Preludes Of the eighteen twentieth-century American presidents, beginning with William McKinley and ending with Bill Clinton, only four currently have claims on great or near- great leadership: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.
Perhaps in time Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton may join this elite group, but at this juncture such a judgment is premature.
On the face of things, Truman’s high standing is surprising. Unlike the two Roosevelts and Wilson—whom nobody would describe by background and education as common men—Truman was notable for his ordinariness. How he rose above the commonplace to become so extraordinary makes Truman’s life and career a compelling puzzle. This is not to suggest that either of the Roosevelts or Wilson had easy, uninterrupted trajectories toward greatness. All three had their disappointments and public stumbles. But Truman’s erratic course toward distinction was more pronounced, with deeper valleys and less spectacular peaks, except for his stunning upset election victory in 1948.
Truman was entirely mindful of how much his advance toward greatness rested on circumstances beyond his control. "We can never tell what is in store for us," he declared. It was his way of saying that chance had a major—maybe the largest—role in shaping his fortunes, for good and ill. "Most men don’t aspire to the presidency," he said after leaving the White House. "It comes to them by accident."1
Yet however much he saw uncontrollable circumstances shaping the lives of great men, he never accepted that external events alone would dictate his fate. Like so many of his predecessors in the White House, Harry Truman was a driven man. "An insatiable demand for recognition," one of his biographers observes, was a dominant feature of his rise to prominence.2 He was confident that personal ambition could make a difference in every life. Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who saw "a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune," Truman took "the current when it serve[d]." He shared a conviction with millions of other Americans that self-fulfillment was a noble calling, the Horatio Alger belief in success through good character and hard work bolstered by good fortune. As the novelist Thomas Wolfe put it, "To every man his chance—to every man, regardless of his birth . . . to become what ever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him—this seeker, is the promise of America."3 Truman’s biography gives credence to Wolfe’s conviction.
Harry Truman’s path to the country’s highest elected office was never linear. Enough setbacks marked his prepresidential career to have tested the character of the most resilient of men, and perhaps encourage a belief in miracles.
Born on May 8, 1884, Truman spent his first six years on southern Missouri farms, where he had memories of a comfortable and even "wonderful" life typical of many other nineteenth- century, largely self-sufficient farm families. In 1890, the Trumans moved to Independence, a town of six thousand people ten miles southeast of Kansas City. Although it was a rough frontier center with no public utilities or paved streets, Independence had public schools at which Harry and a younger brother and sister could receive schooling unavailable in their more isolated farm community.4
When Harry graduated from high school in 1901, he wanted to attend the United States Military Academy, but poor eyesight, which required him to wear glasses with thick lenses, barred him from West Point. That year, when Harry’s father, John Truman, a commodity- livestock trader and speculator, began suffering a series of losses that bankrupted the family, Truman’s possible interest in higher education fell victim to his family’s economic needs. He went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad as a payroll clerk and then as a bank clerk in Kansas City until 1906, when his father, who had resumed farming, pressed his son into giving up his ample $100-a-month job to join him in running the family farm. For the next eleven years, Truman worked long days, through good times and bad, planting and harvesting crops, raising and selling livestock.
During this time, he also maintained a long- standing interest in reading biography and military and political history. "I saw that it takes men to make history or that there would be no history," he wrote in his postpresidential Memoirs.5 He gave expression to his fascination with the military by joining a local National Guard artillery unit in 1905, serving in its summer encampments and attending its drill sessions on and off until 1911. After two tours of duty, however, the demands of the farm decided him against a third three- year enlistment.
In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Truman reenlisted in his National Guard battery unit. It was entirely voluntary; at thirty- three, he was past draft age. But President Wilson’s call to arms appealed to his belief in a larger good: "I felt that I was a Galahad after the Grail," he wrote in an autobiography.6 But more than patriotic idealism motivated him; he could have just as easily served the cause by staying on the farm to help supply food to America’s allies. More to the point, Truman had hopes of using military service as a launching pad for a political career. The competition for office and chance to gain distinction through public service fascinated him. "If I were real rich," he wrote in a letter to Elizabeth (Bess) Wallace, his future wife, "I’d just as soon spend my money buying votes and offices as yachts and autos." And yet he was under no illusions; as he told Bess in the same letter, "To succeed politically, [a man] must be an egoist or a fool or a ward boss tool."7 His father had introduced him to local and national politics as a teenager. In 1900, when he was sixteen, they attended the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City, where the party made William Jennings Bryan its presidential nominee for the second time.8 Truman remembered running errands for a local leader during the convention, which took place in a "great hall" holding seventeen thousand delegates and onlookers, who responded to Bryan’s nominating speech with a boisterous half-hour demonstration. In subsequent years, Truman involved himself in local Democratic Party politics, winning appointments as a town postmaster and as a road overseer, responsible for the maintenance of county highways. By 1917, he understood that war time military ser vice could be of benefit not only to the country but also to someone with aspirations for elected office.
Despite having been out of his Guard unit for six years, Truman still had close ties to many of his fellow soldiers. These friendships, combined with a genial temperament that greatly appealed to most everyone who knew him, led to his election as a first lieutenant. (The Missouri state guard, reflecting a long-standing antagonism to a military dominated by professional soldiers, chose its own officers.) "Because of my efforts to get along with my associates," Truman recalled, "I was usually able to get what I wanted."9 During training exercises near Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he demonstrated keen leadership abilities that soon won him a promotion to captain.
In France, he acquitted himself beyond his highest hopes. After being given command of the least disciplined battery in his regiment—one that had already blighted the careers of two officers— Truman quickly won the respect of his men with a combination of toughness and fairness. At the same time, despite the challenge of mastering the French 75- millimeter cannon, which required math and engineering classes well above anything he had studied in high school, he developed the necessary skills to become an effective artillery officer. At the end of seven weeks in combat, his battery had suffered only one dead and one wounded, and he received a commendation from his division’s commanding general for his battlefield performance.10
In May 1919, after he was mustered out of the army, his highest priorities were to marry Bess Wallace, which he did in June, and give up farming for a business enterprise that could provide a comfortable living as a prelude to winning an elected office. Within days of leaving the army, he and Eddie Jacobson, an army buddy also from Kansas City, laid plans to open a haberdashery shop in a choice downtown locale. Unfortunately, a postwar recession beginning in 1920 doomed their venture and left them with considerable debts.11
But Truman was not dissuaded from running for county office. He saw the path to a successful election through establishing the widest possible contacts and tying himself to Kansas City’s power brokers, the political machine run by Tom Pendergast and his family.12 Like President Warren G. Harding, who had begun his career in Ohio politics as a "joiner" of numerous fraternal organizations, Truman became an active member of several civic, ser vice, and veterans’ associations, including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He saw his participation in these groups as essential for business success and as a means to win support from influential leaders for his candidacy.13
In 1922, as a veteran with ties to influential business and social leaders in Kansas City and Independence, Truman impressed the Pendergasts as someone who could win the eastern district judgeship of Jackson County. Along with a western district judge and a presiding judge or chairman, the three officials administered the county’s affairs. The judgeships were irresistible prizes for a political machine: they controlled numerous patronage jobs as well as the power to assign contracts, particularly for the repair and maintenance of county roads. Truman won his first election by 279 votes out of nearly 12,000 cast for him and three opponents.
Truman’s two- year term was a rude introduction to the uncertainties of a political life.14
Although he and his fellow judges managed nearly to halve the county’s debt of $1.2 million and won praise from the local press for having improved the quality of the county’s roads by rigorous insistence on proper maintenance, Truman nonetheless lost his reelection bid in 1924. Despite a successful primary campaign, which he won by sixteen hundred votes—over 56 percent of the total count—he could not withstand a national and local Republican onslaught in November. With Calvin Coolidge winning handily over John W. Davis at the national level and some Jackson County Democrats, alienated by Pendergast’s refusal to give them a fuller share of county spoils, abandoning their party, Truman lost to his Republican opponent by a five- point margin, 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent.15
But he would spend only a short time in the political wilderness. During the two years before he could run again, he sold memberships in the Kansas City Automobile Club, emphasizing his knowledge of road hazards as reasons for folks to insure themselves against highway breakdowns. While making enough of a living from his effectiveness as a salesman, his investments in two failed bank enterprises convinced him that however uncertain running for political office might be, it was a more reliable career for a middle- aged man with no record of consistent success at anything, except for his two-year army service.
With the Pendergasts outmaneuvering their Democratic Party opponents in 1925 to ensure that they would be "the boss of bosses in Kansas City politics" for the foreseeable future, Truman’s ties to the machine ensured his return to office in 1926. This time he ran for presiding judge, and he won a convincing victory in the November general election, with 56 percent of the vote.16
Harry Truman’s eight years as presiding judge of Jackson County was an exercise in compromised ethics, in the ser vice of his personal ambition and the larger good. Truman turned a blind eye to the voracious appetite of the Pendergast machine for public offices that netted its bosses financial returns equal to the earnings of the area’s most successful businessmen. "I wonder if I did the right thing to put a lot of no account sons of bitches on the payroll and pay other sons of bitches more money for supplies than they were worth in order to satisfy the political powers and save [the county] $3,500,000," he confided to a private record he made of his tenure.17
Although he had numerous second thoughts about staying on the job and suffered hidden emotional strains over having to deal with the corruption that was a fixture of Kansas City politics, he rationalized his continuing presence as presiding judge by devoting himself to the effective deliverance of public ser vices: good roads, well- regarded public schools, a county hospital providing up-to-date medical care, humane treatment of indigents, and proper law enforcement by the police and the courts—all provided without budgetary overruns requiring higher taxes. He took satisfaction in maintaining his own integrity, never skimming money from the many contracts he negotiated, and the plea sure of helping people who could not help themselves. This was especially the case with the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, when city and county unemployment reached historic heights and the jobless relied on local government for make- work and charity to feed and clothe them. He thought of himself as a practical idealist, who was making the best of an imperfect world.
After two terms as presiding judge, however, it was accepted practice for him to move on. He wanted to run for governor of Missouri, especially after the machine’s candidate died suddenly in October 1932, just a month before the election. But Tom Pendergast, the machine’s boss, vetoed the suggestion, telling Harry that in two years he could run for Congress or the county collector’s job, which paid $10,000 a year.
It was another low moment in Truman’s political career. He advised a nephew to shun politics for banking or some other commercial enterprise, cynically declaring that an elected office taught you nothing and left the incumbent vulnerable to changing political circumstances. When Harry asked Tom Pendergast in early 1934 to fulfill his promise and support him in a congressional campaign,Pendergast explained that someone else had already been selected for the seat. By April, as Truman approached the age of .fifty, the only thing he thought he could look forward to was "a virtual pension in some minor county of.ce."18
But in May 1934 came an extraordinary and unpredictable turn of fate. With Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal riding a popular political wave, the Democrats’ chances of defeating the incumbent Republican U.S. senator Roscoe C. Patterson seemed better than good. A leading contender for the nomination was Jacob (Tuck) Milligan, a six- term congressman and an ally of Senator Bennett C. Clark, Tom Pendergast’s rival for control of Missouri party politics.
Pendergast gave substantial thought to who should carry his banner in this crucial statewide contest, which could have large consequences for his machine. Pendergast approached four party stalwarts to run—retired U.S. senator Jim Reed, Congressman Joe Shannon, Kansas City attorney Charles Howell (who had lost a Democratic primary bid for a Senate seat to Clark in 1932), and Jim Aylward, the Democratic Party state chairman. None of them wanted to do it.
That left Harry Truman; his eig...