He [Truman] was humble. Upon the death of President Roosevelt I'm told that he said, "I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me, and I pray to God that I can measure up to the task."
I guess he'd been Vice President for less than three months when he was called on to replace a man who was really a giant in everyone's life during that period.
I was 12, living in Coronado, California when President Roosevelt died. My father was out on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II. They announced over the school system that President Roosevelt had died. And millions of people across this country and the world cried because he was so big a figure in everyone's life. And the free world suddenly found it's trust placed in, as they said then, a former haberdasher. But he was also a former soldier from Independence, Missouri, and the world wondered, and indeed President Truman wondered if he was up to the task.
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After some prodding I'm told that Mrs. Truman agreed to hold a press conference of her own for the first time. Then she canceled it. She did, however, apparently eventually agree to answer reporters' questions. She had the following ground rules. The questions had to be written and submitted in advance. Her responses would be in writing. She reserved the right to respond with short, one-syllable answers, and frequently, no comment. She was onto something. [Laughter]. She had it figured out pretty well, I like that.
Of course there are many reasons to pay tribute and remember President and Mrs. Truman, but what brought me here in particular is to reflect on President Truman's leadership in the early days of the Cold War and to consider what lessons might apply to another and in many ways very different struggle that could occupy our country for a good many years ahead.
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Now with the perspective of history the many new institutions and programs of the Truman years can seem, I suppose to many people, as part of a carefully crafted, broadly supported strategy that led to what now almost seems like an inevitable victory in the Cold War.
But of course things didn't unfold that way. That isn't the way it was in history. They never unfold quite that way.
Our country was tired after the 2nd World War. Strong strains of isolationism still persisted. Many Americans were not in the mood for a global involvement on the part of the United States. And particularly against something as ill defined as the Communist menace at the time. It wasn't as though they were engaged in a battle and you needed to respond. It was different than World war II. It was something that you couldn't quite put your hand on, you couldn't quite show a movie about it as readily.
It was a time of heated disagreements. You think back now, it seems like anyone with any sense would have recognized the importance of the Cold War and of pursuing our values and our interests as a country.
I don't think it would surprise anyone to hear that Mr. Truman was a proud and enthusiastic partisan. He used to say, "Whenever a fellow tells me he's bipartisan, I know he's going to vote against me." [Laughter].
He wasn't shy about expressing his views to those who did. Yet together, leaders of both political parties tended to get the big things right, and they did get the big things right. They understood that war had been declared on our country, on the free world, whether we liked it or not, that we had to steel ourselves against an expansionist enemy, the Soviet Union, that was determined to destroy our way of life.
A small but perhaps telling moment in the history of the Cold War took place on one of President Truman's first days in office. During his second week as President he met with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov. President Truman had what was described as a tough conversation during which he told Molotov that the Soviets were not carrying out their agreements on Poland. Molotov responded, we are. President Truman, as he put it, he said I then explained to him words of one syllable exactly why they were not.
After the President's typically frank reply and undiplomatic response, Molotov apparently said to President Truman, "I've never been talked to like that in my life." Truman replied, "Carry out your agreements and you won't be talked to like that again." [Laughter]. Sounds reasonable to me.
In a sense that quintessentially American candor would prove to be a valuable attribute in winning the struggles against the Soviet Union. We knew that our free system of government was vastly preferable to their dictatorship. That when given a real choice the natural desire of men and women is to be free, and that the task of free people was to hold firm, to defend ourselves over many long decades, and trust that the truth would eventually win out.
That, I would submit, is our task today in the global war on terror. The struggle against violent extremists. These two eras have many many differences, I understand that. The enemy today is not an empire, but a shadowy movement of terrorist cells. The threats today are not conventional, they're unconventional and al-Qaida and other terrorists have no territories to defend, no nations, no diplomats to sign agreements and no hesitance to kill innocent men, women and children.
But these two eras have something important and instructive by way of similarities. Both required our nation to gird for a long, sustained struggle, punctuated by periods of military conflict. Both required the use of all elements of national power to defeat the enemy. Both required a transition from arrangements that were successful in the previous war to arrangements that were much better suited for this new and different era. And above all, both required perseverance by the American people and by their leadership to be sure.
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But President Truman's final words to the nation as President in 1953 I think ought to offer some comfort to those with question about the struggle we face today. He said in part, "Some of you may ask when and how will the Cold War end." This is 1953. "When and how will the Cold war end."
"I think I can answer that simply. The Communist world has great resources and it looks strong, but there is a fatal flaw in their society. Theirs is a system of slavery. There is no freedom, no consent. I have a deep and abiding faith in the destiny of free men. With patience and courage we shall some day move on into a new era."
And we did. But it wasn't in that year or ten years later or twenty years later or thirty years later. It was forty years later. He was right.
The man from Independence whose final resting place is so few steps from here deserves enormous credit for that and he deserves our nation's undying appreciation.
You can read the whole speech at: http://defenselink.mil/transcripts/2006/tr20060302-12610.html