by David McCullough
Simon and Schuster, 1,117 pp., $30.00
The story of Harry Truman’s life is full of enough improbabilities and paradoxes to put an edge on the dullest curiosity. Here was a figure of obscure rural origins from the remote reaches of Missouri, dogged by debt most years, and with no more formal education than local public schools provided. Suddenly thrust into this man’s hands was more power over world events than had ever been entrusted to a human being—control over the destiny of nations and empires—and, conceivably, the fate of the species. As the first president to preside over the Pax Americana, he had the immediate duty to bring to an end wars on opposite sides of the globe. Thus he had to decide whether and when to use atomic bombs, how to keep them under civilian control, and whether to proceed with production of hydrogen bombs. His also was the chief responsibility for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Point Four programs, NATO, the Berlin Airlift, the scarier phases of what he called the war of nerves with the Soviet Union, intervention in Korea, and the firing of General MacArthur for insubordination. On the domestic front it was Truman, not FDR, who first called for Medicare, sent the first meaningful civil rights program to Congress, and desegregated the American military.
With intentions clearly laudatory, a devoted cousin once called Harry Truman a nineteenth-century man at heart. And surely Truman brought many marks of that century along with him into the twentieth, and they clung to him all his days. Born in 1884, while Chester A. Arthur was president, he was well into his thirties by the time America entered the war which in many ways brought the old century to an end. By that time his tastes and habits and convictions were fully formed. He continued to read widely, but Mark Twain and Charles Dickens remained his favorite authors, and Andrew Jackson and Robert E. Lee his lifelong heroes.
Family annals were full of frontier and Civil War myth. Both grandfathers came from Kentucky, and Grandfather Anderson Truman migrated to the Missouri frontier on the Kansas border. He received from his bride’s family the gift of two slaves, who increased to five by 1865. Anderson Truman remained a Unionist, but Harry’s mother, Mattie, brought him up on Confederate legend in an atmosphere thickly southern, trimmed with gingerbread gothic and Gilded Age standards. Father John, five foot four, bought a small frame house twenty by twenty-eight feet, and set up a business as a mule trader. Failing at that, he tried farming with no more success. His luck took a turn for the better in wheat futures, but later gambling left him wiped out, forcing the sale of his house and departure from Independence, and he took a night watchman’s job in nearby Kansas City. All this placed college out of the question for Harry, who went to work at menial jobs for three years, next as a bank …