My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Harry Truman, the thirty-third President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was twofold, and each biography was excellent. The first was The Accidental President by A. J. Baime, and the second was Truman by David McCullough.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on those biographies, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World by A. J. Baime and Truman by David McCullough
The first book I read about Truman was The Accidental President by A. J. Baime, and it was a fantastic read. After a brief introduction to how Truman got to be President, Baime spends hundreds of pages zoomed in on seemingly every aspect of the first four months of his Presidency. During this time, the United States firebombed Japan, gained victory at Okinawa, helped bring about the fall of the Berlin, liberated concentration camps and exposed their brutality to the world, faced mass starvation in Europe, forced the surrender of Germany, founded the United Nations, had a meeting with Stalin that seemingly set the stage for the Cold War at Potsdam, and used the first and only atomic bombs ever dropped on human targets against Japan, bringing about their unconditional surrender. Those four months, in other words, saw some of the biggest changes in history condensed into an incredibly short period of human history.
Reading this book gave me an intimate feel for Truman’s decision making process, his leadership, and the major questions that he faced during the start of his Presidency. One of the most standout features to me was the way it seemed he kept a level head throughout the time, frequently being seen by others as calm and collected even in the most urgent times. It was not aloofness, as the frequent excerpts Baime provides from Truman’s diary show, but rather a personality trait that seemingly kept him even-keeled as he faced some of the most disastrous and urgent times in human history. Of course, much of what Truman did during this time had been started and ushered in by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership in his three + terms in office. But that should not undermine the accomplishments Truman had in this time period, nor did it take away the fact that it was Truman’s decisions that ultimately shaped the outcomes of many of these major historical moments.
The most controversial decision Truman made–and, argues Baime, perhaps the most controversial decision any President has ever faced–was to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Baime spends quite a bit of time throughout the book detailing the development of atomic weapons, Truman’s knowledge of and involvement in the same, and the decision-making process Truman underwent to decide to drop the bomb. It is easy, going on 80 years removed from the event, to judge it acontextually. Some like to dismiss it as the obvious decision–drop the bomb to save American lives. Others find the decision obviously abhorrent–a direct strike on civilian lives and a war crime. The questions that Truman faced were myriad: Were the lives of (actually) 100,000s of Japanese civilians worth less than the estimated 500,000-1,000,000+ soldiers who would have died invading Japan? Were the feelers Japan was sending out for peace through Moscow indications that the conflict could have been ended without such destruction? Given that fire bombing was occurring, was it more inhumane to destroy an entire city in a flash than destroy an entire country with incendiary devices? All of these questions, and many, many more must get factored into any examination of the event. But apart from that, there were also the questions of warning the Japanese about the bomb, questions about whether it would even work, and questions about how humanity could continue with such immense destructive power. McCullough’s biography highlights some of these latter questions even more, as at least one advisor to Truman was horrified by the destructive capabilities of the bomb. After all of this, I am still not personally sure that Truman made the right decision. The intentional destruction of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives is a terrible choice. I mean “terrible” not in the sense of “bad” or “wrong” as much as I do in the sense of “awful” or “extremely unpleasant” to use a dictionary definition. Baime shows that Truman was not ignorant of these questions, but that he came to see it as a dire decision that he made in order to try to balance everything as he saw it.
And the atomic bomb was just one of the many, many questions Truman faced in his first four months. I briefly mentioned fire bombing, but the United States had adamantly declared its opposition to destruction of civilian lives and areas earlier in the war. The actions of the bomber command seemed to undermine those public disavowals of the actions. The founding of the UN was intended to prevent further wars, but even under Truman, the U.S. would get involved in conflict in Korea. Baime notes that it is possible Truman’s somewhat hardline approach to Stalin was likely a contributing factor.
During the first four months of his Presidency, Truman stepped into enormous shoes and, largely, seemed to fill them fairly well. He didn’t back down in the face of enormous decisions and consequences–choices that no human could truly bear. Of course, after reading this detailed examination of the beginning of Truman’s Presidency, I felt an intense need to read more on him and learn about the rest of his life and, indeed, of his time as President.
McCullough’s biography, Truman, shows, over nearly 1000 pages, the development of Truman as a man, politician, and President. I’ll just highlight several unique points from this phenomenal biography. Truman was, like all too many of our Presidents, on the wrong side of questions related to race. In fact, McCullough tells of how Truman was minutes away from joining the KKK, only to back out once the KKK leader he was speaking with insisted he exclude Catholics from public office as much as was within his power. Truman balked at this–not at the awful racism or anti-semitism–because he’d fought with several Catholics in the Great War. McCullough notes that this incident cannot be excused by Truman’s ignorance of the awfulness of the KKK, either. There was a sense in the second rise of that evil organization that they could be portrayed as a kind of “America first” group. But McCullough points out that Truman had already fought in opposition to the KKK earlier when he sided with Masons against them. This shows that Truman was indeed aware of their vile capacities, and still nearly joined them out of political expediency.
It is easy to portray Truman as a callous, aloof man separated from the decisions he made that impacted thousands or millions of people. Korea serves as one counter-evidence to this narrative. The war in Korea features hugely in McCullough’s biography. It is amazing to see how much public opinion shifted on this war over the course of just a few years. Truman faced tremendous public pressure to send American soldiers and support to Korea. There was a nearly overwhelming feeling that failure to do so would lead to Soviet control of all of Asia and extreme danger to Europe. When Truman read his statement in support of sending troops, it was met with thunderous applause, letters of commendation from the public, and extremely lopsided votes in Congress. As it became clear the U.S. forces were under-trained and poorly equipped and getting killed in large numbers, public opinion rapidly shifted. Truman acted decisively, shuffling command of the military and putting people in place who could turn the tide from total defeat. Korea at the time was viewed by many as a victory, despite its continued status as a divided country with the threat of war looming. The reasoning behind seeing it as a victory was because it was believed that it helped show the Soviet Union that the United States would not stand aside in Asia and allow it unrestricted conquest of the continent. Whether this sentiment is founded on truth or not, analysis of Truman’s legacy ought to include that. On a personal note, Truman kept a letter from the parents of a young soldier who was killed in action with him throughout his Presidency. The letter was a scalding condemnation, including a Purple Heart returned and the wish that Truman’s daughter could join their son on the battlefield on which he was lost. Though Truman didn’t publicly mourn the deaths of so many Americans–probably to his cost–it’s clear the lives weighed heavily on him.
Domestic issues also loomed large during Truman’s presidency, whether it was labor questions or how to re-integrate returning U.S. troops, Truman had to navigate them all. He frequently took hardline stances which showed both his decisiveness and his unwillingness to change his mind once he’d made a decision.
Truman is an incredibly difficult President for me to analyze in retrospect. He was faced with a series of incredibly difficult choices–including some of the most difficult choices any President has ever had to face. Did he choose correctly on all of them? Almost certainly not. Based on the information he had at the time, were his choices easily dismissed? Again, no. Weighing in on his achievements has the feeling, more than I have before, of not only having the benefit of hindsight, but also facing problems akin to trolley problem scenarios.
The Accidental President isn’t just one of the most interesting biographies I’ve read of a President. It stands as one of the most fascinating non-fiction works I’ve read, period. It’s very highly recommended. Remarkably, Truman by David McCullough hits that same standard, making this 1-2 punch of Truman biographies essential reading for anyone interested in history.
Harry Truman’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)
(33rd President – Original Ranking #7)- Truman was thrust into some of the most difficult decisions any President ever had to face and somehow navigated through all of it to bring the country out on the other side in largely better shape. Though it is easy to question his decision-making at almost every step, when viewed with the knowledge he had on hand and with the urgency with which he had to make those choices, it is hard to find him at fault for all of them. Whether it was the atomic bomb, Korea, or his handling of the formation of the UN and the early Cold War, these all occurred back-to-back within his administration. I’m not convinced others wouldn’t have done the job better, but I’m also not sure how to fault him for the hand he was dealt and the decisions he made. Truman was decisive in a time that needed decisiveness, and though he didn’t always come out on the right side of history, he did so often enough that he places in the higher rankings of Presidents.
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