When Harry Thanked Herbert: A Bipartisan Model

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In this age of hyper-partisanship, it's instructive to recall a time when Harry Truman turned in his hour of need -- the world’s hour of need, really -- to Herbert Hoover. On this date in 1947, Truman wrote Hoover a letter expressing his gratitude for Hoover’s selfless response.

The letter that President Truman sent to former President Hoover on March 11, 1947, was plain and to the point.

“Dear Mr. President,” Truman began respectfully.

“… I want to express to you again my very high appreciation for your willingness to undertake these two surveys for the Secretary of War and me. You have made a very decided contribution to the situation in Germany and Austria and I am sure it will have a bearing on the conference in Moscow.

“Please accept my sincere thanks,” he added, before signing off: “Sincerely yours, Harry Truman.”

There was a history here and, as the letter implies, a history yet to come.

During and after World War I, Iowa-born, Stanford-educated Herbert Hoover had made a name for himself by organizing famine relief efforts in Western Europe. His leadership was credited with saving millions of people in France, Belgium and elsewhere from starvation. Think of that for a moment: millions of people.

Hoover’s international fame helped launch a highly successful political career than landed him in the White House in 1929 -- just in time for the Great Depression to consume his presidency. Americans didn’t blame Hoover for the Depression, but they did blame him for what was almost universally perceived as a tardy and ineffectual response.

By 1932, Hoover was considered so politically toxic that Franklin Roosevelt essentially refused to have anything to do with him between his November election and March inauguration. Shunning the sitting president was not in the nation’s interest -- banks were failing daily -- and it was not a precedent that was followed by Barack Obama, incidentally, in the 2008-2009 transition during a period of economic upheaval.

Democrats subsequently dined out on Hoover-bashing for the next 50 years. The great exception was FDR’s successor. Although a fiercely partisan Democrat, Harry Truman realized in the aftermath of World War II that the shattered economies of Europe could again lead to widespread hunger -- and a kind of civic unrest would make the siren song of communism sound appealing.

So Hoover’s talents at organization and foodstuffs distribution were once again enlisted; this was the “survey” referenced by Truman in his March 11, 1947 letter. Yes, those postwar humanitarian efforts, including the Marshall Plan, were partially motivated by political exigencies. That is nothing to be ashamed of. Americans can be proud that the first “boots on the ground” in the Cold War were soldiers and civilians delivering food, clothing, and medicine. They can also be proud that spearheading the efforts were a current president and an ex-president, one a Democrat, the other a Republican.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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