Presidents Trump and Truman: America’s Clean-Up Hitters

“Domestic policy can only defeat us; but foreign policy can kill us.”  President John F. Kennedy

President Harry Truman Courtesy Library of Congress; President Donald Trump Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead


When Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his final term as president in January 1945 he was certain of the coming victory in World War II, and he also knew challenging new post-war events were coming. However, his lingering illness (from which he would die just 82 days later), had destroyed his energy, and some say he let things slide.

As a result, policy positions for significant coming events were not developed.  Even more troublesome was that FDR had met alone only twice with his new vice president, Harry S. Truman, who had not even been briefed in detail on the development of the atomic bomb until 13 days after FDR’s death.

Truman found himself alone facing problems of which he had been unaware, and for which he had little experience.  He set out immediately to assertively address them, and history shows that he succeeded.

Summary of Challenges for Truman (US News and World Report, February 26, 2009):

  • Whether to invade Japan or use atom bombs to end the Pacific war
  • How to contain the Soviet Union – which was making it clear that it would block democracy in the countries it had occupied
  • How to create an adequate military force (NATO) to protect Europe from possible new Soviet aggression
  • How to expand the United Nations from a wartime association of three allies into a sustainable and forceful world-wide organization
  • How to protect Greece, Turkey, and Iran from Communism (Truman Doctrine) and
  • What to do about Palestine (to recognize Israel despite the objections of Secretary of State George Marshall who feared a pro-Russian Arab reaction).


The Obama presidency began with what the Wall Street Journal (April 3, 2009) called, “Obama’s Confession Tour.”  The WSJ reported: “In less than 100 days, he has apologized on three continents.  He told the French that America had been arrogant in dealing with Europe. And in Prague Obama told our NATO treaty allies that America had a moral responsibility to act [before our enemies] on disarmament because only we had used a nuclear weapon.”  Obama clearly believed that a less assertive United States would benefit the world.

President Donald John Trump was elected in part because he guaranteed an end to perceived Obama-era appeasement. Trump said he would no longer put up with false red lines in Syria, or be complacent about North Korea’s new generation of nuclear missiles.  And he has followed through on his campaign promises.

Here is the excellent summary of the challenges left to new President Trump (The Virginia Pilot, September 4, 2017):

  • IRAQ – withdrawing American forces from IRAQ, had allowed the country to spin out of control and slide into near anarchy, thus enabling the rise of ISIS
  • SYRIA – as its civil war expanded America stood by even when Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons on his own people – killing 400,000, making millions homeless – contributing to Europe’s burgeoning refugee problem
  • LEBANON – Iran was allowed to heavily arm Hezbollah, creating a more powerful force in anticipation of the next round of conflict with Israel
  • RUSSIAN – annexed portions of Ukraine despite agreement to not do so, have continued to undermine Ukraine’s legitimately government, and America refused to supply Ukraine with modern arms
  • CHINA – was allowed to extend its exaggerated territorial claims far into the South China Sea, and build its military presence to defend those claims;
  • NORTH KOREA – was allowed to develop without meaningful opposition its nuclear weapons program, its ballistic missile program, and its plans to marry the two
  • AFGHANISTAN – after a half-hearted attempt to defeat the Taliban failed, Obama announced the departure schedule for needed additional American troops even before they arrived, then maintained just enough U.S. troops to ensure that the Afghan government did not collapse on his watch
  • IRAN (1) – Obama attempted to placate the mullahs in IRAN, even while Iran’s government-sponsored terrorism was extending its reach.
  • IRAN (2) – Obama then negotiated the JCPOA (“Iran deal”) focusing exclusively on nuclear arms restraint, while the sanctions relief has allowed Iran to advance its military efforts in Syria, and Yemen, and elsewhere – increasing the risk of war between with Israel and Saudi Arabia (Foreign Affairs, May 9, 2018).

Obama had a well-deserved reputation as cool and unflappable. Perhaps it is easier to be cool and unflappable when one observes world hot spots as an armchair analyst rather than as a president who is actually trying to address them.  As a result, President Trump, as did President Truman, is facing a lengthy list of major challenges which have been poorly handled. Trump, like Truman, deserves the nation’s thanks for aggressively taking on these problems.

Jim Van Houten