Katherine Bailey on Books  
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Biographies Truman by David McCullough

Are the special privilege boys going to run the country, or are the people going to run it?

At 5:00 p.m. on April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman left the floor of the Senate where he had been presiding, descended a stairway and entered the office of Sam Rayburn. Truman and others gathered there most days to enjoy a whiskey and to talk politics. But today was different. The moment Truman arrived Rayburn told him that he was to phone Steve Early, President Franklin Roosevelt’s press secretary. Sounding tense and strange, Early ordered Truman to come to the White House quickly and quietly and to enter by the main entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Thinking he was being summoned by the President, a rare occurrence, Truman hurried. Soon he began to run, his shoes pounding noisily on the marble floor. Ever mindful of his apparel, he thought of his hat and then ran up the brass-banistered flight of stairs to his office to get it. At the White House two ushers were waiting at the door under the North Portico. They took his hat and escorted him up an elevator to the Roosevelts’ private quarters on the second floor. Eleanor Roosevelt stepped forward to meet him, put her arm on his shoulder and said, “Harry, the President is dead.” For a time Truman was speechless, and then he asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Famously, Mrs. Roosevelt replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

This captivating portrayal of what was the most momentous moment in the life of Harry Truman is characteristic of biographer David McCullough’s masterful 1992 work. Though the biography offers readers a well-researched and intelligent account of the events of the Truman presidency, at its core it is a portrait of Harry Truman the man, not an examination of policy and politics. Truman remains at center stage throughout.

McCullough puts a positive spin on decisions for which some have criticized the Truman administration – for example, the use of atomic bombs in Japan and the firing of General Douglas MacArthur. The book is a warm and affectionate portrayal of an ordinary man shouldered with virtually limitless responsibility, who rose to the challenge, becoming an esteemed world figure.

Harry Truman grew up in Missouri, living first in tiny Independence and later on a farm. He had no formal education beyond high school. His widowed mother struggled year after year to make a success of the family farm, and it was Harry who was both its manager and relentless, dawn-to-dusk laborer. It is likely that he never would have left the farm had it not been for World War I. He enlisted at age 33, and, despite poor eyesight, served heroically in France. When he returned to Independence he married his high-school sweetheart, Bess Wallace, and moved into her mother’s house, the only Missouri residence they would ever have.

McCullough skillfully captures Truman’s unfocused and frustrating youthful ambitions. He abandoned a promising career as a concert pianist, and a haberdashery store he owned went bankrupt. It was Bess and their daughter Margaret that kept Truman grounded and optimistic that something would turn up.

The name Pendergast will forever be attached to that of Harry Truman. Serving alongside Truman on the battlefields of France was a nephew of Tom Pendergast, one of the nation’s most powerful Democratic bosses and the brains behind a mighty Kansas City political machine. In 1922 when Truman was floundering in his attempts to launch a career, the Pendergast organization named him a Missouri County administrator. Most significantly, in 1934, it was through Pendergast influence that Truman became a U.S. Senator. Persuasively, McCullough establishes that Truman remained a man of principle and never performed a dishonest deed for the Pendergasts.

Still, he was scorned during his first term in the Senate as the “Senator from Pendergast.” During World War II Truman’s impressive management of the Truman Committee – the senate committee for the investigation of war industries – earned respect from both sides of the aisle and prompted the Democratic Party to consider him as a Vice Presidential candidate.

Franklin Roosevelt showed little enthusiasm for Truman as his running mate, but Democratic Party leaders considered him the most plausible candidate. He had proved himself a decent man with common sense who relied on his instincts, which were usually correct. Most of all he was a safe and uncontroversial candidate.

Truman served as Vice President for only 82 days. With his charming, sincere smile, blue eyes magnified behind thick lenses, and approachable demeanor, he seemed to be an asset to every gathering. In addition to presiding over the Senate, he attended parties and receptions, shaking endless numbers of hands.

If the news of Roosevelt’s death caused shock, the realization that Truman was now President caused “massive earth tremors.” McCullough writes about public reaction: “Good God, Truman is President…If Harry Truman can be President, so could my next-door neighbor.”

Truman may have been a “common man,” but his almost-eight-year presidency was filled with achievement. For example, he planted fertile seeds for a Civil Rights Movement when he sent a strong message to Congress on the plight of African Americans in the southern states.

Early in his administration the Truman Doctrine was formulated. It was based on the sound idea that sharing America’s riches with the war-stricken peoples in Europe and Asia was not only humanitarian; it was a means of spreading democracy and stability.

Another triumph for the Truman administration was the Marshall Plan. Named for its innovator, General George Marshall, a career soldier of “flawless rectitude and self-command,” it was the program that put Europe on its feet financially after the devastation of war. Serving as his Secretary of State and later as his Secretary of Defense, Marshall was a key figure in Truman’s life. McCullough depicts the affecting speech that Marshall gave at a private birthday party for the President. When the after-dinner toasts had been completed, Marshall surprised the 40 assembled guests when he rose and addressed them: “The full stature of this man will only be proven by history, but I want to say here and now that there has never been a decision made under this man’s administration, affecting policies beyond our shores, that has not been in the interest of this country. It is not the courage of these decisions that will live, but the integrity of the man.”

McCullough continues: “Truman, his face flushed, rose slowly to respond but was unable to speak. The silence in the room was stunning…Finally he could only gesture to Marshall and say, “He won the war, “but he spoke with such simplicity and feeling that many guests were crying.”

Undoubtedly the best portion of the biography is that which covers Truman’s re-election in 1948. Knowing well the role chance had played in his ascent to the most powerful office in the world, Truman was understandably curious about the possibility of his re-election. To “test the waters,” in June of 1948 he embarked on a “nonpolitical” two-week cross-country railroad tour. “As President,” notes McCullough, “he felt more than ever a need to see and make contact with what he called the everyday American.”

Truman, along with Bess and Margaret, rode in a special armor-plated car called the Ferdinand Magellan. Fifteen additional cars made up the “Presidential Special” train – all necessary to accommodate White House staff, Secret Service agents, reporters and photographers. Speaking from the train’s platform – and often flanked by Bess and Margaret – Truman smiled and waved at the large, friendly crowds that had gathered. Always he intoned the rhetorical question that would become his campaign theme: “Are the special privilege boys going to run the country, or are the people going to run it?”

In a commencement address at the University of California at Berkeley Truman delivered what was perhaps the best speech of his presidency. World peace, he said “still eludes our grasp.” He emphasized the fact that the Soviet Union’s refusal to work with its wartime Allies for world peace was “the most bitter disappointment of our time.” He concluded his speech: “I believe the men and women of every part of the globe intensely desire peace and freedom. I believe good people everywhere will not permit their rulers, no matter how powerful they have made themselves, to lead them to destruction. America has faith in people. It knows that rulers rise and fall, but that the people live on.”

Truman’s train returned to Washington’s Union Station on a steamy June afternoon. Newspapers reported that his sunburned nose was peeling, his lips were cracked, but he was “full of bounce.” A few days later the Republican National Convention nominated Thomas Dewey as its presidential candidate. Samples of public opinion predicted the election of Dewey by a heavy margin. Most Americans viewed the campaign as “largely ritualistic,” and Life magazine carried a preview spread of the Dewey Administration. Truman had no time to brood over this because he learned that the Russians had clamped a blockade on all rail, highway and water traffic in and out of Berlin. “The situation,” McCullough noted, “was extremely dangerous. Clearly Stalin was attempting to force the Western Allies to withdraw from the city…Two and a half million people faced starvation. As it was, stocks of food would last no more than a month. Coal supplies would be gone in six weeks.”

Truman faced the issue with a blend of caution and firmness. After announcing, “We stay in Berlin, period,” he ordered a full-scale airlift. Truman’s brilliant handling of the crisis affected the course of the Cold War as well as his own drive for re-election.

Though the odds against him seemed insurmountable, he made three more major tours in the Ferdinand Magellan in what became known as the “Whistle-stop Campaign.” With his entourage, he sped cross the country to California. He devoted six days to the middle-west and ten days to the high-population centers of the northeast. Newspapers dubbed it the “fast rolling political road show.” They begrudgingly reported that the crowds were large and cordial. In an often-used speech Truman declared: “Republicans in Washington have a habit of becoming curiously deaf to the voice of the people. They have a hard time hearing what the ordinary people of the country are saying. But they have no trouble at all hearing what Wall Street is saying…”

Columnist Walter Lippman, who hated Truman, criticized the President for taking time off to campaign. “Unwittingly,” wrote Lippman, “Truman has proven how little he matters.” Truman’s reception in New York, however, proved how much he did matter. McCullough writes: “The outpouring of humanity and enthusiasm exceeded everything thus far. Had Truman’s whole career gone uncelebrated until now, the roaring ticker-tape welcome that New York gave him would have made up for it. Over a million people turned out.”

By election day a Gallup Poll showed that while Truman had cut Dewey’s lead, Dewey still remained a substantial five points ahead. The New York Times predicted a Dewey victory with 345 electoral votes. Throughout the day crowds gathered at his mother-in-law’s house in Independence where Truman, Bess and Margaret were in residence. Seeking privacy and much needed rest, he had his Secret Service contingent secretly drive him to a remote hotel in a tiny resort town not far from Independence. Truman went to sleep at nine p.m., awaking around midnight when he switched on the radio and learned that he was leading in the popular vote. By four a.m., when it was clear that Truman had won, he told his Agents to drive him to the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City where his campaign aides and supporters had spent the night listening to returns. McCullough describes the moment of victory: “At 10:14 Dewey conceded the election. A wild cheer went up on the seventeenth floor of the Muehlebach, and as the doors to the suite were thrown open, more friends, politicians, and reporters pushed their way in. “Thank you, thank you,” Truman kept saying, shaking hands, and behind the thick glasses there were tears in his eyes.”

No account of the Truman Victory would be complete without mention of a memorable moment. McCullough recounts the iconic gesture when a grinning Truman, with his particular brand of charm, holds up the front page of the Chicago Tribune which bears the screaming headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Truman’s press secretary, Charlie Ross, believed that there was a personal dimension to the president’s intense campaign. Ross said: “He had been described as a little man, fumbling, inept, not measuring up to the job of President. He had a human desire to prove his detractors wrong.”

Beginning his second term in office, Truman positively glowed with vitality and confidence. For his Secretary of State, an office Truman considered second only to his own, he picked Dean Acheson. The Truman / Acheson friendship is a prominent thread running through the last part of McCullough’s work. McCullough notes: “Of the nine members of the Cabinet, none was so conspicuous or had more influence on Truman than the elegant, polished Dean Acheson, Secretary of State. His place was unrivaled…The relationship between Truman and Acheson was clear and unimpeded, as Truman wished. Acheson ran the vast operations of State, with its twenty-two thousand employees, but he was also the President’s continuous contact with the world, his reporter and interpreter of world events as well as his chief negotiator and spokesman on foreign policy.”

Looking back on his years as Truman’s top man, Acheson recalled: “Each one understood his role and the other’s. We never got tangled up in it. I never thought I was the President, and he never thought he was the Secretary…It is important that the relations between the President and his Secretary be quite frank, sometimes to the point of being blunt. And you just have to be deferential. He is the President of the United States and you don’t say rude things to him – you say blunt things to him. Sometimes he doesn’t like it. That’s natural, but he comes back and you argue the thing out. But that’s you duty. You don’t tell him only what he wants to hear. That would be bad for him and for everyone else.”

Involvement in the Korean War and the firing of General Douglas MacArthur marked Truman’s second term in office. MacArthur, the formidable World War II hero, a five-star general stationed in Japan, became commander of the Korean military operation. McCullough is superb at contrasting the personalities of the General and the President. Clearly, the arrogant MacArthur believed he had the right to go over the President’s head and negotiate policy with the Koreans and the Chinese without clearance from Washington. So frustrated by MacArthur was Truman that in private he began referring to the General as “God’s right-hand man.”

As one would expect, MacArthur excelled at public speaking and melodrama. In clear, perfectly structured sentences flowing smoothly and flawlessly one after another, he defended himself against Truman’s accusations. After Truman announced that he was relieving MacArthur of his command and replacing him with General Matthew Ridgeway, public reaction was vociferous and passionately in favor of the General. McCullough relates: “For someone of Truman’s modest attainments, a man of his “stature,” to have fired Douglas MacArthur seemed to many an act smacking of insolence and vindictiveness, not to mention dreadful judgment.”

In the aftermath of the MacArthur crisis the big question was, “Did Truman intend to carry on in the job beyond the next election?” He told the press he never felt better. McCullough relates: “To those at the White House who saw him daily, at all hours and often under extremely trying circumstances, he was still the Truman of old, hardworking, cheerful, never short with them, never petty. He seemed to have some kind of inner balance mechanism that held him steady through nearly anything, enabling him not only to uphold the fearful responsibilities of his office and keep a killing schedule, but to accept with composure the small, silly aggravations that also went with the job. It was a level of equanimity that at time left those around him hugely amused and even more fond of him.

Truman, however, decided not to run for a third term. He would return to private life feeling well at age 68. In a farewell speech to the nation – perhaps the finest speech of his presidency – Truman said that in looking back over his time in office, he had no regrets. He concluded the address: “When Franklin Roosevelt died, I felt there must be a million men better qualified than I, to take up the Presidential task. But the work was mine to do, and I had to do it. And I have tried to give it everything that was in me…Good night and God bless you all.

He and Bess returned to Independence, to his mother-in-law’s house. Increasing age failed to squash in him the capacity to grow. He died in 1972 at age 88. Bess lived on until 1982.