The actions President Truman took in the years immediately after World War II – including aid to rebuild Europe, the NATO military alliance, pressing for free elections and reinvigorated democracies abroad and civil rights at home – add up to a legacy that shapes the world today, says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“But it would be a mistake for America to walk away from all Truman and his generation built,” Albright said at Thursday night’s annual Wild About Harry dinner, a fundraiser for the Truman Library Institute.
The event drew a record crowd and filled the ballroom at the Muehlebach Tower in downtown Kansas City. It raised $560,000 for programs at the Truman Library in Independence.
“It is amazing to look out on this and see 860 of you,” Truman’s grandson Clifton Daniel said, adding that Albright is among those who have carried on the 33rd president’s “noble fight for human rights and dignity.” She was given the institute’s annual Legacy of Leadership Award.
Also, the institute announced it’s raised $20 million toward its goal of $25 million to renovate and expand the Truman Library, a project that’s expected to start sometime in the coming weeks.
Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, came to America as a refugee. Her family fled Czechoslovakia – first from Hitler, then Stalin. She was 11 when they arrived in America, right around the time Truman won the 1948 presidential election.
“And that election hooked me on politics, and that’s because of Harry Truman,” she said.
She said Truman’s decision to keep America firmly involved in world affairs after World War II has paid rich dividends for the country and its leadership has been good for the world.
“Looking ahead, we realize we need that kind of leadership again,” she said. “When American has gone off track, it is often because we ignore the balance that President Truman brought to international policy – a balance between lofty ideals and practical means.”
“Truman,” she continued, “was enough of a skeptic to understand that there are limits to what any nation, or for that matter any generation, can achieve. But he was also convinced that power should be used and that if we fail to act on our values, others would act on theirs, leaving our children and grandchildren to deal with the consequences.”
She stressed that Truman stood for democracy “and against a rising authoritarian and nationalistic tide,” but she also warned that democracy – though stable and strong – can be perishable.
People need to be “more than consumers of liberty but also contributors and sustainers of it.”
“Democracy,” she said, “depends on the quality of citizens.”
Albright drew a telling distinction between America and other countries. In most countries, refugees are warmly welcomed, supported – and asked when they are leaving. In America, a refugee is welcomed, supported and then asked, what can we do to help you adjust to your new life – a line that drew hearty applause.
Albright was in office when the State Department building in Washington, D.C., was named for Truman.
“The Harry S. Truman State Department Building still has a great ring to it,” she said. “It’s there in stone. It can’t be taken away,”