truman, You’re Ike.”

Bush has long taken solace in the example of Harry S. Truman, whose foreign policy was deeply unpopular in his time but is now recalled as far-sighted and sage. Now Bush is stretching the comparison still further beyond the historical pale.

George Stephanopoulos, who was at the meeting, told Baker, “He had kind of a striking analogy. He believes that whoever replaces him, like General Eisenhower when he replaced Truman, may criticize the president’s policy during the campaign, but will likely continue much of it in office.”

It’s a “striking” analogy, all right, but there are two big things wrong with it.

First, Eisenhower did not continue the most unpopular aspect of Truman’s foreign policy—the war in Korea, then in its third year, grinding in stalemate, with 50,000 American troops dead. During the 1952 campaign, Eisenhower pledged, “I will go to Korea,” and he did just that, on a secret trip in late November, soon after the election. By the end of July 1953, an armistice was signed; the fighting stopped.

How much Ike had to do with the end of the war is still a matter of historical dispute. There were several factors: Josef Stalin’s death in March 1953 (the Soviets were always reluctant in their backing of China’s support for North Korea’s adventure, and the transition in the Kremlin may have turned this to opposition); the undisguised stationing of U.S. nuclear-armed bombers in Okinawa (which may have been taken as a warning); and the settlement of a POW exchange as part of armistice talks that had been going on for over a year.

But the basic facts are exactly the opposite of what Bush was suggesting about his successor and Iraq: Eisenhower campaigned on a promise to end the Korean War; within months, the Korean War was over.

Second, Eisenhower did continue Truman’s broader foreign policy, but Bush should be careful about citing this as an analogy for today.

It is true, during the ‘52 campaign, Eisenhower and the Republican Party lashed out at Truman’s policy of “containment.” John Foster Dulles, Ike’s foreign-policy adviser (and, eventually, secretary of state), was vehement in his opposition, proposing instead a policy of “rollback”—of actively liberating nations that had fallen to Communist rule.

It is also true that, after he became president, Eisenhower ignored Dulles’ rhetoric and proceeded with containment. (In 1956, during the Hungarian revolt, for instance, he decided not to send troops or air support on behalf of the rebels, despite much pressure to do so. He also declined to replace the French in Vietnam after their rout at Dien Bien Phu.)

In this sense, Bush has been what Eisenhower might have been, had he followed Dulles’ advice. His doctrine of pre-emption, which rationalized the invasion of Iraq; his agenda of promoting freedom over stability, as articulated in his second inaugural address; his depiction of the war in Iraq as a moral clash of good vs. evil—these are all in the spirit of Dulles.

If Bush’s successor is a Democrat, it is extremely unlikely that he or she will follow that course.

Eisenhower rejected Dulles’ stance not on ideological grounds but rather as a result of his military background. Andrew Goodpaster, who was his staff secretary in the White House, told me years later (in 1981, when I interviewed him for a book on U.S. nuclear policy) that Ike’s views on the subject were formed back in the 1920s, when he was chief aide to Gen. Fox Conner, commander of U.S. forces in Panama. Conner taught Eisenhower how to think about military decisions according to the logic of the standard “field order”—assessing mission, situation, enemy troops, our troops, plans, logistic support, and communications, in that order. Conner talked a great deal about the importance of the second paragraph, the commander’s estimate of the situation, which involved assessing each open course of action—and each countermove available to the enemy. The less one knew about where the successive steps of a battle might lead, the less one could formulate a sensible strategy and, therefore, the less willing one should be to jump into a violent fray of mystery.

Bush jumped into that fray all too eagerly. In this sense, it may be true that the next president resembles Eisenhower. But if so, it would be not as a continuation of Bush’s Truman but rather as a reversal of Bush’s Dulles.