Harry Truman has become something of a folk hero in recent years. A factor in forming this popular image of Truman has been a tendency to compare his bluntness and lack of pretense to the manipulation and deception characteristic of Nixon’s “imperial presidency.” This view of the man has been reinforced on the stage and in the media by presentations based on Truman’s self-serving recollections as recounted in Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking. This is not the Harry Truman who emerges from Donovan’s well-researched and ably written account of the postwar President’s first administration.
Robert Donovan was particularly well equipped to write this book. The Truman period is ripe for serious historical analysis because of the availability of source material. The death of Truman resulted in the opening of many of his private papers which had been closed to researchers, and coincided with the opening of State Department files and even some of the records of the National Security Council. In addition to these advantages which are available to all Truman scholars, Donovan had the opportunity to observe the events he describes as a White House correspondent during the Truman years. In addition, for this book he has recently interviewed many of the men he knew then to fill out the written record.
Truman was one of our least prepared Presidents, yet the problems he faced were probably greater than those encountered by any modern president with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt. He was a small-town politician who had grown somewhat during eight years in the Senate, but he had not gone to college, had no training in policymaking or management, and had no diplomatic experience. He liked to say that being President was not much different from running Jackson County, Missouri, but this was more of a rationalization for his meager background than his honest perception of the presidential office. Truman had only conferred with Roosevelt twice while he was Vice President, and these were political or social discussions rather than policy sessions. As a result, Truman knew virtually nothing of the current concerns or plans of the Administration. He did not even know of the work being done on the atomic bomb.
Being new to executive work and having little background on which to draw, it is little wonder that he stumbled badly. Because of his lack of preparation he was forced to rely on his advisers, but most were Roosevelt’s appointees and few of these could imagine anyone else being President, particularly Harry Truman. Most soon quit or were fired. As a result he had virtually a new cabinet within a year. He tried to learn. Conscientiously he read everything given to him, but he had so few people on his staff who were experienced enough to sort things out for him that this task became an excessive burden. Though blessed with extraordinary physical stamina, some feared he would break under the strain of trying to do too much himself.
Through his many years of experience in Washington, Roosevelt had acquired a knowledge of the federal government which was as great as any of his subordinates’. By drawing on this knowledge and developing a network of contacts throughout the federal bureaucracy, he was able to preside over and control the tremendously expanded executive branch which developed during the New Deal and World War II. With none of these advantages Truman had to rely on an enlarged White House staff to manage the bureaucracy he had inherited. Though he eventually developed a competent corps of aides by the time he left office, it was a slow process. Eventually Clark Clifford, John Steelman, and Charles Murphy provided the kind of White House staff that succeeding Presidents have found essential.
In many ways the immediate postwar period has been a watershed for our own times. It was then that the Cold War with the Soviet Union began and that tension is still one of the most significant influences on our lives. The reconversion of the industrial system from war production to consumer items has served as the basis of the country’s postwar economy and foreign trade. The essence of Donovan’s book is an analysis of Truman’s impact on these developments.
In the process of facing and attempting to dispose of these monumental problems, Truman drew on inherent traits of courage, humor, and capacity to learn. He was never able to overcome entirely, however, his basic provincialism, ineptness, impetuosity, and crudeness. In making his decisions he was ever conscious of maintaining the power of the presidency intact as well as keeping a personal political advantage.
Truman has been more severely criticized by historians for his part in the origin of the Cold War than any other single development during his presidency. While most of his contemporaries applauded his leadership in foreign policy, the historical record has brought many of these decisions into question. In his treatment of these controversial decisions, Donovan typically provides the available evidence for the reader and then gives his own, usually judicious, explanation of Truman’s actions.
Many revisionist historians have pointed to Truman’s hard-line attitude toward Soviet...
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