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Harry S. Truman Presidential Library
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Independence, Missouri, Thursday, March 02, 2006

Thank you so much.  Clifton, thank you for those kind words.  Dr. Devine, I’m very pleased to be here and have a chance to see this impressive library.  I thank you so much for the opportunity to tour it and also to meet those young folks that were there doing a mock decision -- White House decision -- with respect to Korea.  I don’t know if the rest of you know it, but they have a program here where they bring in students and they wrestle, they assign roles -- Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, President, and so forth -- members of the press -- and they then have debates and discussions and try to think through those decisions, and they’re tough decisions, to be sure.

Mayor Stewart, it’s good to see you.  I understand that, I think it’s the city and the library are going to award Congressman Ike Skelton the Truman award, sometime next month, or May.  You made a good selection -- Ike’s a fine man.  I also want to say hello to the people here from Wentworth Military Academy, and the American Legion, I saw a number of folks from the Legion here outside, and was pleased to see those who have served our country so well.

I have been an admirer of President Harry Truman for many years.  In fact, I was down in Key West, Florida, not too long ago with my family.  My wife and I took our three children and seven grandchildren and we all went to, I think they called it the “Winter White House” or the “Little White House” or something, down in Key West.  If some of you have not seen it, you ought to do it when you’re on vacation.  It’s most impressive and our grandchildren of all ages from nineteen down to about three or four toured and found it most interesting and I think it’s important for people to have a sense of what an epic figure President Truman was and how much he affected our country -- and the world’s post-World War II history.

You have to admire a President who was so down to earth that when he was asked what’s the first thing he’s going to do when he’s home, he said I’m going to “take the grips up to the attic.”  Now, some of you are a little young and you don’t know that a “grip” is a suitcase, back in the old days.  And I can remember my father using the word, my wife using the word.

I’m told that on leaving the White House in 1953, he said:

“If I’d known how much packing I’d have to do, I’d have run again.”

He certainly was loyal to his family, his hometown, and his friends.  As I recall, he overrode his advisors and even attended the funeral of Mr. Pendergast, who was not terribly popular at that period, and did it because he went back a long way with him.

And he was humble.  Upon the death of President Roosevelt, I’m told that he said:

“I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me”  and  “I pray to God that I can measure up to the task.”

I guess he’d been Vice President for less than three months when he was called on to replace a man who was a really giant in everyone’s life during that period.

I was 12, living in Coronado, California when President Roosevelt died.  My father was out on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II and they announced over the school’s system that President Roosevelt had died.  And millions of people across this country and the world cried because he was so big a figure in everyone’s life.

And the free world suddenly found its trust placed in, as they said then, a former haberdasher -- but also a former soldier -- from Independence, Missouri.  And the world wondered -- and indeed President Truman wondered -- if he was up to the task.

I’m told that his wife Bess, was a bit more practical.  She started burning her love letters to him.  And he said she shouldn’t do that.

And she replied, “Why not?”  She said, “I’ve read them several times.”

And the President pleaded, “But think of history.”

And she said, “I have.”

When you think about it, her task was almost as daunting as his -- she had to succeed Eleanor Roosevelt, who was also a big figure.  I can remember being in college and watching Eleanor Roosevelt on a corner talking to somebody and she was tall and animated and powerful.  In fact I see someone who was probably there with me at Princeton many, many years ago.

She’d given, Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, had given a lot of press conferences.  Everyone knew her.  She was involved in all kinds of things.  And after some prodding, I’m told that Mrs. Truman agreed to hold a press conference of her own for the first time -- and then she canceled it.

She did however apparently eventually agree to answer reporters’ questions.  She had the following ground rules: the questions had to be written and submitted in advance.  Her responses would be in writing.  She reserved the right to respond with short one-syllable answers and frequently “no comments.”  She was on to something.  She had it figured out pretty well.  I like that.

Of course, there are many reasons to pay tribute and remember President and Mrs. Truman, but what brought me here is to, in particular, to reflect on President Truman’s leadership in the early days of the Cold War.

And to consider what lessons might apply to another -- and in many ways very different -- struggle that could occupy our country for a good many years ahead. 

Consider the institutions and the programs that started on President Truman’s watch -- some almost from scratch -- and which proved to be so crucial during the Cold War and indeed since the period since:

  • The Marshall Plan;
  • The Truman Doctrine;
  • Radio Free Europe;
  • The Central Intelligence Agency;
  • The Department of Defense;
  • The International Monetary Fund;
  • The World Bank;
  • The North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Several of which of course are still going strong.

In addition, President Truman led the way in extending official diplomatic recognition to the new state of Israel.  Again, a step that was not particularly popular in many places of our country during that period.

The country went through important cultural changes as well, under his leadership, including his decision to desegregate the federal workforce.  It changed our federal government, just significantly, to make that decision -- not by Congress but by an Executive Order.  And then he did the same thing for the United States military, and in effect I suppose you could say, he helped make that United States military one of the most color-blind institutions in the United States of America and an institution which has provided countless Americans with the opportunity they deserved and had previously not had.  Those steps were truly historic and they have had lasting effect on our country.  It is surprising to me that they hadn’t been done before and he had the wisdom and the courage to do it.

Now with the perspective of history, the many new institutions and programs of the Truman years can seem, I suppose to many people, as part of a carefully crafted, broadly supported strategy that led to what now almost seems like an inevitable victory in the Cold War.

But of course, things didn’t unfold that way.  That isn’t the way it was in history.  They never unfold quite that way.  Our country was tired after the Second World War and strong strains of isolationism still persisted.  Many Americans were not in the mood for global involvement on the part of the United States.  And particularly against something as ill-defined as the Communist menace at the time.  It wasn’t as though they were engaged in a battle and you needed to respond, it was different than World War II.  It was something that you couldn’t quite put your hand on, you couldn’t quite show a movie about it as readily.

It was a time of heated disagreements.  We think back now, it seems like anybody with any sense would have recognized the importance of the Cold War and of pursuing our values and our interests as a country.  I don’t think it would surprise anyone to hear that Harry S. Truman was a proud and enthusiastic partisan.

He used to say:

“Whenever a fellow tells me he’s bipartisan, I know he’s going to vote against me.”

And he wasn’t shy about expressing his views to those who did.

Yet together, leaders of both of our political parties tended to get the big things right.  And they did get the big things right.  They understood that war had been declared on our country -- on the free world -- whether we liked it or not.  That we had to steel ourselves against an expansionist enemy, the Soviet Union, that was determined to destroy our way of life.

A small but perhaps telling moment in the history of the Cold War took place on one of President Truman’s first days in office.

During his second week as President, he met with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov.  President Truman had what was described as a “tough conversation” during which he told Molotov that the Soviets were not carrying out their agreements on Poland.  Molotov responded, "We are."

And President Truman, as he put it, "I then explained to him in words of one syllable, exactly why they were not."  After the President’s typically frank reply, and undiplomatic response, Molotov apparently said to President Truman, "I have never been talked to like that in my life."

Truman replied, "Carry out your agreements and you won't be talked to like that again."  Sounds reasonable to me.

In a sense, that quintessentially American candor would prove to be a valuable attribute in winning the struggle against the Soviet Union.  We knew that our free system of government was vastly preferable to their dictatorship.  That when given a real choice, the natural desire of men and women is to be free.  And that the task of free people was to hold firm, to defend ourselves over many long decades, and trust that the truth would eventually win out.

That, I would submit, is our task today in the Global War on Terror, the struggle against violent extremists.  These two eras have many differences -- I understand that.  The enemy today is not an empire, but a shadowy movement of terrorist cells; the threats today are not conventional, they’re unconventional; and al Qaeda and other terrorists have no territories to defend, no nations, no diplomats to sign agreements, and no hesitance to kill innocent men, women and children.

But these two eras also have something important -- and instructive -- by way of similarities:

  • Both required our nation to gird for a long, sustained struggle, punctuated by periods of military conflict;
  • Both required the use of all elements of national power to defeat the enemy;
  • Both required a transition from arrangements that were successful in the previous war to arrangements that were much better suited for this new and different era;  and
  • Above all, both required perseverance by the American people and by their leadership, to be sure.

There are other similarities between the two conflicts that are less obvious, but equally instructive.

One is the critical importance of being able to bolster the capacities of partner nations.  This notion was the heart of the Marshall Plan, which cost more than $100 billion in today’s dollars, but most certainly helped to save Western Europe from Soviet tyranny and led to the emergence of important democratic allies that, despite our occasional differences, remain indispensable to our success today.

The post-World War II effort to aid the Japanese helped Japan become a stalwart democracy.  President Truman’s decision to come to the aid of Greece and Turkey -- in accordance with the Truman Doctrine -- proved essential to saving both countries from Communist takeover.

It was during the Truman era that we came to the rescue of what is today called the Republic of Korea.  The result of that long-term investment -- and it was a significant investment in dollars and in lives -- has made the Korean peninsula the most stark example of the differences between a free system -- a free political system and a free economic system -- as opposed to a command economy and a vicious dictatorship.  I have a satellite photograph taken at night of the Korean peninsula that I keep in my office on my desk and it shows a peninsula, with the demilitarized zone in the middle, the same people in the north as the south, the same resources in the north and in the south.  And at night the south is just filled with electricity and light, here’s the 12th most powerful economy of the face of the earth.  And the north is absolutely black, nothing but one pinprick of light in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.  The starvation and malnutrition has been so bad in the North that they now take people into their military that are four feet ten inches tall and weigh under 100 pounds.  It is a tragedy.  And in the south, the 12th largest economy on earth.  It says it all that picture.

It should be noted that few, if any, of those foreign policy initiatives won universal acclaim here at home, or abroad for that matter.  Indeed, a former diplomat in the closing days of World War II said that “democracy would never work” in Japan -- don’t you love that certainty?  A 1946 Life Magazine article was entitled “Americans Are Losing The Victory In Europe.”  1946.

President Truman, and his successors in both political parties, had the courage, however, to hold firm, understanding the necessity of helping other nations become democratic allies for the long struggle ahead.

Though the situation today is different, I would suggest that a similar rationale underscores efforts to help bolster the capabilities of our many new allies in the Global War on Terror -- including Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another similarity that bears mentioning is that both were, and are, fundamentally ideological conflicts -- the Cold War and today -- challenging free people and free systems of government.

During the Cold War, the Soviets sought to undermine the West by cultivating divisions among our allies, among the countries in the developing world, and among even the American people.  And they met with considerable success.

Millions marched against the United States -- not for the United States -- but against the Untied States.  Not against the Communist bloc, but against the United States -- both in Europe and here at home.  Some of us have been around long enough to remember when “Euro-Communism” was very much in vogue.  It was very fashionable to talk about Euro-Communism, the “good” Communism, when there were Communists in the Italian government, Communists in the Portuguese cabinet, and what have you.  Separating it somewhat from Soviet Communism and allowing as how it was kind of the wave of the future.

Much of the world granted the Soviet Union “moral equivalence” or “equity” with the United States.  They talked about the two superpowers.  They talked about the bi-polar world.  And they compared us and equated us, as though we were each part of the problem.  I can remember being called back from Europe when I was ambassador to NATO and having to testify twice, against the amendment to withdraw all of our forces from Europe.  In the ‘70s.  There were powerful forces against the Cold War.

But leaders over a sustained period met that challenge with something our enemy could never match, and that was powerful demonstration of the attractiveness of free systems.

Indeed, one of the most powerful statements of the difference between our way of life and the Soviets was what President Kennedy said at the Berlin Wall in 1963.  He said quote:

“Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” 

Our country established institutions such as the Voice of America, which aired its first broadcast to Soviet Russia in 1947; Radio Free Europe, that had its first broadcast into Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia in 1950.  Both were in the Truman era.

Today, we’re contemplating similar approaches.  I would note Secretary of State Rice’s proposal recently to expand our radio broadcasting into Middle East, and particularly reach young people and women and reformers in Iran.  There will have to be other new institutions to augment the effort that has been made thus far.

Just as millions who were trapped in Eastern Europe during the Cold War were given hope by messages that filtered in from the West, similarly, I believe there are reformers in the Middle East, who have been silenced and intimidated, and who want their countries to be free.

We must reach out to them.  We are still only beginning to embrace this profound challenge.

In many ways, many critical battles in the War on Terror will be fought in the news rooms and the editorial board rooms.  Unlike the Cold War, this is an era of far more rapid communications, with the Internet, and  bloggers, and chat rooms, 24 hour news channels, satellite radio.

Lies can travel around the world in an instant.  I think it was Mark Twain who said: “while the truth is still putting its boots on.”  And we need to develop considerably greater dexterity to counter the enemy’s skills in media relations and in manipulating the news.  And they are demonstrating their skills daily.

These tasks are not easy.  They never are.

In those early days of the Cold War, the future then too was unclear, the tasks often seemed insurmountable, and it was difficult to view things with the perspective that only history can offer.

But, let there be no doubt, the United States did not win the Cold War by luck -- and our victory was not inevitable.  It took perseverance.  It took a confidence in our course, despite the many uncertainties.  And there were uncertainties throughout.  And despite the many critics along the way who stood outside and blamed the United States.  Critics here at home, and critics abroad.

It involved making needed corrections, self-corrections, to be sure.  No path is straight.  And it relied on the vision of leadership in both parties who understood the menace we faced, and resolved -- and stayed resolved -- to defeat that menace.  Leaders like Eisenhower, Kennedy, Scoop Jackson, President Reagan, and of course those crucial formative years under President Harry S. Truman.

They did what they did without a road map.  There was no guide book they could pick up in the morning when they got out to serve the country -- to chart the way in an era when the Cold War we were in, it didn’t dominate the news every day.  It wasn’t something that called people to be courageous, and to stick with it.  It was off the pages.  But it was hard, and it took investment and it took time.  Our allies bickered with each other and with us.  Political parties sometimes disagreed, and when crucial battles were fought, sometimes they were even in secret.

But the specter of a superpower confrontation was with us in our consciousness most every day.  And when people asked when the war might be over, there was no clear answer.  And there isn’t one today.  I was stuck by the mock news conference these students had down here earlier this afternoon or this morning and they were pretending they were press people asking the President why the decision this way and why the decision that way.  And I kept waiting for one of them to ask -- it was concerning the beginning of the Korean War, the sending in of troops and planes after the North attacked the South.  And I kept waiting for one of the mock press people to stand up and say, well when will the war be over?  And how much will it cost?  We hear that everyday.

But President Truman’s final words to the nation, as President, in 1953, I think ought to offer some comfort to those with questions about the struggle we face today.

He said in part:

“Some of you may ask: when and how will the Cold War end?”  This is 1953.  He said: “when and how will the Cold War end?  I think I can answer that simply; the Communist world has great resources and it looks strong, but there is a fatal flaw in their society.  Theirs is … a system of slavery.  There is no freedom in it, no consent. . . .  I have a deep and abiding faith in the destiny of free men.  With patience and courage, we shall some day move on into a new era."

And we did.  But it wasn’t in that year.  Or ten years.  Or twenty years later.  Or thirty years later.  It was forty year later.  He was right.

And the man from Independence -- whose final resting place is not many steps from here -- deserves enormous credit for that and our nation’s undying appreciation.

To this day, when visitors come to Washington and tour the Oval Office, they are shown a wood-carved desk that was given to President Hayes by Queen Victoria.  It’s the only object in the White House that still shows the old presidential seal which had the Bald Eagle looking toward arrows – the signs of war.

It was President Truman, I’m told, who changed that seal, who decided that the eagle should look the other way -- toward olive branches, symbolic of a nation dedicated to peace.

And perhaps that is a fitting tribute to President Truman.  He was a man of peace -- a reflection of the country he led and loved.

And I can say that this remains the noble mission of our nation’s young men and women in uniform -- who are deployed around the world -- to secure the peace for our generation and for generations to come.

Thank you very much.

For transcript including questions and answers, please visit:
http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2006/tr20060302-12610.html