Teddy Versus Truman: Pairing Presidents IX

Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman: The Art of Stubborn
Pairing Presidents IX

With the possible exception of Andy Jackson, one would be hard pressed to find two American presidents who marched to their own drummers as often as Theodore Roosevelt (TR) (1901-09) and Harry Truman (1945-53). Naturally, this meant they had detractors, admirers, and those who flat-out feared them.

How they were similar:

They are the only presidents of which I'm aware that threatened to punch opponents in the nose. When TR mediated the 1902 coal strike, one coal baron/lawyer, George Baer, dared to tell Roosevelt he needed to do his "duty" and crush the strikers. No one told TR what to do and the president informed Baer that only the "dignity" of his office saved him from being pummeled. Shall we say that Mr. Baer did not get what he wanted? Truman threatened to thrash Washington Post art critic Paul Hume for panning his daughter Margaret's piano recital. Not Harry's finest moment, but it did establish a precedent that family members were off limits for media slash-and-burn.

Both men took over when their commander-in-chief died in office: TR after William McKinley's assassination in 1901, and Truman after Franklin Roosevelt died in April of 1945. Each pledged to carry out the legacy of their predecessor, but quickly forged their own identities. TR's pledge to "carry out" McKinley's policies prompted one wag to comment, "He carried them out–and dumped them." Truman simply lacked FDR's polish and charm and was more prone to battle with Congress than to cajole it.

Both men became popular culture icons, TR for the Teddy bear for an incident in which he refused to shoot a chained bear cub because it was unsporting; and Truman for reviving the popular song "I'm Just Wild About Harry" from the 1921 African American Broadway show "Shuffle Along." (It was Truman's 1948 campaign song.)

Both men were reformers. TR was the first standard setter for the Progressive Era, an early 20th century movement that marked the federal government's first foray into direct economic and social reform. His Square Deal programs introduced business regulation, especially of the autocratic railroad industry; both the 1903 Elkins Act and the 1906 Hepburn Act curtailed its power, largely through rate setting and by giving more power to agencies regulating interstate commerce. He also ended some of the grossest abuses to public health by signing into law bills such as the Pure Food Act, the Pure Drug Act, and the Meat Inspection Act. The USDA became a strong agency under TR's watch. Roosevelt also gained a reputation as a trustbuster by taking on the beef industry, by breaking up J. P. Morgan's Northern Securities Company (a holding company that sought to exercise backdoor control over railroads), and by initiating action against John Rockefeller and Standard Oil (completed under William Howard Taft). TR's sense of fair play extended to ending special privileges for rich families such as his own. To that end, he also began actions that culminated in the amendment that created the graduated income tax.  TR is rightly acclaimed for his support for conservation. He did not start the National Park System, but he created five new ones and 18 National Monuments (land designation, not statues).  He counted naturalists John Muir and Gifford Pinchot among his friends.

Truman was the architect of the similarly named Fair Deal, which consisted largely of refusing to scale back FDR's New Deal. There were only a few bills Truman managed to get through an intransigent Republic Congress, the Housing Act of 1949 and full implementation of the 1944 G. I. Bill, which had stalled. Much of what he did was act as countervailing force to Congress. He vetoed the anti-labor 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Although Congress overrode his veto, Truman parlayed labor support into his 1948 upset victory over Thomas Dewey. He also made use of executive orders, using one to integrate the U.S. armed forces. He stood up to Southern Dixiecrats on several occasions and was a much stronger advocate for civil rights than FDR had been. He used his veto power to turn down two attempted income tax cuts. Historians now credit Truman's resolve with preserving key aspects of the New Deal, including Social Security.

Both men survived assassination attempts, TR when he ran as a third party candidate in 1912, and Truman when a 1950 plot by Puerto Rican nationalists succeeded only in killing a security officer.

Both men often acted rashly. Roosevelt's fear of and harsh rhetoric against radicals paved the way for brutal repression of left-leaning labor movements, especially the Industrial Workers of the World. His foreign policy (see below) was so aggressively imperialist as to appear piratical at times. Truman acted rashly during steel and coal strikes in the early 1950s—at one point seizing mines and threatening to draft strikers. His actions were struck down as unconstitutional. 

Both presidents made their mark in foreign affairs, though in very different ways.   

How they were different:

TR was an unabashed imperialist, despite his role in mediating the 1905 Russo-Japan War for which he was awarded a controversial Nobel Peace Prize. Roosevelt built up the US Navy and was quite serious about his policy to "talk softly and carry a big stick." He swung that stick often. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine set up the US as the prosecutor, jury, judge, and executioner for perceived misconduct in the Western hemisphere. US troops would be sent to the Caribbean and into Latin America early and often in the pre-World War One years (and beyond). TR also meddled in a war between Venezuela and Panamanian rebels, solely because he wanted an independent Panama so the U.S. could build the Panama Canal. The war in the Philippines ended under TR—officially at least, but not on terms favorable to Filipinos, nor convincingly enough to prevent renewed outbreaks of resistance to US hegemony in the archipelago.

Truman was the first president of the Cold War, but he often possessed nuance that his successors lacked. His quick approval of the Berlin Airlift is now viewed as instrumental in preserving a democratic presence in West Berlin, and his equally quick recognition of the new nation of Israel stamped it with instant credibility. As actions such as the drafting of NSC-68 and his decision to involve the U.S. in the Korean War show, Truman was hardly immune to Cold War fears and pressures, but his decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur demonstrated that he was not a reckless cowboy, as did his restraint over the Chinese revolution and the news that Russia had developed its own atomic bomb. These decisions—wildly unpopular at the time–are now viewed by all except those on the extreme right as having been wise ones that avoided a possible third world war. The same wisdom cannot be claimed for Truman's decision to support France in its reassertion of imperial control over Indochina. This poor choice led inexorably to future US involvement in Vietnam. His most disputed policy was, of course, his decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, though this was much more popular then than now.

Truman's greatest legacy, though, was the Marshall Plan (and Asian equivalents thereof), in which the US poured massive amounts of capital into Europe. These had the net effect of rebuilding Europe in ways that blunted leftwing insurgencies in the region, but the Marshall Plan placed much of the globe under formal economic and political arrangements in keeping with the deals of an American Century. West Germany and Japan were rebuilt as U.S. allies, U.S.-style capitalism and democracy became the Western standards, and military arrangements such as NATO and SEATO cemented the deal. The Marshall Plan set the standard by which US power could be reinforced by a checkbook instead of guns. This sort of thinking was far beyond anything TR ever imagined.

TR reacted badly to radicalism; Truman opposed McCarthyism, though it cannot be said that he handled the Second Red Scare very well. Spy trials and fear marked his post-1948 term.

TR made excellent appointments to the Supreme Court, including the brilliant Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  Alas, Truman made four lackluster appointments.

TR was so popular when he left office that he finished ahead of Taft in 1916 as a third-party candidate (Progressive Party, aka/the Bull Moose Party). Truman's 22% job approval rating is the lowest since Gallup began collecting the data in 1945, as if his overall popularity rating of 45.4%.


Despite being controversial and stubborn, both men consistently rank in the top tier of U.S. presidents. Theodore Roosevelt is currently ranked 4th and Truman as 9th. Both ratings may be slightly elevated, especially Truman's. Truman gets (too?) much credit for what he prevented rather than what he did and, the Marshall Plan notwithstanding, his missteps on Indochina contaminated US policy for the next 40+ years. The A-bomb decision will continue to be debated and is burdened with such moral and geopolitical baggage that it's unlikely a consensus will ever emerge.

TR's imperialism is hard to stomach and he doesn't get enough blame for steering the US into the First World War. The same neglect is true of his racism; TR was an unapologetic believer in Anglo-Saxon supremacy.

Both presidencies were important ones, but I'm inclined to move both men down a few pegs.

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