Truman and the CIA

Jeff Deist at the Mises Institute has a great article on President Harry Truman and his misgivings about the CIA he helped to create. But first, as Deist notes, for all of his faults Truman was a humble man of a different era, and unlike certain modern ex-presidents, had no interest in politics after he left the White House:

Say what you will about President Harry Truman, but at least he didn't leave the White House a suspiciously rich man. He also actually went home, to Independence Missouri, and moved into a modest house he didn't own. It was the same house belonging to his wife's family where he had lived with Bess (and his mother-in-law!) decades earlier.

Flat broke, and unwilling to accept corporate board positions or commercial endorsements, Truman sought a much-needed loan from a local Missouri bank. For several years his sole income was a $113 monthly Army pension, and only the sale of a parcel of land he inherited with his siblings prevented him from nearly "being on relief," as Truman allegedly stated. In the 1950s, perhaps almost entirely to alleviate Truman's embarrassing financial situation, Congress authorized a $25,000 yearly pension for ex-presidents Truman and the much-wealthier Herbert Hoover. 

Contrast this with the luxe post-presidential life of the Reagans in Bel Air, or the still-unfolding saga of the Obama's jet-setting life between Kalorama, Palm Springs, and Oahu!

Now, on to Truman and the CIA:

But even if Truman's homespun honesty and common man persona sometime wore thin, he deserves enormous credit for the startling admission that he regretted creating the CIA. Speaking to a biographer in the 1960s, less than 20 years after signing the National Security Act of 1947, Truman expressed a sense of foreboding about what the agency had become, and would become:

Merle Miller: Mr. President, I know that you were responsible as President for setting up the CIA. How do you feel about it now?
Truman: I think it was a mistake. And if I'd know what was going to happen, I never would have done it...

...Now, as nearly as I can make out, those fellows in the CIA don't just report on wars and the like, they go out and make their own, and there's nobody to keep track of what they're up to. They spend billions of dollars on stirring up trouble so they'll have something to report on. They've become ... it's become a government all of its own and all secret. They don't have to account to anybody.

That's a very dangerous thing in a democratic society, and it's got to be put a stop to. The people have got a right to know what those birds are up to. And if I was back in the White House, people would know. You see, the way a free government works, there's got to be a housecleaning every now and again, and I don't care what branch of the government is involved. Somebody has to keep an eye on things.

While it certainly is a testament to Truman's character that he was willing to admit that he had made a mistake, this interview is a microcosm of the history of the American presidency.

Presidents comes into office and erect new agencies that quickly become massive, centralized, and bureaucratic. They burn money, and soon become monsters of their own, demanding increasing power and expanding budgets to solve "problems" that they most likely either created or helped to exacerbate themselves. Then, with the benefit of hindsight, the president says, "Whoops! Sorry."

Even Truman's successor Ike "saw the light" after it was far too late. Eisenhower loved the CIA and its ability to quietly wage secret wars and overthrow governments. Then, after eight years of allowing the war machine that we are still stuck with today fester and grow, he warns Americans of the dangers of this "military-industrial-complex" on his way out.

"Whoops! Sorry."