Among the forty men who have been presidents of the United States, no one’s reputation with the general public and with opinion makers, not even Richard Nixon’s or Warren Harding’s, has had wider fluctuations than Harry Truman’s, starting with his eight years (minus three-and-a-half months) in the White House. Truman had everyone’s sympathy when, as he said to reporters, “the house, the stars and all the planets” fell on him with Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, after he had been virtually forced by FDR into accepting the Democratic vice-presidential nomination nine months before. His modest demeanor and expressed determination to continue the “Roosevelt policies” (if only he had been able to find out what they were!), and the record he had made in the Senate as chairman of a special committee to investigate the national defense program (his inquiries into war expenditures had saved hundreds of millions of tax dollars), resulted in an approval rating of 87 percent in the Gallup public opinion poll in mid-May 1945. This was “three points higher than Roosevelt…ever achieved,” Roy Jenkins reminds us in Truman, a tightly composed portrait of a man he greatly admires.
The image Truman then projected was of the “Common Man,” the “Average Man.” Certainly he was average in appearance—of average height, a face in the crowd distinguished chiefly by a pair of abnormally thick-lensed glasses without which, as he said, he was “blind as a bat.” He was a poor public speaker. He had a flat, twangy voice with a Missouri accent that seemed designed to prevent eloquence, and he was further handicapped, whenever he delivered a prepared address, by his extreme nearsightedness, for if he looked up from the lectern he was likely to lose his place in the manuscript. But if he lacked utterly the charm, the brilliance, the capacity for inspirational leadership of the man he succeeded in the White House, he also lacked the shiftiness, the guileful role-playing, which, in the eyes of millions, had rendered his predecessor so dangerously mistaken on occasion, and untrustworthy.
Harry Truman put on no airs, made no effort to “create an impression,” except insofar as he felt compelled to try to do so as representative of the power and majesty of the United States. (Witness the famous photograph of him at Potsdam in 1945, seated between Churchill and Stalin as FDR had been at Teheran and Yalta. Churchill appears relaxed, bored, a bit annoyed; Stalin appears relaxed and bored, but on the verge of a sly little Oriental smile; Harry Truman appears emphatically not bored but so tense in the effort to be presidential that he is about to break into pieces—his chin down as his head is thrust back in a way that makes for a double chin, a jutting jaw, and, of the tightly closed mouth, a hard grim line.) He was normally content to be his plain self, forthright in his dealings with men and with issues.
He seemed, in sum, the very personification of democracy’s central paradox: the governed that governs, the Common Man made remarkable by circumstance, the Little Man who, under duress, shows himself to be great. For had he not demonstrated in the Senate an ability to rise to great occasions? And was he not doing so now?
There followed for Truman, however, a long series of grave misfortunes, for which in several cases he was himself responsible. Within a few months after he took office the initial popular image of him as perhaps the most modest man ever to exercise presidential power became qualified by a sense of him as both “cocky” and (often) “half-cocked.” By the spring of the midterm election year 1946, the end of his first year in office, his Gallup approval rating had plunged more than fifty points, to an abysmal 32 percent. And in the elections some five months later, the Republicans, joking that “to err is Truman,” gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928.
Thereafter, aided by the words and deeds of his congressional opposition, his performance and popularity improved—but then they again deteriorated so greatly that, in the spring of 1946, New Deal Democrats tried to ditch him and draft in his place General Eisenhower, of whose political views or capacity for political leadership they knew nothing. Truman’s future appeared utterly hopeless. Already, by then, the party’s extreme left wing had split off to form a new Progressive party, with Henry Wallace its candidate. In midsummer, the extreme right wing, its hard core composed of Southern white racists, split off in protest against the party platform’s civil rights plank, which Truman endorsed, to form a so-called Dixiecrat party, with South Carolina’s J. Strom Thurmond as its candidate. Truman, so reluctantly nominated and so handicapped, was then forced to wage “the loneliest campaign”1 in the history of presidential politics, with no money, no active help from influential fellow Democrats, and, as it must have seemed even to himself at the outset (he never admitted it openly, then or later), no chance to win.
That last apparent fact was underlined by the unusually high reputation of his Republican opponent. New York governor Thomas E. Dewey was from all accounts one of the best executives the state had ever had. He was of the “liberal wing” of his conservative party, and had impressive presence, though he was of something less than average height and was notably deficient in personal warmth. He was an excellent public speaker, blessed with a baritone voice so richly musical that it had led him as a young man to consider an opera career. He was also a superb organizer. He organized his campaign with machine-like efficiency, financed it with several times as much money as Truman could raise, and ran it on a lofty plane, delivering set-piece orations on single themes in large auditoriums, with relatively few impromptu appearances on the rear platform of his campaign train. Encouraged by every public opinion poll (Gallup’s, Crossley’s, Roper’s) taken that summer and fall, he acted as if he were already president and Truman, whose name he seldom if ever mentioned, were the challenger. When Truman began his hard campaigning, in mid-September, with election day barely seven weeks away, the polls showed him trailing by twelve to thirteen points. He appeared either gallant or pitifully ridiculous, depending upon one’s point of view, but doomed in any case.
His major prepared addresses compared poorly with those of his opponent. They fell flat on the listening ear, lay flat on the printed page. But press reports of his almost incredibly strenuous campaign travels, when he made ten to sixteen rear-platform talks every day during long sweeps across the country, indicated that talking extemporaneously, using notes only, a plain man speaking his plain mind, he excited and aroused his audiences. In large cities, and in mining and factory towns, he countered his opponent’s generalities with harsh specific citations of the Republican party’s hostility to organized labor. In the farm belt, he made slashing attacks upon the “do-nothing” Republican Congress’s failure to provide government storage facilities for that year’s bumper grain crops, or to do anything to prevent the current steep slide in corn prices (corn, sold in July for $2.25 a bushel—Roy Jenkins has it “a barrel”—was selling in October at $1.26). And it was soon evident that he had had persuasive impact upon the national mind: the polls recorded a narrowing of Dewey’s lead throughout October.
All the same, Dewey’s election seemed a foregone conclusion on election day, November 2. The final pre-election polls by Gallup and Crossley2 had Dewey ahead by 5 and 5.1 points respectively, and poll-taking, we were told and believed, was now so “scientific” that its results were never off by much over 3 percent. Such “science” was deplored by millions of Americans for seeming to deny reality to individual choice, personal decision. Its published findings seemed also to manipulate, through a “band-wagon” effect, the opinion it claimed objectively to measure.
As everyone knows, the polls proved to be off in their predictions, by nine to ten points: Truman defeated Dewey by 4.5 percent of the popular vote, by 303 to 189 in the electoral college, while leading his party to regain control of both houses of Congress. The pollsters’ humiliation seemed most dramatically manifest in the radio voice of the then-celebrated H.V. Kaltenborn of NBC, “that dedicated Truman-hater,” as Margaret Truman calls him in her revealing memoir, Bess W. Truman. It was a voice which, through a decade of world crisis, had been as the voice of God pronouncing upon human affairs—a voice precise, exciting,above all authoritative (surely no conclusion so spoken could be wrong!). Yet even after a majority of Dewey’s supporters were acknowledging among themselves incredulously that their candidate was losing, this voice presented an election analysis that had a Dewey victory in the making—a persistence in error obviously grounded upon blind faith in the polls. At last the note of doubt (the election “will be surprisingly close”)3 flawed the pundit’s perfect assurance, when early in the morning of November 3, Truman majorities were reported in rural Ohio and Illinois, traditionally solid Republican territory—majorities that sealed Truman’s victory. Days later Truman himself, recalling his own experience on election night, gave a poor but hilarious imitation, before several cameras, of Kaltenborn’s pontifications.
Truman was given a great triumph when he returned to Washington from Independence, Missouri, where he had gone to vote. The inaugural festivities were among the grandest in history, a Republican Congress having appropriated lavishly for them in the expectation of a Republican victory. Truman’s presidential popularity had again risen high. But not for long.
His second term was burdened with troubles as grave as his first, especially after the Soviet Union successfully tested a “nuclear device,” thereby ending US atomic monopoly. Soon after came the rise of “McCarthyism” and the start of the Korean War, which were to continue throughout the remainder of Truman’s term. Their deleterious effect upon the administration was increased by a series of petty financial scandals, involving men close to the president, whose damage was increased by Truman’s stubborn loyalty to “cronies.” By the summer of 1952, the alleged “mess in Washington” capitalized upon hugely by the Republican-controlled press, was widely believed comparable with the Harding scandals of thirty years before, and Truman’s ratings in the polls sank to 23 percent, their lowest point.
The apparent popular aversion to him was so great that the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952, Adlai Stevenson, wanted none of his speechmaking support (Truman gave it anyway), considering it more harmful than helpful to the campaign against Eisenhower. Nor was Truman’s reputation perceptibly improved four years later, when he attempted to block Stevenson from being nominated a second time and to replace him with Averill Harriman at the Democratic National Convention. So slight was his persuasive power over the convention, and so embarrassing was his assumption that he was still powerful, that his wife, an unusually reserved person, was moved to tears. She begged a friend to stop him, “Harry’s making a fool of himself,” she said, according to Margaret Truman.
In the following years, however, as his administration’s record came to be viewed in longer perspective, his reputation improved dramatically. In July 1962, just six years after his lamentable performance at the Democratic National Convention, the senior Arthur M. Schlesinger published in The New York Times a poll taken of seventy-five leading historians in which presidents were listed in order within categories of “greatness,” “near-greatness,” and “average” or “mediocre.” There were five “great” presidents—Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Wilson, and Jefferson, in that order. Of six “near-great” presidents, Harry S. Truman was listed fourth, behind Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Polk, but ahead of John Adams and Grover Cleveland. I’m certain he would remain in a similar position if such a poll were taken today.
Certainly the three recent books on him—Roy Jenkins’s Truman, Margaret Truman’s Bess W. Truman, and Richard Lawrence Miller’s Truman: The Rise to Power—will do nothing to lower Truman’s reputation, although parts of Miller’s book seem designed to do so.
Miller’s is the first serious biography of Truman to concern itself exclusively with the pre-White House years, and there are signs that he initially approached his subject in typically revisionist fashion, determined to find error in accepted opinion. The book’s publishers claim in their publicity: “Provocative New Biography Debunks the Myth that Truman’s Conduct Before the White House was Blamelessly Virtuous.” But Miller, though refreshingly capable of moral indignation, is fair-minded; he has prodigiously researched hitherto neglected sources; and this reviewer at least, upon closing the book, found his opinion of Truman’s mental and moral qualities somewhat raised by the new information that Miller presents. He presents it, one must add, in awkward prose (the flap copy describes it as “sometimes folksy”): “Martin Lewis,” we read, “cranked up the Missouri program, and then moved on.” Elsewhere: “The intricate dance Pendergast had described was reaching its climax, and needed only Truman’s assent to near completion.” Even so, Miller’s is no worse than the wooden prose of many highly regarded academic historians these days; it is certainly more lively, and the story he tells is intrinsically interesting.
Truman, we learn, came to stock less common than commonly supposed and was raised in circumstances less humble than is commonly supposed. His grandparents, both maternal and paternal, were among the elite in western Missouri, owning large plots of land in Jackson County and working them with slaves before the Civil War. His father, John Anderson Truman, inherited money, added to it for a time with successful business gambles (he was a born speculator), and, as an associate of William T. Kemper, president of the Kansas City Board of Trade and Democratic National Committeeman for Missouri, became prominent, rich, and politically powerful in the town of Independence, Missouri, where he moved when his eldest son was six.
Nor was this son himself as a boy as “ordinary,” as “average” in ability, as millions were led to believe. His extreme nearsightedness, evidently congenital though not discovered and corrected with thick glasses until he was about to enter grade school, greatly handicapped his relations with other boys—more so in Independence, perhaps, where traditions mingling the planter South’s fighting chivalry were combined with the daring and toughness of the western pioneers, whose wagon trains assembled there for travel along the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. These traditions helped to encourage a love of combat and rough contact sports among the boys of the town. Harry, who could not fight or play roughly with his glasses on, or see well enough to do so with his glasses off, read books during the hours he might otherwise have spent in sport. By the time he graduated from high school he was reputed to have read every book in Independence’s small town library, with special emphasis upon biography and history.
Another passion of his youth was music. He began to play the piano under his mother’s tutelage when he was five or six, took lessons from a professional teacher in Independence, and, in high school, rode the trolley twice a week into Kansas City, nine miles away, to study under a woman who had herself studied under world-famous masters in Vienna. He arose at five o’clock each morning in order to practice a couple of hours before going to school. He learned to play well, and it became an addiction that, along with his glasses, his book reading, and his always being a favorite of his teachers, virtually ensured his being dismissed with contempt by other boys as a “sissy.” As president he once said that “to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy.” But it is highly significant that his schoolfellows did not regard him so. They sensed that to risk such teasing in an unwavering pursuit of one’s own goals showed courage and character, and that the boy Harry’s essential attitudes were, as Roy Jenkins remarks, decidedly “anti-sissy.” They recognized, too, as they swam and hiked with him that he was far from being a physical weakling—that, in fact, he had superior physical strength and stamina.
The youth who emerges from these early pages of Miller’s book is an appealing figure, earnest, affectionate, excessively modest in his assessment of his own attractiveness and abilities, but determined to do his best in ways good for the world. Contemptuous of mere wealth and the quest for power, he was nonetheless highly ambitious, aspiring to a “greatness” of self, of moral character, of service to mankind. “There are three things that [ruin] a man,” he writes, evidently in a personal journal while in high school. “No. 1 is power…. No. 2 is ambition for high social recognition. That is all tinsel and fake. No. 3 is appetite or inability to exercise physical restraint [i.e., drunkenness and sexual lust].” He is gallant in the face of misfortune. When, during his last high school year, his father abruptly lost the family fortune in disastrous grain futures speculations on the Kansas City Board of Trade, forcing the son to abandon both his piano lessons and his dream of a college education, he did so without complaint: he even claims to have given up his piano lessons voluntarily.
He is no less appealing as he makes his arduous and troubled way, in Miller’s book, from adolescence into young middle age. Obliged to go to work after high school, he labors briefly on a menial job for the Kansas City Star, is timekeeper for a railroad construction firm, then a lowly clerk in two large Kansas City banks. For ten years, he is a bachelor farmer, managing a 600-acre farm owned by the Youngs, his mother’s people, at Grandview. When a family quarrel over Grandmother Young’s will at last moves him off the farm, he spends a couple of years in arduous and daring but unsuccessful ventures into mining and oildrilling.
As Miller tells it, he does superior work, is unusually conscientious, industrious, and thrifty in his use of time, whatever his occupation. He becomes, for instance, a scientific farmer, introducing new livestock breeds, installing erosion-control measures (he established the first grassed waterways seen in his part of Missouri), and earning wide recognition as both master farmer and community leader. He is something of a joiner. In Kansas City, he enlists in a newly formed National Guard battery, managing somehow, with the aid of a sergeant-friend, to bypass the eye examination. While a farmer, he joins a Masonic lodge, organizes one at Grandview, and becomes an ardent student of freemasonry. This seems to encourage his concerns for personal morality, for ethical conduct, and for a “spiritual” life, though he is no churchgoer (he equates ostentatious piety with hypocrisy).
Not until he is thirty-eight does he make his first serious venture into politics. By then he has served overseas during World War I with his National Guard unit, has seen limited combat in the Argonne, has proved his ability to command men, and has returned a captain with a host of lifelong “war buddy” friendships. One of them is with a Lieutenant James Pendergast, nephew of Tom Pendergast who heads a Kansas City Democrat organization already well on its way to becoming a powerful (and corrupt) machine. He has, at age thirty-five, after an unusually protracted courtship and engagement, nine years in all, married Bess Wallace, aged thirty-four, whom he has worshipped since his high school days. In partnership with his war buddy Eddie Jacobson he has failed disastrously, during the postwar depression, as owner-proprietor of a Kansas City haberdashery, incurring what is for him a crushing debt. While he deals with this catastrophe manfully, honorably, determined to pay off his merchant-creditors in full (eventually he does so), fellow war veterans of his battery call upon him to run, in 1922, for the post of eastern judge of Jackson County—that is, judge for the county’s portion outside Kansas City.
This is an administrative rather than a judicial post, the equivalent of county commissioner. He accepts the call, having been assured of Pendergast support which, in what proves a tough campaign, he very meagerly receives. Early on, in some desperation, he seeks the support of the Ku Klux Klan, then politically powerful in rural Missouri, going so far as to pay a $ 10 membership fee; but he promptly withdraws, and his check is returned, when the Klan demands of him a pledge not to appoint as judge any Catholic to a county job. (A great many of his war buddies are Catholics.) He wins anyway, though narrowly. Two years later, running for reelection, he attacks the Klan, which is supporting his Republican opponent, for vicious intolerance. He even attends a Klan rally in order to denounce the organization from its own speaker’s platform, at considerable risk to himself. It is a display of courage that does him no perceptible good at the polls that year, when the Republicans win heavily.
In 1924 he is again at loose ends, and now with a child, his daughter Margaret, to support. He sells memberships in the Kansas City Automobile Club for a few months, then takes another unfortunate fling as a business entrepreneur. With another war buddy, this one thoroughly dishonest, he launches a complicated venture involving a savings and loan company and a small bank in Kansas City. He soon finds himself faced with a financial ruin from which he knows he can never recover. In desperation, he saves himself by selling his stock “to a crew he knew would cause the bank to fail,” without warning depositors, whom, Miller comments indignantly, “he…let get reamed.”
At the same time Truman, now fortytwo, clearly recognizes at last his true vocation. It is late summer 1926, a year in which the Pendergast machine achieves absolute political domination over Kansas City and Jackson County. Pendergast men control Kansas City’s city council, a Pendergast leader has become the city’s first city manager, and Pendergast is in a position to dictate the choice of presiding judge (chairman of the board of commissioners) of Jackson County, the county’s top administrative post, which has a four-year term. He offers the machine candidacy, tantamount to election, to Harry Truman, and Truman accepts, thus finally committing himself to a life in politics.
It is at this point that Miller becomes most harshly critical of his subject. “Truman played a key role in maintaining the Pendergast control of life in Jackson County after 1926,” he writes. “He not only knew of the machine’s illegalities but participated in some of them.” He did so, however, as Miller is obliged to make clear, from motives radically different from those of most machine politicians: he wanted to do great things for the county; he had to win elections if he was to do them; and to win elections he had to become a member of Pendergast’s organization. Characteristically, he became a fervently loyal one (Miller claims, unconvincingly, that he was actually one of the machine’s ruling triumvirate) and, as such, attempted on at least one occasion (this is the darkest stain on his record) to frustrate the efforts of law officers to expose the machine’s ties to organized crime. “His private memoranda of that era show him…praying that the ends would justify the means,” Miller writes. In one such memo, Truman asks,
“Did I do right to put a lot of sons of bitches on the payroll and pay other sons of bitches more money for supplies than they were worth in order to satisfy the political powers [Pendergast] and save the taxpayers $3,500,000? I believe I did do right. Anyway I’m not a partner of any of them, and I’ll go out poorer in every way than when I came into office.” Another memo asked: “Am I an administrator…? Or am I just a crook to compromise in order to get the job done? You judge it, I can’t.”
Truman, it should be added, personally stole not a penny. While others involved in the machine grew rich during his eight years as presiding judge (he was reelected in 1930) he, as he had predicted, left office as broke as when he entered. He also left large accomplishments—a countywide hard-surfaced road system that became a model for the nation; a new Jackson County courthouse economically constructed in Kansas City; an experiment in regional (six-county) planning that also became a national model; a county government that, for all its compromises with the machine, was greatly improved in quality and efficiency over those that had preceded it.
Indeed, one marvels at the amount of good he got done, and at the relative spotlessness with which, in 1935, he emerged from the sewer of Pendergast politics to go to Washington as US Senator. He could not have won without Pendergast’s support. But the machine’s support was no guarantee of victory in a statewide contest. And he could not have won if he had not campaigned on a record of solid accomplishment. In the Senate he proved to be his own man—not at all an errand boy for Boss Tom, as the Kansas City Star and other Republican papers characterized him.
He supported New Deal legislation to which Pendergast was opposed—notably anti-holding-company legislation aimed at utility corporations with whose interests Pendergast’s own were linked. He conducted a highly revealing congressional inquiry into the ruin of America’s railroads by greedy financiers—an inquiry into big business criminality that must have made Pendergast personally uneasy, since his machine was sustained by criminal business joined with that of the underworld.
True, Truman also fought with zeal, and no success, for the appointment as federal marshal of an ill-qualified man backed by Pendergast but opposed by the Justice Department; and he did what he could, which was practically nothing, to protect Pendergast against a powerful Kansas City reform movement which, along with an Internal Revenue Service inquiry into his failure to pay taxes on his illegal earnings, destroyed the machine and put him in jail in the spring of 1940. These, however, were acts of personal loyalty and friendship, made at grave risk to Truman’s career, and they must have been recognized as such by a considerable portion of his Missouri constituency Otherwise he could not have won reelection in 1940 as he did, although he did so very narrowly.
Miller’s account of Truman’s second senatorial term—of the Truman Committee, of his failed efforts to protect small business against big in the war economy,4 of the chain of fortuitous circumstances that led to Roosevelt’s drafting him as 1944 running-mate—adds little to what we already know. Most interesting, at least to this reviewer, is the light Miller throws upon Truman’s always uneasy and sometimes embittered relations with FDR.
How bitter they could be is suggested by Margaret Truman’s arduous and interesting exercise in filial devotion. She cites instance after instance, often through quotations from her father’s letters to her mother, of the ways Roosevelt’s personal “unreliability” and “untrustworthiness” hurt Truman. She also stresses Truman’s devotion to “the things he [the President] stood for,” going on to say that Bess Truman was different in this regard, lacking “Dad’s gift for entertaining two points of view simultaneously.” He “could approve of FDR’s policies” while deploring the man’s “devious, capricious personality,” whereas she simply “disliked the man.”
But then Bess, it must be added, liked few people and tended to be suspicious, expecting the worst, of almost everyone. It was widely recognized when she was in the White House that she was not an appealing person; and to compose a sympathetic portrait of her, Margaret Truman evidently had to overcome hurts and resentments of her own. (“This is the most difficult book I have ever written,” begins a brief prefatory “Word to the Reader.”) Bess, it appears, was intensely private, a person with much shrewd practical intelligence and strength of character but with a severely limited capacity to give or receive affection. Perhaps hers was a naturally cold temperament, though she seems to have impressed her high school classmates (certainly she impressed Harry Truman) as outgoing, and vivacious, as well as uncommonly attractive physically. But if she was not cold to begin with she became so, was made so, according to her daughter, by a traumatic experience when she was eighteen.
This experience, of which Margaret Truman did not learn until she herself was twenty (she never thereafter spoke of it to her mother, being ordered not to by her father), was the suicide of Bess’s father, David Wallace. He seems to have somewhat resembled Eleanor Roosevelt’s father, being charming, generous, weak, alcoholic, a failure in every occupation he undertook, but adored by his daughter, whom he adored. He may have had throat cancer, as members of his family defensively asserted, when he blew his brains out in the bathroom one morning.
The effect upon Bess was devastating and permanent. “When a woman loves someone as intensely as Bess loved her father, and he turns his back on her in such an absolute…way, inevitably she questions her very ability to love,” Margaret Truman writes. As for Bess’s mother Madge, who had been raised as a Southern belle, to be useless and helpless, she was psychologically crippled by this event, becoming so utterly dependent emotionally upon Bess that any man who took Bess for a wife must also take Madge Wallace—and Madge, as both Miller and Margaret Truman describe her, was not easy to take. For one thing, she continuously showed a contempt for her son-in-law. (Truman seems to have become genuinely fond of her, however, according to Roy Jenkins, and to have been grief-stricken when at last she died, in the White House, aged ninety, just a month before Truman’s presidency ended.)
Bess’s difference from her husband in character and personality was radical. Where he was humble, she was prideful. Where he was in many respects incurably romantic, she was bleakly realistic and commonsensical. Where he had driving intellectual interests, she had none. Where he often pursued goals with a strenuousness that put his health at risk, she, in Roy Jenkins’s words, “never taxed herself very heavily.” Where he was open and inclined to overcommit himself, she was closed, self-centered, noncommittal. She would never voluntarily give herself away, not to her husband or to her daughter, and certainly not to the history in which, by her husband’s career, she became involved. If she could prevent it, posterity would never know how she felt.
Margaret Truman tells of her father’s coming upon her mother in the living room of their house in Independence near the end of 1955, when she was seventy and he seventy-one, “sitting before the fireplace, in which a brisk fire was crackling,” surrounded by “piles of letters.” Having glanced through one of them, Bess tossed it into the fire. Her husband wanted to know what she was doing.
“Burning our letters,” she said.
“Bess,” Dad said, “think of history.”
“I have,” Mother said, and tossed another letter into the fire.
But it was her own letters that she destroyed; she “spared most of Dad’s.” This accounts for the fact that all three of these biographers quote copiously from his letters to Bess, letters in which he often “pours his heart out,” as people say. How did she reply? Clearly, in this relationship, he was the lover, she the loved, in far greater need of her companionship than she of his. It was largely owing to her (though straitened financial circumstances and Madge’s dependence had a good deal to do with it) that their courtship and engagement had been prolonged, and that the two lived apart for weeks and months at a time after he became senator, he alone in a small Washington apartment, she with her mother and daughter in Independence. In letter after letter quoted by his daughter he speaks to Bess of his loneliness, his longing for her, his begging wish that she could be with him. Yet it is also clear that she loved and cared for him to the limit of her capacity, and was fiercely loyal to him, appalled though she was when he yielded to FDR’s pressure to run for vice-president. On many occasions she served him and history well by interposing her cold common sense between his hot temper and its foolish expression in public. She exerted a moderating influence upon his emotional, romantic tendencies.
Roy Jenkins’s Truman is far the best written of the three books under review, being composed in the concise, ironic, judgmental style that Lytton Strachey impressed upon the art of biography. I know of no book better designed to give most readers a swift, accurate, and highly readable view of Truman as a man and as a president. Jenkins presents no new information, has apparently made no effort to search primary sources, except for interviews with such people as Averill Harriman, Clark Clifford (one of Truman’s principal idea men), Lord Franks (the British Ambassador in Washington from 1948 to 1952), Margaret Truman, and her husband, the former New York Times executive Clifton Daniel. He leans heavily upon published work, chiefly, by Robert J. Donovan, Irwin Ross, Jonathan Daniels, Merle Miller, and Margaret Truman. But he brings to his work a sharp intelligence and a fresh point of view, that of a distinguished British intellectual who is also a leading member of Britain’s Labour party, a former cabinet minister, and a former close associate of Ernest Bevin. From this point of view we gain valuable insight into the problems Truman faced as president and the way he set about solving them.
Truman inherited, of course, on April 12, 1945, horrendous problems that FDR, a “first-thing-first” man, had characteristically put off seriously considering until the war’s end. As vice-president, astonishingly, he had had no briefing on any of these problems by a president obviously in failing health—an appalling instance of that personal irresponsibility that was part of FDR’s essential conception of himself and his place in the drama of world history. Truman had not even been told what the Manhattan Project was about (his Senate committee had been shunted away from any investigation of it), though its product, the atomic bomb, required of him, immediately upon taking office, decisions on its use that would affect history from then to now.
This was only the most pressing question he had to face. Could the US convert to a peace economy in ways that prevented the elimination of small businesses by big business? Could the devastated societies of Western Europe be revived swiftly enough to resist internal and external Communist pressures? How could the US deal with a Soviet regime determined to dominate Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, regardless of what the Yalta agreements said about free elections? What position should be taken toward the Zionist aim to set up a Jewish nation-state in Palestine—a prospect adamantly opposed by the British, the Arabs, and the State Department? What was to be done about the multitude of new nation-states, their populations impoverished and illiterate, their industry or means of developing it nonexistent, which must inevitably result from the collapse of the British Empire and of colonialism generally?
In all American history, only three Presidents—Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt—faced, at the outset of their terms, problems comparable in urgency to those confronting Harry Truman in the spring and summer of 1945; and only one, Franklin Roosevelt, faced so many of such complexity. It cannot be said that this untried president failed to meet them head-on. None could fault him, as many faulted his predecessor, for indecisiveness.
FDR, though he boasted of the ease with which he made decisions, showed in practice an extreme reluctance to do so. He continuously employed the device of omnibus legislation as a means of avoiding choices—he was addicted to a “weaving together” of contradictory proposals in the pragmatist’s, or opportunist’s, hope or belief that “things,” given time, would just naturally “work themselves out.” Harry Truman as senator had suffered much from the consequent lack of clear-cut positions by the White House, especially on Missouri patronage matters and administration support for the Truman committee and its findings.
Perhaps it was in part as an over-reaction to this that he himself, in the White House, was inclined to be over-decisive, too quick to speak an unequivocal “yes” or “no” in clouded, fluid situations where he would have done well to wait for clarification. By nature he was hotheaded and impulsive (according to Miller, Harry’s father was described by fellow townsmen “as a sport who would knock your hat off as a prank, and knock your head off if you crossed him”), and experience had given him little of that patience and emotional control of which FDR, remarkably even-tempered to begin with, had acquired so much during his long ordeal with polio.
Quite possibly, Truman made a larger number of sharp, either/or decisions having long-term worldwide consequences than any other President. Those he made in foreign policy when James F. Byrnes was secretary of state were highly dubious, or dangerously worse. Most of those made thereafter, when George Marshall and then Dean Acheson were secretaries of state, were much wiser ones. But taken all together, foreign and domestic, the decisions, good or bad, make an awesome list.
First, there was the decision to “drop the Bomb,” twice, which Truman claimed was the easiest decision he ever made and one he never regretted. It should not have been that easy. The decision to end abruptly wartime rationing and wage-and-price controls in effect ensured that the process of largely turning the American economy over to big corporations, which Senator Truman had vehemently opposed, would continue. Over the strong protests of those best informed about Bernard Baruch and atomic energy, he chose to name Baruch US representative to the United Nations Energy Commission, thereby making sure that there would be no such international control of atomic energy as Truman had publicly called for, and for which a feasible proposal (the Acheson-Lilienthal report), possibly acceptable to the Soviet Union, had been made.
Truman’s policies for converting Germany and Japan to friendly democracies should be counted among his greatest successes. However, he also wanted the US to fill the power vacuum created by the collapse of Britain’s empire—a decision crudely incorporated in the open-ended Truman Doctrine and which, though effective in blocking Soviet expansion into the eastern Mediterranean, pointed the way to such tragic misadventures as the one in Vietnam. To his credit, he backed the Marshall Plan to send extensive aid to the ruined European economies, and, in 1949, the “Point Four” program for aid to the undeveloped countries. In promoting NATO he set a new pattern for the peacetime defense of Europe; and for all the distortions, contradictions, and resentments over American dominance that later emerged within the alliance, its critics at the time had no persuasive alternative to it.
He took bold, highly dangerous decisions not only to oppose communist North Korean aggression against South Korea, but to press on beyond the thirty-eighth parallel, which led to disaster. Removing Douglas MacArthur, the hero of millions of conservatives, from command in Korea, and then from all command for gross insubordination to his Commander-in-Chief was, as Jenkins writes, “an act of stark courage.” (Jenkins plausibly comments, “I doubt that Franklin Roosevelt would have done it.”) If Truman had not done it, the constitutionally stated civilian control over the military would have been gravely impaired. Here Truman’s sense of constitutional responsibility and his almost compulsive need to make a decision and have done with it worked together in the national interest.
In the concluding paragraph of his book, Roy Jenkins describes the commemorative stone above Truman’s grave in the courtyard of the Truman Library in Independence.
It lists with equal prominence each office which he had held, from Eastern Judge to President of the United States. This flatness was in a sense appropriate, for he had treated all the offices with equal respect, and had behaved in each of them with equal determination to do his best…. It so happened that the first office led to the building of some good roads and the last to the building of a Western world which enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and freedom from major war for a generation. In each case he built well, honestly, and without pretension.
One hesitates to quarrel with these words of praise for one of the bravest, most honest, and most honorable men ever to become president. All the same, it seems to me that if one credits Truman with responsibility for a generation of Western prosperity, and for the fact there has been no world war since the last, one must also credit him for fostering the cold war, tightening the grip of big business upon all our lives, and increasing the freedom-destroying and life-threatening power of the military-industrial complex, with its dominance over foreign and domestic policy. Truman bears a heavy responsibility for launching the Western side of the post-war arms race in conditions of private military profiteering that make effective action to halt that race extremely difficult, perhaps impossible.
Still, were not many of his famous decisions mainly determined by a swelling “wave of the future,” the substance of which is a rampantly growing, virtually uncontrollable technology that has had huge effects upon social and economic institutions, and upon personal lives? Every president since World War I seems to me to have ridden almost as a chip upon this wave—to have been overtaken and overwhelmed by events whose causes were scientific and technological developments that, in themselves and in their social implications, were beyond the grasp of his mind. None has recognized the basic issues and predominant challenges of his time, and responded to these adequately as, say, Washington did, or Lincoln.
December 4, 1986
Irwin Ross, The Loneliest Campaign (Greenwood Press, 1977, reprint of 1968 edition). Among those Democrats urging an Eisenhower draft were James and Elliott Roosevelt, encouraging Truman’s expressed belief that “no Roosevelt can be trusted.” ↩
Roper, previously the most accurate forecaster of elections, stopped his polling in mid-September, announcing that Dewey’s lead was so great it could not possibly be overcome. ↩
Actually, Truman reduced Dewey’s percentage of the popular vote to less than Dewey received in 1944 when running against that champion campaigner, Franklin Roosevelt. ↩
“Truman watched dumbfounded as FDR allowed the dollar-a-year crowd to strengthen their corporations and crush their competitors through defense contract awards, which involved not only money but allocations of raw materials,” writes Miller, who quotes letters Truman wrote “in anguish” to New Dealer friends, saying that “the economic situation has gone right back to 1920” and that “little business is simply being slaughtered.” Truman was drawn to Justice Brandeis’s ideas on the importance of small business in the economy and Miller writes that he “quietly received” advice from Brandeis on the committee’s work. ↩