Harry Truman was a classic American striver, and a failure, until politics intervened.
Citizen Solider: A Life of Harry Truman
by Aida D. Donald
Basic Books, 288 pp.
“He was one of our great presidents, wasn’t he?”
So remarked a leading local attorney I know—a longtime pillar of the Republican Party. He was talking about Harry S. Truman, reflecting what has become a widespread consensus, one that few could have imagined when Truman left the presidency in 1953.
Born in 1884, Truman, in many respects, exemplified the American experience of the late nineteenth century as the nation made a transition to the more structured world of the twentieth. His father, John Truman, scion of a poor Kentucky family, had made his way to Missouri before the Civil War and managed a living as a farmer and livestock trader. John was known for his short temper and readiness to use his fists to settle disputes. He eventually went flat broke speculating in grain futures.
Truman’s mother, Martha Young, one of several offspring of a prosperous freight hauler and landowner, was a notch or two higher socially than her husband. She had graduated from the Baptist College for Women, likely more a residential secondary school than an institution of higher education. She was the one who provided the culture in her family and encouraged her son to take up the piano. Both the Trumans and the Youngs had sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and both were staunch Baptists. (Indeed, Harry’s younger brother, John Vivian, was named for one of the founders of the Baptist Church in Kentucky.) And both families were Democratic partisans.
Harry grew to manhood in a rough-and-ready neo-frontier environment. But he did so as an effeminate boy wearing thick eyeglasses, taking piano lessons, and prohibited from contact sports for fear he would break his expensive spectacles. From adolescence on, he sought a manly identity, aspiring first to a military career, then entrepreneurial success, then, finally, politics. After a promising start as a clerk at Commerce Bank in Kansas City and a National Guard enlistee, Truman was pulled away to help his impecunious father manage a family farm owned by Grandmother Young and her son, Truman’s uncle Harrison. He spent a decade toiling there, joining local organizations, dabbling in politics, and courting Bess Wallace, a girl he had known and loved since they were small children in Independence. He also managed to lose what money he had managed to save or raise in ill-considered mining and oil ventures.
World War I saved him from a life of futility. After his Guard unit was called to duty, he became a captain of artillery, served with distinction in France, and discovered he could be a leader of men. When he returned, Bess married him. Partnering with an Army comrade, he established a haberdashery in downtown Kansas City. It lasted only three years, leaving him deeply in debt and seeking a living in politics.
His father had been affiliated with a Democratic Party faction linked to Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast. Pendergast’s nephew had been an officer in Truman’s Army unit and helped him secure a judgeship on the county court (actually an administrative commission). Soon Truman was the presiding judge, a post from which he would be the driving force behind the building of a modern road system and other progressive improvements. His personal honesty was widely acknowledged, but he had to function within an unsavory system of spoils politics made all the worse by machine alliances with the underworld. Anxiety, headaches, and unfocused anger all followed, setting a pattern for the rest of his life. Ultimately, Pendergast wound up in prison. Truman was held blameless, but could not escape the stain of his affiliation.
By then, he had been elected to the U.S. Senate, where he worked very hard, establishing himself as a populist New Dealer and an internationalist-minded backer of a strong defense. During World War II, he chaired a Senate committee that investigated fraud and mismanagement in defense industries. All the while, he maintained warm friendships with the more conservative Democrats. A living “Missouri compromise,” he was a widely acceptable candidate for vice president in 1944. Eighty-three days into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth term, he was called to the White House and informed that the president was dead.
The years that followed were, as historian-journalist Robert J. Donovan has described them, “tumultuous”—what with the emergence of the Cold War and liberal-conservative gridlock at home. The little man from Missouri became a lightning rod for southern conservatives who resented his support of black civil rights, northern liberals who longed for Roosevelt, and Republicans who accused him of spending recklessly, tolerating corruption in government, coddling communists, and settling for stalemate in the Korean War.
Truman’s standing was at a low ebb when he left the presidency in January 1953, but as passions cooled and new generations moved on to fresh debates, a gaggle of historians placed Old Harry securely among the “near-great” American chief executives. David McCullough’s fine 1992 best seller Truman cemented the Man from Missouri’s new standing. The fumbling little fellow became a “man of the people” who battled the interests, espoused the cause of common Americans, sought liberty and justice for all, won a grand upset election victory in 1948, and contained the relentless expansionism of the Soviet Union. Academic evaluations of the presidents routinely placed Truman in the top ten.
Truman may have peaked in the rankings game. Robert W. Merry’s recent book on presidential ratings, Where They Stand, judges him a great success in a first term distinguished by victory in World War II, the establishment of a new national security structure, the extension of New Deal liberalism to black civil rights, and the containment of Soviet imperialism. But Merry then sees him as a flat-out failure in his second term with his mismanagement of the Korean War, a conflict that might have been avoided by a clear and consistent policy of either support or nonsupport for South Korea before 1950. Instead there was an invasion from the north, a snap decision to reverse declared policy and intervene, a pyrrhic victory over the North Koreans, Chinese intervention, and a maddening stalemate. All this destroyed the president’s standing and effectively neutralized the signal achievements of his first term.
Aida Donald, the former editor in chief at Harvard University Press, has produced a brief biography much in tune with Merry’s assessment. She gives us an American striver—born to an undistinguished family, ambitious and hardworking, unfailingly loyal to his kin, devoted to his wife and daughter, but unfocused and meandering in his ambitions, settling on politics as a last-resort vocation. Her Truman struggles throughout his life with stress and bouts of exhaustion brought on by the dogged pursuit of success.
She allots him due credit for his accomplishments, but is equivocal about Korea, deploring the militarization that followed in its wake and the establishment of “a permanent national security state at home.” Cold War grumps might quibble that the military aggression of North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union had more to do with those developments than the reactions of a president who had been trying to cut military spending to the bone.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.