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 clerk for two relatively prosperous years. Then a flood destroyed John’s new venture on a rented farm, and Harry had to give up banking to help his father run his grandmother’s farm.
The help Harry gave was that of a plowman behind four horses and as farmhand of all work, rising at five and keeping at it hard all day. That life continued for more than eleven years, until he was thirty-three. He would never entirely lose the farm habits of early rising and hard work. He filled what leisure time remained by joining the Masons and training in the National Guard in command of an artillery battery—that plus the prolonged and persistent courtship of his one true love, Bess Wallace, which began in school days. And he somehow managed to continue piano lessons and practice and to read a considerable amount of history and literature.
The turning point of Truman’s life was the Great War. He could have avoided military service on any of several grounds, including his age, miserable eyesight (virtually blind without his thick-lensed glasses), and his occupation as a farmer, but he immediately signed up to go. The action he saw in France as captain of an artillery battery was the fiercest and bloodiest on the American firing line. It included the great Meuse-Argonne offensive of 600,000 American troops that lasted forty-seven days and cost 117,000 American casualties and 14,246 lives. Having performed heroically, the returning soldier considered among other things running for office on his war record. Instead he opened a haberdashery in Kansas City with Eddie Jacobson, a Jewish fellow soldier. Then came the long postponed marriage to Bess and their move into the house of her relatively prosperous mother in Independence. The men’s store was a miserable failure and went under in three years, leaving Harry strapped for twenty years paying off debts.
Shortly before the collapse of his business, Truman entered an alliance with a famous relic of the nineteenth century, the legendary Pendergast machine of Kansas City, then under Tom Pendergast, probably the most powerful political boss in the country. His two sons offered Harry machine support if he ran for a judge of Jackson County, the equivalent of a county commissioner, and he accepted immediately. Three judges controlled county purse strings, hired hundreds of employees, and determined who was awarded county contracts. Boss and machine needed an honest farmer and war hero to attract country voters and they believed they had found him. In a close race against two opponents who had Ku Klux Klan support Truman took a step that his admiring biographer David McCullough rightly calls “shabby and out of character.” He paid a ten dollar fee for Klan membership. On learning he must promise never to hire a Catholic, however, he withdrew from membership before the election. His victory was an extremely narrow one.
Defeated by the Klan for reelection, he came back strongly in 1926 with a 16,000-vote margin that he increased to 58,000 for reelection in 1930. His new office was that of a presiding judge, with real authority, and his performance for two terms, between 1927 and 1935, was outstanding for its honesty and efficiency. His ambitious program included building 224 miles of concrete roads and numerous bridges and public buildings at a cost of $6.5 million. Normally regarded as a goldmine for a politician, the work paid him a salary of $6,000 and left him poorer than when he began. “Absolutely straight,” a local politician described him. Scrupulous to a fault, he denied his mother $11,000, as a matter of principle, for the eleven acres of roadway cut from her mortgaged farm. His scruples became a legend and the foundation of a career in politics.
For all his racketeering and experience in controlling red-light districts, Pendergast saw Truman as an asset to the machine, and in 1934 tapped him for the US Senate. Though wholly lacking in the skills of public speaking, Harry was richly endowed with a politician’s memory for names, faces, and favors and a wonderful gift for making and keeping friends, assets that helped even more than machine support to land him in Washington in January 1935. With a portrait of the boss over the mantelpiece at his office, he became known at first as “the Senator from Pendergast.” That did not help him at the White House, but he professed himself “a New Dealer from the start” and surprised colleagues as an early supporter of bills against lynching and the poll tax and of other civil rights legislation. The President and his people pointedly ignored the senator after T. J. Pendergast confessed to tax evasion in 1939, but Truman soon gained respect and favor from his Senate colleagues as a hard and reliable worker on committee assignments; and especially for his investigations, which made the headlines, of corruption on the part of powerful corporations with government contracts.
With no help at all from Roosevelt and campaign funds so low that he sometimes slept in his car, Truman very narrowly won reelection in 1940. By that time defense contracts were multiplying, and the reelected senator proposed a special committee to investigate the greed and fraud of contractors. This became universally known as the Truman Committee and its work and sensational findings proved the making of its indefatigable chairman as a figure of national prominence. He had “arrived.” Relentless, eminently fair, and unsparing of anything in his investigations, he produced findings that were shocking and alarming about the irresponsibility and graft in big business. And where the blame pointed to Roosevelt, he did not hesitate to say so. The investigations were his major preoccupation during the early war years, but he was one of the first to speak out against “the horrible intentions of the Nazi beasts” against the Jews and to criticize the President for doing too little to help them.
As late as July 1944, Roosevelt was saying, “I hardly know Truman.” And for a year before that, unlikely as the possibility seemed, Truman was saying no to the suggestion that he might be FDR’s running mate in his race for a fourth term. For one thing Vice-President Henry Wallace seemed still in favor, and after him were several candidates, including William O. Douglas and James M. Byrnes, in higher favor than Harry. And as one after another they were eliminated the obstinate little man from Missouri kept saying “no, no, no” so consistently and vehemently as to sound as if he meant it. One reason for believing him was the physical decline of Franklin Roosevelt and the likelihood of any vice-president becoming his successor. Another was that Truman privately believed he was not up to the job. When the word finally came to his hideout during the turmoil of the Chicago convention that he was the President’s choice, his reaction was “Oh, shit!”
An authentic American patrician from an old family estate on the upper Hudson River, with wealth, education, and social position, Roosevelt came out of the world of Edith Wharton’s fiction, a world, in David McCullough’s words, “as far removed from Jackson County, Missouri, as some foreign land.” More like a character in a Sinclair Lewis novel, his Missouri running mate also presented a striking physical contrast. Only two years younger than the President, Truman looked far younger, while Roosevelt seemed a haggard old man. Watching his hand shake so badly that he could not pour cream in his coffee, Truman, who had not seen him in a year, said, “It scares the hell out of me.” And well it might. In less than three months after the inauguration Franklin Roosevelt was dead and as of April 12, 1945, Harry Truman was president.
He seemed dazed at first and said he felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on him. But in appearance and behavior he was brisk, assured, and confident. He seemed to do everything right at first—apart from his abrupt halting of the Lend-Lease program to the Allies, which he quickly countermanded—and for weeks enjoyed a favorable press. His manner and the “honeymoon” period covered up much uncertainty. Roosevelt had told him little or nothing about US war strategy, and he was for twelve days commander-in-chief before being informed about the best-kept secret of the war, the atomic bomb. The Battle of Berlin was nearing its climax, with American casualties averaging more than nine hundred a day, and losses in the Pacific were increasing. Alarming intelligence reports on Russian domination of the nations of eastern Europe had to be mastered before Molotov’s approaching visit. Churchill was warning him that “the gravest matters in the world” would be decided in two months, and that Russian plans portended “an event in the history of Europe to which there has been no parallel.” The two leaders agreed they must have an early meeting with Stalin.