Harry Truman: The Everyman President

What, then, did Truman do? First, he made tough calls when he had to, dropping the atomic bomb, ordering American troops into Korea, canning the demigod Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Though his Cold War rhetoric was bellicose, his judgments were generally prudent: When the Soviets imposed a blockade on Berlin in 1948, he refused to shoot his way in, as some of his generals advised; instead, he staged an airlift that prevented American and Soviet troops from confronting each other.

Second, Truman presented the face and voice of unterrified democracy to citizens very much inclined to be terrified as the cataclysm of World War II appeared to be giving way to the Götterdämmerung of World War III. “Truman looks like my dentist,” said the socialite Susan Mary Jay, after hearing him announce the obliteration of Hiroshima. That was probably just as well.

Biographers have a built-in bias toward giving their subject credit for anything within reach; Frank leans almost in the opposite direction. He does not mention, for example, a story told by both David McCullough and the Truman scholar Alonzo Hamby, that for half a century Truman kept in his wallet the lines from Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall” that envision a world governed by a “Parliament of Man” and “lapt in universal law.” I had always taken that anecdote to imply a deep strain of Wilsonian idealism in this poker-playing machine pol. Was it there? More broadly, did Truman manage to keep his gyroscope stable thanks not only to common sense but to something more like actual political opinions?

Frank has very little to say about the Fair Deal, Truman’s domestic agenda. He describes the State of the Union Message that Truman delivered after his miraculous victory in the 1948 election as turgid and routine. Yet at the time The New Republic called it “the most left-leaning message ever sent by an American president to Congress.” Liberals, who had scorned Truman as a hack, now looked to him as a savior. The almost complete failure of Fair Deal legislation, and above all of the civil rights package Truman had bravely introduced, would set back liberalism for a generation. How much of that, if any, was Truman’s fault? How much did he care?

Frank’s interests lie elsewhere; and he deserves credit for judiciousness on the tormenting decisions Truman was compelled to make. He ultimately accepts the logic both of Hiroshima and of Korea, though he argues that Truman could have preserved the independence of South Korea without approving MacArthur’s insane decision to cross the 38th parallel in order to take on Chinese as well as North Korean forces. Beyond that, Frank gives us this ebullient, often cantankerous man in full. He quotes the magisterial Walter Lippmann as observing that while it was very easy to get mad at Truman, “neither he nor his critics and opponents were able to keep on being angry. For when he lost his temper it was a good temper that he was losing.”