Halcyon days, when Americans were Americans

By that I mean, when Americans were Americans first, as opposed to seeing themselves as Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives or Tea Partiers or what have you.

This fit of nostalgia was prompted by reading a book review in The Wall Street Journal today, of a book titled Harry & Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg and the Partnership That Created the Free World. After noting that upon the death of FDR, many (including the new president himself) doubted that Harry Truman was up to the job, the review continues:

Watching from the Senate, Republican Arthur Vandenberg wrote to the new president with words of encouragement. “Good luck and God bless you,” he said. “Let me help you whenever I can. America marches on.” In his diary, he was more pensive: “The gravest question-mark in every American heart is about Truman. Can he swing the job?” To which the optimistic answer came, “Despite his limited capacities, I believe he can.”download (2)

Those words seem extraordinary today. The Republicans had not won a national election since 1928. Roosevelt had ridden roughshod over them in Congress with his New Deal, broke the tradition of serving only two terms and fashioned a liberal Supreme Court. After 12 years of humiliation and defeat, FDR’s death could have provided Republicans with an opportunity to get on the front foot, to take advantage of an inexperienced and uncharismatic new president. And yet here was Vandenberg, one of the leading Republicans in the Senate, saying not only that he believed the man could overcome his limitations but also that he would do everything he could to help him.

Lawrence J. Haas’s “Harry & Arthur” is thus a story of bipartisanship at work. The subtitle, “Truman, Vandenberg and the Partnership That Created the Free World,” seems at first sight hyperbolic, at least concerning Vandenberg, but Mr. Haas makes an excellent case that Truman’s worldview could not have been implemented without the senator from Michigan. The two men shared a vision for America in the world and over the next six years, until the senator’s death from lung cancer in 1951, set about putting it place. Even a short list demonstrates the revolution in global strategy that would take place during the Truman years: the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, NATO, the U.N. Charter, not to mention the creation of the CIA, the Defense Department and the U.S. Air Force.

Those were indeed the days, when such alliances were possible…

48 thoughts on “Halcyon days, when Americans were Americans

  1. clark surratt

    When I see any era called the ‘halcyon days,” I look back at the big picture. These two operated in an era when mainly old and middle aged men made all major decisions. There was no diversity. Blacks in the U.S, not just the South, had very little of any voice in anything. Neither did women. Black poverty (I lived among it) and mistreatment was horrible. This was 15 years before your basic Civil Rights Act. Many people recall all kinds of “good old days,” but to me they must be fully measured. Even with its chaos, I will take today.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Clark, I think I was pretty clear about WHAT I was celebrating about that time. And it was real, and it was better.

      You forget that the period involved including the integration of the armed forces, just for starters.

      This was the generation that presided over an expansion of social justice that puts us or any other period to shame. You know why? Because they were a can-do generation, having won the BIG war, and they did care more about acting together for the good of ALL the nation — define that however you wish, demographically — than anything we’ve seen in the last 30 years of increasing pettiness.

      Take a look, for instance, at the achievements of LBJ in office. The federal government hasn’t accomplished that much in my adult lifetime. Seriously, what have been the accomplishments of the last, say, 20 years? Let’s see, we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and, um, passed that halfway legislation called Obamacare (which one of the two major parties is obsessively devoted to undoing).

      Where and when have our political branches stepped forward to make this a better country in this generation? All they do now is propose things that the other side opposes, and then run against them for having opposed them.

      Dismissing the accomplishments of those who went before us with “oh, they were a bunch of old white guys, so never mind” really trivializes history and misses the point.

      They did more good than we manage to do today. Period.

      1. bud

        Seriously, what have been the accomplishments of the last, say, 20 years?

        1. Biggest health care expansion since Medicare.
        2. Implementation of policies expanding the rights of the LGBT community.
        3. Agreement with Iran on nuclear issues.
        4. Opening of relations with Cuba.
        5. Huge expansion of renewable energy resources.
        6. Numerous international health initiatives against AIDS, Ebola and Zika.
        7. The continued integration of former enemies into the world of nations, esp Vietnam and China.
        8. A decline of excessive birth rates to sustainable levels in most of the world.
        9. Continued international cooperation in space exploration.
        10. International cooperation in the fight against climate change.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I’m not terribly impressed.

          I mean, I could take it point by point — Cuba was open in Truman’s day, if you think things are hunky-dory with China you need to look harder, the value of the Iranian agreement is highly debatable — but add them up as you will, they come nowhere near what Truman or LBJ accomplished. They acted on a grander scale.

          1. bud

            Cuba was open in Truman’s day.

            But lost later in the “halcyon era. Have to include failures as well as successes.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      By the way, I knew that someone — though I thought it would be Bud, not Clark — would chime in with the “the old days were bad, because only old white guys had any say” argument. I knew it as soon as I typed “halcyon days.”

      But I wrote what I wrote, because what I wrote was true.

      There’s a cognitive dichotomy here that may be as stark as the one between numbers people and word people, or libertarians and communitarians. There are people who look at the past and see only what was wrong with that time, and there are those like me who immediately see the things that were better, the things that have been lost.

      Sort of a half-glass of water thing.

      The fact is, the good stuff was real, and so was the bad. What gets me is when I run into people who want to disqualify all of the good because of the bad. That makes no sense to me; it’s not a balanced way of looking at things.

      Every period has something to recommend it. If you lived in Britain during the Regency period, you were practically invisible, not to mention powerless, if you weren’t one of the landed gentry — completely true. But I read O’Brian and Austen, and lament the loss of civility that characterized the time.

      Our Civil War was the moment when party politics became the bloodiest conflict of our history, but my God — look at the noble result. And look at how Lincoln managed to express in words, and then in actions, what was best about this country.

      Yeah, I know — I sound like Miniver Cheevy. But I’m a student of history, and I can usually find something to admire in the people I read about.

      Also… I don’t really subscribe to the notion that many modern people seem to internalize without doing it consciously — that we are somehow better because we live now instead of in bygone days. People were just as good, and bad, in the past as they are today. Every one of us, regardless of when we live, has an equal opportunity to be a good person and do the right thing.

      Although, all of that said, it does seem that the social dynamics in the 40s, 50s and 60s were more conducive to our best efforts actually bearing fruit than they are today, because there was a greater, broader willingness to work together…

    3. Brad Warthen

      Think of it this way: Try to imagine this country TODAY bringing forth anything as wise, as farsighted, as GENEROUS as the Marshall Plan.

      I can’t. All I can see is the lowest-common-denominator objections from both the right and the left — the right objecting to doing all that for foreigners (and recently hostile foreigners at that), and the left demanding that we rebuild THIS country first. Can you hear them? I can…

      1. Doug Ross

        “the right objecting to doing all that for foreigners (and recently hostile foreigners at that), and the left demanding that we rebuild THIS country first. Can you hear them? I can…”

        Because they’d be correct. The Marshall Plan cost approximately $130 Billion in today’s dollars over 4 years (about 33 billion per year). In 2014 alone, government foreign aid was $41 billion. That doesn’t include the billions we spend on military actions in other countries.

        So it’s not like we’re isolationists… and what are we getting in return?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          So basically, what Doug seems to be saying is that if HE had been in charge in the late 40s, he’d have followed the course that led to Hitler’s rise after the first war.

          That, by the way, is how you measure what is gained, Doug. You can see what Germany became without a Marshall Plan, and compare that to what it became WITH the Marshall Plan — a liberal democracy and a steady, strong, reliable partner in trade and, most importantly, collective security.

          1. Doug Ross

            No, I am referring to Brad’s assertion that the left and right would be opposed to the Marshall Plan when the fact say we spend MORE money on foreign aid now per year than the Marsall Plan did. And that doesn’t include the $71 billion giving by private American organizations to foreign countries. So in one year we provide as much aid to foreign countries as the Marshall Plan did in total.

            I know America in the 50’s was pure and good and right but it really wasn’t any better than today. If you are black, Hispanic, female, or gay (or any combination of them), there hasn’t been a better time to be in America. If you were sick with cancer, you wouldn’t want to live in 1950. I’ll take today over some fairy tale version of the past.

            Brad likes things that are global and military-related. That’s a product of his upbringing. Had he been raised a poor black child like Navin Johnson, he might have a different view of the 50’s.

            1. Doug Ross

              “According to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report published in October 2007, the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost taxpayers a total of $2.4 trillion by 2017 when counting the huge interest costs because combat is being financed with borrowed money. The CBO estimated that of the $2.4 trillion long-term price tag for the war, about $1.9 trillion of that would be spent on Iraq, or $6,300 per U.S. citizen.”

              Did we get a great deal or what? Look at all the goodwill and peace that came about for that “investment”. Sure it was only 20 times the size of the Marshall Plan…

            2. Scout

              Also would not have been great to be a kid with special needs in the 50’s. No free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities. That happened in 1976.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            It’s amazing how willfully people miss the point when you point out that there was something about the past that was obviously, staggeringly obviously, better than today.

            They always, always, ALWAYS trot out race and gender, like that negates everything good about the past.

            Which is absolutely ridiculous.

            Let me tell you something about the ’40s through the ’60s — that was the time in which our society made gains in social justice that would be impossible today. Because we WERE a better, more generous, more self-confident country then than we are now.

            And I just don’t see how people don’t see that…

            1. Doug Ross

              We don’t see it because it isn’t true… and just realize that ANY gains that were made in the 60’s were done by fighting the attitudes of the supposed “greatest generation” that held minorities, women, and homosexuals down.

              At which point in the 60’s was it so much better to be a black person in the South?

              1. Doug Ross

                You make it sound like everyone just came together and realized that social justice was something we all needed to work on. It was a freakin’ BATTLE that was worse than any Trump rally today (where a woman who got her arm grabbed was the lead story for days). Students at Kent State were SHOT! Martin Luther King was assassinated. Blacks were lynched. It was worse every single day than whatever went on in Ferguson.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Yep. Evil people did evil things. And the American consensus was to react to that by enacting radical change to make this a more just society.

                  Another thing that is starkly obvious…

                2. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Oh, and on the McCarthy vs. Cruz question? If Cruz becomes president (through some Clinton implosion in the fall), Cruz will obviously be the worse thing for America.

                  As committee chairman, McCarthy had power, but nothing compared to the potential for harm of a President Cruz.

                  And I don’t know about you, but in the ’50s and ’60s I grew up in an America that had utterly rejected McCarthyism, and saw his actions as essentially un-American. He was censured by the Senate while in office, and his influence quickly waned.

                  By contrast, we see Cruz on the verge of capturing the GOP nomination at the convention.

                  So yeah, Cruz is a greater danger to the country.

                3. Doug Ross

                  What would/could Ted Cruz do specifically that would be a danger? Repeal Obamacare? Attempt to enforce some type of fiscal sanity on government spending? Try to incrementally limit Roe v Wade? Enforce laws against illegal immigration?

                  What’s the worst thing he could do as President that would compare to overseeing a witch hunt against American citizens based on their political beliefs and sexual orientation? I’d love to hear the worst case scenario.

                4. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Well, for one thing, he could launch “a witch hunt against American citizens based on their political beliefs and sexual orientation” — or their religion, or national origin. And it would have far greater impact than anything a senator could do.

                  Then, you know, there’s carpet-bombing, which a mere senator has no power to launch…

                  Need I go on?

                5. Doug Ross

                  He’s not going to carpet bomb anything. When did you start believing what politicians say during campaigns?

                  And you think Cruz would be able to orchestrate a McCarthy style campaign in this day and age? Please.

                  He’ll be no worse than George Bush. If you didn’t consider that a dangerous situation, Cruz will be no worse.

                6. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Doug, if you think a Bush, any Bush (Prescott, H.W., W. or Jeb), is anything like Cruz, I don’t know what to say.

                  And FYI, he IS to some extent running “a McCarthy-style campaign,” and succeeding with it. Note my link above to his statement about Muslim neighborhoods…

  2. bud

    Brad you need to check out the Tuskegee syphillis experiment. That American horror story ran for 40 years (1932-1972) during the so called “halcyon” days of American good governance. Only after the end of that grand era did this atrocity by our government end. Take off those rose colored glasses and take a fresh look at how our national affairs were really conducted. You’ll quickly see that today’s political discourse is not all that bad.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Bud, you need to get over your W thing. It blinds you to the obvious.

      Cruz is the most extreme right-winger to get anywhere near the White House since George Wallace. And fortunately, Wallace didn’t get nearly as close, because despite all the turmoil of those times, the electorate was saner…

      1. bud

        Fair enough. We won’t really know how Cruz will do until he has the job. But we do know W was really, really awful. Easily the worst since WW2.

      2. Doug Ross

        “Cruz is the most extreme right-winger to get anywhere near the White House since George Wallace.”

        You’re going off the reservation with your hyperbole. To equate Cruz with George Wallace is just plain crazy. Yes, he’s a conservative. I don’t agree with his social issue views but do you really think he could possibly do anything remotely close to what he talks about? Was Obama able to deliver on any of the epic transformation he ran on? Nope – other than the trainwreck of Obamacare (which was really just about insurance), he’s been pretty dull.

        You just have this thing for illegal immigrants getting amnesty that colors your perception of candidates. If the worst thing Ted Cruz does is make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to enter or remain in the U.S., that’s not going to be considered a bad thing by 45-48% of the American voters… and it’s nothing like George Wallace’s actions that were directed at black citizens.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Doug, three things:

          — I said “since George Wallace.” I didn’t say he was on the same level. I’m saying there hasn’t been anyone that right-wing get this far SINCE Wallace. And that’s true (if you believe Wallace got this far, which may be the real flaw in the comparison). Goldwater was before Wallace, remember.

          — Wallace the presidential candidate wasn’t nearly as extreme as Wallace the governor. You’re not old enough to remember. I just barely am.

          — It’s not about immigration or any one issue. Extremism is sort of his default setting. He is, shall we say, intemperate, and desperate to get to the right of everybody on everything. Do you remember, for instance, “Making Machine-Gun Bacon with Ted Cruz“?

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Of course, that’s not even a machine gun on the video, and it wasn’t firing on full auto.

            Perhaps that’s another case of him using extreme rhetoric — saying, for instance, “carpet-bombing” — but not exactly meaning what he says.

            But that in and of itself is the problem. It would be extraordinarily dangerous to have a president who went out of his way to say he’s going to do even more extreme things that he’s really prepared to do…

            1. Bryan Caskey

              “Of course, that’s not even a machine gun on the video, and it wasn’t firing on full auto.”

              Bless you, my child. In a world rife with misstatements about firearms, I do so enjoy an accurate statement.

            2. Doug Ross

              “. It would be extraordinarily dangerous to have a president who went out of his way to say he’s going to do even more extreme things that he’s really prepared to do…”

              You mean like these (from a guy who won in a landslide election)?

              “I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantánamo, and I will follow through on that.”

              “For the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.””

              “If you have health care, my plan will lower your premiums. If you don’t, you’ll be able to get the same kind of coverage that members of Congress give themselves.”

              “We will end this war in Iraq. We will bring our troops home. We will finish the job—we will finish the job against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

              “I can guarantee that we will have, in the first year, an immigration bill that I strongly support.”

              ” We can make sure that criminals don’t have guns in their hands. We can make certain that those who are mentally deranged are not getting a hold of handguns. We can trace guns that have been used in crimes to unscrupulous gun dealers that may be selling to straw purchasers and dumping them on the streets.”

              1. Doug Ross

                By the way, this promise might have a grain of truth in it: ““If you have health care, my plan will lower your premiums.”

                He didn’t mention increasing co-pays and deductibles. I don’t know about anyone else, but my medical insurance costs have not decreased since Obamacare was implemented. And my drug co-pays have gone from $15 to $38.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I don’t know about you, Doug, but increases like that have been pretty standard, year after year, across all the years I had group health insurance through newspapers.

                  When I started in 1975, health insurance cost me practically nothing and paid for practically everything. Then, every year at open-enrollment time, I’d go into the info meeting bracing myself to find out what we were about to lose, and how much more it was going to cost…

                2. Bryan Caskey

                  My biggest objection to how things have played out is that I can no longer buy the sort of health insurance policy that I want to. I can’t buy the high-deductible catistrphoic plan that I used to have. It literally was phased out. A private company (my insurer) and I had reached an agreement about the coverage that I wanted and the amount I would pay.

                  Then, the ACA comes in and the government tells my insurer that they can’t sell me that policy anymore. It’s such a “we know better than you what’s good for you” type of attitude that I simply cannot stand. I just wanted a little four cylinder Honda Civic, but the ACA made it where I have to buy a Cadillac.

                  But yeah, in general, the price of things goes up over time. It’s called inflation. Some things experience inflation at different rates. Like college tuition and health care. What do both of them have in common?

                3. Doug Ross

                  Obama said he would lower premiums. Did he lie or did he fail? Is healthcare affordable now? Does it appear to be heading toward affordability?

                4. Doug Ross

                  Isn’t it rather unsurprising that adding sicker people who didn’t have insurance into the risk pool would raise rates for everyone else?

                  I wonder what kind of increases the plan that covers the President and Congress has experienced since Obamacare was implemented.

                5. Doug Ross

                  In the end, Obamacare was about two things: 1) allowing anyone to get insurance and 2) getting “rich” people to pay for the healthcare of others.

                  The biggest mistake they made was creating the state exchanges instead of having a single national exchange with just a couple plans. Simplicity and efficiency are never considered when the government is involved.

                6. Doug Ross

                  And if something consistently increases in price more than the inflation rate there is probably something going on that artificially impacts the supply/demand curve. Regulations, tax code, patents, law suits…

                7. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I’ve always thought it was mainly market forces at work.

                  As medicine got better, people lived longer. As they lived longer, they had more ailments to treat, and their care cost more.

                  Used to be, people got sick and died. Now, they live on for years and even decades.

                  Also, even with younger folks, the drug industry changed.

                  I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve had asthma all my life. When I was a kid, there were drugs you could take when you had an attack, and that’s the only time you took them.

                  Now, I take multiple drugs daily to keep asthma and allergies at bay. They WORK most of the time, which is great. But I have to keep taking them. If I stop, I get sick.

                  It’s an expensive proposition…

                8. Doug Ross

                  NY Times:

                  “The top 5 percent of such patients (elderly, critical care) account for nearly half of spending (more than $600 billion a year), and the cost per capita of 1 percent of such patients is $90,000 compared with $236 per capita of the bottom 50 percent.”

                  Way too much Medicare money is spent on critical care where the outcomes are not good but families are unwilling to deal with the quality of life questions especially when the cost is covered by the government.

  3. Karen Pearson

    Will ya’ll please calm down? There are always good and bad things about any era–things to celebrate and things to condemn. The problem is not so often the times as the extremes (consider McCarthyism, the Black Panthers, etc). Let’s at least try to reason, rather than attack each other.

  4. Bob Amundson

    Agreed Karen; it is a matter of perspective. I can easily see both points of view. This type of discourse is one reason why change is difficult.

  5. Lynn Teague

    I don’t recall most of the “Greatest Generation” being all that enthusiastic about doing the right thing in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They generally allowed people, usually young people, to be killed in the streets before deciding to respond to the need for progress on civil rights or ending the Vietnam War.

  6. Mark Stewart

    America’s best days are ahead of us.

    They won’t be perfect, but they will be better than what we have had. That improvement doesn’t just happen; it requires our personal and societal dedication to striving forward. It’s Monday morning, make something of the day; push forward.

    We will have peaks and we will have valleys. Will will regress in some way just as we achieve another kind of milestone success. The question is, what does the trendline look like? Did we leave our country, community and family in better places than when we arrived into each?

    Build. Change. Create. Learn from the past and welcome the future. Make it count.

    1. Bob Amundson

      Realistic Optimism; Enlightened Self-Interest; Servant Leadership. The Biblical Armageddon has already happened (the fall of the Roman Empire). We are now in a safer (less violent) world, with income inequality manifested in extreme poverty being addressed. I agree with Mark; the trend line has a positive slope.


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