Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2075
David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman is a massive and highly readable biography of a man who has gone down in American political legend as the author of such aphorisms as “The buck stops here” and “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Unlike such recent political...
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- Critical Essays
David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman is a massive and highly readable biography of a man who has gone down in American political legend as the author of such aphorisms as “The buck stops here” and “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Unlike such recent political biographies as Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician (1989), Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent (1990), and Thomas Reeves’s A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1991), McCullough’s work paints a highly favorable portrait of its subject. The author clearly admired the man about whom he wrote.
Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon were all born in the twentieth century and came of political age after World War II. They pioneered the new mass politics dominated by imagery diffused through the electronic media. Harry Truman was a different sort of man entirely. As McCullough states repeatedly, Truman was a nineteenth century man, attuned to the morals and public vision of an earlier age. It is the loss of this older political world, in which, supposedly, policy was the product of moral imperatives and debate was moved by ideas rather than images, that exercises many contemporary political biographers. While the younger postwar presidents are excoriated for embodying the sins of their times, Truman and his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, are celebrated for their Victorian approach to life.
Nostalgia for a lost golden age is a Western intellectual reflex. Such yearning can lead to beneficial results, inculcating in people respect for the achievements of their forebears and a healthy modesty about contemporary efforts. As a model for historical analysis, it leaves much to be desired. To truly understand a historical figure, the scholar must, as much as possible, be free from preconceptions that could cloud the sometimes fragmentary evidence. An effort must be made to comprehend the historical figure and his or her world on their own terms. Only then, once the subject of a study has been situated in a specific milieu, should the scholar venture the moral generalizations so important to history.
Unfortunately, Truman all too clearly bears the imprint of a mold. McCullough has produced a wonderful morality tale. In the moral universe of Truman, hard work, clean living, and a few breaks are the recipe for success, and the example of Harry Truman is a reproach to the laziness and cynicism of the current era. Truman will speak loudly and clearly to Americans dissatisfied with contemporary politics and politicians. For readers interested in understanding the character of Harry Truman and its relation to his achievements, the book will be a disappointment. In Truman, the real Harry Truman is a blurred and indistinct figure, lost beneath McCullough’s enthusiasms.
McCullough begins with an eloquent evocation of Truman’s pioneer heritage, tracing the westward migration of his ancestors and detailing their adventures on the frontier. Truman grew up with these stories of his forebears and burned with their desire to make a fortune and move up in the world. McCullough writes that Truman enjoyed an unusually happy childhood, but that he had few male friends. McCullough vividly re-creates the charms of life in a small town in middle America at the turn of the century. The economic security of the Truman family fluctuated with the financial ventures of Harry’s father. John Truman dreamed of becoming wealthy through speculating on commodities futures. Eventually he succeeded only in wiping out his and his wife’s assets, forcing the family to live in straitened circumstances in Kansas City, Missouri.
Harry, by this time having graduated from high school, moved out and went to work as a bank clerk. He bloomed on his own, making friends and advancing at the bank, but in 1905 his father summoned him to help run his grandmother’s farm. Obediently, Harry sacrificed his independence and, to the astonishment of his friends, became a farmer. He remained on the farm for the next twelve years. In later years, on the campaign trail, Truman would extol the life of the American farmer. McCullough writes of Truman’s growing skill with animals and crops, his physical filling out and prowess, and the opportunity farming gave him to grow closer to his hitherto distant father. These were good years for American agriculture, and the farm proved profitable. Truman, however, like his father, was obsessed with getting rich quickly, and like his father his investments in various schemes always went sour. Although he remained on the surface a pleasant and earnest young man, there is reason to believe that Truman’s early character contained complexities and darker shades passed over by McCullough in his upbeat account.
World War I was a decisive turning point in Harry Truman’s life. In 1917 he was thirty-three years old, safely past draft age. His eyes were extremely poor, and as a farmer he was performing critical war work at home. Nevertheless, Truman abandoned the farm, leaving it in the hands of his unmarried sister. McCullough notes that Truman shared his generation’s romantic conception of war. However sincere Truman’s desire to liberate the world from the threat of German militarism, the war was certainly also a release and escape for him. He rose to the rank of captain and commanded a battery of artillery in France. Although his battery saw much action at the front, through a combination of luck and good management, none of his men lost their lives in the fighting. The war proved to Harry Truman that he could be a success.
Home in 1919, Truman struck out in new directions. He started a haberdashery business in Kansas City with an Army friend. He also married Bess Wallace, whom he had been courting for nine years. Another period of frustration set in for Truman, though McCullough fails to plumb its full implications. At Bess’s request, Truman agreed to move into his mother-in-law’s home in Independence, Missouri. Aside from interludes in Washington, the Trumans would live there for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, Mrs. Wallace was not backward in expressing her conviction that her daughter had married beneath her station. In addition, Truman’s business fell victim to the hard times that followed the war. He would spend fifteen years paying off his debts. As McCullough observes, Truman bore his troubles with his usual good grace, but beneath the affable exterior, the scrupulously arranged suits and spotless automobile, what doubts, what terrors lurked? McCullough offers few clues.
Politics rescued Harry Truman from his failures and an uncertain future. One of his best friends from the Army was the nephew of Tom Pendergast, who ran a powerful political machine in Kansas City. In 1922, at his friend’s suggestion, the Pendergast machine offered Truman the opportunity of running for county judge. Truman jumped at the chance, and with the machine’s support won the election. The position of county judge was an administrative rather than a judicial post, and Truman soon became skilled at managing large budgets and supervising public construction. Over the years, he built a reputation for honesty and efficiency. Himself incorruptible, Truman was well aware of the shady dealings of the Pendergast machine. Nevertheless, he remained loyal to the machine. For the rest of his life, to the chagrin of his political advisers, Truman would stand by his former sponsors. Indeed, Truman as president of the United States would devotedly support anyone who had proven political or personal constancy.
In 1934, the Pendergast machine rewarded Truman by helping elect him to the United States Senate. Truman arrived in Washington to discover that he was known as the senator from Pendergast. Few of his colleagues took him seriously. Although he consistently supported President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, he received little recognition from the White House. When a federal investigation broke up the Pendergast machine and uncovered evidence of corruption that sent Tom Pendergast to prison, most observers believed that Truman’s political career was finished. Despite the odds, Truman waged a brilliant reelection campaign in 1940 and won a narrow victory. Truman’s stunning success won him new respect in Washington. It also gave Truman a new confidence in his own abilities and political instincts.
During World War II, Truman made a name for himself by heading a Senate committee that investigated inefficiencies and bottlenecks in war production. The committee’s discoveries led to the rectification of many problems, and it made a significant contribution to the war effort. By 1944, Truman was a well-regarded political figure who offended none of the key members of the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition. As such he was selected by party leaders as Franklin Roosevelt’s running mate, replacing Henry Wallace, who was believed to be too liberal. Thus, once again, Truman owed his advancement to the patronage of political bosses.
As McCullough points out, Truman’s sudden accession to the presidency in April, 1945, was not unexpected. Franklin Roosevelt’s deteriorating health had been an open secret in Washington. Nevertheless, little had been done to prepare Truman for his new responsibilities. World War II was drawing to a close, and momentous decisions affecting the future of the world needed to be made. It is not surprising that Truman felt overwhelmed by the crushing responsibilities of his new office.
In McCullough’s pages, Truman resembles the hero of a Frank Capra film, an ordinary but virtuous and able man who accomplishes great things because of his courage and homespun wisdom. Certainly Truman’s contemporaries came to see him as the embodiment of the common man. Truman was also, as McCullough admits in passing, a very complicated man. Truman’s success in the presidency reveals the story of a man overcoming inner doubts. His dramatic emergence as president in 1945 simultaneously freed Truman from thralldom to others and gave him unprecedented latitude to act on his own. Although his record would be mixed, Truman’s presidency, like his service in World War I and the election of 1940, would be a personal triumph.
McCullough is not interested in providing a detailed analysis of the accomplishments and reverses of the Truman Administration. Instead, he concentrates on describing the most stirring episodes of Truman’s years in office—the Potsdam Conference, the decision to recognize the State of Israel, and the famous feud with General Douglas MacArthur among them. McCullough spends almost one hundred pages detailing Truman’s legendary defeat of Thomas Dewey in the election of 1948. Actions taken by Truman that do not make for a good story receive scant attention; hence the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 is barely mentioned. McCullough ignores altogether Truman’s role in beginning American involvement in Vietnam.
McCullough’s worshipful superficiality is a pity, because Truman’s presidency was a watershed in American history. Truman, in conjunction with such able statesmen as George Marshall and Dean Acheson, fashioned the American response to the eruption of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. They created the strategy of containment that was the basis of American foreign policy until communism collapsed forty years later. The Marshall Plan revived war-torn Western Europe and laid the foundation for an enduring alliance. Truman’s support for the new State of Israel had far-reaching effects on the American position in the Middle East. In domestic affairs, although Truman was unable to enact the bulk of his Fair Deal, an extension of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, he did champion the development of the welfare state. His call for equal opportunity for black Americans contributed to the Civil Rights movement.
McCullough has not written the definitive biography of Harry S. Truman. His eloquent portrayal of a nineteenth century man overcoming adversity to make good is only a part of Truman’s story. McCullough’s work will, however, serve as a useful introduction to the life and times of his subject. Until a more sophisticated study appears, Truman will keep alive the legend of the great commoner from Missouri.
Sources for Further Study
American History Illustrated. XXVII, September, 1992, p. 23.
Chicago Tribune. June 7, 1992, XIV, p. 1.
Foreign Affairs. LXXI, Winter, 1992, p. 202.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 7, 1992, p. 1.
The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, July 16, 1992, p. 26.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, June 21, 1992, p. 1.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, May 4, 1992, p. 46.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. June 28, 1992, p. C5.
Time. CXXXIX, June 29, 1992, p. 80.
The Washington Post Book World. XXII, June 7, 1992, p. 1.