“The last time you and I sat across the conference table was at Potsdam. I must confess, sir. I held you in very low regard then. I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt. I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.” – Winston Churchill
When you think of the greatest Presidents, George Washington immediately comes to mind. He is the first and set great precedents for all others after him. Of course, Abraham Lincoln is at the very top of the list too. He saved the Union and led the country through the Civil War. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is ranked very high because of his leadership through the Great Depression and World War II. He is also the only President elected to four terms. On the other hand, his critics would argue that he is the closest the country has ever come to a dictator and the impact of his policies were questionable despite his legendary charisma. Another extremely popular President is John F. Kennedy. Despite his brief time in office before his assassination, he had a special ability to inspire Americans to dream and achieve. Harry S. Truman is usually an afterthought. Nevertheless, his Presidency measures up as one of the most substantive and critical to the history of the country and the world. For years, he was an underrated President because he was far from the most colorful. However, history has retrospectively realized the impact of and greatly appreciated his achievements and contributions as President. His legacy now ranks extremely favorably within or on the periphery of a Top 5 President. David McCullough’s Truman is the most thorough and comprehensive biography I have ever read about any individual. It is almost 1,000 pages. It starts even before Truman is born with his family history. It follows Truman’s extremely unlikely path to the White House through his modest and humble beginnings in Kansas. Once he becomes President after the death of FDR, the book provides in-depth analysis of the most important decisions Truman made during his Presidency which include the orders to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, strategy to deal with Communism without starting another World War, and decision to enter the Korean War. Naturally, lesser events like domestic policies and political battles can be a little boring at times when compared to those other World history defining moments. Regardless, they are important in getting a full picture of Truman’s presidency and McCullough does a thorough job with those details too. Nevertheless, the domestic aspects of Truman’s presidency are fascinating anyway from his stance on civil rights to arguably the greatest upset in Presidential Election history when he won re-election and held up a newspaper with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”. Despite his accomplishments and the epic challenges history put in his path, he never let the power or spotlight get to his head. He was always an honest and decent man who tried to just do what was right for his country and the world. One of my favorite quotes from the book that describes Truman perfectly is attributed to Admiral Ernest J. King after Truman became President: “This is all new to him, but he can take it. He is more typical American than Roosevelt, and he will do a good job, not only for the United States but for the whole world.” Again, David McCullough’s Truman is an incredibly detailed and well written biography about Harry Truman’s life and one of the most consequential presidencies. Of course, I highly recommend it.
One of the best examples of how extensively thorough McCullough is with the biography is that he starts the book with the history of Truman’s family before he was born. He traces them back to the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict, which was one of the major precursors to the American Civil War. One of the major issues at the time was how to determine whether a state entering the Union would be a free or slave state. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 attempted to allow the voters in the border states to determine it themselves. Nonetheless, legislation did not stop individuals from taking matters into their own hands. The violence was especially bad near the Missouri and Kansas border, hence the term “Bleeding Kansas”. Names of guerillas became legend or infamous depending on your side. “Doc” Jennison and his outlaw Kansans Jayhawkers supported abolition. “Bloody Bill” Anderson supported slavery. Interestingly and contradictory, Missouri was full of slave owners but still loyal to the Union. Like the rest of the book, McCullough does an incredible job of setting the stage and making us feel as if we were alive at that time. Both sides of Truman’s family were naturally affected by the Civil War. Under General Order No. 11, residents had to prove their loyalty to the Union to their post commander or vacate their residences within 15 days. On his mother’s side, the Solomon Young family was forced to vacate despite providing an oath of loyalty in the previous year. The family was only allowed to take a wagon full of belongings. His father’s side had better luck as Anderson Truman signed an oath of loyalty and was allowed to stay. McCullough provides plenty of other interesting details about Truman’s family and how they were affected by the times. Again, he is so thorough about Truman’s life that he starts before his life even begins.
Of course, one’s family and childhood are significant factors in determining who a person is. McCullough does a wonderful job showing how both impacted and make Harry Truman the man he was. Harry grew up on the Young farm and was very close to his Grandpa Joe. Not surprisingly, his mother knew him best. While Grandpa gave him free reign, his mother taught him that “punishment followed transgression”. Nevertheless, he was his “mother’s son”. In terms of his father John, he was a “fiery fellow”. He had an extremely bad temper. He once chased a lawyer down the street who was accusing him of lying and whipped another man when they had an argument. Regardless, he got away with it because “a man of John Truman’s integrity and industry… you excuse a whole lot of things”. John also made a couple of attempts at being a stock trader. In this situation, stock means cattle. As a child, Harry loved books. He read the Bible twice by the age of 12. Other works he read included Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare, and the autobiographies for Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin. In his essay about The Merchant of Venice, he makes a point about ideal men. Although they are few, the ideal man “should be in the first place be brave; then he should fear his God… he must not be cold, haughty, or hypocritical, but he must have a warm heart and love someone (a woman is preferable)”. That observation foreshadows and describes who Harry Truman will be as an adult. Moreover, he had a passion for history, especially Egypt, Greece, and Rome. His heroes were some of the great generals from the past: Andrew Jackson, Hannibal, and Robert E. Lee. In addition, he loved playing the piano. He definitely enjoyed learning and his teachers were his greatest influences [second only to his mother]. Not surprisingly, his favorite was his history teacher, Margaret Phelps. Like other children, he was fascinated by trains and sat on top of a coal shed behind the house counting freight cars. As one could see, he was a common yet decent man from a regular family in Missouri. His humble beginning adds to a great story in his eventual ascension to the Presidency.
Interestingly enough, Truman also lived a sappy but sweet love story with his eventual wife, Elizabeth “Bessie” Wallace, who he crushed on at a very young age in school. True to Truman’s personality, he was very shy with girls. As such, it took him five years just to say a word to Bessie. It was romantic when he made the comment “If I succeeded in carrying her books to school and back home for her I had a big day”. She was blond haired and blue eyed. Truman saw her as “ideal”: popular, stood out in class, always dressed in the latest trendy attire, and an all-around athlete who played baseball and tennis as well as or better than the boys. He hung outside her house hoping to get glimpses of her. Naturally, she did not notice him. Eventually, he got her attention when they were young adults. He would travel long distances and won her heart by writing many letters. Since he was shy and had difficulty communicating his feelings for her in person, the letters allowed him to be elegant and tell Bessie how he felt in a way he could not achieve by talking. He went to extraordinary lengths to show his love for her. His efforts included building a tennis court for her on his family farm since she enjoyed playing the sport. Although her mother, Madge Wallace, did not think a farmer was good enough for Bessie, Truman eventually broke through that barrier too. Moreover, Truman stayed immaculately true to his commitment and vow to Bessie. He absolutely believed and lived the ideal of loving and being with one woman. He went so far as to not be in the same room as another woman by himself to avoid temptations completely. Even though Truman’s love story with Bessie seems like a surreal, fictional movie plot; the idealistic nature of it is believable in the context of the stand up and exemplary life he lived.
Harry Truman also showed an incredible sense of duty to family and country. In particular, his father John’s business venture failures made it difficult for Harry and on the family. Nevertheless, Harry was always ready and willing to step up to take care of the family. When John was wiped out financially after gambling on wheat futures, the family was forced to move to Kansas City and he worked as a night watchman at a grain elevator. Consequently, Harry had no money for school and worked on the railroad tracks instead. Eventually, he was resourceful enough to apply and get a big job at the National Bank of Commerce. His father ultimately moved the family to a farm in Blue Ridge. Unfortunately, he could not handle the farm work by himself. As a result, Harry quit his own job to move back home to help with the farm. He could have been resentful that he had to give up his own career to help his father dig out of his self-inflicted problems. Instead, he affirmatively put family first. Truman also showed an amazing sense of duty to his country. During World War I, Truman was exempt from service for a variety of reasons: farmer, 2 years past the age limit set by the Selective Service Act, poor eyes, and sole supporter of mother and sister. Of course, he volunteered immediately anyway. When he was deployed to France, he did not immediately join the fighting. As an officer in the Allied Expeditionary Force, he had luxurious accommodations and the privilege to enjoy the pleasures of France: good food, wine, and cognac. Unlike the Second World War when there was total destruction, the fighting in World War I was mainly in the trenches. Consequently, there was no real sign of war where Truman was initially situated. When Truman eventually led his men into battle, he built an exemplary and extraordinary record. At first, he was scared to death at the responsibility of so many men in his hands. Is his first engagement, poison gas was unleashed. A lot of men ran because it was their first experience with the horrors of combat. Truman stood his ground but he admitted that he was just too scared to run. Nevertheless, he quickly developed into a strong leader. Since he did not lose a single man, he was seen as brave and lucky. The Meuse-Argonne offensive was the largest military action in American history. McCullough does a thorough job explaining the magnitude of the battle. It involved 6,000 men, 3,000 artillery pieces, and 90,000 horses. 2,700 guns opened fire. In three hours, more ammunition was used in that battle than in the entire Civil War. During the fighting, the “Lost Battalion” suffered a 70% casualty rate. In the 47 days, there were 117 thousand American casualties. In contrast, Truman’s 129th Field Artillery Battery D only sustained three injuries and the only death occurred after the individual left Truman’s command. Accordingly, his fortune was attributed to “part luck and part leadership”. As one could see, Truman had a great sense of duty to his family and country. He performed extremely well for both when they needed it.
Truman did not immediately enter politics after the war. He tried opening Truman & Jacobson: “first class operation” specializing in famous brands with a full line of “gents furnishings” such as socks, ties, belts, underwear, and hats. It failed. However, he was asked to run for eastern Judge of Jackson County court in Independence, Missouri right before the business failed. Truman’s political influence was Williams Jennings Bryan who he saw as the voice of the common man. Truman ran on his reputation of his record as a Captain in the military as well as his father’s respected reputation. Nevertheless, the Pendergast political machine dominated Kansas City and no candidate could make it without its support. Truman was not any different and was picked by Mike Pendergast. His brother, Thomas Joseph (Tom or T.J.), was the political boss and would eventually be convicted of voter fraud. As such, the Pendergast machine was known to be corrupt and the stigma of coming out of it dogged Truman long into his political career. The book portrays him as above it. However, it is not impossible that he had to do something shady even if it was minor compared to the huge political scandals and never came up on anyone’s radar. Truman represented the first of the wave of American legion/ veteran candidates who would win office. He was new and progressive at that time. Again, Truman’s oratory skills were not the strongest. His speeches were short at first but improved over time. He learned that “If you’re going to be in politics, you have to learn to explain to people what you stand for, and to learn to stand up in front of a crowd and talk was just something I had to do, so I went ahead and did it”. The book also paints him as hardworking and an honest idealist. He felt that there are “three things that ruin a man”: “Power, money, and women”. In response, he noted that “I never wanted power. I never had any money, and the only woman I want in my life is up at the house right now.” Again, he had a paranoia for the temptation of women and would run out of rooms if he was alone with them. As a judge, he was very effective for his county. He was business like and great at cost cutting as evidenced by halving the $1 million debt of the county. At the same time, the quality of the roadwork improved. He personally inspected bridges and left a $250k cash balance in the county’s accounts at the end of his run as judge. Nevertheless, he lost reelection due to a power struggle among the Democrats. Accordingly, he ran for and won the position of presiding judge. In that role, he ran a $7 million budget, which was more than some states. He also broke the norm and went out of state lines to Chicago and St. Louis for better rates. He raised $6.5 million in bonds for roads. Most importantly, he did not allow Mike Pendergast to influence the road contractors or alter bids to award them to certain contractors. Naturally, it did not win him any favor with the Pendergasts and definitely made it more difficult to rise in Kansas City politics (e.g. getting passed on for governor). Nevertheless, preserving his integrity and reputation was critical to his long term career and legacy. It is a great story showing how the path of least resistance or easiest path is usually not the correct path. I agree with the moral that anything worth doing and accomplishing is worth taking the time to do properly. McCullough does an excellent job showing how Truman’s early political career shapes and sets the foundation for the rest of his career. Truman definitely was not the most inspirational or charismatic politician but he was one of the most efficient and effective government officials when he got the job.
Truman would eventually procure a couple of more government jobs before he set his sights on the United States Senate. As a foreshadowing of his future, he was not the first choice for the job but would eventually be the best choice. In fact, he was turned down by T.J. Pendergast when he asked for the job. Eventually, Truman got his chance when no one else wanted the job. He was actually T.J.’s third choice. When McCullough tells the story of Truman’s Senate campaign and early years as a Senator, he also explains Truman’s values and beliefs as a person and politician. He believed in FDR’s New Deal for Missouri. He did not feel it was good that 90% of the wealth was in the hands of only 4% of the people. As an elected official, he worked “so the common people of the country could have a chance at good things in life”. From his perspective, the Democratic Party was the party of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and FDR “for the everyday man just like you and me”. Truman called for shorter working hours, higher pay, old-age pensions, and the payment of soldiers’ bonuses. Despite his strong platform for the working people of Missouri, the primary force for his election was the Penderfast machine, which narrowly pushed him past the second highest vote getter, John Cochran, 276,850 to 236,105 votes. Consequently, Truman was known as the Senator from Pendergast instead of the state of Missouri. It was a Scarlet Letter that followed him throughout his career in Washington D.C. The notoriety was obviously strongest when he first arrived on the job as Senator. Not surprisingly, he felt insecure as a junior Senator. A good quote in the book that perfectly describes his feelings in the situation is from Charlie Ross, his childhood friend who was a writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “He came to the Senate, I believe, with a definite inferiority complex. He was a better man than he knew.” As a Senator, Truman exuded the same work ethic and was the early riser he was as a farmer. He arrived at Congress at 7 AM and got through all his mail and responded before others even showed up for work. He was a tireless worker who fought for what he felt was right. Back to the values and principles he fought for as Senator, he was against corporate greed. He felt that “we worship money instead of honor”. Next, he believed in civil rights. For example, he supported a bill to end poll taxes that disincentivized minorities from voting and prevent lynchings. Furthermore, he felt strongly that the United States should have taken its role as a world power instead of retreating into isolationism after World War I. He knew it was a mistake not to sign the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations. In addition, he wanted an Air Force second to none because “in the coming struggle between democracy and dictatorship, democracy must be prepared to defend its principles and its wealth”. Although he was a New Dealer, he was not liberal like other Democrats. He also did not always walk the party line. For example, he voted against Alben Barkley, who FDR supported for the New Senate Majority Leader. Although the White House went to Pendergast to coerce a change in Truman’s vote, he did not relent. Despite the pressure, Truman did not compromise what and who he believed in. Barkley won anyway but Truman obviously drew FDR’s ire. Later, Truman took a not so subtle jab at FDR when he said “There is no indispensable man in a democracy. When a republic comes to a point where a man is indispensable, then we have a Caesar”. This contentious relationship with FDR adds to the mystery of why FDR chooses Truman as his Vice President later. Regardless, Truman’s Senate campaign and early career as Senator clearly shows the values he stood for and the policies he fought for in Washington.
Naturally, Truman made mistakes too. His worst moment as Senator was when he defended T.J. Pendergast. T.J. was known as the “Big Sucker”. He owed approximately $6 million in debt to gamblers and bookmakers. He was also suspected of voter fraud in 1936 because “ghost votes” caused the total number of votes casted to be greater than the actual population. Ultimately, a Treasury investigation on taxes brought Pendergast down. It found that he was bribed $750 thousand by Great American Insurance Companies to settle an issue over fire insurance rates that kept $10 million of the company’s money impounded. Nevertheless, Truman was loyal to a fault. He defended Pendergast and attacked U.S. attorney, Maurice Milligan, and the federal judges in Missouri. Ultimately, Truman looked like a fool when Pendergast pleaded guilty for tax evasion. Truman was met with so much disapproval that he assumed his political career was over. Of course, his fervent yet ignorant defense of T.J. only added to the narrative that he was the Senator from Pendergast. Even though there was no suspicion of any wrongdoing from Truman, he was guilty by association to a known corrupt politician. It was a huge political liability when he ran for reelection as Senator. Not surprisingly, he was an underdog to his challenger, Missouri Governor Lloyd Stark. Of course, it would not be the only time Truman beat long odds for reelection for political office. With the hindsight of history, it serves as foreshadowing for the book of an even bigger upset when he wins reelection for a second term as President. During the investigation of Pendergast, it was also discovered that the city manager of Kansas City, Henry McElroy, “misplaced” $20 million of the city’s funds. The amount was twice the city’s budget. Since it was Truman’s old job, he had the same opportunity to steal millions. Obviously, he did not. Even though it may seem impossible that Truman did not get his hands dirty as a part of the Pendergast machine, not stealing from the city of Kansas City is a strong example of how he was not tempted by money or the opportunity to abuse his power. Despite the assumption of guilt by association with the Pendergast political machine, it is remarkable that he truly was infallible. He advanced and governed with honesty and hard work.
Truman’s rise to national prominence as a Senator may not be the most exciting part of the book. However, it is interesting and obviously important. He accomplished it by holding military contractors accountable to prevent government waste. When he toured Fort Leonard Wood, he saw costly equipment and material lying around in snow and rain. The contractor had no construction experience. There were hundreds of men just standing around collecting pay. He deduced that the contractor was paid for the camp construction based on cost plus basis. As such, its incentive was to pile up costs. For these reasons, he spoke to FDR and the Senate to ask for a special committee to award defense contracts: the Senate Special Committee to Investigate National Defense Program. The endeavor was extremely politically risky. At a time when the entire country was rallied and united in support of the war effort, it would have been political suicide for anyone to be viewed as an impediment to the armed forces. However, Truman and his committee performed yeoman’s work that was critical in holding contractors accountable so that resources were not squandered and the troops were properly equipped. For example, they documented the waste and mismanagement in the construction of army camps. Next, they found there was too little aluminum, which was a resource essential for warplanes. Moreover, they discovered shortages in copper, zinc, and rubber. The committee also observed automobile manufacturers were allowed to do what they wished and the Army and Navy left it up to manufacturers to choose what planes to build. Obviously, there was a complete lack of oversight and coordination of the military buildup. Accordingly, changes were made after the committee sent their early findings to FDR. The Office of Production Management was disbanded and a brand new War Production was formed and announced. Afterwards, Truman and his team continued to hold defense contractors accountable. Some of the transgressions were totally ridiculous. Glenn Martin encountered problems with the B-26 planes because the wings were not wide enough. Rather than correct the issue, it argued that the plans were too far along and it already had the contract to build the planes anyway. In response, Truman threatened to cancel the contract. Another egregious example is when the United States Steel Corporation did not produce steel up to navy standards but labeled it as such. The scandal was uncovered by employee whistleblowers. It caused public outcry when the ship Schenectady split in two in Portland. As one could clearly see, there were abuses from defense contractors that needed to be curbed. Naturally, Truman was very diligent in the job. A testament to his persistence was when he stumbled onto the Manhattan Project, the code name for the development of the atomic bomb, because of unexpected, exorbitant expenditures. Truman initially had an agreement with the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, to not press him on the costs but a request for an additional $1.6 billion forced Truman’s hand. The Senate Special Committee could have been a political liability for Truman. Nevertheless, he participated and put his name on the line for the good of his country and emerged as a star because of it.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book is about how Truman became the nominee for Vice President. Truman’s nomination as the Vice President is very interesting because there is no definitive answer why FDR chose him. Of course, FDR knew his health was declining. Accordingly, there was a movement to unseat his current Vice President, Henry Wallace, who was the champion of liberal causes. Wallace’s beliefs included his stance that there are no inferior races. He felt there should be equal educational and economic opportunities for all races and was against poll taxes. Moreover, he believed in equal work and equal pay regardless of race, sex, etc. While he was strong with the liberal base, it was presumed that he was too far left to be elected at the time. Ultimately, the Democratic Party held an open convention for the nomination. It was important to do so because they knew they would be choosing two Presidents. In addition to Wallace, Jimmy Byrnes was the favorite going into the convention. Interestingly enough, Truman agreed to nominate Byrnes. Truman never thought he would be a legitimate candidate to win the nomination. There were other candidates and he assumed FDR did not like him, especially with the conflicts they had in the past. As an event, the open convention was very exciting and may never happen again. The outcome was also stunning. By the time it was held, Truman and Wallace emerged as the two frontrunners. Initially, Wallace was up 429 votes to Truman’s 319 votes. However, the tide turned when New York casted its 74 votes for Truman. Eventually, states switched to Truman despite the crowd chanting for Wallace. Of course, the whole scheme was orchestrated by FDR. He could have simply stated his intentions and who he wanted as his VP. Instead, he had a flair for the dramatic and put on a show. It was never really known why FDR chose Truman. It remains a mystery. As such, the book speculates on the purpose, which was that Truman gave the ticket a better chance at winning the black vote. Personally, I would like to think that FDR saw a good man in Truman who he felt was the right man to replace him. The fact that Truman challenged FDR at times and was not just a follower is proof of leadership qualities. Of course, the simple answer of appealing to a specific voter demographic is practical and likely the correct answer. Obviously, FDR was a savvy politician who mastered winning elections. In that election, he and Truman only won by 3 million votes. More specifically, a 300 thousand swing in the right states would have swung the election. As a result, the reason the books presents for selecting Truman as VP could have definitely meant the difference in winning or losing with that small margin. For all the reasons above, the path to Truman’s nomination as Vice President is absolutely thought provoking.
Again, FDR knew his days were numbered as he began his fourth term as President. As such, he knew Truman would need to take over for him. However, it is shocking that the book describes how little communication FDR had with his Vice President. Truman performed his duty as the Vice President presiding over the Senate and attending social functions on behalf of the administration. However, he virtually had no direct contact with FDR after the Inauguration because the President left the country in secret to attend the Yalta Conference and meet with the heads of his key allies, Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union. Regardless, it was odd to not keep Truman better informed with FDR’s failing health. Truman was kept out of the loop so much that he was in absolute shock when he was notified that the President had passed away and he would be sworn in as the next President. Obviously, Truman had gigantic shoes to fill and he knew it: “There have been few men in all history the equal of the man into whose shoes I am stepping. I pray God I can measure up to the task.” Nevertheless, FDR was not a perfect man or President. Consequently, Truman also knew he had to conduct his business a little differently and better in some aspects. First, he aimed to work with Congress instead of in constant contempt. In addition, he understood the importance of precedence and setting good ones for future Presidents. As such, Truman consistently evaluated how his decisions and actions would affect future Presidencies. In his first address to Congress, he set the tone, goal, and expectation of unconditional surrender for the Axis Powers. Moreover, he stressed the importance of the United Nations. In order to prevent another World War, he knew that the United States needed to participate and lead a global effort to maintain international order. Truman also sought to set better domestic precedence. For example, he saw J Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, and his organization as a threat to civil liberties. FDR enjoyed “spicy secrets” about the private lives of important people. For this reason, he enabled and empowered Hoover to overreach in his power and authority. As an honorable man, Truman entertained none of it and restricted Hoover’s power. Hoover hated Truman because the President forced the Director to follow proper etiquette (e.g. make requests through the attorney general). In one of Truman’s private diary entries, he noted “We want no Gestapo or Secret Police. FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbing in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail… This must stop.” As much as I respect FDR as one of the greatest and important Presidents, he was also the closest thing the country has ever had to a dictator. As a result, Truman knew he had to curb the power of the Presidency for the betterment and the future of the nation. Truman was poorly prepared by FDR and blindsided by the death of his legendary predecessor. He could have wilted in the great shadow of FDR. Nevertheless, he was up for the challenge and placed his own stamp on the Presidency. Again, one of my favorite quotes in the book is from Admiral Ernest J. King: “This is all new to him, but he can take it. He is more typical American than Roosevelt, and he will do a good job, not only for the United States but for the whole world.”
Naturally, the details and analyses of Truman’s Presidency are the most interesting parts of the book. One of the most fascinating and thought provoking situations was his decision to deploy the atomic bomb. Obviously, its use is something that has been heavily dissected and argued over the years. Again, Truman stumbled on to the Manhattan Project as part of the Senate Special Committee. Nevertheless, he was never told the nature of it. Even as the Vice President, he was kept in the dark. As a result, he was hit unexpectedly with an impossible responsibility after he assumed the role as President when he was given the option to unleash nuclear weapons upon the world. If you are adamant that the use of the atomic bombs could never be justified, it is an understandable position and the argument for their use will fall upon deaf ears. In my opinion, it is a decision that should be evaluated and looked through the lens of the situation and factors presented to Truman at that time. McCullough does a wonderful job bringing us back in time for that decision. FDR and Winston Churchill only considered using it on the Japanese and repeating it until they surrendered. FDR’s scientific panel agreed on a consensus criteria for the use of the bomb: it should be used on Japan as soon as possible, used on war plants surrounded by workers’ homes or other buildings susceptible to damage to make profound psychological impression, and used without warning. There were legitimate reasons to justify their use. B-29 bombers were pounding Japanese cities with conventional weapons anyway. During March 9-10 of that year, more than 100,000 perished in Tokyo via 300 bombers. Another example was the vast destruction of Nagoya by 500 bombers. World War II was total war. Cities were being leveled anyway. Truman was trying to decide between a slow and painful death and one quick and shocking blow to Japan.
There were more factors that justified the use of the weapons. The most significant consideration was the amount of lives that it would cost to invade the Japanese mainland. The invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima were costly to both sides as the Japanese fought to the last man, which included their pilots using Kamikaze planes. Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, noted that the Japanese would fight like never before for their homeland and there would be 1 million Allied casualties. General Andrew Goodpaster provided a similar bleak estimate with 500 thousand Allied casualties and ten times more for the Japanese. J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and a “father of the atomic bomb” due to his lead role in the Manhattan project, assessed that more lives would be killed by conventional incendiary bombs. As such, a “tremendous shock”, in the form of the atomic bombs, could end the war to save Japanese and American lives. The Japanese would have certainly fought on for much longer otherwise. The United States also could not provide advance warning to allow time for civilians to evacuate the target cities. First, there was no guarantee that bombs would work. A misfire would have discredited the weapon going forward. Next, it would give an opportunity for the Japanese to bring POWs to the blast zones. Of course, there was a revenge factor against the Japanese too. The American public despised the Japanese for a number of atrocities and war crimes: the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, bombing Manila, Bataan Death March, kamikazes, and the Palawan massacre when they dosed and burned 140 American POWs. Obviously, revenge is not a moral reason. Nevertheless, it is a natural feeling. In the end, Truman’s alternative was invade or blockade and bomb to wait out the Japanese if he did not utilize the atomic bombs. One could conclude from the reasons above that an American President could not justify a bloodbath when he had a weapon to prevent it.
Again, the opinion that atomic weapons should never be used is a reasonable thought. In the modern world, it is the only rational thought. As a result, McCullough does a great job detailing the reservations that many had during the war before Truman opted to unleash the atomic bombs. Physicists, Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein, famously helped push and convince FDR to initiate the project but they also warned of an arms race with Russia. As the project progressed, scientists and engineers wrote to the President to dissuade him from actually using the weapon. One letter from unknown engineer named O.C. Brewster summed up the crux of the concerns: “The idea of the destruction of civilization is not melodramatic hysteria or crackpot raving. It is a very real and, I submit, almost inevitable result.” Henry Stimson also expressed a similar sentiment when he warned the project may lead to “the doom of civilization”. Nevertheless, Stimson and Chief of Staff of the Army, George Marshall, were not concerned about whether the bomb should be used. They were only concerned about how to use it to stop the greater slaughter of the war. In regards to the targets for the atomic bombs of the virtually untouched cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stimson did not want “outdoing Hitler in atrocities” but felt the already bombed out cities were too destroyed to provide a “fair background” to show strength of the new bomb. Again, the idea was to inflict an overwhelming psychological shock that would force immediate and unconditional surrender.
Moreover, McCullough provides insightful perspective about Truman’s understanding of the firepower he was yielding and decision process. In his diary, he had an entry that stated he realized the damage and casualties would be “beyond imagination” although he was not certain whether the blast would be the equivalent of 2,000 or 20,000 tons of TNT. Nevertheless, “the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb to compel the surrender of Japan was never an issue. There was unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table; nor did I ever hear the slightest suggestion that we should do otherwise”. Although there was a consensus in agreement to use the bomb, Truman did not abdicate his responsibility as President: “The final decision of where and when to use the atomic bomb was up to me. Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used. The top military advisers to the President recommended its use, and when I talked to Churchill he unhesitatingly told me that he favored the use of the atomic bomb if it might aid to end the war.” Of course, it was an impossible decision Truman acknowledged when he stated “I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb” and “It is an awful responsibility which has come to us”. In my opinion, the notion that there was no justification for Truman to ever unleash the atomic bombs to expedite the end of the war is a purely academic and overly idealistic one. It is an easy decision to make from the comfort of a couch and the safety of the modern world.
Based on the conditions at that time of total war and carnage Truman was faced with that are detailed in full by the book, he made the impossible call to order the use of an unimaginable horror. It was a long, destructive war. Over 16 million Americans were mobilized for the effort and had already endured nightmares to last the rest of their lifetimes. At the end of the HBO TV series Band of Brothers, Easy Company had already fought its way across Europe and weary of fighting but still did not accrue enough points in the system to return home. Obviously, they had sacrificed enough for their country. If the Pacific War continued, troops from Europe would have been re-deployed to Asia. As President and Commander in Chief, I do not think Truman could have lived with sending millions of Americans into an invasion of the Japanese mainland. In the end, I believe he made the decision that saved many more lives on both sides than the two atomic bombs ended. Although it is a morbid thought, nuclear weapons probably needed to be used once so the destruction they caused would deter anyone from ever using them again. More importantly, there was a fight after the war about whether the atomic weapons were part of the arsenal that could be deployed by the military whenever it felt or weapons that required the authorization of the President of the United States as the Commander in Chief. Luckily, Truman won that argument and secured civilian oversight and approval before those weapons of mass destruction could ever be used again. One hawkish military commander could not trigger a nuclear war by himself. As a certain General proves later in the book, it could have definitely happened. In the very specific situation Truman had when he ordered the use of atomic bombs on Japan, I agree there were justifications in using them. We should also be grateful that Truman had the foresight to establish safeguards to restrict their future use.
Another interesting moment at the beginning of Truman’s Presidency was the Potsdam Conference that determined the fate of the defeated Germany and the rest of Europe. The book does an amazing job painting the event as epic. It was Truman’s first test on the international stage. It was also the moment he met the other major Allied head of states, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. In addition, there is a powerful moment in the book when Truman was flying into Germany for the Conference. He was overwhelmed by the sight of total destruction of Germany. Again, Truman was a veteran of World War I. His perspective of seeing firsthand how much worse the Second World War was is a morbid observation. In regards to the perception of the other leaders about Truman, Winston Churchill initially held Truman in low regard. He “loathed” Truman taking Roosevelt’s place. Despite his skepticism, Churchill was impressed from that first encounter. One of the most surprising points in the book are about Stalin. He was born Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvuli. He changed his name to Stalin because it meant “Man of Steel”. Truman described him as “A little bit of a squirt” since he only stood at 5’5”. He also affectionately referred to Stalin as Uncle Joe even though he was ironically humorless. Truman thought of his Russian counterpart as “polite, good-natured, businesslike” and “honest – but smart as hell”. In time, he realized his naivety at Potsdam as “an innocent idealist” because Stalin was clearly an “unconscionable Russian Dictator”. Nevertheless, Truman “liked the little son-of-a-bitch”. Obviously, history has remembered Stalin as a ruthless dictator who murdered tens of millions. Accordingly, it is shocking to read about his charm and likeability. During the Conference, Truman presided over the meeting because Churchill talked too much. On the other hand, Stalin spoke too softly. As you may notice, there are many terrifying clips of Adolf Hitler’s demagogue, fiery speeches to Nazi Germany. You would be hard pressed to find similar clips of Stalin. Many key issues were discussed during the Conference. First, there was a discussion on whether to include China in the talks to decide Europe’s fate. It was quickly shot down by Stalin. Next, the fates of countries (e.g. Poland, Italy, Spain, Greece, etc.) were discussed although not really determined, as the book’s later summation of the beginning of the Cold War with the expansion of Soviet influence and establishment of satellite/ puppet countries, proves. In addition, the administration of Germany and the German navy was decided. A couple of other fascinating moments occurred during the Conference. First, Truman informed Stalin that the United States successfully detonated an atomic bomb. Although Stalin acted disinterested with a convincing poker face, the Russian atomic program actually started in 1942 and he told his scientists to hurry upon hearing the news. Next, Churchill actually lost reelection as Prime Minister during the Conference and had to return to Great Britain. Again, Potsdam was a very interesting event during the end of the war and McCullough does an excellent job pointing out the highlights and its importance. It was also foreshadowing of Truman’s undeniable strength in foreign affairs.
One of the most significant parts of Truman’s legacy is how he defined the foreign policy of the United States after World War II as it took its place as the superpower, especially in regards to how it would handle its rival superpower, the Soviet Union, and the spread of communism. On February 9, 1946, Stalin concluded that communism and capitalism were incompatible and another World War was inevitable. Accordingly, he tripled the Soviet Union’s production for national defense. Stalin also predicted America would enter into another Depression in the 1950s. Naturally, it was an alarming address from Stalin. In fact, liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called it a “Declaration of World War III”. Shortly after, Churchill made his famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri. Those speeches from the two rivals announced the beginning of the Cold War. The Soviets did not want war. However, they wanted the fruits of war “and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrine”. Obviously, the United States did not want another World War either. As such, it was critical to define the boundaries of a response that would not escalate a cold war into a hot one. One of the most important decisions Truman made was naming George C Marshall as his Secretary of State. It was not a no brainer choice. Marshall had failed to negotiate more than a temporary ceasefire in the Chinese Civil War between the KMT and Communists. Nevertheless, no one blamed him because he was never going to be able resolve that conflict. Marshall was arguably the greatest Secretary of State and a crucial partner in designing the United States’ strategy for the Cold War. One of the immediate crises they faced was how to help the war torn nations of Greece and Turkey. They needed aid to combat communism but Great Britain could no longer afford to provide anymore. Truman’s adviser Clark Clifford and his assistant George Kelsey wrote up a comprehensive report about the Soviet Union. A key warning was that the Soviets had satellite countries, in particular China and Korea. Moreover, the communist party was growing in France and Italy. It was beginning to spread in many more countries. Consequently, the report recommended that the United States should maintain its military strength and “should support and assist all democratic countries which are in any way menaced or endangered by the U.S.S.R.”
Those findings led to the Truman Doctrine which called for “the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free of coercion”. It was first applied in the case of Greece and Turkey in which $400 million was provided in aid. It was a difficult ask from the American people who just endured a World War. The request was a lot of money and seemed like another call to arms. Nevertheless, Truman understood that “If we falter in or leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world, and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.” Although the country worried about the cost of the Doctrine and it risked ruining any chance for reconciliation with Russia, Truman knew it was needed and was able to convince the American people that the importance far outweighed the costs. In addition to the Doctrine, the other key policy in combating communism was the Marshall Plan that stood “against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos” and stood for the “revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist”. Similar to the worries about aid to Greece and Turkey, the Plan was very expensive at $16.5 billion over 4 years. Nevertheless, Truman and Marshall were able to sell that it would be far less costly than the $400 billion and countless lives it would take to wage an all-out war against the Russians. The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan formed the pillars for the policy of containment of communism until the Soviet Union “mellows” or “collapsed”. The biggest early test of the policy occurred when the Russians blockaded all rail, highway, and water traffic into Berlin to cut off the Allied administered sections of the German Capitol. It was meant to test and break the resolve of Truman and the United States. Truman could have forced an armored convoy but that would have risked war. Instead, he improvised with a costly airlift that continued until the blockade was broken. We now know it as the Berlin Airlift. Truman displayed great leadership and set great precedents for future Presidents on how to fight the Cold War with the Soviets. One of the admirable traits of Truman was his humility. Despite his brilliant achievements, he showed humility: “I’m not doing this for credit. I am doing it cause it’s right, I am doing it because it’s necessary to be done, if we are going to survive ourselves.” Regardless, he knew that he was establishing a revolutionary new foreign policy because “In all the history of the world, we are the first great nation to feed and support the conquered.” The book does a magnificent job telling the story of the beginning of the Cold War and how Truman’s administration defined the parameters of fighting in that struggle and the foreign policy of the United States as a responsible superpower after the Second World War.
Although Truman’s foreign policy is much more intriguing than the domestic issues, handling crises at home and setting domestic policy are crucial to any President’s legacy. It is difficult to read through at times because a reader just wants to flip to the next world shaping event during his Presidency. Regardless, the book does a good job telling the story within the United States. First, Truman was confronted with strikes all across the country shortly after the war. While workers did their duty and sacrificed by accepting lower wages during the war, they wanted to catch up on their pay almost as soon as the fighting stopped. On January 19, 1946, 800 thousand steel workers went on strike. Then, there was a railroad strike that stranded commuters in Chicago. Of course, there were tragic examples of life and death that resulted. One woman was kept from her father’s deathbed and a 13 year old was stalled on route to brain surgery. The strike was also very costly to businesses. A lot of lettuce and fruit were rotting in California and Kansas. More seriously, Europe was crippled by the war and would starve if grain shipments were delayed as much as two weeks. Obviously, Truman needed to resolve the strikes quickly. At first, he tried to appeal to patriotism. It did not work since the workers were angry and felt they sacrificed enough during the war. Eventually, Truman proposed drafting the strikers into the army. However, the union bosses threatened to defeat his reelection. Moreover, the iconic former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, wrote politely to him and pleaded for him to not resort to military thinking in handling peacetime problems. The bill was eventually defeated in the Senate. One of the few indisputable black eyes on Truman was how poorly he dealt with strikes. Another example later in his Presidency was when he tried to seize the steel mills during another steel workers’ strike. Even the liberal Supreme Court, who critics would have thought would lean in Truman’s favor, ruled the seizure unconstitutional. There were even calls for Truman’s impeachment. Obviously, he overreached with his power and the courts checked it. Every President have had his bad moments. Truman definitely regretted his actions on the strikes.
On the other hand, Truman did much more good than bad in moving the country forward on an array of critical issues. In regards to business, he called for improved labor-management relations and a strengthening of anti-trust laws. Next, he asked for a national health insurance program that covered mental health, child care, and hospital construction. Interestingly, he wanted payroll deductions to fund national health insurance so all citizens could receive medical and hospital service. Truman’s idea was basically universal health care. Obviously, health care is still a hot topic issue today. As we know, support and opposition for universal health is split sharply by party lines. As such, it is interesting to see that it dates so far back in the past. Truman also played an important role in fighting for a “fair level of return for farmers”, aid to veterans, and an “aggressive program of home construction”. He vowed to fight against racism and for “new progress in civil rights” after some unconscionable incidents involving African-American soldiers returning from war. In one instance, they were dumped out of army trucks and beaten in Mississippi. In another story, young black sergeant Issac Woodward was beaten and blinded by police in Batesburg, South Carolina. As President and a compassionate human being, it must have been infuriating and sickening to hear about heroes who fought fascism abroad then suffered the indignity of racism at home from the citizens who they fought and risked their lives for in battle. As such, he knew he had to take a stand. He again called for federal action against lynchings and poll taxes. He also wanted an end to the inequality in education and the whole caste system based on race and color. He formed a commission to investigate and address these issues despite the fact that it could have meant political suicide. Nevertheless, he knew he could not stand by and do nothing as President: “I am not asking for social equality, because no such things exist, but I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings, and, as long as I stay here, I am going to continue that fight.” Regardless, Truman was not perfect. McCullough points out that Truman had “not entirely outgrown his background… old biases, old habits of speech continued”. For example, he unfortunately still used the word “nigger” from time to time in private. Nonetheless, it was important for an American President to embrace racism as a real problem that needed to be corrected.
An interesting part of the book when domestic and foreign policies intersects is about Truman’s decision on the United States’ official stance on the creation of Israel. The state department agreed to the trusteeship of Palestine. At the same time, Truman faced immense political pressure from Jewish leaders to partition Palestine. George Marshall felt domestic policies should not dictate foreign policies but ultimately agreed not to publicly oppose Israel although he would not support it. It is very fascinating to read about Truman’s thought process because his decision shaped the strong relationship between the United States and Israel that continues today. He was sympathetic to the plight of the Jewish people but also annoyed and frustrated by the pressure that he was feeling. It is human nature to not want to do something when one feels he is being forced into it. Nevertheless, Truman was the first world leader to recognize Israel. Other domestic accomplishments detailed in the book are the creation of the new Central Intelligence Group, the appointment of former President Herbert Hoover to survey the world food crisis, passage of the Employment Act to “empower” the federal government to “use all practical means” to foster “maximum employment”, establishment of the President’s Economic Council, and the first Presidential recommendation for the statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. As a leader, Truman was not perfect. He was criticized for wanting too much to please, agree, and get along. It was likely an overcorrection to the how FDR tried to rule unilaterally. Nevertheless, he exuded plenty of strong leadership and had plenty of domestic achievements that pushed the country forward in many key areas.
Without a doubt, the most intriguing domestic event during Truman’s Presidency occured when he won his second term in an improbable upset. As we know, there is a famous photograph of a smirking Truman holding up a newspaper with the premature projection that “Dewey Defeats Truman”. Accordingly, it is very important that the book tells the story of that election well since it is one of the key moments in Truman’s Presidency that most readers want to learn more about. Similar to the rest of the book, McCullough delivers. In the mid-term election before Truman’s run for a second term, the Republicans won overwhelmingly. Afterwards, they held a 246 to 188 advantage in the House of Representatives while they outnumbered the Democrats 51-45 in the Senate as Truman became a minority President. Accordingly, Truman did not think he could win reelection. Instead, he wanted to groom Dwight Eisenhower because he was the most popular man in America at the time after a brilliant run as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe. However, Eisenhower turned down the offer. In addition, Dewey almost defeated FDR in the previous Presidential election. Obviously, FDR dwarfed Truman in terms of charisma and being a cunning politician. For all those reasons, Dewey’s victory was seen as a foregone conclusion. The FBI also helped Dewey by supplying dirt about Truman. However, they could not dig up much, which speaks to the integrity of Truman.
Despite many factors working against Truman, he was a savvy and smart campaigner. At the time, the President had his own personal train rail line and travelled abroad a Presidential train, the Magellan, which was the Air Force One at the time. Truman would travel throughout the country on the Magellan and speak to regular people. Although his popularity was not high, he knew that normal citizens would take the opportunity to show up and listen to a sitting President. He connected to those crowds well as he related to and spoke to the issues important to his citizens. He knew that the Republicans had a “habit of becoming curiously deaf to the voice of the people”. Instead, they only listened to the concerns of Wall Street, big business, and special interests. Next, Dewey made a movie for his campaign that was paid for by the Republicans. With no money; Jack Redding, publicity director of the Democratic National Committee, openly complained it was unfair and threatened to organize a picketing of theaters. In response, the movie industry offered to make Truman a film for free. Universal Newsreel lost a coin flip and made the movie. The free film, which showed highlights and clips of Truman’s work and successes as President, was seen as more effective than the one Dewey paid to be made. In addition, Truman’s movie was played in theaters during the last six days before the election. As such, it was fresh in moviegoers’ minds when they went to vote. Election night provided plenty of drama with a shocking upset by the end of the night. At midnight, Truman was up 1.2 million in the popular vote. Nevertheless, NBC still thought Dewey would win. Obviously, that result did not come to fruition. However, the final tally was very close. Truman won Ohio by 7 thousand votes, Illinois by 33 thousand votes, and California by 17 thousand votes. A switch in 2 of 3 states would have sent the election to the Republican controlled House of Representatives. From my perspective, the 2016 Presidential Election was eerily similar. Like 1948, a swing in small margins in key states would have flipped the election. Moreover, Dewey did not campaign as hard as he could have because he was an overwhelming favorite and did not want to stir up anything that could change the situation. Similarly, Hillary Clinton tried to play a defensive campaign as she falsely accepted that Donald Trump would beat himself. Like Dewey, she also did not have a message for and connect with the voters in swing states. As a credit to Trump, he went out to meet voters, drew crowds, and had a message that connected to enough voters. It was very similar to Truman’s strategy. In the Presidential elections of 1948 and 2016, it was proven that standing for something is more powerful than standing against something or someone. In 1948, the Republicans concluded that “We picked a bad horse”. They also assessed that the nationalists were corrupt, they had poor leadership, and the party was not attune to the aspirations of the people. Despite one’s political affiliations and views, there is little doubt that 1948 and 2016 are the two most shocking political upsets in history. Truman’s reelection is totally one of the best parts of the book.
The biggest event in Truman’s second term was definitely the Korean War. It has been a bit of a forgotten war. It is sandwiched and dwarfed by the magnitude of World War II and the controversy of the Vietnam War. Obviously, the impacts of the Korean War reverberate today as the country was split into two at the 38th Parallel with a communist North and democratic South. That armistice continues today and the war has technically never ended. Nevertheless, the details and the ferocity of the war have generally fallen beneath the shadows of history. Accordingly, the book’s telling of the Korean War is probably the most educational sections of the book for me. Interestingly, Truman felt that entering the Korean War was a more difficult decision than dropping the atomic bombs because he did not want to start another World War with Russia and China. Stalin also did not want a war with the United States. He assumed that the Americans would not get involved since they did not intervene in the Chinese Civil War to prevent Mad Zedong’s communist forces from winning. In addition, Korea was a much smaller country with less strategic significance. Stalin signed off on the North Koreans invading the south based on those pretenses and the promise of the Chinese coming to the aid of the Koreans if needed. From the perspective of Truman, he knew he could not allow the further advance of communism in the Far East unchallenged. He set two significant precedents when he entered the United States into the conflict. First, he realized it would be very difficult to sell a war to the American people. As a result, he chose to call it a “police action”. It was ultimately legally legitimized by the United Nations. As we know, the term has been used often since then to justify American military intervention throughout the world. Nonetheless, Truman took plenty of heat for entering the war and his popularity dipped because of it. The book does a good job detailing the criticisms, which included letters from mothers of serviceman who blamed the President for sending their sons to die. Next, Truman had a critical debate on whether he should go to Congress first before deploying the military. Ultimately, he decided against it because he had the foresight to see that future Presidents would need the power to respond to emergencies swiftly as the Commander in Chief without prior authorization from Congress. Obviously, there have been critics about both practices. Nonetheless, they are both pillars of United States foreign policy. It is fascinating to read Truman’s thought and decision making processes for each issue.
The most stunning facts about the Korean War are about how unprepared and outgunned the American military forces were for the onset of the fighting. World War II is known as the world altering event that propelled the United States into a superpower and it never looked back. In my opinion, Americans would be shocked to be reminded that the United States did not maintain its military might immediately after World War II. Truman believed there should be universal military training for every citizen so there would be a reserve ready to defend the country at all times. Obviously, it was an extreme stance that never gained any traction. Nevertheless, Truman was not able to prevent the demilitarization of the armed forces after the Second World War. Naturally, the country was weary of war. Next, the cost and sacrifices made to supply the military during the height of the war were no longer accepted by the public. Consequently, the armed forces was ill prepared to wage another war. On the contrary, the Soviet Union forces remained fully mobilized and ready to exude its influence globally. The first American troops that aided the Republic of Korea (ROK/ South Korea) paid dearly for the imbalance in military might. American and ROK forces were outnumbered three to twenty to one by the North Koreans at the beginning of the war. To make matters worse, American policy intentionally kept the South underequipped to deter the ROK from attacking the north. As such, they did not have tanks or artillery to slow down the Russian tanks that were supplied to the North. For example, the firepower of World War II bazookas bounced off the superior Russian tanks. American and ROK forces fought hard and slowed down the North Koreans but fell back 70 miles in 17 days. In addition, the fighting was ferocious. Veterans of the war in Europe, who also fought in the Korean War, noted that the fighting in Korea was worse. Korea was very cold in winter and very hot and humid in the summer. Obviously, the United States needed a “dramatic bump” in military spending. World War II forced the country to realize its industrial and military potential. The Korean War reminded it that it could not go back to its pacifist ways and needed to maintain its vigilance at all times with an adequate military.
Despite the issues faced by the United States at the beginning of the war, they were led by distinguished General Douglas MacArthur, who also commanded the Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II. He was a beloved American hero. His legend grew during the Korean War. Unfortunately, “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” quoting a line from The Dark Knight. Eventually, his ego and stature made his head get too big and he overstepped his bounds in challenging the authority of the President as the Commander in Chief. It led to his infamous dismissal. McCullough does a wonderful job explaining how loved MacArthur was in that era, his daring military maneuvers during the Korean War, and how critical it was for Truman to dismiss him. MacArthur showed his brilliance as a commander from the start of the war. Again, the American and ROK forces slowly retreated and gave up ground to the North Koreans. However, MacArthur purposely traded space in exchange for time so reinforcements could arrive. Nevertheless, he did not have total support in Truman’s cabinet. Truman’s Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, was not fond of MacArthur. On the other hand, Johnson had his own issues. He was seen as having an “inordinate egotistical desire to run the whole government and often offended Truman’s entire cabinet. That drama ended when Johnson was forced to resign and recommend the more capable and agreeable George Marshall as Secretary of Defense. It was a difficult moment for Truman because he had known Johnson for over 30 years and he pleaded for the President to reconsider. Not surprisingly, Truman chose to do the right thing. By the time reinforcements were ready, the American and ROK forces were pinned down in the southeast corner of Korea, Pusan. They created a defensive perimeter but only controlled 10% of the country. Consequently, MacArthur gambled on a bold and risky maneuver to split his forces and land troops at Inchon behind the North Koreans to squeeze them. However, it was a dangerous move because Inchon had “tides of 30 feet or more – and no beaches on which to land, only sea walls”. Even MacArthur admitted a successful landing was a longshot. As such, the Joint Chiefs were vehemently against the landing. Nevertheless, Truman opted to side with the General. It worked and was received as a military miracle. Accordingly, MacArthur’s legend only grew with the American people.
At the time, MacArthur’s prestige was definitely higher than Truman’s. MacArthur had been in the Pacific for decades and built strong relationships with the countries in the region. Moreover, Generals are prima donnas anyway. He definitely had the most insight about Asia. After the success at Inchon, he had the full support of the American people and Truman’s administration. He had the confidence to act as he felt. The book tells the story of the first meeting between Truman and MacArthur on Wake Island in the middle of the war. It points out that critics thought Truman was acting like an opportunistic politician trying to ride the coattails of MacArthur’s success. Based on the reactions and coverage of the media tilted in favor of McArthur, there were obvious hints that Truman would have difficulty controlling MacArthur if he did not feel like following orders. Regardless, the meeting was not a political move because Truman needed to touch base with his highest military commander in the Pacific to hash out important details. The American led forces had pushed the North Koreans back past the 38th Parallel and victory appeared to be inevitable and arriving soon. MacArthur and Truman were very professional in their conversation. Truman shared his hope of keeping it a “limited war”. He asked MacArthur for his opinion on potential intervention from Chinese and Russian forces. The General assessed that the Chinese had ground troops but no air support. He was more worried about the Russian airbase in Siberia that could unleash a thousand planes. He felt that it would only be a problem if the Chinese interfered and coordinated with the Russian air force for cover. Nevertheless, he did not believe it was likely and the war would be over shortly. Even if there was intervention, he thought his forces could handle it.
Of course, MacArthur was completely wrong. The Chinese counterattacked with 260 thousand troops. In response, MacArthur wanted reinforcements of the “greatest magnitude”, including Chinese National troops from Formosa (i.e. Taiwan). He also called for a naval blockade of China and bombing of its mainland. He wanted the administration to recognize a “state of war” imposed by the Chinese and respond by dropping thirty to fifty atomic bombs on Manchuria and mainland Chinese cities. He even taunted the Chinese and threatened to expand the war. Of course, it was completely against what Truman planned and wished to do. However, the Joint Chiefs agreed with MacArthur. For all those reasons, MacArthur was emboldened to challenge the President’s authority as the Commander in Chief. He even sent a letter to Congress that was read by House Minority Leader, Republican Joe Martin. In the letter, MacArthur stressed that the real war on communism was in Asia and included his trademark line “There is no substitute for victory”. MacArthur believed he was above the President and that a “theater commander” should have the autonomy to act independently with no orders from the President, United Nations, or anyone else. MacArthur’s stance triggered a Constitutional crisis because a military commander challenged the President’s authority as Commander in Chief. Of course, Truman needed to relieve the General, which is exactly what he did. It was obviously a controversial decision. At that time, 69% of Americans supported MacArthur and his stance. After his dismissal, he made a speech to Congress that 30 million viewers tuned in to watch. He memorably ended it with the line “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away”. In addition, 7.5 million people showed up for his ticker tape parade in New York. The crowd was larger than the one for Eisenhower in 1945. Those numbers were testaments to MacArthur’s popularity. Nevertheless, Truman made the correct decision. He knew MacArthur’s idea of victory in Korea included another World War with the use of atomic weapons. Both are unthinkable and should only be last resorts. In a speech at an Armed Forces Dinner, Truman noted that he would “settle for no victory in Korea” if MacArthur’s vision was the path to victory: “There was a substitute for victory: It was peace.” The incident cost Truman politically as his ratings sunk. By the end of 1951, his approval rating was at 32 percent [went as low as 22 percent in February 1952] and 43 percent thought the Korean War was a mistake. Nevertheless, Truman was steadfast in his decision: “What would Jesus Christ have preached if he’d taken a poll in Israel? It isn’t poll or public opinion of the moment that counts. It’s right and wrong.” Truman again proved his strength as a leader in relieving MacArthur. He safeguarded the President’s authority as Commander in Chief and civilian control of the military so a rogue commander could not initiate a World War or unleash nuclear weapons without the oversight and approval from the President. Truman willingly took the criticism at the time. History has proven him wise and just.
The 22nd Amendment was passed after FDR won four terms to limit future Presidents to the two terms that George Washington set a precedent for as the first President. Truman was exempt from the 22nd Amendment because he took over for FDR at the beginning of his first term. Nevertheless, he elected not to run for a third term. He drew from the examples of his Roman hero Cincinnatus and Washington, who willingly relinquished their power even though both could have easily held onto it. Truman’s post-Presidency is obviously not as exciting to read about as his time as President. Nevertheless, there are some interesting tidbits that provide a decent but anti-climactic ending. The most fascinating parts of his post-Presidency to read in the book are in regards to his contentious relationships with his successors. Again, Truman tried hard to convince Dwight Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat. Both parties coveted the General. As the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, he was a war hero and arguably the most popular American in the country after the war. Eisenhower was going to win the Presidency no matter which political party he chose. Although they worked well together previously as President and General, the Presidential campaign brought out the worst in each man as they viciously traded verbal attacks. Truman was extremely angry about attacks he felt were political cheap shots against him that Dwight clearly did not even believe because he worked on and supported some of the same decisions he then decided to criticize during the Presidential campaign. More specifically, Truman was incensed that Dwight did not defend George Marshall when he was attacked by the demagogue and opportunist Senator Joe McCarthy, who infamously conducted a witch hunt for Communists even though he knew his accusations were completely false. Dwight was Marshall’s friend. Instead of siding with Marshall, he allowed himself to be photographed with McCarthy because the Senator yielded a lot of power at the time. As a result, Truman felt Dwight morally sold out. Consequently, the two men hated each other for a long time. Even when Truman tried to be classy and called Eisenhower’s son home from Korea to attend his father’s inauguration, Eisenhower cynically saw it as a ploy to embarrass him by suggesting that his son got preferential treatment. As we know, the incumbent and incoming Presidents share a car ride when a new President is elected to his first term. The ride between Truman and Eisenhower was easily the most combative as they continued to attack each other in the car. Truman’s relationship with John F. Kennedy (JFK) was also poor because he opposed the young Senator’s nomination to the Democratic ticket on the basis of JFK’s inexperience. Later, he was understandably shook and shocked by JFK’s assassination especially since he had an attempt on his own life during his Presidency. It was not until JFK’s funeral that Truman and Eisenhower reconciled. Outside of those shaky relationships, Truman had a good retirement. On his first tour of Europe after his Presidency, he was greeted as hero because the Europeans appreciated and understood that he helped rebuild the continent and saved them from the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain with the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. Afterwards, he worked on his memoirs and Presidential Library. He also convinced Congress that all existing Presidential papers should be indexed and put on microfilm for their libraries and the preservation of history. In general, Truman retreated to a calmer life and returned home to Missouri to live within modest means. He understood his time in the spotlight was over and had no interest in extending it or profiting off of it. It was typical Truman.
David McCullough’s Truman is a brilliant and ridiculous thorough biography and tribute to one of the greatest Presidents of the United States. Ironically, the unassuming and humble Truman is one of the most fascinating historical figures to read about. If the story was just about his upbringing in Missouri, military service in World War I, and work as a Senator; it would be an extraordinary life for anyone. When you add on his leadership and accomplishments as President, it a truly amazing American story. His presidency definitely ranks near the top as the most consequential and important in US history. I highly recommend the book. In my opinion, it is the gold source for anything Truman. You may have no or an indifferent opinion about Truman. After reading the book, you may feel like Winston Churchill and conclude “you [Truman] more than any other man, have saved Western civilization”.