Book Review

A President who cared more about the Presidency than the self

By Donna Bruno
Posted 1/16/24

‘The Trials of Harry S. Truman – The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953’ By Jeffrey Frank

Of all U.S. Presidents, Missourian Harry Truman may have been the …

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Book Review

A President who cared more about the Presidency than the self


‘The Trials of Harry S. Truman – The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953’
By Jeffrey Frank

Of all U.S. Presidents, Missourian Harry Truman may have been the least likely of men to attain the highest office in the land. For one thing, he had never been to college; for another he had failed at his previous endbeavors, farming and business.

Because he did not feel he could support a wife, he married rather late in life his beloved “Bess,” whom he had admired from their earliest school days.

For ten years, Truman served as a senator until he became FDR’s choice for running mate. When Roosevelt died at the beginning of his fourth term in 1945, Tuman succeeded him, although one aide described the former VP as owning a “wholesome sense of inadequacy.”

Although both intelligent, shrewd, and extremely well-read, Harry felt he lacked knowledge in both domestic and foreign affairs. As a result, he tended to rely on the counsel of military men, like Gen. George Marshall, whose judgment he trusted implicitly.

However, when necessary, he could be strong, brisk, and decisive himself, as when a Russian ambassador to Stalin was being disingenuous, the newly elected Truman brusquely cut him off, declaring that he was not interested in propaganda. In the “cold war” that was just beginning, he considered Russia as a “country inhabited by semi-primitives, incapable of advanced thought.” He believed a strong military was the best protection against aggression and focused on accomplishing that goal.

Some Americans, accustomed to the sonorous voice of FDR, could not get used to the flat, nasal, clipped Midwestern accent of the new commander-in-chief. However, when told that Stalin did not like him, Truman’s speech was very clear when he replied it was because he was “the first one who had ever said no to anything Stalin asked.”

Although his provincial background led him to use the “n” word when referring to blacks, he made every effort to overcome his ancestral and local biases. When informed of violence against them, he found himself championing the rights of African Americans. In 1948, Truman sent Congress a civil rights program including the Federal Fair Employment Practices Act, anti-lynching laws, an anti-poll tax bill, and an end to segregated interstate travel.

In his decision regarding race, he would say, “Two persons are sitting at this desk. One is Harry Truman, and the other is the President of the United States, and I must be sure that Harry remembers on all occasions that the President is there too.” Believing he was the leader of all Americans, he signed orders to desegregate the federal government and the military. However, when questioned about the possibility of inter-racial marriage becoming more common, he replied, “I hope not.”

The author delves into Truman’s personal relationships with various notables. Showing him the least respect was probably the revered commander Gen. MacArthur, with whom he had an on-going feud. In one encounter, the vainglorious general did not salute the President, but shook hands as equals, which was against protocol.  Moreover, at a meeting of nine leaders, MacArthur dominated, the transcript indicating the General speaking more than all other participants involved, including the President, with 54 lines compared to MacArthur’s 243. Eventually, when the General exceeded his authority, Truman decided he had to go for repeatedly refusing to obey orders.

Another leader with whom Harry had issues was Dwight D. Eisenhower, for whom the “mere mention of Truman’s name brought fast flashes of antipathy.” At his inauguration, Eisenhower was overheard wondering aloud if he could bear sitting next to him.

Despite Eisenhower’s rancor and other criticism that Harry was an uninspiring leader, a dismal orator, and the one charged with the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, history has been kind to Truman. He oversaw the end of wars in Europe and the Pacific and oversaw the Marshall Plan to rebuild a demolished Europe after World War II.

According to Eleanor Roosevelt, “With every decision he grew until to the entire world he was a towering figure … no man had ever been placed so abruptly in such a seat of responsibility … but the decisions he made have shaped the very world we live in today.” He was ahead of his time in talking about a national health insurance program, a precursor of our current Medicare. He oversaw the founding of the United Nations and the recognitions of Israel.

One aspect of his personality that made Harry popular and likeable was his self-deprecating humor. He told a college audience, “Missouri has had its number of notorious characters, the most notorious being Mark Twain, Jesse James, and me.” He was in awe that someone like him, born in a four-room farmhouse next to a mule barn, could rise to the heights he did. He respected the office he held and the awesome responsibility that came with it.

Although the definitive biography of our 33rd President is David McCullough’s “Truman,” this book, as the title suggests, catalogues the many fronts of conflict, as well as historical figures, with whom Truman had to engage. The author does a comprehensive job: Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Gen. MacArthur, Omar Bradley, Dean Acheson, J. Edgar Hoover, Averill Harriman, Clark Clifford, John Foster Dulles, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, to name only a few.

I might also mention artist Pablo Picasso, whom he met in Cannes when he was heard to express belief that anyone could like his work. In his opinion, they were “God awful.”

This well-researched book highlights the accomplishments of Pres. Harry Truman and provides glimpses into the grave decisions that were only his to make. It focuses on a little-known, little-traveled, rather provincial Midwesterner who found himself abruptly in the Oval Office, feeling ill-prepared. In his four months as FDR’s VP, never once had Roosevelt ever shared with him the existence of the atom bomb, whose awesome use would be the most momentous and difficult to face an unknowing neophyte. It was such an incredibly untenable position, but Truman believed in his heart that its employment would end the killing of more and more victims.

This book is an attempt to understand this very decent, likeable, approachable man, a most “diligent student of the presidency” and the reasons for his official choices. An aide described Truman as the least self-important individual who didn’t ask “what he ought to do, but what the President should do.”

Donna Bruno is a prizewinning author and poet recently recognized with four awards by National League of American Pen Women.

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