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harry s. truman

16 november 2008

Harry Truman rose late in life from Kansas City machine politics to become a respected but somewhat uncharismatic hard-working Senator. He was little-regarded among Washington insiders when he became President in 1945 on the death of Franklin Roosevelt. He was deeply unpopular for almost all of his eight years in the White House, and for most of that time struggled against an inimical Congress; even when his Democrats enjoyed majorities, a caucus of conservatives, angered by Truman's support for civil rights, blocked his initiatives. Yet Truman ranks as a great President, and the remarkable number of new and powerful changes at home and abroad under his watch qualifies, as much as those achieved under any other President, as a true new world order.

Robert Dallek's brief study of Truman for the Times Books American Presidents series gets to his Presidency quickly and stays there for 128 of its 153 pages. Truman is vastly well-known from the remarkable oral-history interviews he gave to Merle Miller (Plain Speaking, 1974) and from David McCullough's massive 1992 biography. So there is little to be gained from doing his whole life over again. Dallek instead hews to the avowed formula of the series, to study the Presidency itself rather than the people who have occupied the White House.

The achievements of Truman's Presidency include NATO, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, the state of Israel, the independence of South Korea, the containment of the Soviet Union under the "Truman Doctrine," the Department of Defense and the National Security Council, the desegregation of the American military and civil service, and a broad reaffirmation of the New Deal under Truman's preferred term "Fair Deal," involving high income-tax rates and strong support for higher minimum wages. Not that HST did all of this himself, but he chose brilliant supporting players (notably George C. Marshall himself) and resisted those who would wrest control of his agenda from him (notably Douglas MacArthur). Perhaps the world would have changed in these very directions anyway, but Truman hardly sat back to watch it happen; he was a hands-on leader, and the buck really did stop where he said it stopped.

Though it's not a full-scale biography, Dallek's book deftly traces the factors that made Truman such a strong leader. Despite his rustic manners, he was not ill-educated. Though he was the last President after McKinley to have no college degree, Truman was a high-school graduate and a considerable auto-didact. (In this he resembles LBJ and Ronald Reagan, who had small-college educations, voracious interests, and larger-than-life personae.) Truman had worked at a number of public- and private-sector jobs, white-collar and blue-collar, including running a family farm. He understood working-class and small-business interests better than any President – well, perhaps ever, and this shows continuously in his concern for American workers (though he was not always sympathetic to powerful union captains). Truman was ambitious, thin-skinned, and energetic. He did not think abstractly, and no matter how much affairs and people irked him, he pitched right in to solving the next problem at hand. No wonder he is now a great, and greatly admired, historical figure.

Dallek, Robert. Harry S. Truman. New York: Times Books, 2008.