Truman By David McCullough

David McCullough provides an extremely thorough account of the life of Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States, from his birth and upbringing in Kansas, his service in World War One, his rise within the Democratic Party, his time in the White House, and his later life.

What is to be said first off is on the absolutely extraordinary level of detail that is evident in every page. Every aspect of Truman’s life, from birth till death, is covered in so much detail that I find it hard to believe that anyone researching the minutia of this American President would ever need another account. Right down to what Truman ate for breakfast, McCullough has simply included every last scrap of information on the man. His John Adams was impressive for the detail he was able to find for an 18th/19th century figure. Truman has the benefit of more modern (and living) sources and the result is a cavalcade of detail on just about everything.

And what is the greatest strength of the book is also its greatest weakness, naturally, as the narrative gets bogged down frequently. So much time is spent on Truman’s early years, that those seeking thoughts and critique of his most important time might be forgiven for skipping ahead or even giving up. In including everything that he possibly can, McCullough’s account loses something, as the best parts are sometime lost in segments dedicated to the very mundane, from endless musings on Truman’s maternal relationship, to his Father’s many, many business ventures (failed or otherwise) and to his individual relationships with every person who visited the White House during his Presidency. When discussing Truman’s Presidency, McCullough takes the time to go through everything that was possibly newsworthy about it, right down to some restructuring of the White House that Truman undertook during his tenure. Simply put, it gets tedious and boring frequently. Huge sections of the book cannot be described as “reading for pleasure” material. Of special note are the opening chapters, a detailed history of the Truman family going back several generations before he was born, a lot of which is hardly necessary when discussing Truman himself.

But the worst criticism is one noted by many others, that screams off every page: McCullough is unceasingly sympathetic to Truman throughout the book, to a unreliably biased extent. The author writes about young Truman’s fascination with books on “great men”. McCullough seems to be trying to write one on Truman. Truman’s mistakes are excused or placed firmly on the shoulders of the others (his failure to step up to McCarthyism for example), his triumphs are spoken about to the smallest detail, his less-wholesome connections (such as his ties to the utterly corrupt Pendergast political “machine”) are glossed over, while anyone who stood against Truman, from Thomas Dewey to Douglas MacArthur, gets filleted. McCullough struggles to write a bad word about Truman, and it is a real downside to the book, which takes on the appearance of a memorial to the man rather than a biography. Sentimental is certainly the term that I would use.

The author also has a tendency to err towards the dramatic at points, which may not be to everyone’s taste. Of note is the moment Truman learns that FDR has died and he is the new President, which reads as if McCullough is describing a movie scene (the book was adapted for film, with Truman played by Gary Siniese).

On the actual content itself, several things jumped out at me in terms of Truman’s life. Truman had huge but contrasting influences from his mother, a rock who was near him throughout his working life, and his father, an oft-unsuccessful businessman who ingrained in a younger Truman the work ethic and traits of never giving up, no matter how hard things got. In this examination, McCullough succeeds in showing us where Truman got many of his more positive traits from.

The relationship between Truman and his eventual wife Bess, gives the reader some much needed breaks from the more tedious parts of the early chapters, giving us an almost comical look at a besotted and lovestruck future President, who uses his inbred sense of endurance in repeatedly going after a girl who does not seem, initially, to be interested at all. Truman’s life is dominated by female figures, his wife more than anyone, and at times Truman reads almost like a biography for her and her family as well.

Truman’s service in World War One is covered with the theme of a young man seeking adventure, no matter what the cost. McCullough is no great war biographer, and his narrative on these events fails to really capture the imagination. The author is more concerned with recording Truman’s thoughts on European civilians than his actual time in battle. Of genuine interest though is the callous way that Truman abandons life on his farm to his sisters care, without much thought as to what he’s heaping on her shoulders, just so he can fulfil his own personal dreams of glory abroad. As with any character flaws, McCullough does not go into great detail about one of the more negative aspects of his subjects life.

The author paints Truman as a natural politician, who ably succeeds in his tenure in any elected office, be it looking after roads or running for higher positions. As stated, his obvious connections to corrupt political practices do not gain enough attention for my liking, at least not enough negative attention.

McCullough really turns on the praise when the Second World War starts and Truman finds himself leading investigations into corruption within war industries. That is the moment when the biased nature of the account really starts to show, as Truman becomes some sort of saint like figure who can do no wrong in the author’s eyes.

Far more interesting than any of that is McCullough’s forays into the heart of the Democratic Party of the time, especially the bitter in-fighting over the selection of a running mate for the 1944 election. McCullough succeeds in his analysis of this drawn out and complex affair, coming to the reasonable conclusion that Truman became VP more out of luck and a lack of better candidates than anything. The Democratic Party was well aware, due to FDR’s ill-health, it was probably selecting two Presidents when nominating Truman: from the account, it seems as if Truman was a more palatable option next to other, more divisive (but perhaps more deserving) choices.

Truman becomes President and McCullough does spend a large amount of time dealing with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, as you would expect. One of the better parts of the book, you would little imagine how eager Truman was to use the new weapons, the image of his celebrations after their successful implementation one that will stick in the mind. No moral quandaries for this President, which emphasise the vast distance in time since that decision was taken, and how much public opinion of their use has changed.

Much of the later parts of the text are based around personal confrontations between Truman and numerous foes, political and diplomatic. Stalin receives a portrayal that is an unnerving as it is impressive, the communist leader able to turn from reasonable to aggressive and back without any compunction, utterly bamboozling the inexperienced Truman at Potsdam. McCullough leaves no doubt in my mind who walked away from those tables better off, and much of early American administrations antagonism towards the USSR could be traced to those meetings.

Douglas MacArthur, the General that Truman so famously sacked in the 1950’s, gets a representation that is as negative as you would expect. MacArthur and Truman are almost opposites in history. One popular in his day, slowly denigrated ever after, and Truman the other way around. From McCullough’s words, the reader is left in no doubt as to the PR obsessed incompetence of MacArthur, which has plenty to back it up, and the unfairness with which Truman was treated by many in opposition to the General.

The other really excellent part of the narrative is the 1948 election, when Truman upset all odds and defeated every prediction by beating Thomas Dewey. McCullough emphasises the “everyman” quality of Truman in these passages excellently, not to mention the sheer incredible nature of his workload during a campaign, a never ending sequence of travel, meetings and speeches. Truman reaches out to nearly every American with his message, and wins a second term because of it, the opposition left dumbfounded. Another great image here, of a nearly victorious Truman listening to radio announcers continually insist that, in line with all their predictions, Dewey would soon take the lead. He never did and Truman’s triumph is the great political upset story of the last century.

McCullough’s account does have one notable failure in my eyes (apart from the biased tone) and that is the lack of explanation for Truman’s increasing popularity since his time in office ended, especially in more recent years. Truman was frequently described as one of the worst Presidents in history during his tenure, yet he is seen with much greater positivity since. Why is that? McCullough’s answer is wrapped up on an overly-sentimental depiction of an American hero, born low who reached the greatest heights possible.

And that is the key message of the book, that Truman is the American dream encapsulated. No college education, no wealth, no easy rides for him. Truman succeeds despite lacking all those things, through his own hard work and determination. A genuine American is what McCullough wants us to think, and I suppose he succeeds in that. His account is rose-tinted certainly, but I came away with a more positive view of Truman then I had before I started reading it, which would usually be the opposite from such biased accounts.

Worth reading, if you have the time, but be wary of the biased nature.

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4 Responses to Truman By David McCullough

  1. Owen Kelly says:

    An interesting piece, and with a good conclusion. I haven’t read the book.
    One of the problems with many if not most biographies of famous American presidents/politicians written by Americans is that they tend to be uncritical and to range from admiration to hagiography (Nixon being the glaring exception, though there are some others). Truman will be forever known as the man who dropped the Bomb. Would another US president have done it? The toll in taking Iwo Jima and other Japanese-held islands was such that the prospect of invading the Home Islands was daunting indeed. Yet the Bombs were dropped with no guarantee that the destruction would force a Japanese surrender. I’ve always seen Truman, post-1945, as having bought fully into the Kennan doctrine of Containment.
    A thought. One political biography standing head and shoulders above the rest is Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. Three volumes have appeared so far and the fourth (of a projected five) is due out later this year. The first volume, “The Path to Power” (1982) is quite magnificent and I commend it to you if you have not read it, not just for the details on Johnson but for its portrayal of the US, particularly Texas, between the wars. It is definitely NOT hagiography. The Johnson family apparently terminated all cooperation with Caro after the second volume appeared.


    • HandsofBlue says:

      The Truman McCullough talks about seemed to not even realise the power the A-Bombs represented, treating it as just, well, a really big bomb. The debate on the droppins of the bombs is complex, and tends to get very cyclical in my experience. My own view would be that Japan was close to surrendering anyway (or very close to being a non-threat to anyone) and as such the bomb may not have been neccesary (the conventional bombing campaign was far more destructive over a longer peiod of time).

      Of course, this ignores the political dimension of the decision, that is, showing off the weapon to the USSR.

  2. Pingback: The NFB Reading List: John Adams | Never Felt Better

  3. Thhq says:

    I was irked by the bias too. The crisis-to-crisis nature of Truman’s presidency was often created by his shifting and partisan behavior. McCollough tries to cover it up and shift the blame, avoiding the harder reality about Truman’s glaring deficiencies. I really liked the first half of the book though.

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