ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
Joining us tonight for our Washington Week Bookshelf is Joe Scarborough, host of Morning Joe on MSNBC and author of the new book Saving Freedom: Truman, The Cold War and The Fight for Western Civilization. Joe, welcome.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Thank you, Bob, for having me. I appreciate it.
MR. COSTA: Joe, I have just finished your book here. It’s a terrific read. It’s an illuminating read, too, on former President Harry S. Truman. The book discusses how Truman entered politics late in life and how he was often underestimated, and he assumed the presidency just months after being tapped as vice president. It also outlines Truman’s ability to convince a weary American public to support governments in Greece and Turkey as a bulwark against Soviet communism. Truman worked with advisors like General George Marshall and even worked across the aisle with top Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg to advance foreign policy. And in the book, Joe writes that Truman’s efforts to win that support marked, quote, “the greatest ‘selling job’ of his political career. Only presidential leadership of the most vigorous character could marshal the necessary support to pull reluctant Democrats and Republicans to his side.” Joe, what drew you to Truman? I was struck by the New York Times review of your book, too, about how you talk about in this book and it’s so evident the agency of politicians, how history is made not just by the currents of social change and different dynamics and events but by people in power.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Well, you know, we always talk about the great men, and you’re right, it’s something that I took from the New York Times review of the book that we’re always so taken by the wise men of Washington. You know, I had such great respect and admiration for Mika’s dad, Dr. Brzezinski, and you go back to the people that were around Harry Truman and we always talk about the wise men – the General George Marshalls, the Dean Acheson, the George Kennan, of course Averell Harriman, the Clark Cliffords, the men who – and it was men at that time – who dominated Washington, D.C. and provided wise counsel to presidents, often in both parties. But what made Harry Truman’s fight to pass the Truman doctrine, to pass the Marshall Plan, to get NATO approved, and even to mastermind the Berlin Airlift was his ability to reach across the aisle. And for Harry Truman, this guy that started as a machine politician in Kansas City, Missouri, to work with Arthur Vandenberg, an avowed isolationist and a Republican who had spent his life growing up in Grand Rapids, and had also just been obsessed with the nuts and bolts of politics, and they were able to get together and figure out a way to move not only the Republican Party beyond an isolationist stance that it had had for a century but also to move the entire country away from an isolationist stance that the – that the United States of America had adopted since George Washington’s Farewell Address when he warned, when he was leaving the White House, against America getting involved in foreign entanglements. It really didn’t matter how many wise men Harry Truman had around him; what mattered was he knew how the Senate worked, he knew how to reach out to Arthur Vandenberg. He even knew at the end how to get Robert Taft, Mr. Republican – an avowed, dyed-in-the-wool isolationist – to support this radical approach to foreign policy that suggested that the United States had to stay engaged in the world to beat Soviet communism, to stop Stalin in his tracks, and they needed to do it even in peacetime two years after the greatest war in American history had just ended.
MR. COSTA: Joe, what did you learn in your research and writing about how some of those world leaders – Stalin, but also allies – saw this new president, Harry Truman?
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Well, it’s interesting, Harry Truman was underestimated by everybody from the start. When he decided to run for the United States Senate, the only reason he got the chance was because the party boss in his area wanted four other men to go in front of him and they all said they wouldn’t run the race because they didn’t think it was winnable. Truman jumped in, won by a few thousand votes, and went to the United States Senate, was dismissed as a rube by The New York Times. Six years later he ran for reelection against a popular governor. People again were sure he was going to lose. FDR wouldn’t even endorse him and he was considered dead in the water, and yet he ended up winning that race as well. Four years later, the same FDR that refused to endorse him reluctantly picked him to be his vice president because Roosevelt knew he was dying and also knew that the Democratic Party was concerned about Henry Wallace replacing him as president of the United States. In fact, he was so sure that he was dying that he told Truman during the campaign, hey, don’t fly on airplanes; one of us has to stay alive. And sure enough, three months into his term – and in those three months he’d only met with his vice president twice – FDR died in April of 1945, and there was Harry Truman, considered a country bumpkin, a rube, not up to the task, having to make I think over the next two to three years some of the most momentous decisions that any president ever had to make. He made those decisions. Some of them weren’t popular, but he pulled Republicans along. And though he left the White House after eight years with a 22 percent approval rating, Winston Churchill said of him: “Of all men, none have done more to save Western civilization than Harry Truman.” And I think at the end of Truman’s term, that’s what most world leaders thought about him.
MR. COSTA: So he’s underestimated and he’s, of course, far more than how he’s portrayed by some of his critics at that time, but Joe, what drove him? I mean, I’ve read your book and it’s clear he had a code about the country. He had been someone who served in the military. What, in your learning and study of him, really came through about what drove him and his belief in the idea of Western civilization, the West, and a U.S. presence in the world?
MR. SCARBOROUGH: He thought that the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was straightforward and simple: It was good against evil, just like the fight against Adolf Hitler was good against evil. And that’s how he – that’s how he viewed it. And he understood that at times the United States was going to have to do things that were going to be difficult, even – and I think it’s very appropriate that the first test case for the Truman doctrine, where the United States said anytime a free country is being threatened by the Soviet Union, by communism, we’re going to step in and we’re going to defend that nation. But the first – our first chance to do that was in Greece and it wasn’t clean cut. The Greek government was right-wing. They had committed violence against the Greek people. But the choice between that right-wing government in Greece and the communist rebels in Greece wasn’t much of a choice at all; the communists were even more violent and Joseph Stalin was waiting to watch that government collapse in Greece so he could move in in Greece. That would isolate Turkey, who would be next, and then he’d be able to move on Iran and control the Eastern Mediterranean. That was – that was something that Harry Truman and George Marshall and Dean Acheson knew could not happen.
MR. COSTA: Some of these issues – Iran – they still hover over presidential politics, and Joe, you’ve written about what President-elect Joe Biden could learn from Truman. Both were men who grew up of relatively modest means. Both served as vice president to transcendent political figures, FDR and President Obama. And Biden, like Truman, as you said, will inherit the U.S. at the back end of an American crisis. So what does Truman’s experience tell us about what Biden might do?
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Well, what the Truman experience tells us is there’s no substitute for political experience. We keep electing presidents in this country that don’t really like Washington, D.C., don’t understand how Congress really works. Donald Trump had contempt for Congress. Barack Obama got to the United States Senate and it was so obvious that he didn’t like being there that soon after he got there Harry Reid called him in and said it’s obvious you’re never going to enjoy being here; why don’t you just run for president. And George W. Bush, as well, had very little use for the legislative branch. But in Harry Truman and in Joe Biden you had two creatures of the United States Senate who actually loved dealmaking. They loved working with their colleagues. They respected Republicans and Democrats alike, even though they could be tough. You know, and I’m sure you heard this too, Bob, I heard time and again from Republicans that every time they needed to talk to the Obama administration they ended up going to Joe Biden. Any time Mitch McConnell wanted to try to get something done, he ended up going to Joe Biden. Biden was a dealmaker. Again, Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, are they best of friends? No, they never were best of friends, but they’re from the same institution, they love that institution, and they understand how to get things done. They also, Bob, understand how to count votes, just like Harry Truman understood how to count votes. Truman knew that his success in the Senate ran through Arthur Vandenberg so he worked Vandenberg nonstop. He’d have his staff members drive over to Vandenberg’s Washington townhouse, Georgetown townhouse, late at night after they’d finished working to keep him updated and briefed on the events of the day and what they were doing in drafting the legislation. Joe Biden knows that’s going to be necessary. And he if can’t make peace with Mitch McConnell, well, he’s got three, four, five other Republicans who are going to want to make a deal, like this COVID – this COVID relief act is showing us. And a good number of moderate Democrats who also will join together in this growing moderate coalition that seems really just custom-built for bipartisan legislation, the types of which Joe Biden would love to pass.
MR. COSTA: In reading this book, Joe, you just made the point about Senator Vandenberg. I had forgotten about him and his role in a lot of this. And it was a reminder to me, as an amateur student of history, that the Republican party has not always been the party of interventionism and George W. Bush. It was the party of isolationism and Arthur Vandenberg for decades. And does that tell us a little bit about how President Trump was able to rise in American politics? Maybe he was hitting on a strain of something that was always there.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Yeah, maybe he was. You know, the United States committed 3 million men to World War I. We lost over 100,000 soldiers and sailors and Marines during that battle. And after World War I we came back home. Woodrow Wilson tried to get the United States engaged in the League of Nations. He tried to get the United States engaged after the Versailles peace accords in 1919. And it was Henry Cabot Lodge and the Senate Republicans who refused to move, were not going to meet him halfway, were not interested in getting involved with more European problems. And so we retreated back into isolationism. And it was in that power vacuum that Adolf Hitler was able to build his armies and able to start yet another war.
Arthur Vandenberg understood – learned from those lessons and understood that the Republican Party had to move forward and had to stay engaged in the world. And he even got Robert Taft to come along for the ride. I think what’s so remarkable, and one of the reasons I had a picture of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan in my office even though I was a very conservative small-government Republican – you know, people would look at the picture when they came to my congressional office of Ronald Reagan and they understood why that was there. They didn’t understand Harry Truman. I told him it was in part that Truman started the Cold War, Reagan ended the Cold War, along with George H.W. Bush. But it was Harry Truman who had the more difficult challenge of actually building these structures that would really govern our international affairs over the – over the next 40, 50, 60 years, until the downfall of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day in 1991.
And think about how we not only change American foreign policy, he changed the way Republicans looked at the world. Because his replacement was not an isolationist. There were isolationists who ran against Dwight Eisenhower, Taft ran against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. But it was Ike who came in. Ike, the Republican internationalist who came in. And actually even though he and Truman had a very frosty relationship, Dwight Eisenhower picked up where Harry Truman left off, and he moved forward with much of the foreign policy apparatus that Truman had built during his eight years in the White House. And of course, after that Kennedy adopted it, then LBJ, then Nixon, all the way through Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It really is a great story of bipartisanship.
MR. COSTA: It’s a great point. I mean, we always hear, oh, there’s this consensus after World War II, a consensus in American foreign policy. But people have to drive consensus. And as you just said, Truman to Eisenhower, Eisenhower to Kennedy, to Johnson, to Nixon, the internationalist Republican. Truman’s at the start there, along with, of course, Roosevelt.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Right. Yeah, exactly. And I have a chapter called “Personnel is Policy.” Well, you could say the same thing about presidents. You know, but the thing is, yes, Americans got engaged in the world when we got attacked at Pearl Harbor. Just like Americans got engaged in World War I when the Germans continued to provoke the United States. But would go to war, would win the war, would come home, would become isolationists again. This was the first time, in 1947, that the United States decided proactively to be engaged in the world during peacetime. I think that’s what made such a big difference with what Harry Truman did with the Truman doctrine.
MR. COSTA: Joe, congratulations again on this book, Saving Freedom. Really enjoyed reading it. It’s a nice break from modern politics, but also has a lot of lessons for modern politics. So thanks, again.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Thank you, Bob. Really kind of you to let me come on the show and talk about the book. I really appreciate it.
MR. COSTA: No, I don’t know where you find the time to write, Joe. It’s great. So thank you for being here.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Thank you. All right. Thanks.
MR. COSTA: See you soon. Thank you.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: All right.
MR. COSTA: And thank you all for joining us here on our Washington Week Extra. Really appreciate it. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We’ll give you an inside look into all things politics. You’ll also receive a note from me.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night.