Joe Scarborough has, regrettably, written a new book. It’s a presidential history, joining the already-crowded ranks of similar books, and its title is Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization. In it, Scarborough spends 272 pages singing the praises of his favorite president, mostly for his efforts to crush socialist movements around the world. “The United States was blessed to have Harry Truman at the helm of its government,” we’re told, because only he could transform American foreign policy from its long history of isolationism to a new role as “the defender of world freedom.” It’s a simple narrative, dealing in plucky American heroism and cartoonishly evil communist threats. It’s also highly misleading.
In recent years, Scarborough has made a name for himself as one of the most prominent anti-Trump moderates in the liberal media, after leaving the Republican Party to become an independent in 2017. However, these were not always his politics. A Florida lawyer by trade, Scarborough first rose to national prominence as a House Representative in the 1994 midterms. In Congress, he voted in virtual lockstep with Newt Gingrich and other free-market zealots, attempting to eliminate the Department of Education and privatize many other government functions. He then resigned to pursue a media career in 2001, and immediately became one of the most loyal cheerleaders for the Bush administration, calling those who protested the war in Iraq “leftist stooges for anti-American causes” in 2003. Later, during Barack Obama’s disastrous military incursion in Libya, Scarborough went on an Islamophobic tirade on his MSNBC show Morning Joe, complaining of the “sheer, unrestrained savagery” of the “Arab world,” and claiming that all Muslims in the Middle East “hate us because of their religion.” Taken together, this track record makes his current, more centrist persona rather surprising—and in Saving Freedom, more than a few glimpses of the old Scarborough shine through.
The real history of the Cold War, of course, is a lot more complex than the version Saving Freedom presents. Throughout his book, Scarborough focuses almost exclusively on the perspectives of American policymakers, dedicating long passages to the political maneuverings of Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), and Truman himself. At the same time, he pays little attention to the views of people on the ground who were affected by the Truman Doctrine as it took hold, often ignoring them entirely. (Several chapters on U.S. policy toward Greece, for instance, contain no quotes from actual Greeks.) In part, this narrow vision is endemic to the genre of mass-market books about presidents, which inevitably skews toward a “Great Man” theory of history. It’s also part of a more general trend of American national chauvinism, which doesn’t find the perspectives of “foreigners” terribly interesting in the first place. But even very similar books, such as Evan Thomas’s Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, don’t display quite the laser focus of Scarborough’s approach. Rather, the impression here is one of something inconvenient being glossed over. If more varied perspectives were included, especially those on the receiving end of American foreign policy, Scarborough’s black-and-white worldview might begin to look a bit flimsy. In fact, even a tiny bit of research reveals that Truman’s policy turn toward interventionism was far from a straightforward good thing, and actually caused great harm in a lot of cases.
At the time, Truman’s rise to power was unexpected, not least by himself. By all accounts, he was unremarkable as a senator, chosen to run for his Missouri seat only after the Democratic Party’s first four choices declined. On Capitol Hill, his biggest achievement was chairing a committee to investigate wasteful spending in the military, an effort which saved the U.S. government $15 billion. Then, in 1944, things changed. As a result of the ongoing World War, it was all but guaranteed that FDR would get his fourth term. The real political conflict, then, was over his running mate, with the stakes heightened by rumors of Roosevelt’s ill health. With his reputation for fiscal moderation and cost-cutting, Truman made an appealing choice for conservative Democrats, who despised the left-wing Henry Wallace and secured Truman’s nomination in a backroom deal. (At this point, certain parallels to recent history may become apparent.) As president, Truman deployed the atomic bomb against Japanese civilians, bringing World War II to a gruesome end, and reaped the benefits of the peacetime economic boom that followed. Ideologically, he was a great admirer of Winston Churchill, and after hearing the 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech, committed himself fully to the cause of anti-Communism—a stance which Scarborough frames as his greatest virtue. Today, opinion polls generally rank Truman among the top 10 of America’s favorite presidents, although he never quite reaches the heights of his predecessor.
The Greek civil war, in particular, marked a turning point for Truman, and it’s this historical moment that Saving Freedom singles out for the reader’s attention. Scarborough heaps praise on the president’s 1947 decision to send $400 million in economic aid to Greece, propping up the struggling monarchy of King George II. This action marked the first warning shot in the Cold War, and staved off an ongoing insurrection by Greek communists. In several breathless paragraphs, Scarborough implies that this insurrection was merely the vanguard of a “Soviet takeover” of Greece, and therefore the prelude to “eventual world domination,” with Stalin as “a shark smelling blood in the ocean,” among other colorful metaphors. Now, whatever Stalin’s sharklike tendencies may have been, this is pretty clearly a distortion. As the Yugoslav author and politician Milovan Đjilas revealed in Conversations with Stalin (1967), the USSR flatly refused aid to the Greek Communist Party, feeling that its guerilla war had little chance of success. It was Tito’s Yugoslavia which aided the Greeks to a limited extent, mainly by allowing them to set up training camps across their border, and this act of insubordination caused a bitter split between Tito and Stalin in 1948. Scarborough, though, has no time for such nuances, and constantly conflates these factions into a single Red Menace for his heroic Truman to battle.
Meanwhile, the book downplays the atrocities committed by the ultra-right monarchy that Truman supported, often to a ludicrous extent. Scarborough pays lip service to the “imperfections of the Greek government,” but only to immediately add that “none remotely compared to the oppressive and brutal nature of the Soviet Union”—despite, as we’ve seen, the Soviet Union not being significantly involved in Greece. Scarborough then shies away from describing what those “imperfections” actually were, giving specifics only in one or two unavoidable instances. When they do come, the details are grim; one passage uncritically notes the use of “napalm, a weapon of liquid fire” against rebel towns. This shows that Scarborough A) isn’t particularly bothered by war crimes, and B) doesn’t trust his readers to know what napalm is.
Even these admissions, though, are minor compared to the full scope of the terror campaigns that the Truman Doctrine unleashed. As the Greek historian Spyridon Plakoudas succinctly notes in his book on the period, “summary executions and torture increased drastically” toward the end of the Greek civil war, as an emboldened monarchy attempted to eliminate not just communists, but any form of working-class opposition to its rule. In the 1948 pamphlet Murder, Inc in Greece, the American trade unionist Olive Sutton records testimony from survivors of this repression:
A few weeks ago, a Greek seaman in port for a few days went to a C.I.O. Political Action Committee office.
What could it do about the situation in Greece, he wanted to know.
It was a very busy organization, came the excuse.
The seaman paused. Then he opened his shirt. His chest was a mass of deep torture scars.
“I have been busy, too,” he said.
These are the voices conspicuously absent from Scarborough’s account. These are the real-world consequences of the foreign policy that, in his words, “anyone who cherishes individual freedom and the expansion of human rights across the world should celebrate.” Celebration is not the response that comes to mind.
In its later chapters, Scarborough’s book also dwells on the 1948 decision to recognize Israel as a state, another of Truman’s signature policies. Here, to his credit, Truman’s concern for the Jewish refugees of World War II appears to have been sincere and heartfelt, inspired in part by his friendship with Eddie Jacobson, a nonreligious Jew to whom he often turned for advice. And yet, the implications of Israel’s statehood are more mixed than Saving Freedom is willing to admit. In the book’s entire account, the mass displacement and persecution of Palestinians to make way for new settlements—a traumatic upheaval known today as the Nakba—is completely ignored, as if no such thing ever happened. But of course, there is no shortage of historical and literary testimony that it did, much of it heart-wrenching. Today, Palestinians in the diaspora commemorate their grief with a rich tradition of Nakba poetry, with lyrics like those of Zaina Alsous’ Leave:
[…] A place was left behind. A place I have never seen.
This means I still do not know how to write myself
into existence. Three boys form a tributary of blood, on a beach in Gaza, elsewhere
a contained border, a family of bones, without broth; these will be described as incidents.
Or Jessica Abughattas’ “My Grandmother the Leo Tells Me About Her Nine Lives”:
[…] Neighbors called
to ask how I could leave
before we kissed goodbye.
I told them god
has written this fate for me,
and when I go…
do not cry for me.
I have mustered
to drown the shores
of Tel Aviv.
This is another area which Scarborough—if he even realizes it exists—shows no interest in bringing to light. Instead, the whole matter of Palestinian displacement is simply left out, while the book calls the new Israeli state a “bulwark of Western interests in an authoritarian Middle East.” This last description, a common one among U.S. Zionists more generally, is telling. In the first place, it absolves Israel of any authoritarianism of its own, which is dubious. And with its reference to “Western interests,” it also suggests that Scarborough’s concern for Israel has less to do with actual Israelis and their wellbeing, and more to do with the projection of imperial power.
By now, a pattern might be visible. Saving Freedom does not, for the most part, actually misstate facts; nothing so crude. In its quest to present the Truman Doctrine as a “breathtaking achievement,” it simply overlooks and minimizes certain subjects. For a book ostensibly about foreign policy, it contains very little about the Korean war, which receives real attention only in the 19th and final chapter. (This may be because, unlike with the Greek civil war, the average American has at least a passing familiarity with the events involved, and won’t buy it as a straightforward triumph.) Scarborough also glosses glibly over Hiroshima, mentioning it only in passing as an example of Truman’s experience with tough decisions. The scale and brazenness of the omissions is almost impressive.
Another of these blind spots comes with regard to Truman’s domestic policy. On its face, this might seem outside the book’s scope—the subtitle, after all, specifies the Cold War and its global implications as the main focus. But in many ways, Truman’s actions at home were intimately bound up with his overseas agenda. Within America’s borders, the Truman administration showed a profound hostility toward organized labor and the left, which was barely less fierce than its enmity for workers’ movements abroad. Not only this, but Truman was willing to use similarly authoritarian tactics to keep American workers’ power in check. Some of these moments, too, are worth a closer look.
When he was confronted with the prospect of a large-scale railway strike in 1946, Truman stood at a crossroads. He could continue the pattern established by FDR and the New Deal, and attempt to negotiate in good faith with the unions; or, on the other hand, he could simply crack down on them, securing an end to the strike through force. He chose the latter path, drafting a long statement in which he vilified socialist labor leaders, and even suggested that veterans commit vigilante violence against them. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough included the statement in all its bloodthirsty glory in his 1992 book Truman:
I am tired of the government’s being flouted, vilified and misrepresented. Now I want you men who are my comrades in arms, you men who fought the battles to save the nation just as I did twenty-five years ago, to come along with me and eliminate the Lewises, the Whitneys, the Johnstons, the Communist Bridges [head of the maritime union] and the Russian Senators and Representatives and really make this a government of, by and for the people. […]
Let us give the country back to the people. Let’s put transportation and production back to work, hang a few traitors, make our own country safe for democracy, tell the Russians where to get off and make the United Nations work. Come on boys, let’s do the job.
This murderous speech proved too much even for Truman’s advisors, and it was never delivered. But even as a rejected draft, its sheer aggression provides a valuable insight into Truman’s thought. Not only does it betray a deep-seated desire to punish the working class for stepping beyond what he considered its acceptable bounds, it also shows that Truman believed his conflict with the labor unions to be just another front in the Cold War.
Through the week that followed, Truman continued to do everything in his power to break the strike. In an address to Congress that was broadcast nationwide, he warned that “unless the railroads are manned by returning strikers, I shall immediately undertake to run them by the Army of the United States,” and asked for emergency legislation to “draft into the armed forces of the United States all workers who are on strike against their government.” With this threat of military force on the table, the rail workers had little real choice, and agreed to resume work on compromise terms suggested by the administration. It was a strategy Truman would repeat in 1950, when a second strike emerged—and in this moment, his foreign and domestic policies became one, as the railways were needed in the first place to transport armaments for the anti-communist war in Korea.
Possibly the clearest statement of Scarborough’s politics comes when he says that, “Throughout the Cold War, the United States would support a number of regimes that failed to live up to America’s stated standards of freedom, but that served as bulwarks against the spread of an even more malignant ideology.” (He has an unfortunate attachment to the word “bulwark.”) It’s not clear exactly which “regimes” are being referenced here, but one obvious example would be the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which came to power with the help of the CIA during Richard Nixon’s tenure. Much like Truman’s Greek monarchists, Pinochet was ruthlessly anti-socialist above all else, famously executing left-wing opponents by the hundreds in Santiago’s football stadiums. Another natural extension of the Truman Doctrine came with the Contras of Nicaragua, who Ronald Reagan backed against the socialist Sandinistas in the early 1980s, and who went on to rape, torture, and murder over 8,000 civilians. In one motion, Scarborough tacitly justifies these, and countless other horrors as heirs to Truman’s legacy—which, in a very real sense, they are.
Further, it’s the political philosophy behind Scarborough’s statement that’s truly concerning. Suppose, for a moment, we accept his premise that mid-20th-century Communism was equally as tyrannical as fascism and other forms of right-wing dictatorship. Given that “Communism,” in that context, mostly means Stalinism, this isn’t entirely unreasonable, and it’s certainly a common enough attitude among people of Scarborough’s generation. But if this is the case, Truman’s decision to back right-wing dictators against the forces of Communism becomes purely ideological, since the amount of tyranny would be roughly the same under either. In which case, the argument being made is that fascism is inherently the lesser evil—that a worker’s revolution of any kind is “more malignant” than the military supremacy and vicious state violence needed to suppress it. The whole thing amounts to little more than a rehash of the McCarthyist “Better Dead than Red,” a slogan which brings hollow consolation to the many, many dead in its wake.
Beyond this, Scarborough’s writing is just awful on a page-by-page basis. For such a short book, Saving Freedom is stuffed to the gills with filler paragraphs, giving extraneous information on topics like the design and construction of the Senate chamber where a scene takes place, the exact route a telegram had to take to reach Truman’s desk, and so forth. Some sentences, like the memorable “government officials in Athens executed large numbers of guerrilla fighters and employed other inhumane measures against its enemies,” lack basic subject/object agreement. Overly dramatic imagery is everywhere, with chapters called things like “Met at Armageddon” and “A Baptism of Fire.” And above all, the book has a bizarre addiction to the word “rightly.”
“Rightly” is a strange word for a historian, or someone pretending to be one, to use. It implies a cut-and-dried certainty that’s rarely, if ever possible when dealing with the past. For this reason, most serious scholars are wary of it, and its synonyms. But in Saving Freedom, Scarborough peppers it liberally around any sentiment with which he agrees, including the following examples [emphasis mine]:
“…the legendary secretary of state Dean Acheson rightly praised this not-so-common man from Missouri for bringing about a ‘complete revolution in foreign policy’”. (Introduction)
“Forrestal and Patterson were rightly focused on several other hot spots” (Ch. 4)
“Truman ignored Wallace’s fulminations, but Churchill was rightly incandescent” (Ch. 12)
“Acheson had assured Congress that American troops would not be deployed to Greece, but now congressional leaders rightly feared… that US deployment”. (Ch. 17).
Now, at first glance, this textual tic seems pretty minor, especially compared to some of the book’s other issues. But the longer you think about it, the more disturbing it becomes. This book is convinced, not only that there’s a straightforward “right” and “wrong” side to complex historical questions, but that it knows which is which, and its ideological side is definitely the “right” one. In the third example, Wallace’s offense—against which Churchill is “rightly incandescent”—was simply using the phrase “ruthless imperialism” to describe Truman’s actions. This, in Scarborough’s view, must be “wrong,” and worthy of condemnation, regardless of its relation to the actual facts on the ground. And by the same token, his own whitewashing of Truman as “the greatest foreign policy president of the postwar era” must be implicitly “right.” It takes a special kind of arrogance to write a thing like this.
So, beyond the twisting of history being a bad thing in its own right, why does this book matter? Or, to put it another way—why is it dangerous?
Well, in part, it matters because powerful people say it does. Joe Scarborough is, in his own right, one of the most influential figures in the American media landscape, with both a daily cable show and a semi-regular opinion column in the Washington Post. When he uses his platform to promote an idea—or a book full of them—it’s instantly seen by over a million people. More to the point, other people with platforms pay attention, far more than they would to an ordinary presidential biographer. This is how the Washington consensus is built and maintained.
This, then, makes the particular ideas found in Saving Freedom interesting. To sum up, some of the most obvious ones are: U.S. intervention overseas is a noble cause, critics who call it imperialist are wrong, socialism is uniquely evil, and bipartisanship is good, especially when it leads to more intervention. Truman, as a historical figure, is therefore “inspiring,” because he encapsulates all these values. It’s easy to see how ideas like these would be appealing to a certain class of person, especially those of a centrist bent, already accustomed to power. And in recent years, when the American empire has started to show definite signs of crumbling, those people are in desperate need of reassurance. Providing it to them, in glossy, respectable-looking hardcover form, is what people like Scarborough are for.
If nothing else, Scarborough is acutely aware of his role as a political influencer. In both the Washington Post and his MSNBC show, he has gone out of his way to suggest that the newly-minted President Biden should “look to Truman’s example as he seeks to navigate numerous crises abroad while dealing with a divided government at home.” The New York Times, in turn, appears to agree, calling their glowing review of Saving Freedom “Why Harry Truman Matters Today.” There’s a definite ideological push here, and it’s not difficult to imagine a world where it’s successful—mainly because it fits so nicely with what the owners of arms companies and policy think-tanks already want to do.
At the time of writing, it is 39 days into Joe Biden’s presidency, and he has just carried out his first airstrike. American bombs have fallen, with their usual effectiveness, on Syria, killing and wounding at least 22 people in defiance of international law. For the time being, at least, Joe Scarborough has gotten his wish: American interventionism is alive and well. In the months and years that follow, all kinds of bleak outcomes are possible. If by some chance Biden does decide to embrace Truman as his role model, he might finally kick off the conflict in the Middle East that his predecessor failed to ignite last January; he’s certainly going about it the right way. So-called humanitarian interventions in places like Bolivia and Venezuela aren’t beyond the realm of possibility, with disastrous consequences for the citizens of those countries. There are people, right now, actively lobbying to make these things happen, and a book like Saving Freedom is just one of the ideological weapons in their arsenal. If there is to be an effective opposition, recognizing its hollowness may be a good place to start.