Bill Moeller Commentary: Reevaluating a Maligned President


I’ve had a quotation in my file cabinet for years now, and a note I wrote on it shows that I already included it in a column once, but recent action tells me it bears repeating.

“I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he had taken a poll in Israel? Where would the reformation have gone if Martin Luther had taken a poll? It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It is right and wrong and leadership — men with fortitude, honesty and a belief in the right that makes epochs in the history of the world.”

Harry Truman wrote those words.

The only thing lacking in that statement — made over a half century ago — is that it didn’t say “men and women with fortitude.”

Many people today consider Harry Truman to be one of the most hated presidents because HE caused the deaths of somewhere near 200,000 people when he ordered atom bombs dropped on two Japanese cities.

They ignore predictions of the number of deaths that would have occurred on both sides had the bombs not been dropped. Emperor Hirohito had given the order for every one of the 22 million citizens to fight any invasion of Japan to the death. U.S. deaths would have exceeded the battle of Okinawa many times over.

Many U.S. citizens today consider Truman to be a second or third rate president. FDR., quite obviously, wouldn’t have agreed with that. After all, Roosevelt alone made the choice of who would be with him on the ticket in the 1944 election. He had to know he was a dying man, that the odds he would live out a full four-year term were growing slimmer by the day. Choice of a running mate was the biggest game imaginable being played in our nation’s Capitol among those who considered themselves to be close to the president. Why, then, did he choose a relatively unknown senator to be on the ticket with him when there were so many people surrounding him, trying to win his favor for their own agendas?

My answer to my own question is that Truman’s actions and arguments in the United States Senate — while quietly displayed — showed him to put the good of the country above personal aggrandizement. That’s the quality that was needed if and when FDR passed the presidency over to the next person.

One major example comes to mind.  Remember, Truman — even though he was a United States senator — was not even aware when he became president that atomic energy was being developed for military use. So here’s a question to ponder: would FDR himself have ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki if he was the one who had to make that wartime decision, knowing that a negative public reaction would result?

After all, he was a master practitioner of public opinion.

Or would he have deliberately left that unpleasant decision to his successor? War is not a situation where one can simply say, “oops, I’m sorry.” Let us hope that the horror of retaliation — much like what happened to the use of poison gas in WWI — will be enough to prevent atomic bombs from ever being used again.

I recently saw a list (and I wish I could remember what list that was) that Truman was considered the fifth best president of our country, behind George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and FDR.

So I can’t be alone in my respect for his doing what had to be done to save lives on both sides. I wonder if there are any lessons for our leadership in these crazy times?


Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at