Tuesday, June 15, 2010


A review of David McCullough’s Truman (1992)

(Rating 5 of 5)

David McCullough in the Pulitzer Prize winning work recreates the fiery Harry S. Truman for his readers. Once dismissed as just an accidental president, Harry Truman was considered to be just a seat warmer for the next commander-in-chief. Truman would prove to be one of the nation’s best, leading the United States out of World War II and into the early days of the Cold War. McCullough’s writes with the same brilliant narrative in this work that I had found in when I read his 1776.

I have to admit, I read this book the same summer that I read Jean Edward Smith’s FDR. In short, I found myself comparing Truman’s career to Roosevelt’s. In some ways this was unfair considering Roosevelt was about eight years older. However, I could not help but think, ‘Hey the same time Truman’s rolling around on his father’s farm, Roosevelt’s in the State Senate.’ Another example is that when Truman was a company officer, Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the navy.

McCullough begins by explaining the origins of Truman’s home state, Missouri, and his family history. Citizens of the ‘show me’ state generally have a very down to earth feeling about themselves and the world in which they lived. Truman is a man who comes out of this world.

Truman grew up trying to avoid being labeled a ‘sissy’ for having to wear glasses, he was ‘bookish’ in some ways a stereotypical nerd who read a lot of history and was widely considered by his classmates to the smartest kid in class. When grew up World War I started up and he went to battle, as a captain he had success on the battlefield leading his company. He would ultimately rise to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. When he got home from war, he married the love of his life, Bess Wallace, and they would have one child in Mary Margaret.

(Truman as a boy)

(Truman as a solider)

(Truman married to Bess Wallace)

(Mary Margaret Truman)

However, despite success in school and the battlefield he was always a little behind in life, he failed at business and feel into debt. For a good deal of time, he would work on his father’s farm. His father had a great deal of political ambition but little time and resources and John Truman would die feeling that he was a failure in life, something that would haunt his son until his days as the President of the United States.

His friendship with the Pendergast family gave him a connection to Boss Tom Pendergast, and that would lead to his election in 1922 as Jackson County Court Judge, although this was not a judicial court it was more like a county commission. Truman became the presiding judge in 1926 and he held that position right until the Roosevelt Administration. Therefore, when Roosevelt took office as President of the United States his eventually successor was nothing more then a chief county commissioner.

In 1934, Harry Truman would earn the Democratic Party’s senate nomination and go on to defeat the incumbent Roscoe Patterson by a full twenty points in the election. As a senator, Harry Truman would earn fame on the ‘Truman Committee’ that would deal with corruption of military contractors fleecing the Armed Forces during a time of war.

“Truman understood the potential peril in what he was proposing. From his reading of Civil War history he knew what damage could be done to a President by congressional harassment in a time of emergency, and the lives it could cost by prolonging the war. Abraham Lincoln had been subjected to unrelenting scrutiny by the powerful Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which caused continuing trouble and delays. Its Radical Republican leadership had insisted even on a say in the choice of field commanders and battle strategy, and as often on a say in the choice of field commanders and battle strategy, and as often as not it was the Confederates who benefited. Robert E. Lee once remarked that the committee was worth two divisions to him, an observation Truman would often cite. He had gone to the Library of Congress for the Civil War records to verify for himself what mistakes the committee had made.” p.258

Truman’s record made the Democratic Party nominate him for Vice President in 1944, dumping Vice President Henry Wallace who many thought was closet communist. The Roosevelt/Truman ticket would go on to win and Truman would do on to be the Vice President of the United States. He would hold that office for less than three months, for in that time Roosevelt was dead.

(President Truman)

Truman came to office in the middle of the incredible events of World War II and had to make the most famous or infamous decision of his career: the decision to drop the atomic bomb. In August 1945, Japan was sent the Postman Declaration demanding their surrender or the bomb would drop. Japan refused, the bombs were dropped, and the war ended.

As president, Truman would later become admired for making tough decisions that had to be made. Moreover, a lot decisions would have to be made, in his first term he had to deal with strikes, propose and fight for the Marshall Plan, help form the United Nations, create the Truman Doctrine of containment, initiate the Berlin Airlift, and recognize the state of Israel. A great deal of these things would not popular, at first, and would cost Truman politically and most considered him dead in 1948, but as McCullough explains, Truman would shock them again.

“The Marshall Plan was voted on by Congress in April 1948, almost a year after Marshall’s speech at Harvard, and passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses. It was a singular triumph for the administration, the ventral gem in the cluster of great and fruitful decisions made by President Truman,’ as Arthur Krock would write. Indeed, it was to be one of the great American achievements of the century, as nearly everyone eventually saw.” p.583

With Thomas Dewey once again the nominee of the Republican* Party running as an if he were an incumbent, Truman ran as if were the challenger, he ran a more vigorous and ultimately successful campaign for president, popularized for ‘Given ‘em Hell.’

“His opponent, Truman said, acted like a doctor whose magic cure for everything was a soothing syrup called unity. And here were the American people going for the usual once every four years check-up.
‘Say you don’t look so good!’ Truman said, acting the part of the doctor.
‘Well, that seems strange to me too, Doc,’ he answered, as the voice of the people. ‘I never felt stronger, never had more money, and never had a brighter future. What is wrong with me?’
‘I never discuss issues with a patient. But what you need is a major operation.’
‘Will it be serious, Doc?’
‘Not so very serious. It will just mean taking out the complete works and putting in a Republican administration.’
The audience roared with laughter. He had made the cool, letter-perfect Dewey a joke at last.” p.700

(Wrong Headline)

Truman continued being Truman though out his second and elected term as president. During this term, the Chinese Communists won their civil war with the Nationalists and this helped feed the fire of a man named Eugene McCarthy, a drunken fool and senator, who would sensationalize national fear, and ruin the lives of many innocent people and get very few communists. N.A.T.O. would go on to be successfully established and due to the invasion of South Korea by the Communist North, Truman would get the U.N. to organize a ‘police action’ against the aggressor. The events of the Korean War would get save the South from the North but it would also led to another famous Truman event the firing of General MacArthur.

“In New York two thousand longshoremen walked off their jobs in protest over the firing of MacArthur. A Baltimore women’s group announced plans fro a march on Washington in support of the general. Elsewhere enraged patriots flew flags at half-staff, or upside down. People signed petitions, fired off furious letters and telegrams to Washington. In Worcester, Massachusetts, and San Gabriel, California, Truman was burned in effigy. In Houston, a Protestant minister became so angry dictating a telegram to the White House that he died of a heart attack.” p.844-5

Despite being from a family with Confederate heritage Truman moved more on Civil Rights then any president before or until Lyndon Johnson. Truman would form the President’s Committee on Civil Rights and he would desegregate the military.

“On racial maters, Truman had not entirely outgrown his background. Old biases, old habits of speech continued, surfacing occasionally offstage, as some of his aides and Secret Service agents would later attest. Privately, he could still speak of ‘niggers,’ as if that were the way one naturally referred to blacks. His own sister told Jonathan Daniels that Harry was no different then ever on the subject. Daniels, who had gone to Missouri to gather material for a biography of the President, recorded in his notes that as Mary Jane drove him south from Independence to Grandview one morning, she turned and said, ‘Harry is no more for nigger equality than any of us’—a statement Daniels, as a southerner, found reassuring.

But Mary Jane, like others, failed to understand that Truman knew now, if they did not, that as President he could no longer sit idly by and do nothing in the face of glaring injustice. The findings of his Civil Rights Commission, in a landmark report entitled To Secure These Rights, had been a shocking revelation.

The murder of four blacks by mob gunfire referred to in the letter had occurred in Monroe, Georgia, in July 1946. Two men and their wives were dragged from a car and gunned down so savagely their bodies were scarcely identifiable. One of the victims, Truman knew from a report of his Commission, had been a newly returned war veteran, and this, like the account of the men dumped from the truck in Mississippi, and of the young black sergeant, Issac Woodward, who had been pulled from a bus in Batesburg, South Carolina, and brutally beaten and blinded by police, made an everlasting impression on Truman, moving him in a way no statistics ever would have.” p.588-9

Despite all his success, Truman would leave office unpopular and would remain so until the late sixties-early seventies, when a popular resurgence for the thirty-third president would begin. This Pulitzer Prize winning work McCullough does justice to the great President Harry S. Truman.

*He ran against Franklin Roosevelt in 1944.

{Video is from the Discovery Channel}

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