The Bad Old Days

The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower

by David Caute
Simon and Schuster, 697 pp., $14.95

Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S Truman, 1945-1948

by Robert J. Donovan
Norton, 473 pp., $12.95

Harry Truman
Harry Truman; drawing by David Levine

At the start of his account of “the anti-Communist purge under Truman and Eisenhower,” David Caute characterizes the first of these presidents as a “peppery little bustler”; a few pages later he finds it “tempting to condemn him as a hypocrite.” And that is just about all Caute tells us of Truman himself. Of Eisenhower he says still less—only that the “slow, soporific, conservative tempo” of his second administration “deflated anxiety” about the presumed communist threat. Yet it was during the illustrious general’s first term that the purge reached its zenith. The almost complete absence from the stage of those who, to judge from Caute’s subtitle, would presumably be his main protagonists makes his book curiously invertebrate. If the two presidents do not figure as the villains in this passionately committed work, who, then, are the culprits in what nearly every well-informed person now at long last regards as our national shame of a quarter century ago? Caute’s answer—since he seems to be a Marxist of some variety—lies in more impersonal forces in American society. Let us hold this question in suspense until we have examined a book totally different in organization and approach, Robert J. Donovan’s account of Truman’s early years in office.

A veteran journalist, Donovan brings to his work his own first-hand knowledge, supplemented by conscientious research both in documentary collections and in the voluminous secondary literature that has appeared over the past two decades. We are likely to get no better chronicle of the years 1945-1948. It is all there—everything you have ever wanted to know (and possibly more) about the first Truman administration. Unlike Caute, Donovan offers at the start a full-length portrait of Roosevelt’s third and last vice-president, who never wanted the job (“Oh shit,” he said on being picked), and upon whom the highest office fell, like a “load of hay,” just under a month before the Second World War in Europe came to an end. Here we find once again the contrasts that have become familiar to us—the sober citizen who relished his bourbon, the devoted husband and father addicted to pungent language (but apparently never in mixed company), the machine politician who had managed to stay clear of scandal, above all, the “mediocrity” who kept surprising people by rising above his level. Donovan writes of him with close knowledge—possibly even affection: I have never encountered a more convincing set of explanations for a president who was both simplicity incarnate and a human being constantly eluding the labels people tried to pin upon him.

In sifting through the detail—both meticulous and highly colored—that Donovan presents, we might as well jump to the autumn of 1945, when the overload of problems cascading on Truman and his staff became unbearable. Here the author is at his best: he depicts vividly and with sympathy the confusion and crisscrossing of unrelated issues with which the inexperienced president…

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