Truman by David McCullough

mccullough_truman.jpgHarry Truman assumed the office of President of the United States on April 12, 1945. In the four months that followed, Truman would oversee the surrender of Nazi Germany, negotiate with Stalin and Churchill at Potsdam, and authorize the use of atomic bombs against Japan. This dramatic beginning was a harbinger of things to come. In his nearly 8 years in office, Truman's administration led the U.S. into the United Nations and NATO, restored Western Europe through the Marshall Plan, recognized the State of Israel, and resisted Communist aggression via the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War. And that was just in the foreign policy arena.

Truman is widely regarded as one of the unlikeliest of American presidents, considering the humbleness of his Missouri farmland origins. David McCullough's Truman does nothing to assuage that notion. I was astonished, however, to realize that Truman was born in 1884, just two years later than Franklin Roosevelt. After all, as he was in such better health than FDR at the time of the latter's death, and lived nearly three decades longer than his predecessor, it seemed logical that Truman be a much younger man. That the two men were nearly the same age amplifies what different worlds they came from, and what different paths they took to the presidency. While Roosevelt was a child of privilege, wanting for little and attending the best schools money could buy (Groton, Harvard, Columbia Law), Truman had a slightly different upbringing. While never suffering the poverty of young Dwight Eisenhower, his family saw its share of setbacks:

John Truman's run of luck on wheat futures had ended. He began losing heavily that same summer of 1901, and to recover his losses kept risking more and more until he had gambled away nearly everything he and Matt owned--as much as $40,000 in cash, stocks, and personal property, including 160 acres of prime land on Blue Ridge given to Matt by her father.

The situation could not have been much worse. At age fifty-one, John Truman was wiped out. The Waldo Avenue house had to be sold. For a while the family lived in another part of town, trying to keep up appearances, but eventually they had to pack and leave Independence altogether. They moved to a modest neighborhood in Kansas City, where John took a job for wages, something no Truman had done before.

Perhaps even more striking than these disparate origins are the experiences Roosevelt and Truman had in World War I. Though the war was a pivotal event in each man's life, they served in wildly different circumstances. Roosevelt left his seat as a New York state senator to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the number two man in what was then a cabinet-level department (the creation of the unified Department of Defense would be one of Truman's achievements as President). Truman, by contrast, was an artillery battery commander who saw combat in France:

West of Cheppy the battery moved into a peach orchard. Harry and one of his lieutenants, Leslie Zemer, Sergeant Kelley, and Corporal William O'Hare went out ahead to establish an observation post, stringing a telephone line and advancing, unknowingly, several hundred yards beyond the infantry. About dusk, from the crest of a hill, Harry saw an American plane drop a flare off to the west, then turning his field glasses on the spot, saw a German battery pulling into position on the left flank, across a small river in front of the 28th Division, which was beyond his own assigned sector. Standing orders were to fire only at enemy batteries facing the 35th Division. Harry decided to disregard that.

While Roosevelt did battle with the bosses at Tammany Hall early in his career (before seeking reconciliation to further his statewide ambitions), Truman was a machine man from the get-go. The Kansas City political scene was dominated by Tom Pendergast, and it was through the Pendergasts that Truman obtained a position as a county judge (akin to a county commissioner, not a judicial magistrate). But if Truman gained the post through the political machine, he did not consider the job a mechanism for corruption or graft. Truman believed in rewarding party loyalists, and would continue the practice throughout his career (suffering great criticism during his presidency), but he believed first and foremost in honestly and efficiently promoting the welfare of his constituents:

It was as though all he had absorbed in his readings in the history of the Romans, the memory of the model of Caesar's bridge, the experience of countless misadventures by automobile since the days of the old Stafford, the memory of the roads he had seen in France, not to say his own experience with the farm roads in and about Grandview and the father who had literally died as a result of his determination to maintain them properly, converged now in one grand constructive vision. He would build the best roads in the state, if not the country, he vowed, and see they were built honestly.

Truman would drive from town to town to get the bond passed for these public works, setting the precedent for future campaigns in which his own hard work and personal touch would lead him to victory. Elected to the Senate in 1934 after Pendergast's first three choices turned him down, and re-elected after a divisive Democratic primary, Truman would make a name for himself as the chairman of a committee investigating allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse in military spending. During his tenure as chairman, Truman demonstrated his personal integrity and evenhandedness, his willingness to speak truth to power, and his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion:

At Truman's insistence any member of the Senate was welcome to sit in and take part in the hearings. When presiding, he seemed invariably well prepared and in charge, yet he seldom dominated. Instead, he would go out of his way to let other senators hold the stage. No one could remember congressional hearings being handled with such straightforwardness and intelligence. As in his earlier railroad investigations, witnesses were shown every courtesy, given more than ample time to present their case. There was no browbeating of witnesses, no unseemly outbursts tolerated on the part of anybody... Yet Truman could be tough, persistent, in a way that took many observers by surprise. It was a side of the man they had not known.

The selection of Truman as the Vice-Presidential candidate in 1944 was so complex and dramatic a event as to merit an entire book on its own. It was widely understood (if less openly discussed) that Roosevelt's poor health meant the second spot on the ticket was more important than usual:

Seeing the President after his return to the White House, Ed Flynn was so alarmed by his appearance that he urged Mrs. Roosevelt to use her influence to keep him from running again. "I felt," Flynn later said, "that he would never survive his term." Ed Pauley would say that his own determination to unseat Wallace came strictly from the conviction that Wallace was "not a fit man to be President... and by my belief, on the basis of continuing observation, that President Roosevelt would not live much longer." George Allen, remembering these critical months just before the 1944 convention, wrote that every one of the group "realized that the man nominated to run with Roosevelt would in all probability be the next President..."

And after just seven weeks on the job, Truman would be elevated to the highest office (leaving the vice presidency vacant for nearly four years). The highs and lows of Truman's presidency are thoroughly explored by McCullough, and as the list enumerated above suggests, it was hugely eventful. The account of Truman's re-election campaign, including the famous whistle-stop tour, is particularly satisfying considering the smug presumptuousness of his Republican opponents. And I had no idea that Truman vacated the White House for almost his entire second term while the building was renovated, including total demolition and reconstruction of the interior.

Perhaps the most welcome chapter of the book comes at the end. Considering the unfortunate fate of so many of America's great presidents, who either died in office (Lincoln, Roosevelt) or shortly thereafter (Washington, Wilson), it was wonderful to learn that Truman shared a long, happy retirement with his wife. Though nearly impoverished after decades of public service, the sale of the family farm and other endeavors secured a pleasant, if modest, lifestyle. They traveled widely, became grandparents, and Truman devoted himself to his presidential library:

Largest and most generous of the town's gestures, and must the most appreciated by Truman, was the donation of a town park north of the Square as a site for his library. He could not have been more pleased. Independence would be a far more appropriate location than Grandview and more accessible. Slover Park, a quiet, picturesque 13-acre knoll, was just beyond U.S. Highway 24... only a mile from 219 North Delaware, nothing at all for a good walker.

McCullough was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Truman (he would win again in 2002 for John Adams), and it is undoubtedly one of the best works of nonfiction I've had the pleasure to read. Though Truman weighs in at a hefty 992 pages, the rhythmic fluency of McCullough's prose makes for effortless reading. There is no question this book is a project, but it is one well worth tackling.