How Truman Decided

Posted June 09, 2010, at 7:08 p.m.

No one knows how President Harry S. Truman decided to desegregate the troops, drop the nuclear bombs on Japan and recognize Israel. In fact, no one knows for sure what goes on in any other person’s head. But the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo., provides some insights that may help us understand how President Barack Obama makes his decisions.

The library and museum contain handwritten notes, photographs and films telling about Mr. Truman’s many decisions in the course of his presidency.

Visitors are invited to watch and hear, in a series of small auditoriums, about events leading up to Mr. Truman’s major decisions and what actions he took. Each seat is equipped with a string of buttons, on which the visitor may choose whether the president was responding to public opinion, relying on advice from his aides, thought it was good politically, was acting on his own personal beliefs, or was trying to do the best thing for the national interest.

In almost every case, public opinion was divided, and his aides differed among themselves. His own convictions may have been mixed, and it often was unclear which course would best serve the country’s interests.

Whether to desegregate the troops had become a bitter national argument. Separation of the races was well-established, especially in the South. Yet many black citizens had been serving in the armed forces in World War II. Many who favored desegregation wondered whether it would disrupt the services or damage morale.

Unleashing the nuclear weapons meant dealing with a closely held national secret, so public opinion was not involved. But insiders in his administration and among the nuclear scientists were sharply divided on its military and moral justification. That dispute continues today.

President Truman’s own secretary of state, George Marshall, was dead set against recognizing the new Jewish state. He argued, correctly, that it would be deeply offensive to the Arab countries, friends and allies and a vital source of oil. Public opinion was divided. One of his closest friends, his former business partner, Edward Jacobson, was an outspoken and committed Zionist.

The Truman Library and Museum reported in each case that a strong majority of visitors voted that the president based his decision on his own personal convictions. Some considered politics decisive. Very few pressed the “national interest” button.

When President Obama is weighing a decision, whether on foreign or domestic issues, a common impression seems to be that he will respond to pressure by special interest groups.

Looking back at the Truman record, and at the Obama record thus far, it may be that both presidents have been considering the national interest more than they get credit for.

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