Rumsfeld Cites Truman as Inspiration for Nation Today

By Donna Miles

INDEPENDENCE, Missouri — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited the Truman Presidential Museum and Library to reflect on President Harry S. Truman’s leadership during the early days of the Cold War and the lessons it offers today for the global war on terror.

Rumsfeld toured the library and paid tribute at Truman’s gravesite in the library’s courtyard before telling about 200 veterans group members, community leaders and library supporters he’s inspired by Truman’s decisive leadership in an age of uncertainty.

Truman took "truly historic steps that have had a lasting effect" on the nation and the world, Rumsfeld said. And even when those measures weren’t popular, "he had the wisdom and the courage" to carry them out," he said.

The secretary noted striking similarities between the Cold War and today’s terror war, and said Truman’s strategy for victory holds important lessons for today.

Like today’s U.S. leaders, the 33rd president guided the United States through perilous times, Rumsfeld said. Truman’s eight years in office coincided with the end of World War II, the first use of the atomic bomb, formation of the United Nations, NATO and the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean conflict and the start of the Cold War.

During this time of tremendous change for the United States, Truman had the gumption "to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions because they were in the national interest," even as his popularity ratings plummeted, explained Michael Devine, Truman library director. Devine called the former president a "visionary who was ahead of his time." While acknowledging dramatic differences between the challenges Truman faced and those U.S. leaders are confronting today, Rumsfeld said many strategies that worked then are being put into practice today.

The Cold War, like the war on terror, required the country to gird itself for a long, sustained struggle punctuated by combat operations, to apply all elements of national power to succeed and to persevere to achieve victory, the secretary said.

It also ushered in revolutionary new concepts and ways of operating, he noted.

Rumsfeld, the driver behind the current DoD transformation effort, praised Truman’s vision in instituting new conventions, from establishing DoD, to proposing NATO, to enacting the Marshall Plan, to integrating the federal government and the armed forces.

Similar thinking is leading today’s Defense Department to reassess the U.S. global posture, re-examine its military base infrastructure at home and come up with new and innovative ways to defeat the threats it faces, he said.

In addition, both conflicts demonstrated the importance of international partnerships in addressing global problems. Rumsfeld cited the revolutionary and then-controversial Marshall Plan — which cost more than $100 billion in today’s dollars — with saving Western Europe from Soviet tyranny during the Cold War so democracies could thrive.

Similarly, the Truman administration’s support for Japan following World War II — and for Greece, Turkey and the Republic of Korea in the face of Soviet ambitions — helped democracies there succeed, he said.

Few of these foreign policy initiatives won universal acclaim at the time, either at home or abroad, Rumsfeld said. He cited a former diplomat who declared in the closing days of World War II that democracy would never work in Japan. Similarly, Life magazine ran an article in 1946 with a headline that read, "Americans Are Losing the Victory in Europe."

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

The same principle drives U.S. efforts today to bolster its allies, including Iraq and Afghanistan, so they can be partners in the global war on terror, he said.

Like the Cold War, terror war represents a conflict of ideologies, with extremists challenging free systems of government, he said. And just as freedom and democracy overcame communist oppression, Rumsfeld said, it ultimately will also overcome terrorist extremism.

"We knew (during the Cold War) that our free system of government was vastly preferable to their dictatorship (and that) given a real choice, the natural desire of man is to be free," Rumsfeld said.

The task for free people then – and now – was to "hold firm, defend ourselves over many long decades and trust that the truth would win out," he said.

Institutions such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, launched during the Truman era, helped bring that truth to millions trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Rumsfeld said.

He expressed hope that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s proposal to expand broadcasting into the Middle East, including Iran, will have a similar impact today. "I believe there are reformers in the Middle East who have been silenced and intimidated and who want their countries to be free," Rumsfeld said. "We must reach out to them. We are still only beginning to embrace this profound challenge."

Some of the most critical battles of the war on terror will be fought, not on the battlefield, but in newsrooms and editorial boardrooms, he said.

Rumsfeld noted that unlike during the Cold War, this age of 24/7 news, blogs, chat rooms and satellite radio brings even bigger challenges. "Lies can travel around the world in an instant," he said, then quoting Mark Twain, he added, "while truth is just putting its boots on."

The challenges confronting the United States in the war on terror, like those it faced during the Cold War, are significant but not insurmountable, the secretary said.

He compared the early days of both conflicts, when the future seemed unclear, the tasks seemed daunting and leaders had to operate without the perspective history offers.

"But let there be no doubt: We did not win the Cold War by luck, (and) our victory was not inevitable," Rumsfeld said. It took vision, perseverance and a commitment to "stay resolved and follow the course," he said.

While praising Truman’s leadership during the early days of the Cold War, Rumsfeld called him a man of peace who pointed the direction ahead when that peace was threatened.

A prominently displayed Truman quote at his presidential library reflects his commitment to peace. "There can be no greater service to mankind, and no nobler mission, than devotion to world peace," it reads.

Today’s servicemembers continue to carry out this commitment every day as they serve the United States and its interests around the world, Rumsfeld told the group. In carrying out what he called their "noble mission," these troops are helping "secure the peace for our generation and for generations to come," he said.

Army Maj. Brett Sylvia, a student in the Advanced Military Studies Program at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., who will serve in Iraq after completing the course, said he believes the parallels Rumsfeld drew during his address are relevant today.

"Truman was president at a time in our history when major decisions were being made" – not just political decisions, but also cultural ones, including the integration of the U.S. armed forces, Sylvia noted. Today’s leaders stand at another crossroads in the country’s future, he said.

Army Maj. Ross Coffey, who’s also enrolled in the Fort Leavenworth program, said that like those of Truman’s era, today’s leaders who chart that course must do so in the face of uncertainty.

Ray Nichols, a Vietnam-era Marine Corps veteran who’s a member of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars in Liberty, Missouri., said he was inspired by Rumsfeld’s message about the war on terror.

"These people aren’t going to go away. They came after us on 9/11 and they are not going to quit," Nichols said of terrorists. "So we have to fight them there so we don’t have to do it here."