In the last decade, Harry S Truman has become something of a folk hero to many Americans. Richard Nixon’s pretentious and less than forthright style made Truman seem more beloved, because Nixon appeared to be such a contrast to the image the Missourian projected. The affection and respect which most Americans now display toward the thirty-third president is in stark contrast to the disapproval directed at the embattled and discredited Truman who turned over his office to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Remarkably, this transformation has occurred despite the absence of a definitive Truman biography. The public’s perception of Truman has been powerfully influenced by dramatic presentations and television programs based largely on such biased sources as the former president’s own memoirs and his version of history as recounted in Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking.
The popular view of the events of 1945-1953 is quite different from the interpretations made by those revisionist historians who hold that the United States was largely responsible for the onset of the Cold War with Russia. These specialized studies, however, were written largely for the scholarly community and are little known to the general public. Only recently has much of the essential documentary material necessary for a definitive evaluation of Truman been made available. Robert Donovan’s Conflict and Crisis included much of these data, but that book only deals with Truman’s first administration. Harold Gosnell’s Truman’s Crises is the first complete scholarly account of Truman’s entire political career.
Gosnell is particularly well qualified to write a political biography of Harry Truman. Long respected as one of the founders of modern American political science and a major scholar, he brings to his work the background and skill necessary to evaluate Truman’s political career in scientific as well as human terms. He also profits, in a practical sense, from his personal involvement in the Truman Administration. After many years as a professor of political science, Gosnell joined the federal government in 1940 and stayed for a decade. He was working in the Bureau of the Budget when Truman became president, and after the war he served in the State Department. Through much of the twenty years he worked on Truman’s Crises, he maintained personal contact with the former president and interviewed many of the key figures of his administration. He thus writes with a first-hand knowledge of many of the events he recounts.
The Truman that emerges from this study is earthy, fun-loving, optimistic, out-going, and conscientious. In many ways he is also inept. Most of his failures Gosnell traces to his lack of background and training and such personal characteristics as excessive loyalty to friends, partisanship, cockiness, and inconsistency. Essentially, however, the biographer is sympathetic and concludes by rating Truman as one of the nation’s “near great” presidents.
This massive biography does not slight Truman’s prepresidential years. More than a third of the volume is devoted to his rise from the son of a Missouri horse trader and farmer to Vice-President of the United States. Gosnell traces his boyhood, the influence of his family, and his search for a career. In 1922, when Truman was thirty-eight years old, he entered politics by running for a county administrative post. It is here that the author’s expertise as a political scientist become evident. Gosnell’s first book, in 1924, dealt with machine politics in New York state. Thus, he is very much at home in his analysis of the Kansas City Pendergast machine in which Truman became a cog. Gosnell believes that anyone going into politics in Jackson County during the 1920’s had to deal with the fact that underworld influences were strong and that corrupt businessmen and corrupt politicians were in league with one another. That Truman could survive and prosper in such an environment while developing the reputation for honesty he maintained throughout his eighteen-year political career is a fascinating story in itself. It was...
(The entire section is 1692 words.)