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A Review of Truman

  • Forrest W. Schultz,
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What Kind of Man Was Harry Truman?

It is no wonder that historian David McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Harry Truman. It is one of the best written and most interesting of all the historical and biographical works I have ever read.

I was especially interested in the extensive treatment of Truman's relationship with the notorious Pendergast political machine. McCullough's portrait reveals a profound contradiction in Truman's character. In his own dealings, Truman was scrupulously honest; yet not only did he have no qualms about accepting the support of the Pendergast machine, he was actually a friend of Tom Pendergast even though he knew the man was crooked! A similar contradiction was Truman's attitude toward Stalin, who reminded Truman of Pendergast. Truman was a strong advocate of democracy and he hated totalitarian brutality, yet he said that he liked Stalin!

Although Truman firmly believed in traditional American values, including the desideratum of local action and small towns and small farms, while a Senator he supported all the New Deal programs, which accelerated the trend toward concentrating ever more power in the hands of federal bureaucrats. Another factor contributing to the complexity of the man was the realistic versus idealistic tension in his mind. On the one hand, Truman was a very down-to-earth fellow in touch with the hard realities of life, yet he also tended to be surprisingly naïve, oftentimes expecting selfish people to suddenly become altruistic when reminded of the Golden Rule.

By supplying the explanatory historical context, McCullough answers how and why Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.

Although McCullough has written a very serious book, there is also plenty of humor in it. After World War II ended, Truman lost the great popularity he had had during the war and remarked that Sherman was wrong: it's peace (not war) that is Hell! Then there is McCullough's detailed description of how Eleanor Roosevelt let the White House get run down and how it took 20 army trucks to move out all her stuff (in contrast to only one army truck to move Truman's belongings in). Another good one was how irate Bess got when she found out that actress Lauren Bacall sat on the piano while Harry was playing some songs for the troops.

If you are interested in U.S. Presidents or in American history, McCullough's biography of Truman is "must" reading.

  • Forrest W. Schultz

Forrest W. Schultz has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Drexel University.

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