Truman, de Gaulle and Krushchev are clearly three of the most decisive names of twentieth-century politics. From the position of politics and ideology, the three can be viewed as representing a triad of poles that were present in the politics of the last century: in the case of Truman, western capitalism and its form of democracy, in the case of Krushchev, Soviet communism, and in the case of de Gaulle, his eponymous Gaullism, which represented a form of French sovereignty amidst a Cold War defined by the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. Hence, whereas these ideologies obviously shaped the political positions of these leaders, one can also approach their comparison in terms of a leadership style irrespective of politics and ideology; namely, all three have been come to be known as significant historical figures. Yet the question remains as to what extent this historical status is the result of individual leadership qualities as opposed to mere historical circumstances; furthermore, the question remains open as to what extent their respective ideologies influenced their leadership qualities. Any approach to comparison must take into account all these factors to bear any rigor, without falling into a pseudo-psychological analysis of “personality types.”
Nevertheless, a clear distinction between the three can be made in the case of De Gaulle: his political ideology is in essence inseparable from his leadership qualities. Whereas the fact that the political ideology associated with De Gaulle bears his own name may seem like a trivial point, it is not in the context of this question of leadership: here is clearly an assertive and almost “cult of personality” ideology, whereby the leader becomes a direct manifestation of the political ideology of the country. Namely, De Gaulle’s political decision to steer a path between the two superpowers, affirming French sovereignty amidst a bipolar world that seemed to exclude centers of power outside of this bipolarity, is a decision of a confident and inspired leader. In this sense, the most apt comparison of leadership qualities to De Gaulle would be perhaps Tito, who steered Yugoslavia along a similar middle path amongst the two superpowers. As Kritzman describes Gaullism, it is a “certain idea of France, a concept of the nation associated with Charles de Gaulle and predicated on the belief in France itself.” (51) In the case of de Gaulle, therefore, individual leadership is inseparable from political ideology; one could go even further, and perhaps state that the cult of personality and leadership of de Gaulle was so strong that his own individuality determined the course of French politics, and not vice versa.
In this case, Krushchev and Truman would seem to represent two less strong variants of leaders. Both, from this viewpoint, were merely working within the frameworks of their respective ideologies, and thus could not evoke a “cult of personality”, such as in the case of de Gaulle. However, in the case of Krushchev what is interesting is that there was a certain reverse cult of personality at work. For Krushchev’s political reign followed the reign of Stalin, which was an example of the cult of personality par excellence, and the focusing of the national politics on the leadership of the leader. Arguably, one of the crucial opening moments of Krushchev’s terms was his denunciation of Stalin and thus the cult of personality; Krushchev marked a radical shift in how the leadership of the Soviet Union was to be enacted. For example, Krushchev “was the first Soviet leader to travel widely abroad (something that Stalin deliberately avoided.)” (147) Krushchev’s leadership can thus be defined in terms of the opposite of de Gaulle: a rejection of the cult of personality towards a more “Western” and open style of leadership.
Both of Krushchev and de Gaulle’s leadership styles, considering the historical and political context in which they occurred, were therefore radical. Truman’s crucial decision historically, in contrast, relates to the atomic bomb attacks in Japan: from the perspective of leader, he hardly is as decisive a figure such as Krushchev and de Gaulle. Whereas the decision to use the atomic bomb was obviously difficult, it was also a clear attack on innocent civilians, instead of attacking military targets. At the same time, the Truman doctrine, proposed in response to the growing strength of the Soviet Union, took an aggressive stance to the latter in terms of “economic assistance” (39) and “even extreme military measures.” (39) Taking these two political decisions as examples of Truman’s leadership abilities, Truman was a leader who was essentially aggressive, unconcerned for human life outside of American borders – in this case, he represents a form of bureaucratic aggressor, carrying along with the nascent American industrial-military complex as its puppet-figure, while murdering hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, as evidenced by the fact that Truman is the only politician in history to not only use the atomic bomb, but also use the atomic bomb on civilians.
From this perspective, therefore, although all three figures are important figures who made crucial decisions, they represent different types of leaders. Krushchev and de Gaulle were not afraid of making decisions against their immediate historical context, in the case of Krushchev, the legacy of Stalinism, and in the case of de Gaulle, the bipolar world of the Superpowers. Truman appears as the anomaly in this group, committing mass murder on a scale that suggests a despotic leader of the barbaric past. In Truman, therefore, the figure of the leader apparent is the leader who when forced with the tough decision, chooses the easiest way out: mass violence and slaughter.
Bostdorff, Denise. Proclaiming the Truman Doctrine: The Cold War Call to Arms.
Texas A&M University Press, 2008.
Kritzman, Lawrence D. “Gaullism.” In L.D. Kritzman (ed.) The Columbia History of
Twentieth-Century French Thought. New York: Columbia University, 2006.
Rappaport, Helen. Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1999.