What History Has to Say
But Truman prided himself on making tough choices and placed a memorable sign on his desk: "The buck stops here." In a remark that seems to reflect Bush's philosophy today, Truman once told a visiting diplomat, "I am here to make decisions, and whether they prove right or wrong, I am going to make them." He went on to preside over the end of World War II, partly brought on by his order to use nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. He met with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to redraw the world map. He implemented the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. On July 26, 1948, he signed an executive order to end racial discrimination in the military.
But things turned sour for Truman after he was elected to a full presidential term in 1948. In June 1950, he sent U.S. troops to defend pro-American South Korea from an attack by Communist North Korea. When Chinese forces entered the war on North Korea's side, the situation grew dire. A bloody stalemate left both sides bogged down at about the boundaries of the original North-South demarcation line.
Truman's popularity declined as Americans grew tired of the war and felt their president was powerless to end it honorably. Things grew worse for Truman when he relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur of command in Korea after the general broke with administration policies limiting the scope of the conflict. Meanwhile, at home, Truman was accused by the Republicans of being soft on communism, and anti-Communist sentiment was whipped up by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Truman, his popularity at historic lows, decided not to run for re-election in 1952, and Republican Dwight Eisenhower won in a landslide. In fact, Truman left office with only 31 percent of Americans approving of his job performance and 56 percent disapproving--about where Bush is today in the polls.
But in the succeeding decades, historians began to revise their thinking about the man from Missouri. His decisiveness and his willingness to stick to his guns have earned him a place as a historically great or near-great president. President Bush's advisers suggest that Bush could turn out like Truman--reviled in his own time but redeemed by history.
Ronald Reagan was always underestimated by his critics. They thought a former B-movie actor with rigid conservative views was incapable of leading America at the end of the 20th century. They were wrong.
Reagan survived an assassination attempt in March 1981, only weeks after taking office, and responded with courage and grace. This impressed millions of Americans. He went on to persuade Congress to cut taxes and limit the growth of the federal government, and he restored the country's confidence after years of setbacks at home and abroad. But during his sixth year, Reagan ran into deep trouble because of the disengagement that characterized his approach to governing. On Nov. 25, 1986, the White House admitted that the administration had secretly sold arms to Iran in hopes that supposed moderates there would arrange freedom for American hostages in the Middle East. Further, the profits were used to finance anti-Marxist contra rebels in Nicaragua. This hurt Reagan in two ways: He had promised never to negotiate with terrorists, and the diversion of funds violated the Boland Amendment banning military aid to the contras. His credibility was in tatters.