Book Review: Truman

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu10/26/16
By David McCullough •  After finishing this biography, I searched the book in vain for the photo of Truman walking on water. Not finding one, I went back and looked for one in which he had wings and a halo. Again, I was disappointed. I could not understand how such an oversight could have been made given the author’s panegyric to Harry S. Truman. I know some such picture must exist as, otherwise, McCullough’s work might be considered over-the-top.

McCullough does a good job covering Truman’s early years. Truman’s youth and early adulthood, his ups and downs appear to be described in a balanced way. Truman came from small town Missouri, son and grandson of farmers. His father had ambitions which were never quite realized. Harry seemed to be on a similar path until WWI broke out. This was the transformative event in his life.

Truman re-joined the Army National Guard in 1917 although he was over thirty. He had to cheat on his eye-exam to be accepted. In no time, he was given command of a battery in the 129th field artillery. After some months of rigorous training, he saw action in several major battles, including the Meuse-Argonne offensive where he supported George Patton’s tank brigade.

When he mustered out in 1919, Truman had earned the rank of major. More importantly, he had learned many lessons on leadership and made friends who would remain close to him till death. For decades afterward, the group from Battery D would get together for holidays and other celebrations and they seemed to genuinely admire Truman. This speaks well for him.

Perhaps as importantly, it was in the army that Truman met Jim Pendergast, the nephew of Tom Pendergast, the boss of the powerful Kansas City Democrat political machine. It was Jim, and his father Mike, who convinced Tom to chose Truman as the Democrat candidate for county judge, in the early 1920’s. Once nominated as a Democrat, he won the election. Although the job was prestigious, a judge did not become wealthy unless he practiced a little graft, which Truman did not choose to do. That is not to say he didn’t close an eye when crooked things went on, but he personally appears to have stayed clean.

Truman was a judge for over a decade and while well regarded, he was not seen as a high-flyer. Yet after being turned down by two other politicians, Pendergast eventually chose Harry to run for the U.S. Senate with his backing. Truman won the seat and was off to Washington D.C.

In D.C. Truman kept his head down and didn’t make any waves. He learned the system and made friends. It appeared he would settle into a relative, if comfortable, anonymity when things changed drastically. Again, it was a war which pushed him out of his groove.

When the USA went to war in 1941, the country and military were simply not prepared. Almost overnight, the government was signing contracts for bases and material without any real oversight on spending. Things got so bad that even the public began to worry about the abuse. Truman decided to establish a committee, which came to be called the Truman Committee, to look into the fraud and waste. In a short time, he became a very well known senator and even did some good reining in financial abuse.

Such was the situation when in 1944, Roosevelt, or better said, those around him pushed Roosevelt to drop the progressive Henry Wallace as his V.P. There were several potential contenders for this slot, all of whom knew how ill Roosevelt was and that the V.P. would shortly become president should Roosevelt win again in 1944. In the end, none of these contenders were chosen because of regional and labor considerations. A couple of them were from the South and the northern bosses, especially Flynn in New York were worried the Democrats would lose the black vote if a Southerner was on the ticket. Others had bad relations with Big Labor so were not acceptable to the Democrats’ biggest contributors. With amazingly little consideration on the part of Roosevelt, Harry was chosen as a compromise candidate.

As we all know, Roosevelt did win in 1944, and some three months after the beginning of his fourth term, had a massive cerebral hemorrhage, thrusting Truman into the presidency in April 1945. Truman was almost completely unprepared for the office he took over from Roosevelt. Not only was he poorly informed about the A-Bomb, but he had been given little information about anything to do with the war by Roosevelt, his cabinet or the military chiefs. He had to work day and night in order to get up-to-date on the many facets of the war.

To the surprise of most, the war in Europe ended less than a month after Truman took office. But that did not ease his work load as the war in the Pacific was ongoing and the planners were finalizing their designs on the invasion of Japan. The A-Bomb has not yet tested and nobody knew whether or not it would work, and if it did, whether it would be enough to bring about the surrender of Japan.

Such was the state of things when Truman traveled to Potsdam for a meeting with Churchill and Stalin.

One of the great tragedies of history is that of the three great Allied powers, only one, the USSR was well represented at Potsdam. Truman was still trying to find his way in the presidency and Churchill had just called a snap election in the U.K., which had been carried out a few days before his arrival at Potsdam. The result of that election depended on the votes of British soldiers overseas and took several days to tally. In the end, Churchill was defeated and his place at the table was taken by Clement Attlee.

It also didn’t help that Stalin had spies in very high places in the American government. One of these spies, Lauchlin Currie, had been the White House economic advisor to Roosevelt and had passed on info to the USSR that Roosevelt was not going to fight for a free Poland, i.e. he didn’t particularly care if it became communist. This was a major point to be discussed at Potsdam. Churchill did all he could to get Stalin to allow truly free elections, but he lost. History tells us how well the Potsdam Conference went. Eastern Europe remained under the Soviet yoke for nearly half a century, as a result.

The A-Bomb x 2 was dropped in August and Imperial Japan surrendered. Truman was faced with new problems such as the demobilization of millions of soldiers, the refusal of the Soviets to withdraw from several countries which they agreed were not to be under their sphere of influence and huge industrial overcapacity. One way or another, Truman muddled through these problems and continued to lose popularity as he did. Most of us look back and think of great diplomatic successes as the Marshall Plan without recalling that this was not decided on until 1947. What we forget is the many strikes and economic dislocations which took place immediately after the war.

By 1948, Truman’s approval ratings were in the tank. In fact, until George W. Bush arrived on the scene, Truman’s popularity was the lowest of any president since such polls were taken. The country was so dissatisfied with Truman, and the Democrats, that the Republicans made significant gains in both houses of Congress in the 1946 elections. During the run-up to the 1948 presidential election, Truman’s chances of winning were considered nil by virtually everyone who mattered. The pundits, the politicians, the newspapers, the pollsters all had Truman badly trailing his opponent Dewey. Dewey and the Republicans decided to do minimal campaigning in the belief that Truman was finished. Their campaign strategy was “The less said the better.”

Truman didn’t roll over and die because everyone “knew” he was defeated. Instead he went on a train tour across the country making speeches from the back of the presidential rail car named Ferdinand Magellan. He made so many stops that some Republican wit accused him of making a “Whistle-Stop” tour; a whistle stop being a railway station so small that there was no regular service and in order to get the engineer to stop for a passenger, a steam whistle had to be blown. Of course, Truman’s campaign took this remark and turned it to their advantage by asking huge crowds in cities such as Kansas City, if they were a “Whistle-Stop” as the Republicans seemed to think.

Until the very day of the election, a Truman victory was considered highly unlikely. Much to the amazement of all, Truman won. The irony of this is driven home by a famous photograph of Truman holding up a copy of the “Chicago Tribune” declaring, “Dewey Wins” on the day after the election. So much for the pundits.

By this point, the reader is about half-way through the book. Having no desire to be a bore, I will simply make a few personal observations about McCullough’s handling of his subject as well as some interesting facts about Truman. If the reader wants detail, he will have to plow through the further pages himself.

McCullough writes in such a manner so as to lead the reader to believe that when Truman makes a good decision, he makes it on his own. However, when he makes a bad one, his advisors let him down. One has the feeling that McCullough did not wish to credit Truman with one single fault, but so as to keep from appearing totally biased, decided to sprinkle in a few. I found this striking, as I have read several other books by McCullough, which were not so obviously one-sided. If I exaggerate in my criticism of McCullough’s slobbering tone, I do so only very slightly.

The biography pretty much glosses over Truman’s involvement with the Pendergast machine. Pendergast was not a good man and later went to jail for fraud, as I recall. While Truman may not have been on the same level as Pendergast, he was alright with doling out his patronage left and right to friends and other incompetents. “To the victor belongs the spoils”, was his philosophy.

It would appear that Truman was envious of those who were more educated than he. He wanted to go to West Point but was rejected because of his poor eye-sight. However, after WWI he despised the West Point “clique of officers.” He once said, “MacArthur was stupid, but that was not unusual as half to three quarters of all generals were stupid.” Whatever one thinks of generals in general, and MacArthur in particular, one cannot seriously say that MacArthur was stupid, unless one is stupid or a liar. And Truman was a liar. After their famous meeting on Wake Island, Truman lied, saying that MacArthur kept Truman waiting on the airfield.

For those who believe Truman was a relatively conservative Democrat, let me mention that he pushed for compulsory national health insurance. Under his plan, “all citizens would receive medical and hospital service regardless of ability to pay.” Some of the points in his first postwar message to Congress were “Increased unemployment compensation” and “Immediate increase in the minimum wage.”

Truman was also a Democrat Party hack. The most egregious example of this was his willingness to back Roosevelt’s Court Packing scheme, when much of the Congressional Leadership on both sides of the aisle saw it for the tyrannical power-grab that it was. Thank God, Roosevelt lost this fight with Congress.

I find particularly distasteful the way McCullough glides over or rationalizes Truman’s refusal to look into the many accusations claiming there were numerous communists in the government, particularly the State Dept., because to do so would have damaged the Democrat party.

On a lighter note, one thing Truman appears to have had in common with Churchill was that both had a shot of whiskey before breakfast. Churchill liked Scotch, Truman Bourbon.

The bio is long, about 1,000 pages. It could have easily been shortened by a couple hundred of pages had McCullough not gone to such lengths in his praise of Truman. This is particularly the case because, in my opinion, Truman is not an inherently interesting man such as Churchill. It was Truman’s times which gave him color. This is ironic as he belonged to the school of history which might be called the “Great Man” school as opposed to the “Times make the Man” school. He would definitely be in the latter.

That said, the book is full of interesting information on his times and how he fit into them. Unfortunately, they are presented in a somewhat slanted way.

If you are looking for the equivalent of Butler’s The Lives of the Saints, the saints being Truman and those who he liked or looked up to him, then this is the book for you. If you are hoping for a more balanced account of the man and his life, then I suggest you look elsewhere.


Kung Fu Zu is a conservative prognosticator who has traveled widely and lived outside the United States. • (525 views)

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4 Responses to Book Review: Truman

  1. Anniel says:

    I tried to read this book awhile ago. I reached a point where my eyes were crossed at half-mast, even though Truman kissed me while he was on his whistle stop tour. My father loved Roosevelt and Truman, but I suspect he would be a Republican today. He was very patriotic and in the 1950’s warned me about government funded health care. Pretty prescient of him. I think he would have been a Reagan fan.

    Glad to know I didn’t miss much when I quit reading. I don’t usually like to quit reading, unless the book is just badly written, or raunchy.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I don’t usually like to quit reading, unless the book is just badly written, or raunchy.

      I feel the same. It is unusual for me to put a book down once I have decided to start reading it. I admit, I almost stopped reading this one when McCullough went into Truman’s “Whistle-Stop” tour. It was both boring and sickeningly one sided. McCullough clearly went on in such detail in an attempt to demonstrate the tremendous odds against Truman’s re-election and then exaggerate how great Truman was by never giving up. The equivalent of “The Little Engine That Could.” McCullough must have spent more than 50 pages on this episode.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Note that Truman, as president, pardoned Pendergast. And as a Senate candidate, he won due to the massive vote fraud in Kansas City. Decades later, its vote totals were lower than they had been at the height of the Pendergast machine (even though the city and county had grown considerably in population). Also note that in 1948, the GOP was expected to lose control of the Senate already, since they had won so overwhelmingly in 1942 and those seats were up. Losing the House may have been an even bigger surprise than losing the presidency.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Thanks for the review, Mr. Kung. I certainly enjoyed his “John Adams” but will bypass this one. Here’s a review (a rare one) at Amazon that jibes exactly with what you’re saying (everyone else lavishes five stars on the book):

    This is the third biography of Truman and the second biography by this author that I’ve read. I considered that he did a notable work with “John Adams”. This is hardly a biography; it’s a worshipful piece. If one has interest in a more objective view of the former president, by all means find another biographer. This book is far too long, going into minute details about trinkets Truman had around him in his office, an almost endless travelog of his !948 whistlestop campaign, repetitive adoration about Truman’s concern about his appearance, his odd relationship with the four women closest to him, his firm decision making, to name a few. Truman apparently left a profuse “paper trail”, and the author was content to select that which exhalted this president. Negative comments and events are briefly mentioned, if not dismissed. Unless one loves Truman at the outset, this biography is a monumental waste of time.

    I think a book such as this is sort of a secular religious text for Democrats. Too bad McCullough didn’t have the integrity or imagination to really bring this man to life with a balanced bio. Oh well.

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