Senator Obama is seeking to don the mantle of President Truman, choosing a visit to Independence, Mo., to talk about the nature of patriotism. "How do we keep ourselves safe and secure while preserving our liberties?" he asked. The senator avoided much that is in the news — the Supreme Court grant of the privilege of habeas corpus to Guantanamo base internees who are not citizens; warrantless wiretapping, the Patriot Act. They are all on the list of his most progressive supporters to be opposed and are reckoned by the left to be the legacy of the Bush administration.
Wouldn't it have been nice to have been able to hear Give-Em-Hell Harry himself on these problems. He certainly had to deal with parallel questions, including how to handle the domestic threat posed by American Communists in the midst of an unpopular and seemingly never-ending war at Korea. At the time, Truman was attacked by Democrats on the left-wing of his own party, as well the broader left, which included party members and fellow travelers.
They were so opposed to Truman that by the time of the 1948 presidential election, they split off from the Democrats, running Henry A. Wallace on a third-party ticket put together by American Communists. Like those in MoveOn.org today, as well as various Web loggers and columnists on sites such as Salon.com and the Huffington Post, they castigated Truman as the founding father of McCarthyism and as a man who crushed dissenters in order to scare the American people into an unnecessary Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Truman shared Mr. Obama's understanding that to dissent was not to be unpatriotic and that some measures favored by the ultra-conservative McCarthyite opposition would have harmed our nation almost as much as the threat of actual espionage carried out by servants of Moscow. Truman's first reaction to the indictment of Alger Hiss was to call it a "Red herring," and then to use his presidential veto to prevent the passage of the McCarran Internal Security Act that would have created internment camps for American "subversives" and outlawed formally the American Communist Party.
But Truman believed that Moscow's minions should be watched and stopped by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. This angered the Democratic Party leftists, particularly once it became clear that FDR's administration had been thoroughly infiltrated by Communists. These agents stole top-secret material to pass on to the Kremlin, sought to influence our foreign policy to benefit Stalin's expansionist aims in central Europe, and foreshadowed the drive for peaceful co-existence.
To cope with this problem, Truman instituted Loyalty and Security Boards, an institution that would investigate government employees and remove them from their jobs if they were found to be potential or actual security risks. There were some grounds to be critical of how the Boards were run. They provided minimal safeguards for the accused, often failed to distinguish between sensitive and insensitive government jobs, and Board staff members often themselves confused dissent with disloyalty and did not afford witnesses due process.
But the liberal anti-Communist James Wechsler, then editor of the New York Post, wrote that America "was engaged in a worldwide diplomatic and ideological struggle with Russia," and its cause was helped by the "international army of agents organized as 'native' Communist parties." Hence America needed real "safeguards" to protect the country, which meant simply that the Communists and their followers "must be excluded from government — while their rights to raise hell through the public channels of democratic debate are vigorously reaffirmed."
Wechsler warned that liberal Americans had to "face the reality of Communist intrigue." Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. added that America needed "the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security." Truman, the left argued, was simply a "fascist." Truman, for his part, tried his best to achieve balance between protecting America's security and preserving civil liberties. Or, as Mr. Obama put it in Independence, Truman grasped that patriotism means "loyalty to America's ideals" and that one cannot rightfully attack its "flaws without acknowledging the singular greatness of our ideals."
By traveling to Independence, Mr. Obama clearly was trying to capture the solid American center and differentiate himself from the left wing of his own party, to which some would argue Mr. Obama owes his nomination. But would a President Obama be able to act like Truman did in the twilight war? Would he stand firm and, like Truman, do what is necessary to protect us from real enemies despite being called the reincarnation of George W. Bush by those who worked to gain him the presidency? Is it enough to say, as Mr. Obama did in Independence, that government programs cannot legislate loyalty and that dissent is "one of the truest expression of patriotism?" Or would Truman have taken things a step or two or three step further?