Endeavoring to Shoulder the Moon and Stars

What the presidential debate showed us about who is not prepared for the presidency

Shrimp and Grit

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt unexpectedly passed away on April 12th of 1945, his vice president, Harry S. Truman, found himself at the helm of a nation recovering from war and the most gripping economic depression in American history.

The day after he was sworn in as our nation’s 33rd president, Truman famously remarked to reporters on Capitol Hill: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."

Truman was at that point only 82 days into his vice presidency, and needless to say, he felt daunted by the task ahead of him. He wasn’t totally unprepared—Truman had a history of service in the Missouri National Guard and had fought in World War I. He presided as a local county judge and served a decade in the U.S. Senate. By many accounts, he had earned a reputation of honesty and integrity and was praised as being a “man of the people.”

As president, his experience and preparation were crucial. In the first four months of his presidency, Harry Truman negotiated the end of the war in Europe, led the Potsdam Conference to determine Germany’s future, and made the grueling decision to detonate two atomic bombs over Japan.

The deployment of the world’s first atomic bomb in Hiroshima and the subsequent bombing in Nagasaki killed more than 120,000 Japanese citizens instantly, and tens of thousands more were gravely injured from radiation. Truman made the decision, the most difficult of his life, to save hundreds of thousands of American lives and finally halt the Second World War.

After the war, in 1960, Japan and the United States signed a mutual cooperation treaty. The Japanese constitution, written during the U.S. occupation, precludes the country from maintaining a military, so U.S. bases are responsible for the country’s defense. Today, Japan pays over $4 billion towards America's military presence in the country, and the alliance is a linchpin for the U.S. defense strategy in East Asia.

At the Presidential Debate last Monday, the Republican nominee for president boldly declared, “They [the countries we defend] do not pay us what they should be paying us because we are providing tremendous service and we’re losing a fortune,” and “that's why we’re losing, we’re losing, we lose on everything.”

Answering a question by the moderator about his stance on our country’s policy on first use, Trump’s answer devolved into incoherent criticisms of China and the Iran Nuclear Deal. He denounced our decades-old alliances with countries like Japan and the Republic of Korea, a bulwark against growing Chinese influence, while also criticizing the president and the State Department for not doing enough to combat rising Chinese economic and military power.

Last Monday, Donald Trump failed to demonstrate even a modicum of understanding of foreign policy. And most frustratingly, he appeared to give no thought to the consequences of his statements.

It was abundantly clear that Donald Trump did not invest a single ounce of energy into preparing substantively for the first debate, nor has he invested any energy into preparing for the responsibilities of being president. Trump’s visionary foreign policy agenda is to build a wall and negotiate better deals—whatever that means—while backing down on support for our allies and receding further into American isolationism. His flippant threats about the use of force are unsettling, from his intention to “bomb the shit" out of ISIS to his threat to shoot Iranian ships out of the water. His comment about knowing “more about ISIS than the generals do” illustrates both an incredible lack of respect for the U.S. military and an unacceptable arrogance about the complexities of armed conflict.

And at one point in the debate Trump yelled about having a good temperament.

As a leader like Harry Truman showed us, no one is ever truly prepared to be president. But they can try. Behind every decision to act to save an American’s life, soldier or citizen, is a series of trade-offs and consequences we have to accept. Our commander in chief should approach the job with thoughtfulness and appreciation for the complexities that make governing and international diplomacy so challenging. He or she should understand that when it comes to nuclear warfare, our whole planet is at stake.

Our country’s next leader will face their share of trials; from coping with international terrorism and trying to heal painful racial divides to helping our nation compete in a global economy.

Donald Trump is not a “man of the people.” He is not prepared to be president, nor, in my opinion, does he have what it takes to be the leader our country deserves.


Caroline M. Tervo, ’18, is a government concentrator living in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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