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Chapter Seventeen Nadir After a year or so of the Korean War, it is sad to relate, Harry Truman came close to losing control of the government of the United States. A Gallup poll in November 1951 found that his countrymen, when asked whether they approved or disapproved of his presidency, awarded him less than one-fourth approval; his rating was 23 percent, one point lower than President Nixon received just before being forced out of office in 1974. A good bit of the critical judgment came because the Korean War had failed to come to an end. It went on month after month, sometimes (when the Chinese wanted to make a point) turning into hard fighting along the entrenched positions across the middle of the peninsula. Half of the American deaths during the war (the total number of deaths was 54,246, with 33,629 killed in battle) occurred during this time. MacArthur's dismissal added to the criticism. But beyond these matters the president permitted trouble with his military aide, General Vaughan, together with contentions over the Reconstruction Finance Corporation , and several poor appointments in the always sensitive Bureau of Internal Revenue, to get out of hand. Things came to such a pass that he dismissed his attorney general, Howard McGrath, as a scapegoat, although McGrath, a charming Irishman, a little bibulous and lazy, was incapable of carrying presidential sins into the wilderness. Nor was that all; in the spring of 1952 the threat of a steel strike over a few cents an hour for union workers persuaded him to seize the mills under the "inherent powers" of the president as commander-in-chief. He failed to anticipate the judgment of the Supreme Court, which was against inherent powers. Everything came down to the presidential election that year, and the president's enemies turned it into a referendum on the administration. With the Republicans' nomination of a national monument, Eisenhower, the outcome was not in doubt. The defeat of the Democratic candidate, Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, became the defeat of the administration. Perhaps the basic problem, the cause of it all, was that Truman was 358 359 / Nadir getting tired. He had too much on his mind-too many duties, foreign and domestic, not to mention ceremonial duties. John Hersey followed him around for a short time in 1951, the same year as the low rating, in preparation for a profile in the New Yorker, and described how he was "making his diurnal way through the thickets of power-the rank, trackless, strangely beautiful tangles of dreadful responsibilities and pompous trivialities through which he was obliged to move."l In 1951-1952 he was getting on in years, near the end of his sixties. When the nation entered the Korean War and the Chinese intervened he had shown a steely willingness to carry things through, far more resolution than most Americans who were willing, so they told the poll takers, to pull the troops out of Korea. In European affairs he challenged the Soviets by sending four more divisions to NATO. But he had been "taking it," to use one of his favorite phrases, too long, and a series of misestimates in domestic affairs brought an inglorious end to his presidency. 1 The "mess in Washington," as Stevenson witlessly described several domestic contentions in the Truman administration's second term, was the sort of political mess that contained too many errors of judgment to dismiss and yet was basically about minor or irrelevant matters. Stevenson used the phrase when answering a questioner who had asked about the situation. 'As for the mess in Washington," the candidate began. With that he placed his foot neatly where it should not have been. By popular wisdom, the phrase referred to the so-called five percenters, individuals in Washington who arranged government contracts for businessmen and charged five percent plus a downpayment and monthly retainer; it referred to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), particularly its chief examiner, E. Merl Young, who after leaving the agency gave his wife a mink coat that cost $9,540, paid for by a lawyer for a firm seeking an RFC loan; it referred to the Bureau of Internal Revenue, where several collectors, including an appointee in St. Louis, used their offices to enrich themselves; it referred to the culmination of all this when the president had to dismiss an attorney general whose career had assisted his own, who had served as chairman of the...


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