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Truman ()


Pulitzer Prize (Biography)

If, like me, you are an interested observer of both politics and history, there are few more amusing endeavors to behold than the periodic "reconsideration" of American Presidents.  In recent years this practice has given us some of the following rethinkings: Eisenhower, the secret geopolitical mastermind; Kennedy the drug addled incompetent; LBJ the great, but tragic, friend of blacks and the poor, consumed by a War he never wanted; Nixon, the secret liberal, whose quest for world peace and big government was derailed by the dark forces within himself; Carter the conservative, picking up the Cold War gauntlet and rebuilding the American military; Reagan, the amiable bumbler who nearly destroyed the American Economy with deficit spending and was merely lucky enough to be in office when Gorbachev realized what the Intellectual Left knew all along, that communism was doomed [see Orrin's review of Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (2000)(Frances FitzGerald)]; and Bush, the secret liberal, who is now understood to have saved the economy from Reagan's predations with his bold tax hike and who is lionized for the Clean Water Act and the Handicapped Rights bill.   Since each of these assessments represents an almost exact reversal of the accepted wisdom when the President in question left office, we can easily imagine that ten years from now Clinton will be understood to have merely inherited a booming economy and to have marked time for eight years.

Of course, several of these new portraits do have an element, or more, of truth in them and it is not surprising that once the partisan dust is allowed to settle, a clearer image begins to emerge of each administration.  But each reversal also tends towards an Institutional Liberal mean--the conservatives are either turned into liberals or demonized; the liberals are rehabilitated.  This is hardly surprising given the overwhelmingly Left Wing bias of the intellectual class, who after all dominate academia, but it should make us extremely suspicious of these caricatures.  David McCullough's Truman is an excellent case in point.

Perhaps no leader of a world power has ever taken the reigns at quite such an advantageous time as did Harry S Truman.  By 1944, when Roosevelt finally died, the war with Germany was in it's final stages and the atomic bomb was nearly ready, so the war with Japan was inevitably won.  Meanwhile, the Depression was convincingly over and the US Economy was humming.  Just three questions of any real moment faced the new President:

(1)  What should the US do about the USSR?

(2)  Could the country afford the massive Social Welfare State that had been constructed to fight the Depression, but which had failed miserably?

(3)  Was American treatment of it's black population consistent with national ideals?

The Truman presidency has to be judged, not on personality or temperament, but on how he answered these three fundamental questions.   Measured by this standard, he gets a very mixed grade.

As regards the Soviet Union, there were basically three options: topple them; ignore them; or contain them.  The first option was a very real possibility throughout the 1940s.  The American Military machine was massive, well trained, battle tested, and technologically superior, and, with atomic weaponry, undefeatable.  It is simply not possible to make a coherent intellectual argument that it was important to defeat fascism, but unimportant to defeat communism.  By the time Truman took office, even the normally dovish State Department was producing memos and analyses that warned that the Soviet Union, in terms of both internal repression and external ambitions, was indistinguishable from Nazi Germany.  The failure to destroy the Soviets at this moment of opportunity really calls into question the entire War.  After all, what difference did it make to the Poles whether they were under the thumb of the Hun or the Slav?

The second alternative is the one that normally strikes people as most outrageous, but it has great merit.  Suppose that we had simply packed up and come home, telling Europe to deal with it's own mess.  The worst case scenario in terms of our own national security is that the Soviet Union would have conquered all of Europe and we would have been faced once again with an implacable enemy in control of the whole continent.  So what?  We had coexisted with the Nazis without too much trouble for a few years, up until the foolish Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  There would still have been no way for the Russians to actually threaten the physical territory of the US.  Conceivably we would have ended up as an isolated bulwark of freedom.  But the more likely scenario is that the Soviets would have quickly found it impossible to control and administer their new empire.  There just could not have been enough collaborators to augment Soviet armed forces and effectively repress large and uniformly hostile native populations.  Sure, you could cow the French, but imagine trying to round up and disarm the remnants of the German Army.  It's impossible to imagine that a Soviet Union extending from the Pacific to the Atlantic could have presented a plausible threat for very long.

Suppose instead then that the Soviets had limited their territorial ambition and stayed within an Iron Curtain, and had not had to undertake exorbitant arms race military expenditures, since we were leaving them alone, wouldn't this have allowed them to build a much stronger state and economy?  Here we get to the heart of one of the great questions of the past century, do we believe in capitalism or no?  Hardly anyone, except the most unreconstructed Leftist, will honestly argue that the Reagan defense buildup and policy of aiding rebels within Soviet spheres of influence was not a precipitating influence on the final collapse of the Soviet regime.  But if you believe that communism is ultimately unworkable and that free-market capitalism offers the only truly effective structure around which to build a healthy industrial economy, then even left to their own devices, the Soviets eventually would have imploded as a result of the inability of communism to provide an acceptable standard of living.  It might have taken an extra thirty or fifty years, but it would have happened eventually.

The third alternative, containment, the one Truman chose, appears to be the least desirable option whether measured by morality, effectiveness, or cost.  Having just fought a World War to conquer fascism, it is inexplicable that the powers that be decided to leave communism untouched, in fact to allow it to expand into the Eastern European territories they held after the War.  Was all that stuff about democracy vs. tyranny just rhetoric to gin up patriotism?  What conceivable purpose was served by expending so much blood and wealth so that Eastern Europe could be tyrannized by Stalin, instead of Hitler?

In terms of effectiveness and cost, the Cold War dragged on for forty years while millions died or were sent to the Gulag.  We were inevitably drawn into idiotic wars like Korea and Vietnam by the internal logic of containment.  The policy made true national security irrelevant, we were already committed to containing communist expansion everywhere.  Meanwhile, the US and Europe nearly bankrupted themselves trying to pay for the Cold War and buy off domestic citizenries with enormous Social Welfare programs.  The post-Cold War boom and the end of such seemingly intractable conflicts as those in South Africa, the Middle East, Central America, and the Middle East, argue eloquently that the human costs of the Cold War must be measured in terms of forty years of squandered economic opportunity, societal stagnation and wasteful regional conflicts.  Now that we've finished congratulating ourselves for waging and winning the Cold War, it's time to ask whether it was worth it in light of the superior alternatives.  I think the answer is simple : no.

The next big question facing the United States in 1944-5 concerned the New Deal; with the Depression over, should the bureaucratic, expensive and ineffective New Deal programs be retained and expanded?  Actually, I guess I didn't couch that question quite fairly, did I?  But if folks are going to be honest, it was apparent even at the time that the enormous expansion of federal spending and the creation of the Welfare state, while it may have alleviated some of  the worst effects of the Depression, had done nothing to get the economy going again [see Orrin's review of Freedom from Fear : The United States, 1929-1945 (1999) (David M. Kennedy)(Grade: A)].  Economic health only began to be restored once the US started supplying materiel to the combatants in the War.

In addition, between the expense of these social programs and the costs of paying for the War, the US found itself with a staggering national debt, some 125% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  Republicans had been, and would be, demonized for so long for opposing these programs that only a Democratic President could hope to disband them and remain politically viable.  Here again we slip off into the realm of imaginary history, but suppose for a moment that Truman had given a radio address calling for the end of the temporary measures which had been passed to fight the now departed Depression.  Heck, we'll even let him keep Social Security.  Thus would have been avoided sixty years (and counting) of the maternal state, gigantic deficits and increasing dependence on government largesse.  Combine the savings on domestic programs and the military with an economy unencumbered by government spending, planning and overregulation and one wonders where we might be economically by now had this course been followed.

In the event, Truman not only left the existing programs intact, he proposed a myriad of new goodies.  In particular, he repeatedly proposed a system of National Health.  At the time, many of the other industrialized nations had such a program and it was just good liberal doctrine to support such a thing for the US, so it's hard to blame Truman, a stalwart Party man, too much for advocating one.  But, thankfully, this was one program that the Republicans, and Southern Democrats, managed to kill.  Again, we can only imagine how disastrous it would have been for the state of medical knowledge and for the health of the American people and economy, had the medical sector fallen under government control.  Truman's unwillingness to return the US to it's traditional small government, capitalist traditions must be counted as a serious black mark on his record.

The final question, Civil Rights, is the one where Truman receives high marks, perhaps the highest of any American President.  Beyond being the first President to address the NAACP, integrating the Armed Forces and proposing major civil rights legislation (including an anti-lynching law), he also proposed paying the claims of Japanese Americans, who had disgracefully been interned by FDR during the War, and his support for the newborn State of Israel redounds to his credit, particularly in a time when anti-Semitism was still prevalent.  It was on these issues that his fundamental decency as a man, which McCullough repeatedly demonstrates and which I don't doubt, was brought to bear on policy with good effect.

Even Truman's personality though is something of a two edged sword.  He was certainly a devoted family man and a loyal friend.  The best part of the book depicts his brave service in WWI, service which he could easily have avoided, but instead eagerly sought.  And his career in Washington was really made by his chairmanship of a committee which looked into how money was being wasted in the War effort.  His willingness to tackle this explosive issue, and to do so during wartime, reflects well on him and speaks well of the American system. Also, the passion with which he sought a second term and the systematic ruthlessness with which he took the Republicans apart during that election year is a memorable example of the determination to succeed which was perhaps the defining characteristic of his personality.  But the stubbornness and intensely personal tone that he brought to politics and policy was not just a benefit, there were many significant drawbacks.

Chief among these were his extreme partisanship and his capacity for hatred.  We have had several Presidents in the past century who nurtured personal hatreds for their rivals and opponents, and each of them has committed horrendous civil rights abuses.  Wilson conducted the first Red Scare and imprisoned Eugene V. Debs; FDR sent the Japanese Americans to concentration camps, tried packing the Court, and really used subterfuge as a tool of governance [see Orrin's review of  No Ordinary Time : Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt : The Home Front in World War II (Doris Kearns Goodwin)(C+)]; Nixon, well, you know about Nixon [read Orrin's review of Silent Coup: The Removal of a President (1991)(Len Colodny, Robert Gettlin) (Grade: C+) and The Right and the Power (Leon Jaworski)(Grade: C)]; and, though the jury is quite literally still out on Clinton, besides his personally criminal behavior towards women, and things like siccing the IRS and FBI on people like Billy Dale, there is the vastly underreported story of his rule by executive fiat--this use of executive orders to achieve ends that Congress would never allow is one of the most anti-democratic undertakings of any President in our history.  There is simply something dangerous about these men who turn political disagreement into personal warfare.  They seem willing to trample every boundary of the civil society in order to get back at their "enemies" and accomplish personal goals.  This confusion of their own good with the public good has resulted in some of the gravest attacks on the constitution that we have ever withstood.

Truman, for his part, besides his ill considered desire to maintain price and wage controls after the War, his senseless confrontations with men like MacArthur and his genuinely contemptible willingness to misuse the 1948 Congress and to run a patently false campaign against it, did such things as create a Loyalty Oath program, not because he believed that the government harbored subversives, but purely to get out from under the political issue.  However, the worst abuses he committed occurred during several strikes, first his attempt to forcibly draft striking mine workers into the military, then his seizure of the nation's Steelworks.  In the first instance, he seems to have been motivated by personal pique when his union leader friends would not call off the mine strike.  In the second, he acted out of palpable hatred of the Steel magnates.  The specter of a President willing to deprive men of their liberty for striking, or of their property for refusing to yield to strikers, smacks of despotism and he was smacked down by the Courts and by members of his own Party.

McCullough makes a convincing enough case, despite rising through the Prendergast machine in Missouri and despite the various scandals that plagued his Presidential administration, that Truman was not financially corrupt himself.  It does seem that Truman was above reproach on issues of personal venality.  But at the same time, he was loyal to the corrupt men he surrounded himself with, to a degree which calls his judgment into question.  The fact that his political opponents sought to make hay out of these scandals does not justify his stubborn refusal to deal with the problems.  Similarly, he seems to have refused to take the infiltration of the US Government by Communist spies seriously, simply because he loathed men like McCarthy.  As post-Cold War revelations have made absolutely clear, there was a significant penetration of the State Department, the Manhattan Project and other departments and programs, several of which led to concrete advances and advantages for the Soviet Union.  Not only did his stubborn refusal to take this matter seriously aid and abet such spying. his willingness to turn the matter into a starkly partisan issue was a significant contributor to the ugly divisions in American society during the Cold War.  A man like Joe McCarthy might never have risen to such prominence had Truman been capable of accepting the fact that some of the accused were actually spies.

Lastly we must consider two of Truman's most significant presidential decisions, one unjustly controversial, the other somewhat dubiously canonized.  In recent years there has been a fair amount of breast beating and hair pulling over the decision to drop the atomic bomb.  Forget for a second all of the emotional pleading and consider this question, facing the invasion of the Japanese home islands and taking into consideration the horrific toll in human life which conventional land warfare and aerial fire bombing were already wreaking on the Japanese, name a single president who would have so much as hesitated to drop the bomb.  The whole controversy is patently ridiculous.  Truman did the responsible thing, he deserves mild credit and no blame.

Which brings us to the Marshall Plan, source of almost infinite American self-congratulation.  As we've already discussed, the fear of Europe falling under communist influence was vastly overblown in terms of it's effect on US security.  More importantly, we must ask what our money bought.  The nations of Europe did recover somewhat from the devastation of WWII, though in comparison to the U.S. they must be said to have drastically underperformed economically.  This was due in large part to the fact that most of the nations of Western Europe adopted or retained Socialism, of varying degrees.  American largesse was basically used to underwrite economic systems which guaranteed economic stagnation and political repression, though of a mildish sort.  Europe and the world would probably have been better off if Europeans had been forced to face the consequences of their warlike ways and their unworkable pre-War economics.  Instead, it has taken until the past decade for nations like Britain, Sweden, and others to come to grips with the fiasco of Socialism and to move towards free market reforms.  Finally, it can hardly be said that the aid that we sent purchased much good well or turned the countries of Europe into reliable allies.  The French in particular frequently acted more like enemies than friends and acted nearly as accomplices of the Soviet Union.  Stripped of fifty years of rhetorical excess and self-righteous preening, the success of the Marshall Plan is clearly more problematic than historians and politicians will admit.

How does McCullough handle all of these issues and how do they contribute to his final assessment of Truman?  Basically, he doesn't and they don't.  For McCullough it almost always suffices that Truman was a good man and that he was trying hard, he seldom examines the eventual results of his decisions except in totally conventional institutional terms.  In nearly every instance where two conflicting inferences can be drawn about Truman's conduct, he gives Truman the benefit of the doubt.  For instance, late in the 1948 campaign, the results still very much in doubt, Truman decided to send Fred Vinson, an old Democrat war-horse who he had made Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, over to Europe on a high profile diplomatic mission to the Soviets.  When George Marshall reacted with vehement opposition to this naked politicization of the Court and of Foreign Policy, Truman dropped the idea.  McCullough treats this as an instance of Truman's common sense winning out.  He ignores the fact that Marshall was a figure of such towering moral authority that Truman could not possibly afford to alienate him, even risk him resigning, with an election looming.

Similarly, he cuts Truman an awful lot of slack in regards to his decision not to seek a third term.  He portrays him as almost completely uninterested and actively seeking someone else to run.  He only barely acknowledges that Truman was so unpopular, even within his own Party, that he lost the New Hampshire primary to Estes Kefauver.  There's a pretty significant difference between willingly retiring and being stunningly rebuked by your own Party.  These instances are part of a general pattern which could conceivably be an accurate reflection of Truman's unfailingly righteous behavior, but more likely indicate that McCullough had made up his mind about Truman before he ever started examining the facts and then just interpreted the facts in light of his prejudice.

I recall reading Arianna Huffington's biography of the loathsome Pablo Picasso several years ago.  In her Introduction she mentions that when she was considering the book she was told that McCullough was writing one to.  She duly contacted him, but he told her that he had decided to drop the project because he found himself disliking his subject so thoroughly.  One would hardly suggest that a writer is obligated to continue with a book about someone he can't stand, but it does raise questions about the author's impartiality and the openmindedness of his approach.

The final result of all of this then is an immensely readable, but unfortunately hagiographic, personal biography--as opposed to a political biography.  McCullough may well be right that Truman was one of the more decent men ever to hold the office, but the case is only compelling as to his private life.  As a public figure, his actions were often less decent, sometimes downright indecent, and the failure to take this seriously and to examine fully the consequences of even the well meaning, but not necessarily effective, big decisions that Truman made serves to weaken the book as a historical document.  It is a more satisfactory depiction of Truman the man, but wholly inadequate as a guide to his Presidency and as a major attempt to rethink what has generally been considered a failed Presidency, it fails miserably.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -BIO: (American Experience, PBS)
    -American Experience (PBS)
    -BOOKNOTES: Truman  Author: David McCullough   Air Date: July 19, 1992 (CSPAN)
    -ESSAY: HARRY S. TRUMAN (Excerpted from an essay by David McCullough, Character Above All, PBS)
    -ESSAY: Aviator Authors (David McCullough, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : The Writing Life (David McCullough, July 1, 2001, Washington Post)
    -PROFILE : David McCullough : An Eye for History (Marie Arana, July 1, 2001, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of OF AMERICA EAST & WEST  Selections From the Writings of Paul Horgan (David McCullough, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE SKYSCRAPER. By Paul Goldberger  (David McCullough, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   THE LIFE OF HERBERT HOOVER The Engineer, 1874-1914. By George H. Nash  (David McCullough, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  THE MAPMAKERS By John Noble Wilford   (David McCullough, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Tempo Shock David McCullough is the author of such works as Truman and The Great Bridge. We asked him to apply a historian's perspective to understanding the ways in which the world is changing today (Martha Rogers and Bruce Kasanoff, May 2000, Inc.)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with David McCullough  The National Book Foundation presents a conversation with National Book Award Winner David McCullough, author of Mornings on Horseback  (National Book Foundation)
    -INTERVIEW: TALKING HISTORY WITH: David McCullough; Immersed in Facts, The Better to Imagine Harry Truman ( ESTHER B. FEIN, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: ( John Koch, Boston Globe Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: The Panama Canal: 'A brave, noble undertaking done superbly' (CNN)
    -INTERVIEW: History is the Story of People. Not Events  (Interview and photography by Paul Giambarba from CapeArts 2, 1981)
    -INTERVIEW: All presidents do this?   Don't believe it, historian says (Monday, October 26, 1998, Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Oregonian)
    -ARCHIVES : "david mccullough" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "david mccullough" (MagPortal)
    -AWARDS: Winners of the 1993 Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism, Literature and the Arts
    -REVIEW: of TRUMAN By David McCullough (Alan Brinkley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of TRUMAN By David McCullough  (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Truman by David McCullough  WHERE THE BUCK STOPPED (Walter Isaacson, TIME)
    -REVIEW: Jul 16, 1992 C. Vann Woodward: Made in the U.S.A., NY Review of Books
       Truman by David McCullough
    -REVIEW: of MORNINGS ON HORSEBACK. By David McCullough (Geoffrey C. Ward, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of MORNINGS ON HORSEBACK. By David McCullough (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Aug 13, 1981 Gore Vidal: An American Sissy, NY Review of Books
       Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough

JOHN ADAMS :
    -ESSAY : Culture warrior : David McCulloughís stately John Adams prompts a backlash ó and a fascinating debate over the limits of character (DAN KENNEDY, September 2001, Boston Phoenix)
    -ESSAY : Rating the Founding Fathers : The reputation market finds Adams up, Jefferson down, and the others holding steady.Ý(David Greenberg, July 2, 2001,Slate)
    -ESSAY : Is John Adams Overrated? : As John Adams's star has shone more brightly among the historians, Thomas Jefferson's has seemed to dim. (FLOYD ABRAMS, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : A blast from the past (David Gergen, 8/6/01, US News)
    -ESSAY : A Defense of John Adams (Dinitia Smith, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : John Adams' second act (Mark Feeney, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of John Adams (Catherine Allgor, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW : of John Adams by David McCullough (Edwin Yoder, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of John Adams (Sean Wilentz, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of JOHN ADAMS by David McCullough (January Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of John Adams (Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today)
    -REVIEW : of John Adams (Ted Widmer, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : of John Adams by David McCullough (Fritz Lanham, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of  John Adams by David McCullough (Paul Johnson, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of JOHN ADAMS By David McCullough (JOHN RHODEHAMEL, LA Times)
 
 
 

HARRY S TRUMAN (1884-1972):
    -Truman Library
    -American Presidents--Life Portraits: Harry S Truman (CSPAN)
    -IPL POTUS -- Harry S. Truman
    -Project Whistlestop: Harry S Truman digital archive on the Web
    -Acamedic American Encyclopaedia : HARRY S. TRUMAN
    -ARCHIVES: "Truman" (NY Review of Books)
    -EXCERPT: Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War By Joe Shattan : CHAPTER 1 Harry S. Truman: Setting the Course
    -Doughboy Center: Capt. Harry Truman  Artilleryman  and Future President (William J.Gilwee, Great War Society)
    -REVIEW: of MAN OF THE PEOPLE A Life of Harry S. Truman. By Alonzo L. Hamby (David Oshinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Harry S. Truman -- The Man from Independence (Adam G. Weyhaupt)
    -STUDENT GUIDE: with useful links
    -The Enola Gay Debate (Air Force Academy)

GENERAL:
    -ESSAY:  Critic's Notebook; Shifting Perceptions of a Presidency (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -Panama Canal Handover (CNN)
    -ESSAYS: What Should the President Read?   It's the day after the presidential election. The winning candidate asks you to recommend three books to read before inauguration. Only one may be more than 10 years old. What do you suggest and why? (Reason)

ROBERT DONOVAN:
    -OBIT: Robert J. Donovan, 90, the Author of 'PT-109,' Dies (ANTHONY RAMIREZ, August 10, 2003, NY Times)

Comments:

Wow, your entire "review" of this book consists of a sentence or two of you actually talking about the book, and several paragraphs worth of right-wing diatribe about your opinion of Truman. Don't quit your day job...

- Ethel Rosenberg

- May-08-2004, 11:32

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