Truman, Bush, and Rehabilitating Presidential Reputations
Jill Lawrence gets something important wrong:
Bush and Lyndon Johnson [bold mine-DL] rejected containment when they made ill-advised decisions to pour troops into Iraq and Vietnam. That has made Truman look all the wiser, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
As far as Johnson is concerned, that’s not right. The Truman Doctrine took Kennan’s relatively defensive, Europe-centered understanding of containment and applied it to the entire world. This resulted in stalemate in Korea, and later turned into disaster in Vietnam. If not for Truman’s understanding of containment, there is not much chance that the U.S. would have become involved in a war in Vietnam. Johnson wasn’t rejecting containment by sending soldiers to Vietnam. He was taking Truman’s version of containment to its logical conclusion. Lawrence inadvertently shows why Truman’s reputation has improved so much since the 1950s: he gets credited for the later successes of the Cold War for which he is at most indirectly responsible and he avoids blame for the blunders that he and his successors committed near the beginning.
Truman’s rehabilitation in recent decades offers Bush the hope that the reputations of undeserving presidents can be repaired. Of course, revisionism can cut both ways. Revising the reputations of past presidents has to do with the politics and prevailing issues of the time when revisionist histories are being written. Truman’s reputation has improved because members of both parties wanted to lay claim to his legacy, and because he was seen as laying the foundations of a broadly successful Soviet policy. Bush shouldn’t expect the same treatment in the future. One reason for that is that his most ambitious policies didn’t lay the foundations for much of anything. Another reason is that pro-Bush revisionism will remain a purely partisan and dynastic project. Democrats in another thirty or forty years aren’t going to see Bush’s foreign policy record as something they want to claim as their own.
Depending on what happens in the decades to come, it is always possible that Bush will end up looking worse in hindsight than he does now. Not only will Americans in later generations have a clearer view of the long-term costs of Bush’s policies, including the long-term health effects on Iraqis and Americans that served in the war, but they will also have the advantage of not having been direct participants in the partisan and ideological controversies of our era. The core Bush loyalist assumption is that a more dispassionate interpretation of his presidency will redound to his benefit, but that’s probably wrong. The less that people have at stake in defending Bush, the less eager they will be to bother. In another forty or fifty years, there will hardly be anyone interested in salvaging Bush’s reputation, and the truth is that he leaves behind no significant positive domestic legacy that later Republicans will feel obliged to defend and mythologize.