Plain Talk About Truman


By David McCullough

Simon & Schuster 1,117 pp $29.95

Once a decade or so, Americans develop Trumania, a strange nostalgia for a man they once couldn't wait to toss out of the White House. In part, Ross Perot's popularity is the latest manifestation of this phenomenon, in which the myth of Harry S Truman has all but overshadowed the impressive reality of the man.

David McCullough, who earlier made the builders of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal vividly human, has now come to the rescue of the historical Truman in an affectionate, but balanced, biography of the 34th President. It reveals Truman as a man of far greater complexity and depth than the plain-speaking "man of the people" cartoon to whom Perot is so often compared.

Truman was called many things, but never "nonpolitician." Confederate sympathies still burned bright, and partisanship was a birthright in the western Missouri of his childhood. "They were Baptists and they were Democrats," McCullough says. Truman entered politics through Kansas City's notorious Pendergast machine, which installed him as a county judge. In 1934, T.J. Pendergast tapped Truman for the U.S. Senate race. Until he distinguished himself as head of a committee investigating defense waste and fraud, there was little in Truman's career, besides a reputation for personal honesty, to distinguish him from a host of hacks.

One of the strongest sections of McCullough's book depicts Truman's ascension to the Vice-Presidency. Although many of those closest to Franklin Roosevelt were convinced that he would not live through a fourth term, the Vice-Presidential selection process was remarkably casual. After agreeing to drop the uncomfortably leftist Henry Wallace, FDR showed little interest in his running mate. In the end, Roosevelt offered party bosses a choice between Truman and Justice William O. Douglas.

While Truman is extremely readable and, at times, gripping, McCullough neither invents conversations nor goes beyond the evidence. The record, he says, leaves it unclear whether FDR actually preferred Truman. The two men barely knew each other and met privately only twice before Roosevelt's death, less than three months into his term.

It has long been fashionable to say that Truman rose to the occasion. But McCullough makes it clear how sweeping an understatement that is, how little the public appreciated Truman's abilities, and how both his success and his unpopularity were the natural result of rock-solid moral courage.

Probably no man has ever assumed the Presidency under worse circumstances. Truman felt himself the inadequate successor of a national idol. The war in Europe was ending, but he immediately had to deal with the botch that the ailing Roosevelt had made in Yalta. Already it was clear that the Soviet Union was moving quickly from difficult ally to dangerous adversary. Then, there was the atomic bomb: Truman had known nothing of it but quickly had to decide how it should be used. Peace brought a string of domestic and foreign crises: inflation and strikes, the first stirrings of the civil-rights movement, the Soviet-orchestrated coup in Czechoslovakia, the Berlin blockade, and the invasion of South Korea.

Truman was far from a perfect President, which even this friendly biography makes clear. He often seemed befuddled by events and tended to surround himself with cronies. But when it really counted, Truman's good sense triumphed. With the postwar order coming unglued, he wisely chose General George C. Marshall to head the State Dept. Truman pushed Marshall's European reconstruction plan through Congress, aided anti-communist forces in Greece and Turkey, then faced down Stalin with the Berlin airlift. He ordered the armed forces desegregated and, defying both his origins and barons of his own party, became the first President to push hard, albeit unsuccessfully, for civil rights.

Truman's stunning upset of Thomas E. Dewey despite the three-way split of the Democrats in 1948 is the stuff of myth, and McCullough makes the most of the drama. But victory was a prelude to a term of misery. The party was in shambles. Anticommunist witch hunts made politics a mine field. The outbreak of war in Korea in 1950 sealed Truman's fate. Douglas MacArthur's insubordination left the Commander-in-Chief little choice, but Truman paid a terrible political price for firing him.

In the end, it was another old soldier, Marshall, who spoke what could be Truman's epitaph. At a time when the Secretary of State was embroiled in a tense debate with Truman over recognition of Israel, Marshall said: "The full stature of the man will only be proven by history. But . . . there has never been a decision made under this man's Administration, affecting policies beyond our shores, that has not been in the best interest of this country. It is not the courage of these decisions that will live, but the integrity of the man."

Alas, the nation today has no one who can speak such words with such authority. And worse, no one of whom they can be spoken.

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