On sitting down with a dictator

Posted Oct. 31, 2008, at 9:22 p.m.

If we’ve learned anything from this marathon presidential election campaign that mercifully winds down on Tuesday, it is that presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain disagree as to whether a president should sit down and talk with the tough-guy leaders of countries that, in McCain’s words, “don’t like us very much.”

Obama has said he would be willing to negotiate with adversaries such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and that little bad-hairdo guy who runs North Korea. McCain has said that this shows how hopelessly naive Obama is when it comes to foreign affairs, the more so since he has indicated he would not necessarily attach preconditions to such meetings.

As I watched the candidates argue the point in one of their three televised debates, I recalled that quite some time ago I read a remarkable account of former Democratic President Harry S. Truman’s policy regarding negotiating with dictators — a policy that certainly would have added some sizzle to the debate had Obama boldly hitched his wagon to Truman’s. The account was included in the aptly named book “Plain Speaking,” Merle Miller’s memorable oral biography of Truman that was published some 35 years ago by the Berkley Publishing Corp.

I knew I had a dawg-eared copy of the book around here someplace, but no amount of rummaging around could produce it, so I gave up the search as hopeless. On Tuesday I found the book staring me in the face from a bookcase perhaps three feet from where I now sit cranking out this screed. Obviously, someone messing with my mind had recently crept into my house while I was away and placed it there.

According to Miller, Truman had an ill-concealed low opinion of President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, the former commander of World War II Allied forces in Europe. Perhaps it was something about generals, for the old World War I Army officer and Gen. Douglas MacArthur weren’t mutual admirers either.

“Ike didn’t know anything, and all the time he was in office he didn’t learn a thing,” Truman told Miller. “In 1959, when Castro came to power down in Cuba, Ike just sat on his [rear] and acted like if he didn’t notice what was going on down there, why, maybe Castro would go away or something.” The Russians quickly moved in to get Castro lined up on their side.

If he had been president at the time, Truman told Miller, “I’d have picked up the phone and called him direct in Havana. I wouldn’t have gone through protocol or anything like that. I’d have called him up, and I’d have said, ‘Fidel, this is Harry Truman in Washington, and I’d like to have you come up here and have a little talk.’

“He’d have come, of course, and he’d have come to the White House, and I’d have said, ‘Fidel, it looks to me like you’ve had a pretty good revolution down there, and it’s been a long time coming. Now you’re going to need help, and there’s only two places you can go to get it. One’s right here, and the other’s — well, we both know where the other place is. Now you just tell me what you need, and I’ll see to it that you get it.’

“Well, he’d have thanked me, and we’d have talked awhile, and then as he got up to go, I’d have said to him, ‘Now, Fidel, I’ve told you what we’ll do for you. There’s one thing you can do for me. Would you get a shave and a haircut and take a bath?”’

It was not exactly the language of diplomacy. But it sure was vintage Truman. It is not hard to imagine that many readers who recall the man’s refreshingly blunt, commonsense approach to problem-solving might believe that, had such a Truman-Castro encounter taken place early in the game, there would not have been a Cuban missile crisis or a Bay of Pigs fiasco in the administration of John F. Kennedy.

We’ll never know how Harry Truman going one-on-one with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Oval Office might have worked out. But we can know that it would not have failed for want of plain speaking on our guy’s part.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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