By the Book: Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman became president when Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945. His presidency (1945-52) was infused with political rancor at home and challenges abroad. He sustained, nurtured, and grew Roosevelt’s New Deal and waged the Cold War. Ridiculed and often vilified in his own time, his stature has grown over the years, and he is now one of the nation’s most admired presidents, often embraced by people with very different political predilections.
David McCullough’s best-selling and prize-winning biography, simply called Truman, is a good way to get to know Truman, the man. McCullough vividly depicts Truman’s upbringing, personality, character, and values. He describes his modest background, his early business failures, his rise in Kansas City’s politics, his stunning victories in the race for U.S. Senate, and his selection as Roosevelt’s vice presidential candidate in 1944. Basing his book mainly on the manuscript collections at the Truman Library, McCullough encourages the reader to empathize with Truman as he assumed the burdens of office. “Pray for me now,” Truman muttered to reporters, as he faced the responsibilities of winning the war, deciding whether to use the atomic bomb, negotiating with Stalin, and converting the wartime economy to peacetime.
A more successful effort to place Truman in the context of his times is Alonzo Hamby’s Man of the People: A Life of Harry Truman. Hamby, who taught for many decades at Ohio University, admiringly outlines the great successes of the Truman administration: containment of Soviet expansionism, preservation of Roosevelt’s Democratic political coalition, and championing of a post-World War II liberal agenda, including a real dedication to the early civil rights movement. Like McCullough, Hamby’s affection for the man cannot be contained. Americans now love Truman, Hamby concludes, because they see him as an ordinary man who fought for their interests, “made great decisions, cared about their welfare, and demonstrated their potential.”
A totally different approach to Truman is taken by Arnold A. Offner in his volume Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953. Offner, a scholar of American foreign policy, focuses primarily on Truman’s handling of Cold War issues, including his dealings with Stalin, his decision to drop the atomic bomb, his launching of the Marshall Plan, the making of NATO, and the intervention in Korea. Offner dwells on Truman’s negative qualities: his provincialism, his insecurities, his proclivity to make gut decisions, his penchant for thinking in terms of black and white and good and evil. Offner provocatively claims that many of the challenges and crises of the early post-World War II years might have been more successfully resolved with a more nuanced and textured approach. The qualities many people love to ascribe to Truman might have actually made things worse rather than better.