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.
At Potsdam in July, Truman met Churchill and Stalin for the first time, and he got on well with the prime minister at once. Awaiting Stalin’s arrival, he took a brief tour of Berlin’s rubble amid overpowering heat and the smell of death and open sewers, recording thoughts of Carthage and Baalbek, Sherman and Genghis Khan in his diary. (After reading excerpts from the diary, one sees that the uneducated Truman had a more informed historical imagination than we now expect from presidents or candidates for president.) He returned to find a preliminary report on the success of the A-bomb test that was conducted the same day. Looking up from his desk the next day he saw Stalin at his door, “a little bit of a squirt” standing about five feet five and appearing quite unwell.
On Stalin’s motion Truman presided at formal sessions as the only head of state present. He plunged immediately into his prepared agenda for momentous decisions. When Churchill and Stalin suggested that time be reserved for discussion, Truman said, “I don’t want to discuss. I want to decide.” He kept pushing for free elections in eastern Europe and the Balkans. That Truman acquitted himself well was the opinion of Charles Bohlen, who was present, but George Kennan, who was not, thought him naive in talking to Stalin about keeping agreements on democracy and justice. McCullough makes much of Truman’s ambivalence. He got nowhere on such issues as elections in Poland, yet he said he liked Stalin, who reminded him of Tom Pendergast. Years later he wrote self-accusingly that he had been an “innocent idealist” at Potsdam, that Stalin was an “unconscionable Russian Dictator…. And I liked the little son-of-a-bitch.”
One reason for his show of confidence may have been the arrival of more complete details of the bomb test and confirmation of its enormous power. Churchill wondered what had come over the President. Truman gave him full details at the very first opportunity—he gave Stalin a much more casual and vague account. He indulged in no flaunting of the weapon. He believed that decisions on using the bomb could not wait, that only he could make them, and he said he did so “after long and careful thought,” adding, “I did not like the weapon.” In his mood for swift decision-making, on July 24 he set both the time and place for the drop.
John McCloy had earlier proposed warning the Japanese of the bomb and giving them a chance to surrender before dropping it. Truman told him he would consider this, but McCullough provides no evidence that he did so. He had a consensus of support from his first-string advisers, and was particularly impressed by General Marshall’s emphasis on the number of American casualties the bomb would save. The Japanese had known for a year and a half that they were defeated, but in the three months since Truman took office Americans had suffered more casualties in the Pacific than in all previous combat there. McCullough is probably right that “he never seriously considered not using the bomb,” though there have been many since who have questioned the necessity and the wisdom of the decision, and particularly the dismissal of McCloy’s suggestion.
The President learned of the Hiroshima bombing on August 6 aboard the cruiser Augusta on his way home, and of Nagasaki and some of the horrors of both, as well as Japan’s decision to surrender after landing. Amid celebrations his popularity soared to an approval rating of 80 percent, and in public he looked “chipper” and “jaunty” as ever. In private he confessed to “dreadful headaches” lasting for days, and he thought Bess looked at him as if he were “something the cat dragged in.” Finding the country as ill-prepared for sudden peace as it had been for sudden war, he declared that Sherman had it wrong: peace was hell.
Troubles began only days after the Japanese surrender ceremonies aboard the battleship Missouri with the 21-point domestic legislation Truman sent to Congress. It was an all-out liberal program for tax reform, increases in unemployment benefits and the minimum wage rate, continued government control over business, and federal housing aid to make possible a million new homes and redevelop “the blighted and slum sections of our cities.” He also asked for compulsory national health insurance, financed by payroll deductions, under which all citizens would have medical care irrespective of their ability to pay. FDR had never asked for so much at one time and no subsequent president has proposed a more boldly comprehensive domestic program. Congress balked and so for opposite reasons did management and labor. Strikes broke out across the country. A quarrel with Secretary of State James Byrnes, who had tried to conduct negotiations with the Russians without keeping Truman informed, threatened a break between them; and the appointment of an oil man as under secretary of the Navy caused a scandal. Current Washington wisecracks were “I’m just mild about Harry,” and “To err is Truman.”
Frustrated and angry, and feeling betrayed by the labor leaders he thought were his friends, Truman then faced a country-wide railroad strike on top of several others that brought the economy to a virtual standstill. He announced to a stunned cabinet he was going to break the railroad strike by drafting the strikers into the army. Undeterred by valid arguments of illegality, he addressed the nation and delivered an ultimatum demanding that striking rail workers return to their jobs by 4:00 PM the next day or else. While negotiations with labor leaders continued, a grim-faced Truman walked into a crowded and cheering House at a few minutes past the deadline and called for temporary legislation authorizing his intended use of the draft power. He was greeted with a roar of approval. But while the audience was still on its feet, a messenger handed a note to the President, who glanced at it and announced the strike had been settled according to his terms.
The scene was indeed “like something in a movie,” but it was not faked, as some suspected, and the House gave him what he asked for by 306 to 13 votes, and many prominent liberals and labor leaders were appalled. The legislation conferring on the President the power to draft strikers was later defeated in the Senate. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote Truman to warn of creating a military state, and a writer in The New Republic asked, “Is this Russia or Germany?” Truman expressed no regrets, never seemed concerned about the implications for civil liberties of drafting strikers, and won enthusiastic approval from the public. He went so far as to say that left-wing critics of his policies on the rail strike should be hanged as traitors.
In foreign affairs, Truman continued to be equivocal about the Soviet Union and incapable of forming a clear policy. This remained true even after Stalin’s public address in February 1946 declaring communism and capitalism incompatible, war inevitable, and ordering rearmament production to be tripled. The President read and applauded Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, which he introduced in Fulton, Missouri, in March, but he backed away from taking steps to support Churchill’s position when it proved unpopular. Then in September he stumbled more deeply into trouble during the mounting Red Scare by approving a speech on Russia by Secretary of Commerce Wallace that contradicted the anti-Soviet policy of Secretary of State Byrnes. Wallace said that the US had “no more business in the political affairs of Eastern Europe than Russia has in the political affairs of Latin America”—an implied acceptance by the US of the legitimacy of the Soviet occupation and domination of the Eastern European countries. Truman wound up firing Wallace, but his blundering behavior in this and other incidents made him the target of more abuse and contempt than he had ever received. His standing in the opinion polls sank to a low of thirty-two points. In the November elections Republicans carried both houses of Congress for the first time since the Great Depression, and a majority of state governorships. Many agreed with Walter Lippmann that Truman was a national embarrassment, while Truman himself declared he “would rather be anything than President” and live anywhere else than in the “great white prison,” which he believed to be haunted.
A marked change in the President and his administration came in 1947. With George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, and Dwight Eisenhower handling his administration’s foreign affairs he was not surrounded by Missouri mediocrities. He came on strong with no retreat before Congress on his program of national health insurance, and federal support of child care, hospital construction, public housing, and civil rights. In March came his response to Secretary Marshall’s reports of the desperate plight of postwar Britain and Europe in the terrible winter of 1947. Churchill described the continent as “a rubble-heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.” Another threat Marshall found ominous was that of Soviet military and political penetration of a disintegrating West.
What became known as the Truman Doctrine was set forth in a dramatic address to a joint session of Congress calling not only for aid to Greece as the British withdrew, and to Turkey, but also a national policy “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” and demanding “immediate and resolute action.” It was widely praised in the press, but Walter Lippmann, who favored aid to Greece, presciently considered the doctrine “a vague global policy which sounds like the tocsin of an ideological crusade [that] has no limits.” Tracing the origins of the speech, McCullough finds that Acheson largely drafted it, drawing on a militantly phrased report prepared in 1946 by presidential adviser Clark Clifford and his assistant George Elsey.
Clifford, who had become an increasingly powerful influence, strongly advocated giving the speech as “‘the opening gun’ in a campaign to awaken the American people,” while George Kennan felt it went too far and General Marshall and Chip Bohlen felt it had “too much rhetoric.” McCullough writes that in answer to his concerns, Marshall was told—he does not say by whom—that the Senate “would not approve the new policy without emphasis on the Communist threat.” But this did not justify the looseness of language and the excessively open-ended commitments that Lippmann criticized.
All agreed, however, that this was a “new” Truman. He insisted that one part of the Truman Doctrine be known as the Marshall Plan to honor the man who did most to rally Europeans to work out their own programs with “the friendly aid” of America, and to persuade Americans to bear the expense. Another piece of evidence of the new Truman was his veto, promptly overridden by Congress, of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. Still another was a speech he made on June 29, 1947, to many thousands of members of the NAACP with its president, Walter White, standing at his side before the Lincoln Memorial. It was a powerful demand for full and equal civil rights and immediate state and federal action to put an end to the outrages of the American caste system. That it came from a man from western Missouri, and was followed by his order ending racial discrimination in the armed forces, made it all the more remarkable.
Other of Truman’s actions of the period do not look so good. For example on March 21 he issued an executive order subjecting the two million or more federal employees to loyalty investigations and discharging all found disloyal. The term “loyalty” was never defined and the accused were denied the right both to confront their accuser and to know exactly what the charges were. “Anyone serving in the government,” McCullough writes, “could be at the mercy of almost any malevolent accuser.” In “private conversation with friends,” according to McCullough, Truman conceded that the order had been a terrible mistake. Behind it were pressures from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, whom Truman detested and the political success the Republicans had had with the Red Scare in the congressional elections of 1946. Clark Clifford would say in an interview in 1978 that Truman believed the loyalty issue was “a lot of baloney” and attributed his order to “the temper of the times” and the fact that he was “going to run in ’48, and that was it.” Yet Clifford’s influential report of 1946 had also been full of warnings against disloyalty in government agencies and the army as a result of “Communist infiltration.”
Truman soon became caught up in what his daughter Margaret called “one of the worst messes of my father’s career,” the conflict over the recognition of the as yet unnamed state of Israel between the White House staff, which favored recognition, and the State Department, which strongly opposed it on grounds that it would undermine US interests in the Middle East. Truman wavered between the two, but was finally persuaded by Chaim Weizmann among others that the US should come out in favor of a separate state. When Warren Austin, the American representative to the UN, announced that the US opposed partition Truman said he had been put “in the position of a liar and a double-crosser” and he nearly came to an open break with Secretary of State Marshall. The crisis was resolved by de facto recognition, with Marshall’s acquiescence.
Prospects for Truman’s reelection in 1948 looked bleaker than ever, what with his poll ratings sinking and Democrats splitting up into independent parties on both right and left. In revolt against Truman’s unyielding demand for the first all-out civil rights plank in the party’s history, southern conservatives defected to the Dixiecrats and their candidate, Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Thousands of liberals and radicals supported Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party platform denouncing the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan as aggressive anti-Soviet moves. The Democratic convention had an aura of defeat and failure, until Truman brought it to life by calling Congress back into session and challenging the Republicans to enact their promises. He followed that up with thirty-three days of “whistle-stop” railroad campaigning, and by election day had traveled 31,700 miles by train, giving 356 speeches, always cheerful, friendly, and full of fight, speaking extemporaneously to huge rail-side crowds in every section of the country, denouncing the “do nothing” Congress that wouldn’t pass his programs, but not even mentioning his opponent, the reserved and bland New York governor, Thomas E. Dewey.
Up to election day a Dewey victory was generally taken for granted. Pollsters, political writers, and pundits were in agreement on that, and professional gamblers were giving betting odds against Truman thirty to one and averaging fifteen to one. Then came the most dramatic of American political upsets, with Truman winning a safe majority of electoral votes and 2,100,000 more popular votes than Dewey, and Democrats recovering control of both houses of Congress. Having predicted the result—a combination of the votes by farmers, union workers, blacks, and people in the western states—Truman offered no comment or even a change of expression on hearing the news.
The first six months of his new term proved a long-needed breather for Truman. Things were going well both at home and in foreign relations. The greatest strain and threat had come from the Berlin Airlift, the American and British answer to Stalin’s blockade of their overland access to the city. The airlift ran a grave risk of resort to war by the greatly superior Russian forces, and it faltered at first as an adequate supplier of the city’s enormous needs for food and fuel, even with planes landing every four minutes at times. The heroic effort ended after 277,804 flights delivered 2,325,809 tons of food and supplies. Stalin backed down and ended the blockade in May of 1949. By then the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington, and the Marshall Plan was succeeding in Europe. They, along with the Berlin Airlift, were probably the three proudest international achievements of the Truman presidency.
Hard upon these triumphs, however, came in rapid succession an onslaught of his worst troubles. Starting at home with the tragic suicide of Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, they continued with the disastrous appointment as his successor of a Missouri crony Louis Johnson, who acted so abruptly and unreasonably in cutting back military forces that, according to McCullough, “Truman and Dean Acheson would conclude that Johnson was mentally unbalanced.” A full-blown White House scandal erupted over the willingness of Truman’s old Missouri friend Harry Vaughn to do favors for the Washington middlemen called “five percenters”—referring to the commissions that clients paid them for arranging government contracts. The indictment and conviction of the former State Department official Alger Hiss for perjury about his role in Soviet espionage did not help; nor did the emergence of Senator Joseph McCarthy with his notorious list of two hundred unnamed Soviet agents in the State Department. The shocking news that China had fallen under Communist control and that Russia had produced atomic bombs increased the tensions of the cold war. About the same time Truman was faced with the decision of whether the US should produce the H-bomb, and he quickly approved building it. Here as elsewhere McCullough takes issue not so much with Truman’s decision itself as with the abruptness with which it was made:
It would have been preferable surely—wiser, more prudent—to have given the entire question longer, closer examination, and under less stress, even assuming Truman would have decided no differently. The country could have been better prepared. There would have been time for a clear, explanatory presidential address to the nation, instead of a mimeographed announcement. So disquieting, so momentous, and so costly a step deserved better.
Trying to keep the lid on the Red scare Truman told the press that Senator McCarthy was “the greatest asset that the Kremlin has,” that his charge that Owen Lattimore was a spy was “silly on the face of it,” that the demand for a massive military buildup should be resisted, that the cold war would be “with us for a long, long time,” and that there was “no easy way to end it.” In retrospect he was perceptive in all these judgments but he had been thrown off balance by aggressive charges of weakness on the Communist issue, and he appeared defensive.
His worst presidential ordeal was his last—the surprise invasion of South Korea by North Korea, which he feared might be the beginning of World War III, and led him to make what he called his most difficult decision: committing American troops to combat in Korea, having just withdrawn the last remaining ones. The country, partly owing to Louis Johnson’s policies, was unprepared for war, and Truman refused to call it a war, preferring to say it was a United Nations police action. He did not bother to ask Congress for a war resolution—thereby avoiding a debate on the aims and possible limits of intervention and setting a very dangerous example for the presidents to come.
McCullough takes the reader through the war as a biographer, not as a military historian, though he includes a good deal of military history. He starts with the phase that one general described as American Boy Scouts with “hand weapons trying to stop a German Panzer unit,” and goes on to General MacArthur’s disastrously misjudged movement of troops to the Chinese border, the ensuing Chinese intervention, MacArthur’s proposal to wipe out Chinese cities with thirty or forty A-bombs, Truman’s refusal to do so, and his dramatic removal of the general from command. Churchill said Truman had “saved Western civilization” but the opinion polls reported his approval rating at the all-time low of 23 percent as it became clear that the US had become bogged down in the war. He declined to be renominated in 1952 and observed Eisenhower’s victory with occasional bitterness, calling him “a modern Cromwell.”
What strikes the reader in 1992 about McCullough’s account of Truman’s long years in retirement is their relative modesty. He occupied himself with his memoirs and the Truman Library, refused to take money for the use of his name, and was nearly broke when the Congress voted him a pension of $25,000 a year in 1958. Toward the end of his book, McCullough writes:
Lyndon Johnson came to Independence several times…hoping to enlist Truman’s endorsement of the war in Vietnam. But Truman, who as President had first pledged American support for the French against Ho Chi Minh, made no statement about the war. Privately, he had become more and more disillusioned with Johnson’s leadership.
Any fair appraisal of McCullough’s enormous thousand-page book would concede that it is so far the best and most comprehensive biography of Truman that we have. A few academic scholars such as Robert H. Ferrell have dug deeply into phases of the subject,* but none has attempted so full an account. Nor can any of the other academic writers on Truman rival the thoroughness and completeness with which McCullough has mined the vast archives of primary manuscript sources, and drawn on the testimony of an astonishing number of Truman’s associates and contemporaries, some still living. It will be objected by some that this is a pro-Truman book. While McCullough is certainly not hostile to Truman, and is inclined at times to quote the more favorable opinion and give him rather more than the benefit of the doubt, he is, as has been seen, by no means uncritical. He can pronounce Truman’s announcement at a press conference that the atom bomb might be used in Korea “devastatingly foolish,” and he describes Truman’s choice of Fred M. Vinson and John Snyder for the Supreme Court as “singularly uninspiring” and apparently “made in haste.” McCullough deplores his bad appointments and points out blunders including the loyalty program and his handling of the steel strike. In some cases, as with the passage quoted above about the hydrogen bomb, it is Truman’s almost compulsive abruptness and briskness in taking decisions that he implicitly or explicitly criticizes.
The largely political and military themes of the book I have dealt with here do not adequately suggest the extent to which it explores Truman’s personal, emotional, and private life through the years of retirement. Only the disarming candor of Truman’s diaries, memoirs, and correspondence, especially that with Bess and family members, makes this possible. Domestic and family affairs run in and out of world crises. When the embarrassed Mrs. Truman tells the White House butler of an overnight accident resulting in two broken slats in the President’s “antique” bed, we are discreetly assured the bed was not antique. Those who (like the reviewer) lived through those times will find events the more vividly recalled for the songs, movies, plays, novels, radio programs, pundits, and newscasters (“H. V. Kaltenborn speaking”) mentioned in the narrative. They may also find confirmation for the impression that since those years they have not seen in the White House an occupant who was Harry Truman’s equal in some important respects, notably in integrity of character and sense of history.
Some academic historians will likely complain that this kind of oldfashioned, anecdotal narrative history is thoroughly outmoded. Another white male biographer, some will say, writing about dead white males and what they did or thought about other dead white males (although in fact McCullough shows he has much to say about how racial politics changed during Truman’s career). Or worse, the book will be dismissed as a species of journalism written for entertainment. McCullough largely ignores historical controversies that many will believe he should have addressed. He does not, for example, address the vast revisionist literature on the origins of the cold war; he has very little to say about the organization of the CIA under Truman and the difficulties of controlling its activities; and he does not take up the immense problems following from the growth of the military bureaucracy during the late 1940s and the early 1950s.
No doubt professionals would have done better in such matters as these and required fewer pages overall, but to some degree they have themselves to blame. More and more often subjects of large scope and world significance are left to nonprofessionals while academic historians turn away from them and from the public to address each other on intramural concerns and narrow subjects deemed fashionable or politically correct. Until they recover from these habit the public will have to rely in some measure on others for works traditionally expected and long supplied by historians. McCullough, for his part, has given the public an impressive and valuable study of Truman, worthy of its subject.
July 16, 1992
Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency (Little, Brown, 1983); see also Alonzo L. Hamby, Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1973). ↩