Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Harry Truman's my new favourite President

I stayed up half the night finishing Truman by David McCullough. This is the second McCullough book about a President I've read. He seems to be interested in men who lived in the shadow of more celebrated men. John Adams came after George Washington. Harry Truman came after Franklin Roosevelt. I knew nothing about him before reading this book. Now I'm awestruck by the scale of the responsibilities he took on. (I know awestruck is a word people use about biscuits. I can't help that.)

He came from the mid-West, distinguished himself in the First World War, failed as a clothing retailer and became a politician. He was known as a safe pair of hands but nobody expected to see him in high office. As a Senator he was regarded as a good committee chairman. He got roads built. When war came he made sure arms manufacturers delivered.

He liked a shot of bourbon in the morning and a game of poker at night. He was devoted to the women in his life: his wife, daughter, mother and sister. He wrote to them all the time. He even managed to get on with his difficult mother in law who thought her daughter had made a disappointing marriage even when she was living in the White House. He was loved by the people who worked closely with him, all the more because they recognised that he was "made of granite". When he was angry he would write really angry memos, the kind he knew he could never send.

He was persuaded to run as FDR's Vice President in 1944, when it was clear the President was going to die. A few months later he got the call. It's no exaggeration to say he faced the most daunting choices any President has ever had to face: how to get the Germans to surrender unconditionally; where to draw the line with the Russians; whether to use the atomic bomb on Japan; whether to commit a huge part of America's resources to re-building Europe or just to let it crumble; whether to resist the North Korean invasion of South Korea; whether to sack MacArthur when he proposed bombing fifty Chinese cities and whether to spend a lot of money on rebuilding the White House or to let it literally fall down.

He had that sign on his desk saying "the buck stops here". He had a press secretary whose name was Tubby and a security man called Boring. When he ran for re-election in 1948 they polled fifty political journalists and not one thought he would win. But he did. Hence the famous "he who laughs last" picture at the top of this blog. Truman would say, a million Americans could do this job but the fact is that I've got this job and therefore it's up to the million to help me. I think he's my new favourite President.


  1. Thanks for another interesting post, David. In his book Truck, John Jerome named his Dodge pickup after Harry S Truman to celebrate the qualities you describe (here's the Amazon link:- I love the fact that that the 'S' in his name is just an S – it doesn't stand for anything. Harry Truman thought he ought to have a middle initial and presumably went through the alphabet until he found one he liked.

  2. "...and whether to spend a lot of money on rebuilding the White House or to let it literally fall down."

    Dunno. Should FDR have walked away from a crumbling building, erecting a Union Flag as a joke, cocking a snoot at the burning of Washington?

    That might have been an option, had UK been the superior power post war. But US ended up as top dog.

    UK civil service is defined by Whitehall, but there is not much government there (heads which can be chopped without changing much). All of the bloody government resides on the White House.

  3. Read it years ago and McCullogh's sketch of Berlin vis-à-vis the Potsdam Conference is unforgettable. Truman's letters to his wife are also worth reading

    I have a few of McCullogh's book now but for biographies of US presidents then Robert Caro's monumental - and yet unfinished - four volumes on LBJ will have you awake in the wee small hours.

  4. My introduction to the great Harry S was through a book of his letters to his wife- he was a fiendish writer of them. I received the book as a freebie on signing up to a book club back in the 80s.It's called 'Dear Bess'. Great freebie, great book and fascinating insight into his character.