Book Review: Truman by David McCullough

479px-Harry-trumanDavid McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry Truman is one of the best books I’ve read in 2009. At over 1,000 pages, it is a complete examination of Harry Truman’s life and presidency, including blow-by-blow accounts of the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, the pivotal meetings with Churchill and Stalin at the finish of WWII, the Marshall Plan, the decision to send troops into the Korean War, his improbable re-election in 1948, and the crafting of America’s anti-communist foreign policy.

McCullough is a masterful biographer. His characters become larger than life, he describes historical scenes with gripping detail, and he interweaves just the right amount of subjective analysis with objective facts and events. The result is that you not only get a sense of Harry Truman the man, but you also learn an enormous amount about the period of history in which he led.

Biographies of presidents are portraits of leadership. They are instructive. From Truman I learned about how far decency, straight talk, cheerfulness, and grittiness can take you.

Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear.

It is said that George W. Bush read about Truman and his presidency while in office. I now understand why. Both had massive foreign policy decisions thrust upon them early in office; both were war-time presidents; both showed enormous resolve in making difficult decisions in face of criticism; both left office with very low approval ratings. Of course there are differences. On domestic policy, they had little in common. And Truman was a common man of Missouri; Bush was born to the silver spoon. And while history has vindicated Truman, the same won’t happen to Bush 43.

Assorted Excerpts:

  • To Hopkins, he advised using either diplomatic language with Stalin or a baseball bat, whichever would work.
  • As American as anything about this thoroughly American new President was his fundamental faith that most problems came down to misunderstandings between people, and that even the most complicated problems really weren’t as complicated as they were made out to be, once everybody got to know one another.
  • He is a most charming and a very clever person — meaning clever in the English not the Kentucky sense.
  • Dewey, it was cracked, was the only man who could strut sitting down.
  • There was something in the American character that responded to a fighter, said the Washington Post on its editorial page. “The American people admire a man with courage even though they don’t always agree with him.”
  • He ranked NATO with the Marshall Plan, as one of the proudest achievements of his presidency,
  • For the first time in history, a world organization had voted to use armed force to stop armed force.
  • In seventeen days of savage fighting, American and ROK forces had fallen back seventy miles. It was, in many respects, one of the darkest chapters in American military history.
  • that the greatest part of a President’s responsibilities was making decisions. A President had to decide. That’s his job.
  • His insistence that the war in Korea be kept in bounds, kept from becoming a nuclear nightmare, would figure more and more clearly as time passed as one of his outstanding achievements.
  • But Mamma could also observe that “Being too good is apt to be uninteresting” a line they all loved.
  • Here, he thought, was the eighth natural wonder of the world, a politician who didn’t take himself too seriously, a friendly, likable, warmhearted fellow with a lot of common sense hidden under an overpowering inferiority complex.
  • “You give a good leader very little and he will succeed,” he said, looking at the chairman; “you give a mediocrity a great deal and he will fail.”
  • And clearly he delighted in talking about himself. He was his own favorite subject, yet nearly always with a sense of proportion and a sense of humor.
2 comments on “Book Review: Truman by David McCullough
  • Truman did have admirable qualities, among them an acquaintance with world history, a willingness to sleep in hobo camps, and even the use of “railroad man profanities” (at least according to Wikipedia).

    Harry Truman and his Secretary of State, architect of the cold war Dean Acheson, gave us a containment strategy to deal with Communist expansion and combat Soviet aggression. It included the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO.

    They armed us with nuclear weapons and created the national security state, an entity inimical to our civil liberties, to put us on permanent war footing against Godless communism.

    The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the end of the cold war and temporarily left the whole apparatus of the national security state without its ostensible raison d’etre.

    The US then experienced the longest economic expansion in its history, and George W. Bush inherited a $127 billion budget surplus when Bill Clinton left office.

    The Bush administration refused to act after being advised a month before the 9/11 terror attacks that the FBI saw indications al-Qaeda operatives had prepared to hijack airliners inside the US.

    Then it dithered in Afghanistan and allowed Osama bin-Laden to escape.

    One of the unfortunate after-effects of the terrorist acts of 9/11 was the mobilization of our ever-seeking-to-expand national security state, and Al Qaeda conveniently filled the essential role of threatening antagonist left vacant by the Soviet disintegration.

    John Ashcroft insisted at the time that constitutional rights are weapons with which terrorists kill Americans, and now under Obama’s ineffectual sentry duty we find our nation still engaged in “perpetual war for perpetual peace”.

    There is a certain grim humor in the circumstance that it was a career military man, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned us to beware of “the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military-industrial complex”, that nexus of lucre-worshiping evil spawned by the common civilian from Missouri who feared God.

    Doubtless Harry Truman is not revered as a great and good man in Japan.

    George W. Bush, innocent of even cursory knowledge of history or geography, never exercised “enormous resolve” in making foreign policy decisions– he clung to a pathological stubbornness adored by the eerily dull-eyed Laura.

  • Agreed, this was an exceptional book.

    One of the lessons I took away from the Truman biography is that a relatively simple guy from the midwest can run an effective presidency too. You don’t always want intellectuals or establishment elites running the show.

    Casual Kitchen

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