Harry S. Truman’s popularity skyrocketed after he suddenly became president in 1945 upon FDR’s death. for (as they saw) his limited intelligence, weak leadership, and complicity in corruption. Then, in 1992, opinion changed. The catalyst for this shift was the masterful biography of David McCullough “Truman,” which played a major role in transforming our assessment of the 33rd president. Almost overnight, it seems, Truman became an example of an ordinary man who rises to great challenges, a model of tough and courageous decision-making, and a paragon of common sense. His flaws were acknowledged but seen as the unfortunate imperfections of a lovable curmudgeon. The former second evaluator was now at the top of the lists of great presidents.
In “The Trials of Harry S. Truman,” Jeffrey Frank attempts a revisionist reassessment, aimed at reducing adulation and adjusting our perspective. Its revisionism is meant to enlighten, not demystify; he believes that a more realistic account of Truman’s limitations will lead to a deeper appreciation of his greatness. Mr. Frank is an editor and novelist whose most recent book, “Ike and Dick,” was an excellent account of the relationship between President Eisenhower and his Vice President, Richard Nixon.
Mr. Frank’s Truman is “a man with occasional prejudices, some he tried to shake off and some he just couldn’t.” From an early age, Truman’s speech included words that even then were considered insults. “I get along pretty well with burrheads” was a justification for continuing to use the n-word. He complained of the Jews that “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect me to be lucky?” feel sorry for himself. He confides in a letter that “Mrs. Roosevelt spent his public life stirring up trouble between whites and blacks – and I’m in the middle. He frequently made up his own facts and based quick decisions on them. Regarding a major press conference in 1945 announcing a major cabinet change, Mr. Frank says, “Almost nothing Truman said that day was true.”
The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953
Simon & Schuster
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Truman began his political life in Jackson County, Missouri, dependent on the support of TJ Pendergast, the corrupt Kansas City Democratic party boss. Mr Frank notes that during these years Truman “was seen as fundamentally honest, though increasingly indebted to a corrupt political machine”. Corruption became a major problem during Truman’s second presidential term. Mr Frank considers bribes aimed at administration officials – including cash and mink coats – penny ante but ubiquitous. They certainly contributed to the Republican sweep in 1952.
Although some of Truman’s advisers were top notch, such as George Marshall, Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, Mr. Frank blames his uncritical reliance on others who were weak or self-serving. He particularly cites Truman’s poker-playing, bourbon- and branch-drinking cronies — people like White House aides Harry Vaughan and Matthew Connelly, and Assistant Attorney General T. Lamar Caudle.
Mr. Frank is particularly tough on Clark Clifford, the melodious young Missourian who would be a prominent figure in Washington for six decades. “Whatever Clifford’s deep convictions,” Mr. Frank writes, “loyalty to the President was not one of them.” He cites a 1948 letter written while Clifford was still in the president’s inner circle and wondered if Truman “deserved four more years.” Mr. Frank sees in Clifford a reputation based on the merit of the work and ideas of others.
Although the president endorsed the policy of containing post-war Soviet expansionism, his approach was idiosyncratic. Mr. Frank writes that Truman “was not embarrassed to regard Stalin as ‘Uncle Joe,’ a relative of the mischievous politicians he had known” in Jackson County. Mr Frank cites Truman’s observation that the Soviets were “like people across the way whose manners were very bad”.
As for implementing containment, Mr. Frank argues that National Security Council Policy Paper 68 (NSC-68), delivered to the President in April 1950, was overworked in thought and overheated in language. Truman, embracing it not wisely but too well, has made a number of statements equating a regional conflict between North Korea and South Korea as nothing less than a struggle for the survival of America and the world. free. A bloody war ensued (approximately 35,000 American dead), the equivocal conclusion of which is still the subject of controversy.
There’s a lot of compelling stuff in Mr. Frank’s story, and a lot of provocative and questionable stuff. Many of Truman’s faults are shared, to one degree or another, by all political figures, and Truman’s prejudices were of course a big part of his time. As Mr. Frank notes, regardless of his offensive words, the government was desegregated and the military integrated under Truman, and the policy of containment, regardless of the overreach of NSC-68 or the mistakes of the war of Korea, has proven effective over time.
The word “trial” in Mr. Frank’s title in part refers to the extraordinary political and geopolitical issues that Truman faced. In part, this refers to day-to-day personal problems and challenges. These ranged from loyalty to undeserving friends to a disapproving mother-in-law. There was also a vexatious media dominated by critical columnists like the cerebral Walter Lippmann and the talkative Drew Pearson.
With a new kind of cold war heating up and the weaknesses of our managing directors a subject of ever-increasing scrutiny and concern, Mr. Frank’s book comes at the right time in a way that it does not couldn’t have imagined when he started it. While some of his opinions and interpretations, particularly on the lockdown and the Korean War, probably won’t convince everyone, his revisionist take on Truman is rigorously researched, thought-provoking and, above all, enjoyable to read.
Mr. Gannon was a member of the White House and special assistant to President Nixon.
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