woody_zimmerman_118_2007In early days of the Soviet Union – especially during the Stalin era – an individual who fell out of favor with “Papa Joe” became an “unperson.” He was then erased from the historical record of the regime, as though he had never lived or participated in it. A cadre of historical “erasers” was kept busy retouching any official photographs in which the offender had appeared, to make sure that his image no longer showed up in the nation’s pictorial history.

Of course, the effort was silly, since it’s rarely possible to capture and modify every existing photo of a particular person. Thus, we have all seen photos where the original shows a certain Soviet party figure, while the retouched version has only a space where he originally appeared. To most of us it seemed a silly kind of exercise for government. Good thing we never got into that pattern. Well… not until lately.

In America a curious variant of the “retouched history” exercise has now emerged – particularly involving presidents who were unpopular while in office. But instead of erasing these presidents from the historical record, popular historians and the Mainstream Media have undertaken a kind of joint revisionist rehabilitation of certain presidents. So far, all have been Democrats who were roundly hated during their presidential tenure. (Call me cynical, but I doubt if any Republicans will receive this beneficent treatment.)

The first of these “rehabilitees” has been Harry S. Truman – our thirty-third president, who took office in 1945 upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death. A distinct change from FDR’s Hudson Valley patrician style, Mr. Truman was a folksy, common, and very opinionated man. His sense of knowing his own mind and what was the right thing to do was respected and even admired by the public – to a point.

Mr. Truman had no qualms about using the atomic bomb on Japan to end the Second World War, defending the decision as one which actually saved the lives of both Americans and Japanese by obviating the need for an invasion of the Japanese home islands. He used blunt language to call things as he saw them, quickly sizing up Soviet Leader Josef Stalin as a “horse’s ass” who couldn’t be trusted any farther than you could throw him. The public liked that. Mr. Truman became the People’s President, and for a time things went well.

The transition to a post-war economy was difficult. Voters had tired of Democrat government, with its wartime privations and lingering New Deal smell. In 1946 they elected a Republican Congress on the promise of a fresh approach and a new era of plenty and prosperity (i.e., “change”). This was a tall order, as wartime scarcities lasted well into the late 1940s. (As a boy in 1948, I still carried cans of grease drippings to the local grocer, who paid 10¢ for them.) No one really knew how to transition from a war of such scale to a smoothly functioning peacetime economy. If Democrats didn’t know, Republicans found they didn’t either.

Consequently, Mr. Truman found it convenient to run for a new term, in 1948, against a “do-nothing” Republican Congress. Although a victory for GOP presidential candidate Thomas Dewey had been widely predicted, Mr. Truman stumped the country in a classic “whistle stop” campaign, pulling out a dramatic victory by a whisker. A photo of Mr. Truman holding up a newspaper with the headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” is an enduring icon of a sure loser’s pure grit and unwillingness to quit. It was probably Mr. Truman’s finest moment as president. For a time, he basked in the afterglow of his victory, and the country settled down to recover from the war and move into peacetime prosperity.

Unfortunately, world events did not cooperate. In June 1950, communist North Korea invaded South Korea, and America was thrown back into war – whether we wanted it or not. Luckily, America’s victorious WWII Pacific commander, General Douglas MacArthur, was still in Japan administering that country’s post-war transition. President Truman immediately put him in command of the Korean theater, as overwhelming People’s Republic of Korea (PRK) forces were driving back both South Korean (ROK) and American forces, deep into South Korea, as far south as Pusan. Gen. MacArthur wanted to bomb North Korea, but President Truman vetoed it, fearing Red Chinese intervention.

After ROK and UN forces had been reinforced in the Pusan perimeter, Gen. MacArthur counter-attacked with daring amphibious landings in the rear of PRK forces at Incheon – up the Korean coast. The balance of UN forces then broke through at Pusan and drove the overextended and exhausted PRK army northward, in headlong retreat. By November 1950, 135,000 PRK soldiers had been captured, and the PRK army was nearing complete disintegration. Gen. MacArthur wanted to attack across the Yalu River, into Chinese territory, to interdict North Korean supply lines, but President Truman again refused for fear of the Chinese. The conquest of North Korea was accomplished by late October 1950.

But nothing is simple in war. Having marched over 300 miles – mostly at night to avoid detection – some 300,000 Red Chinese soldiers suddenly attacked UN forces without warning on November 1, 1950, penetrating deep inside North Korea. Chinese forces encircled several ROK units and sent UN forces into full retreat. The US Eighth Army executed the longest retreat in American combat history. And the US 7th Infantry joined a USMC division to fight a costly battle in bitter cold at Chosin Reservoir, ensuring the escape of UN forces from North Korea.

Red Chinese and PRK forces mounted fierce attacks through the winter of 1951, prompting Gen. MacArthur to consider using the atomic bomb on them. (This sparked a furious debate inside the Truman administration.) In the spring, UN forces counterattacked, gaining temporary successes, but the Chinese established a strong line, reinforced with three field armies, totaling over 700,000 men. After President Truman sacked General MacArthur for insubordination in April 1951, the Chinese launched a major attack. It succeeded at first, but by the end of May 1951 the US Eighth Army counterattacked and gained a line just north of the 38th parallel. This was the line of stalemate that lasted two more years, until an armistice was signed in July 1953.

Suffice it to say that the war was exceedingly ugly and politically unsatisfying, costing the USA some 50,000 battle-deaths, plus 115,000 wounded, missing and captured. (I was fully aware of the war; the firing of Gen. MacArthur was the first news item I can clearly recall.) The general wanted to take the war into China to stop the flood of fresh troops and supplies into the theater of operations. But fearing expansion into a widespread land war in Asia, Truman restrained MacArthur in ways that made conventional victory impossible. The war became, in effect, a miniature World War I, in which neither side could tip the balance to victory. Public opinion gradually turned against both the war and President Truman’s leadership of it (although a major income tax collection scandal also hurt Mr. Truman’s popularity).

Americans don’t really care much for war. They will fight if the reason seems just and right, but they expect to win, and they dislike having their soldiers restrained in ways that prevent victory. The dismissal of MacArthur – great hero of our victory over the Japanese in World War II – symbolized everything the public disliked about the grubby little war in Korea. We liked the general, and many thought it was wrong to relieve him.

Public approval of President Truman slid down until it reached a nadir of 22% in February 1952 – a level (unbelievable though it might seem) below any approval rating ever recorded for (the hated) George W. Bush. Although Mr. Truman could have stood for a third term in 1952 – having been “grandfathered” by the 22nd Amendment, which sets term limits for presidents – he declined to do so, knowing his defeat was certain. (He was also 68 years old.)

I recount this dismal history of the (rather uninteresting) Korean War, in part, to show younger readers that “wartime quagmire” did not start with Iraq, ca. 2005, or even Vietnam. American forces slogged through two grim years of genuine quagmire in Korea, with the Truman administration having no clue how to end it. We could not break out to a decisive victory under the constraints imposed by Mr. Truman. Finally, the election of Dwight Eisenhower brought a conclusion. Whatever Ike told the North Koreans in 1953 – some historians maintain that he threatened to use the A-bomb – made them quickly agree to an armistice.

Notwithstanding Mr. Truman’s extreme unpopularity at the close of his tenure, liberal-leaning historians and popular media have made considerable efforts, over the past 50 years, to rehabilitate the plain-speaking Man from Missouri. Recent polls rank him among our greatest presidents – something that would have surprised Americans in 1952. Indeed, one historical précis noted that Mr. Truman’s popularity seems to increase, the farther removed in time we get from his presidency. Modern reporters and analysts love him – could it be because of his party? – even though the people he actually governed hated him.

President Jimmy Carter is a more current example of the “rehab” strategy. Indeed, he has participated in it, being still active on the international stage as he approaches age 85. Mr. Carter has had a lot to rehabilitate, as polls rated him the least competent president ever, when he left office. He was in office when a major oil-shock occurred, in 1979, driving oil to its highest prices ever (in inflation-adjusted dollars). The public was not pleased by those gasoline prices. He gave up the Shah and let the radical Islamic fundamentalists, under Ayatollah Khomeni, take over Iran. In return, those Islamic radicals seized the American embassy in Iran and held our people hostage for over a year. A botched rescue attempt, under Mr. Carter’s direct control, failed spectacularly. He also gave away the Panama Canal, and presided over a ruinous economy with double-digit inflation, mortgage interest rates of 17%, and nearly 7% unemployment (which soared upward to nearly 10% after Ronald Reagan took office).

Mr. Reagan ran against this “misery index” to win a smashing victory, which altered the political landscape of the country. Judging from interviews I have seen with Mr. Carter since 1980, I would say he has never accepted his defeat as the voters’ legitimate verdict on his presidency.

By long tradition, ex-presidents retire to their farms or presidential libraries and keep quiet – particularly about politics and foreign affairs. Mr. Truman said very little, publicly, over the twenty years between his exit from office and his death. Ditto for Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, or Ford, after their respective tenures in office.

Mr. Carter has not obeyed this unwritten rule. As his age and the time from his presidency have increased, he has spoken out more and more openly about his views on American foreign policy – particularly during the G. W. Bush administration. I know the American public has cringed with embarrassment on Mr. Carter’s behalf over some of his remarks. This bashing of President Bush by a former president delighted the left-leaning media, causing them to award Mr. Carter a kind of “gravitas emeritus,” with respect to foreign policy. This is the more amazing because Mr. Carter’s own foreign policy was so clearly a failure. But a selective amnesia has shrouded all this.

Indeed, time seems to heal all wounds for Democrat presidents. To paraphrase Shakespeare, time (not sleep) “…knits up the raveled sleeve of care,” and makes us see failed presidents as they should have been, not as they actually were. We’ll know Hell has truly frozen over when we see the same treatment given to Richard Nixon and George W. Bush.