The plainspoken man from Missouri who never expected to be president yet rose to become one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century
In April 1945, after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the presidency fell to a former haberdasher and clubhouse politician from Independence, Missouri. Many believed he would be overmatched by the job, but Harry S. Truman would surprise them all.
Few chief executives have had so lasting an impact. Truman ushered America into the nuclear age, established the alliances and principles that would define the cold war and the national security state, started the nation on the road to civil rights, and won the most dramatic election of the twentieth century—his 1948 “whistlestop campaign” against Thomas E. Dewey.
Robert Dallek, the bestselling biographer of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, shows how this unassuming yet supremely confident man rose to the occasion. Truman clashed with Southerners over civil rights, with organized labor over the right to strike, and with General Douglas MacArthur over the conduct of the Korean War. He personified Thomas Jefferson’s observation that the presidency is a “splendid misery,” but it was during his tenure that the United States truly came of age.
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Robert Dallek is the author of several bestselling presidential histories, including Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power; An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963; and the classic two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant. He has taught at Columbia, Oxford, UCLA, Boston University, and Dartmouth, and has won the Bancroft Prize, among numerous other awards for scholarship and teaching. He lives in Washington, D.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One 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. A
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