Despite “periods of hysteria,” Truman found cause for hope in the national character

September 15, 2022 3:02 pm

A sign made by Vicki Farrell, 65, in the back of her car at the Aragon Precinct in Virginia Beach urging calm following the 2020 election. (Roger Chesley/ For the Virginia Mercury)

By William Walker

Historians have an unfortunate reputation for delivering bad news. That indictment was recently bolstered by a group of the nation’s leading scholars who warned President Joe Biden that they foresaw unrest, violence and perhaps even civil war approaching the United States.

To counter those grim prospects, I am pleased to report the discovery of an historical interpretation that portends a brighter future, despite the fierce convolutions of the MAGA-minded, the persistent lies of their leaders and the violent threats of its supporters.

The optimistic tale has an unusual setting: a 1954 visit by the distinguished historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to former President Harry Truman, whose Democrats were being shellacked by the GOP.

At the time, the Republicans were bewitched by another cult-meister — Sen. Joe McCarthy and his conspiracy theories of communists infiltrating the federal government. Beating the loud drums of xenophobia, nationalism and hatred, the GOP was undermining Truman’s legacy by charging former Secretary of State George Marshall with treason, claiming that spy rings riddled the armed forces and decrying the perils of creeping socialism, the GOP’s perennial anthem.

It sounds depressingly familiar, a mirror image of the future that historians predicted for President Biden. But during Schlesinger’s visit with Truman, the discussion took a more optimistic turn.

The historian expected to find the former president in the dumps, bemoaning evil times boding national disaster. But Truman had a surprisingly different attitude.

The former chief executive had been musing about “the incidence of periods of hysteria in American history,” Schlesinger recorded in his journals. “As he figures it, the periodicity is about 8-10 years; thus, from the Alien and Sedition Acts to the trial of Aaron Burr; the Know-Nothings and anti-abolition sentiment of the fifties; Reconstruction through the election of 1876; from A. Mitchell Palmer to the campaign of 1928.”

Truman’s analysis of periods of civic madness is accurate, but the former chief executive was not content to stop with a dissection of the problem. He went on to predict better days.

“[Truman] guesses that it will take McCarthyism 8-10 years to burn itself out — which means anywhere from 1956 to 1960 before it is over. But he affirmed, both touchingly and impressively, his faith in the decency of the American people and their capacity to recover from these binges of fear and panic.”

Given all that we have seen from the time that Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency in 2015 to the present — collusion with foreign forces and dark money to win the election, insistence that white supremacists are good people, separation of mothers and babies at the border, attempts to undermine NATO, admiration for international dictators, slashes to safety nets for the poor and elderly, persistent lies about the outcome of the election, an attempted coup fostered and fueled by the president, and the theft of top-secret documents — considering all of this, can we retain Truman’s optimism for the future?

If Truman’s analysis is accurate, we should be witnessing the first signs of a return to national sanity now — seven years after Trump’s descent from his grand tower. Indeed, there are hopeful signs in the work of the Jan. 6 committee and Merrick Garland’s dogged pursuit of the truth; people are beginning to listen, to understand, to believe. These are vastly important initiatives, but we must remind ourselves that Truman rested his faith in a different place: “The decency of the American people and their capacity to recover from these binges of fear and panic.”

Ultimately, this is where we must place our faith as well. John Adams wisely noted that the first American revolution “was in the minds and hearts of the people.” And according to historian Truman, Americans have repeatedly shaken off self-imposed mental chains to overcome periods of instability like the one we are suffering. The fruits of those awakenings were a stronger national union, freedom for slaves, extension of the right to vote, broader civil rights and other inestimable blessings of liberty.

In these difficult days, a national appeal to the “better angels of our nature” may seem fatuous. But as American history has shown, “the decency of the American people” is a real force that has asserted itself at least four times in our history and proved sufficient even to heal our bloody Civil War. May it ever be.

William Walker is the author of Betrayal at Little Gibraltar (Scribner, 2016), a book about the Great War’s Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and he focuses his scholarship on World War I history. Before retirement, he served as associate vice president for public affairs at Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary.

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