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Truman Tribute Draws ‘Nostalgia for Leadership’

October 26, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When Israeli diplomat Abba Eban offered his credentials to President Truman in 1950, it struck Eban he was meeting a man more powerful than Caesar, Alexander the Great or any politician in history.

He found the emperor’s clothes soaked with sweat from malfunctioning air conditioning. Truman snatched the documents from Eban’s hand, dispensed with ceremony and barked: ``Let’s cut out the crap and have a real talk.″

``If there was such a thing as an imperial presidency,″ Eban says, ``nobody had broken the news to Harry Truman.″

Truman’s unassuming decisiveness loomed large Wednesday.

President Clinton and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were among VIPs who gathered for an evening tribute to a leader who emerged from Franklin Roosevelt’s shadow to cast a large one of his own.

``I always love to be at events honoring Harry Truman,″ Clinton said, ``because I come from a family that was for him when he was alive.″

Addressing about 900 people at a black-tie fundraising dinner for the Harry S Truman library, Clinton invoked Truman’s legacy while saying he was determined American forces will be part of a NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

``If we’re not there, we will be making a sad mistake. ... I am determined that we will be part of this NATO mission,″ Clinton said.

``The question I have is this. If Harry Truman were president would he expect the United States as the leader in NATO to be a part of a force in Bosnia. I think you know what the answer is. The answer is yes, and so must we,″ Clinton said.

At an earlier symposium Wednesday, three of Truman’s contemporaries presented the Truman record as a battery of tough but unapologetic decision-making, a record Eban said has inspired ``a nostalgia for leadership″ today.

Presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. portrayed him as an unabashed liberal who pushed universal health care, conservation, civil rights and expansive regulation _ ``now almost forbidden subjects of discussion in Washington today.″

And Paul Nitze, who helped draw the doctrine of Soviet containment in the State Department of the 1940s, said Europe probably would have fallen to communists if Truman had let America retreat into its historic peacetime isolationism.

The United States came out of World War II as the sole nuclear power, maker of half the world’s products and a country energized where others were exhausted. Truman turned that energy to rebuilding Europe and keeping communists in check.

While admiration was the order of the day, a few discordant notes sounded.

Schlesinger said Truman was wrong to have sent soldiers into combat in Korea without congressional approval. That was a quantum leap in the war-making powers of presidents, he said in urging Clinton not to send troops to Bosnia without going to Congress.

Nitze, who went on to become chief arms negotiator during the 1980s, acknowledged discomfort with Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan. At that point in World War II, he said, Japan’s navy was sunk, its factories dead, its railroads stopped and ``they weren’t a threat to anybody.″

But he said he reluctantly agreed with the bombing because alternatives might have cost too many American lives.

Truman often told people he never lost a night’s sleep over the decision, Eban and Schlesinger said. He would bring the subject up out of nowhere.

He protested his peace of mind so much they figured the bombings actually haunted him.

No one was more glowing than Eban, former Israeli foreign minister and ambassador to the United States.

Whether it was recognizing Israel, driving the Soviets out of Iran, coming to the aid of Greece and Turkey against communist rebels, or delving into other foreign entanglements now almost forgotten, ``he never hedged or waffled,″ he said.

And when his presidency ended, Truman went back to playing cards with his cronies.

``Nothing much had happened to him,″ Eban said, ``except that he had changed the world.″

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