Whatever happened to Obama’s Yes We Can and the Audacity of Hope? Lessons from President Truman on the importance of creative thinking and a refusal to surrender in the face of setbacks and untold horrors. Truman faced perhaps the greatest challenges of any incoming President in US history, yet wouldn’t be cowed and ultimately created a path to victory.
Once upon a time, Americans did astounding things. Confronted with failure and defeat, leaders of both parties defied all the odds and changed the course of history thanks to a combination of fearlessness, ingenuity, imagination, and an unrelenting drive to succeed. Unfortunately, our failure in Afghanistan has been coupled with the sinking sense from both political and military leadership that some achievements lay beyond our grasp and we must therefore settle for mediocrity at best, atrocity at worst.
On Monday, we managed to evacuate 10,400 people to safety onboard 28 flights, an improvement over the paltry 3,900 from the day before, but still not nearly enough to meet the Taliban imposed deadline of August 31. The Taliban, not the United States, is now declaring a “red line” and threatening retribution if we don’t comply and the Biden Administration, at least from all outward statements, seems willing to accept they are no longer in charge. This disturbing trend, that our leadership meekly accepts defeat and failure, collectively refusing to believe there exists some path to success, has been echoed in their public comments from day one, even before Kabul fell.
As early as last week, when the dust hadn’t yet settled, officials stated plainly and pathetically their belief that “too many things have to go 100 percent correctly” to make the evacuation a success, to create some kind of victory in the face of defeat. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin was equally sanguine about our prospects, claiming we can’t do much of anything at all even if we wanted to. “We don’t have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people,” he said. Instead of getting our people out on our own terms, they would try to “deconflict ” the situation with the Taliban to “create passageways for them to get to the airfield.” Pressed further, he declared, “I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul.”
President Biden himself has been a little more optimistic in his public statements, but has not made anything other than vague promises, implicitly accepting that we are effectively at the mercy of the Taliban, today, tomorrow, forever. “Let me be clear: The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started or when we began,” he said at official remarks on Sunday. “Would’ve been true if we started a month ago or a month from now. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact. My heart aches for those people you see. We are proving, though, that we can move thousands of people per day out of Kabul.”
Reading between the lines, it’s “just a fact” that the Taliban controls access to the airport and there’s nothing we can do to change that dynamic. If you have any doubt about whether that’s truly the case, Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted the truth in a rare moment of candor, “They are in control of Kabul. That is the reality. That’s the reality that we have to deal with.” Why, however, is this a fact we have to live with, a reality we need to deal with? Why does it never occur to them that we should seek to change the dynamic first and foremost? That our real problem is accepting the conditions as they are, not as we might make them with our might and will?
Previous generations of leaders have been confronted with every horror imaginable, and yet were able to prevail precisely because they questioned what was possible and made the impossible happen. Perhaps no other President represents American tenacity better than Democrat Harry S. Truman. The unassuming, bespectacled, average middle class Truman was confronted with perhaps the worst set of circumstances imaginable when he took office after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. At the time, he was considered a lightweight by many, the product of Kansas City machine politics with no history in national office, selected as Roosevelt’s VP largely out of backroom deals and chicanery.
It was unimaginable that this man, who would be called small and little by some throughout his entire time in office, could follow the longest serving and one of the most respected Presidents in US history. Especially not when the entire world was embroiled in the largest war anyone had ever seen, and even after victory was secured the challenges continued unabated. Truman had faced off with both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the only person in history ever responsible for dropping an atomic bomb, only to replace those foes with an emboldened, aggressive, and determined Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.
In 1948, the German capital at Berlin was divided into Eastern and western zones. The Soviets controlled the east while the US, France, and the United Kingdom controlled the west, but Stalin wanted it all. On June 24, 1948, the Soviets made their move, blocking rail, road, and water access to west Berlin, attempting to starve the Germans into submission and take the entire country. Faced with an impossible decision, either war with the Soviet Union before the world had even recovered from the horrors of the last one, or a starving city followed by an entire country falling into enemy hands, President Truman refused to accept those were his only two options.
He created a better one: We would feed and supply the city by air. “We shall stay,” he declared, “period.” At the time, many considered the idea preposterous and doomed to failure. The mayor of west Berlin was given no assurance it would work. How can you feed and supply an entire city in real time by air? Such a thing had never been attempted before, much less actually been carried out, day in and day out. President Truman and our allies in the United Kingdom plunged ahead anyway, ultimately supplying 8,000 tons of essentials everyday, 2.3 million tons over the course of more than a year. At its height in 1949, a plane was either landing or taking off outside of Berlin every 30 seconds. In all, 300,000 flights were conducted until the Soviets ultimately relented, lifting the blockade on May 11, 1949 and surrendering west Germany to democratic governance.
Barely a year later, President Truman found himself in the midst of another crisis not of his making. On June 25, 1950, North Korea, aided by the Communist Chinese and Russians, unexpectedly invaded South Korea, starting another war without any warning or provocation. South Korean and US forces had no choice except to retreat south, down the peninsula, fighting a brutal and bloody rear-guard action over hundreds of miles as city after city fell, including Seoul, the capitol. The conditions were atrocious throughout it all, temperatures regularly over 100 degrees and pounding rains from monsoon season, destroying equipment and clothing.
The men had little food or water, drinking what they could find even when it was infested with manure. “Guys, sweat soaked, shitting in their pants, not even dropping them moved like zombies,” describes a soldier who survived the ordeal. “I just sensed we were going to find another hill and be attacked, then find another hill and so forth, endlessly forever.” The casualty rate was enormous, almost one in three died as the retreat lasted for 17 days covering 70 miles of difficult landscape, through everything from steep mountain passes to roadways flooded with refugees fleeing the North Korean assault. Incredibly, this retreat had actually been the plan, albeit one no one would’ve wanted to implement under anything except the most dire circumstances: Truman himself described it was one of the most heroic rearguard actions in all of history and, despite the overwhelming firepower of the enemy, the UN Commander, General Walton Walker, issued a “stand-or-die” order on July 29 outside the city of Pusan, declaring that every man must fight to the death if necessary.
There was no longer any retreat or surrender. Pusan would hold while reinforcements were brought in. Nor did we have plans to remain stuck in Pusan for long. General Douglas MacArthur was the commander in the region and he remained uncowed despite the sudden onslaught. He met with key representatives from Truman in Tokyo in early August 1950 to discuss plans to retake the Korean peninsula and reverse the losses. Rumors had been swirling for weeks that General MacArthur had a bold idea to somehow flank the enemy and potentially defeat them in one grand stroke, but the details weren’t made clear until the meeting. MacArthur’s plan was to conduct a surprise landing at a port 200 miles northwest of Pusan, a city known as Inchon. He believed the US military, without modern computers and communications much less GPS, could transport thousands of men and equipment in the middle of the night and drop them on a seawall to unleash hell on an unsuspecting enemy.
Because Inchon had no beaches to speak of, the daring invasion could only be conducted at high tide when the ships could clear the wall. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to land successfully or, worse, could even be stuck in the mud when the tides receded. Perhaps needless to say, opinions regarding the plan were mixed. Averell Harriman, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was at the Tokyo meeting and described himself as “enthralled,” believing it could be “our salvation.” Others were far more skeptical, even MacArthur himself knew the odds of success were low, calling it a 5000 to 1 shot.
Truman was Commander in Chief, however, and only he could decide. The decision was far more difficult given he had a strained relationship with MacArthur to begin with, though they’d never met in person. Truman also disliked the top military brass after his own experience in World War I, believing most generals were “dumb” and “like horses with blinders on.” Ultimately, however, he issued the go ahead order on September 9, leaving only one week before the planned attack on September 15. Early morning Asia time, an invasion force numbering 262 ships carrying 70,000 men landed precisely at high tide, successfully cleared the seawall, and took the city of Inchon in less than a day. Simultaneously, the troops at Pasan struck out and in not even two weeks the capital at Seoul was retaken. The North Korean army was decimated in a masterful pincer movement, and all of the ground lost on the harrowing retreat less than three months earlier was reclaimed.
Victory in Korea was now at hand, but unfortunately the Chinese had other plans. Despite MacArthur’s belief the fledgling Communist country wouldn’t commit their own troops against the US, the North Koreans attacked again backed by some 260,000 Chinese. On November 28, the press in America described “hordes of Chinese Reds” tearing into the right flank of the Eighth Army. It was now winter in Korea, and the sweltering summer was replaced by fierce wind and constant snow. The United States, Korean, and UN forces retreated south again, for the second time in less than a year, this time losing some 300 miles of ground.
MacArthur was disgraced and ultimately fired for insubordination, but not before insisting the Eighth Army was finished and the only way to win the war was to turn it into World War III and strike straight for China. He reported that the “troops are tired from a long and difficult campaign, embittered by the shameful propaganda which has falsely condemned their courage and fighting qualities.” He believed their “morale will become a serious threat to their battlefield efficiency,” unless the war was expanded. In that regard, he recommended dropping some thirty to fifty atomic bombs on China, or seeding radioactive waste across the top of the Korean peninsula so no men or equipment could pass.
Truman was also facing serious personal and professional setbacks of his own at the time. His long standing press secretary and friend, Charlie Ross dropped dead in his office from a coronary occlusion and the media was having a field day with both our failures in Korea and Truman’s own botched press conference on whether or not we were considering using the atomic bomb to turn the tide of the war. The storm set off by his firing MacArthur lasted for months as his approval rating dropped into the 20’s. President Truman remained defiant, convinced his plan was the right one, and had another ace up his sleeve, however.
General Mathew Ridgway, a hero from World War II, had been appointed to replace the commander of the Eighth Army on the ground in Korea after the accidental death of General Walton Walker in a tragic car accident. Fortunately, MacArthur had given Ridgway a free hand to lead the army as he saw fit before his dismissal and Ridgway wasn’t a defeatist by nature. The Eighth Army was back in fighting shape in less than a month, thanks to what another general described as Ridgway’s “brilliant, driving, uncompromising leadership.” The war would continue for another terrible two years with thousands of American casualties, but the United States and our partners in the United Nations would never again retreat.
There are several additional parallels to our own conflict and challenges right now. The disagreement between MacArthur and Truman that ultimately led to the general’s dismissal was over what constituted victory. MacArthur believed the only way forward was to take on China and, if necessary, Russia. Truman refused to risk a third world war, especially with atomic weapons, and, above all else except failure or defeat, wanted to keep the conflict limited to the Korean peninsula. Instead of outright victory, Truman sought peace between the great powers in the world and would not allow any direct attacks on China itself.
Likewise in Afghanistan, President Biden and his predecessor Trump, decided that the United States would accept a resurgent Taliban and negotiations with the regime that was originally overthrown in 2001 began even while President Obama was in office. The goal was no longer victory, but a much more limited combination of keeping the peace in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the government we helped create, and ensuring the country didn’t once again become a safe haven for terrorists. As in Korea, this is generally something the American people supported. The difference is in Truman and Biden’s conception of what was acceptable. Truman didn’t seek outright victory over China and Russia, but neither would he accept failure and fleeing the peninsula, turning the entire country over to the communists. Biden, in contrast, seems incapable of understanding the difference between the two or at least incapable of admitting it in public, blurring his generally supported decision to safely withdraw our troops with the reality of the catastrophe unfolding.
In my opinion, this is as much a failure of imagination and determination, the ability to seek another path when your options appear limited, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, as it is of planning and logistics. Nor is this failure Biden’s alone. The entire administration and the broader military leadership is at fault. Crises like this cry out for creative solutions, new thinking, and the creation of new opportunities. Instead, we’re blithely and morosely accepting a world where the Taliban, a terrorist group numbering some 75,000 armed mostly with what they stole from us, dictate terms to the United States. That seems unimaginable and yet there appear to be no plans to change it.
Ironically, President Truman also had to deal with a White House that was falling apart, literally. A piano on the second floor actually fell through the ceiling in the first; architects and engineers believed the entire building was close to collapse, too dangerous to be inhabited except for the West Wing. The entire structure had to be gutted and rebuilt from the ground up, a process taking three years and costing almost $6,000,000. Today, the White House might be standing tall and pristine, along with the Pentagon and Congress, but the real rot is the lack of imagination and daring of the leadership within.