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General Mattis underscores the importance of Truman's character

By Jeff Fox

Gen. James Mattis, a Marine for 44 years and later U.S. secretary of defense, said it was the character of Harry Truman that mattered greatly when he became president 75 years ago in a world shattered by war and facing a deeply uncertain future.

“For he proved strong enough to do the hard right and not the easy wrong,” Mattis said Thursday evening.

Mattis, who won a Bronze Star for valor in Persian Gulf War and who was President Trump’s secretary of defense for two years, spoke at the annual Wild About Harry event. He was given the Truman Library Institute’s Legacy of Leadership Award. That goes to someone in public life who has shown Truman’s traits that the institute describes as courage, wisdom, forethought, humility and assuming responsibility for one’s actions. Past winners have included Gen. Richard Meyers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and, three years ago, Congressman James Clyburn and the late Congressman John Lewis.

Mattis said the decisions Truman faced when he came into office – decisions surrounding ending World War II in Europe and then the Pacific, working to shape the post-war period, launching the United Nations, the transition to a peacetime economy – “still stun me.”

“It’s the toughest job in the world – no doubt about it,” he said regarding the presidency.

Truman read avidly and deeply and had what Mattis called “the equivalent of a PhD in history,” and he coupled that with his own experiences – failures and successes alike – to become a leader in the service of his community, state, county and, ultimately, the world, Mattis said.

“Truman’s devotion to our country carried him to the trenches of World War I, where he served on the front lines,” Mattis underlined.

Despite his success in politics, Truman never fell prey to a particular Washington affliction that Mattis called “big-guy-itis.”

“He never forgot that he was also president to those who had not voted for him,” he said

Mattis singled out Truman’s work to establish the U.N., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are credited with producing stability and prosperity around the world in the decades after the war.

Truman also did something an American president didn’t have to do. America could have disengaged and left Western Europe to its fate with a hostile Soviet Union, Mattis said. Instead, America under Truman joined and led NATO, committing American lives to the security of others.

And this: Years after leaving office, Mattis noted, the 33rd president once said the thing he was most proud of was getting enemies against whom America had fought bitterly – German, Italy, Japan – back into the community of nations.

“Harry Truman fought for our country,” Mattis said, “but he also put it on a trajectory to listen to its better angels. We’re better for it.”

Wild About Harry is a major fundraiser for the Truman Library Institute, a private group that supports Truman Library programs. The gala is normally held in April and fills the Grand Ballroom at the Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City, a room with strong Truman connections from when he was in public life on down to today.

But the pandemic has scrambled everything. The gala was delayed, and on Thursday only a small number of people – speakers, emcee Rex Hudler, others – gathered. Others watched the event streamed live.