An Irishman's Diary

Kevin Stevens in defence of Barak Obama and Harry Truman.

Kevin Stevensin defence of Barak Obama and Harry Truman.

IN AN opinion piece in this newspaper last Wednesday, Vincent Browne stated that Barack Obama delivered a speech in Independence, Missouri, on July 4th, America's Independence Day. This speech, Browne wrote, "was not just another piece of kitsch, but intended also as a tribute to one of America's presidential war criminals, Harry Truman." (Truman grew up in Independence.)

Even allowing for ideological bias, this is a remarkable statement. But it is also sloppy reporting. On July 4th Obama was not in Independence, but in my home state of Montana (traditionally tough territory for Democratic presidential candidates - only two have carried the state since 1948), where he watched the Fourth of July parade in the mountain city of Butte and later attended a traditional Independence Day picnic. In his address that day he praised the Montana landscape and challenged a conservative audience with arguments for the elimination of global warming and the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

Obama, it is true, had been in Harry Truman's home town a few days earlier, on June 30th, where he delivered a speech that reflected on the meaning of patriotism. The context for his remarks was not just the approaching holiday but also the fact that, in the early stages of his campaign against former Vietnam POW John McCain, Obama has had his own patriotism questioned by Republicans many times.


Part of Obama's self-defence was the declaration of his own patriotic bona fides, using language that may sound jingoistic to a non-American audience. I would expect that a political analyst as cosmopolitan as Vincent Browne would appreciate the differences in political rhetoric from nation to nation, and the need, especially in public address, for a campaigning politician to couch statements of personal belief within the cultural frame of reference of his audience. A comparable local example might be the language an Irish politician would use at a military commemoration of the Easter Rising.

Yet in his speech Obama also argued eloquently for dissent as "one of the truest expressions of patriotism". Quoting Mark Twain, he defined patriotism as "supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it", and he presented his own dissent against the Bush administration's policy in Iraq as anything but unpatriotic, despite what his detractors have suggested.

Obama praised the sacrifice of the 1.5 million Americans who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 60,000 who have been wounded, and the 4,600 who have died. Browne interprets this praise as an "endorsement of their invasion". But Obama cautions Americans not to make the mistake that many did in the 1960s when they blamed returning soldiers for the political error of the Vietnam War.

He is not, as Browne says, supporting "the cause of domination", but quantifying the irreparable harm done by the US government to its own people. This is a government, he is saying, that does not deserve the people's support.

In fact, Obama's beliefs reside squarely within the progressive Democratic tradition best exemplified over the past 60 years by Truman. Far from being a war criminal, Truman was one of the greatest of American presidents. The debate over his decision to use atomic weapons against the Japanese is one that must continue, so important are the stakes, but there can be no doubting his integrity and courage as he weighed the awesome consequences of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Truman occupied the White House from 1945 to 1953, a period of massive domestic and international postwar turmoil. His administration saw the creation of the United Nations, the deployment of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and the recognition of the new nation states of Pakistan and Israel. He racially integrated the US military and alienated southern Democrats with the first meaningful civil rights party platform.

During the Korean War, Truman led with thoughtfulness and restraint, often making decisions that angered public opinion, including firing Gen Douglas MacArthur for insubordination. When the war reached a stalemate in the summer of 1951, Truman was prepared to offer North Korea a truce based on partition at the 38th parallel. Up to that point, over 13,000 American soldiers had been killed in the war. But North Korea, at the prompting of Joseph Stalin, demanded the repatriation of all 132,000 North Korean prisoners, even though almost half those POWs did not want to return.

Knowing that many Soviet soldiers who returned to the USSR after the second World War were executed or sent to the Gulag, Truman refused to agree to those terms, and the war dragged on for two more years, during which a further 20,000 American soldiers were killed. Within weeks of Stalin's death, Truman's successor, Dwight Eisenhower, secured an armistice on the same terms Truman had proposed.

The most important issue in the 2008 US presidential election, both for American voters and for the international community, is the war in Iraq. Obama has laid out his position very clearly, most recently in a New York Times op-ed piece on July 14th.

He will remove American troops from Iraq by the summer of 2010, begin a diplomatic offensive with nations in the region on behalf of Iraq's stability, and allocate $2 billion to an international effort to support Iraq's refugees. He names the war for what it is: "the greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy".

Harry Truman's actions showed many years ago that in a globalised nuclear world the decisions of an American president affect every nation. Not just Americans, but citizens of all countries should welcome Obama's patriotic dissent and hope he wins this crucial election.