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A Very Human President

ISSUE:  Summer 1978

Conflict and Crisis—The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945—1948. Robert J. Donovan. Norton. $12.95.

Harry S. Truman was as ill prepared to be president of the United States as any man who has occupied the White House in the last century, yet he was confronted, immediately on being catapulted into office, with a wide variety of dramatic and unexpected challenges perhaps unique in modern times. In the twelve weeks that Truman was vice president, Franklin D, Roosevelt did almost nothing to acquaint him with the major issues facing the country and the world. After Truman suddenly became President, he had little time for planning or study before he had to make one momentous decision after another. His staff in the beginning was totally inadequate and never exceeded 13, a fraction of the size of the president’s staff today.

President Carter has expressed “surprise” at the complexity of the issues he must deal with, but they are nearly all old and much-debated ones—energy, SALT, tax and welfare reforms, Panama, equality of opportunity, East-West relations, stagflation. Truman faced new problems day and night, many of which involved highly volatile matters—control of the atom, collapse of the wartime alliance, Poland, Berlin, China, Korea, Greece and Turkey, fighting in the Middle East and the establishment of the Israeli state, the Japanese occupation, Czechoslovakia, the divisive debates over wage and price decontrol and the disruptive labor disputes the fights engendered, and the emergence of civil rights as a national political issue involving the presidency. Truman was the first president to send Congress a special message on civil rights.

There were times when Truman noted in his diary that we are “close to war,” and many Americans frequently feared that the third World War was imminent. In one of the most dangerous periods, the military insisted on control of the atomic bomb. Truman heard their arguments at length but flatly refused. It must remain under civilian control, he said. Having once ordered its use without completely thinking the issue through, he was not prepared to use it again except in the greatest extremity, and he was determined not to let it get into military hands.

Robert J. Donovan has told in this book the story of an indomitable man. He has told it well and fairly, with much new material. Donovan has had greater access to the papers of Truman and his associates—and to the men and women themselves—than any previous writer. In addition, he has examined the papers of rivals like Thomas E. Dewey and John Foster Dulles. This is above all a dramatic story even for those who know the period well. Truman is one of the more fascinating presidents simply because he made so many mistakes, was so ill prepared for the task, and yet on the big issues he usually performed with intelligence, honor, and above all courage, Donovan is a journalist—he covered the Truman presidency—and scholar (the two are not incompatible), and he has written a serious history of the first term (the second to be treated in another volume), refraining from psychological examination or explanation.

The reader, however, cannot exercise as much restraint in this respect. Truman had many faults and weaknesses and, as Donovan notes, he worked “under a waterfall of great events.” He survived the most withering attacks. He survived the “conflict and crisis”—and the chaos—of the times. It is both a marvel that he survived and that the nation survived under him.

How could Harry Truman, without college education, without a deep knowledge of the men and forces that were shaping the postwar world, direct the affairs of the greatest power in such cataclysmic times? He could be narrow, intolerant, uninformed. He could be magnanimous and far-seeing. He enjoyed the company of small-minded friends—”cronies” was the word then in vogue. Yet he also enjoyed the respect and admiration of serious and experienced men like Marshall, Stimson, Churchill, Rayburn, and Acheson. He was liked as a person by opponents such as Herbert Hoover, Taft, and Vandenberg. Even so, all were staggered at times by the way Truman shot from the hip, made snap decisions, was simplistic and extravagant in public and private utterances.

In campaigning, he often was highly partisan and even downright demagogic. Yet he assured Marshall early in their relationship that on the big issues he would never think of partisanship, only of the country’s welfare. He failed to live up to that promise in every respect, yet he did so in the main with a courage and determination that marked him as a strong leader.

Henry A. Wallace, whom Truman was later to fire as secretary of commerce, noted in his diary within ten days after the new president took office that “it almost seemed as though he was eager to decide in advance of thinking.” Commenting on his haste in making decisions, Donovan says: “It was both his strength and his weakness that he was able to view complex problems in simple terms.” “I think this was the secret of Harry Truman,” said Abe Fortas, who was in and out of government in those years before becoming a member of the Supreme Court. It was partly a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong that made Truman decisive and emphatic—and, in no small measure, didactic.

“Not infrequently Truman’s problem was that he could be headstrong as well as decisive. Impulsiveness sometimes drove him into blunders and indiscretions. At times he sloughed off worry so easily it appeared to be a symptom of superficiality. But at other times, such as on the issues of a Jewish state in Palestine and postwar reconversion, he was tormented. Grave problems weighed on him, yet the agony of decision seldom seemed to linger.”

Donovan does not allude to another factor that made for strength: Truman’s sense of history. He had a feel and a knowledge of history that some more recent presidents have not had, to their sorrow and to the country’s. He sensed the main currents of American thought, and he had a reverence for the office he held. He understood the role of Congress better than some of his successors, and politics was second nature to him.

Despite the narrowness of some of his views, it is striking that he was wise in many judgments as well as far-seeing. He had been in office less than a month when he told Harold Smith, his able Budget Director inherited from Roosevelt, that he was concerned about the power of the FBI. He remarked that he was “very much against building up a Gestapo.” The two men had another conversation a week later when Truman expressed disapproval of certain FBI practices, particularly its snooping on public officials. A few weeks later, he told Smith he thought the expansion of FBI activities into Latin America during the war was damaging Hemisphere relations, The president said “he intended to limit the jurisdiction of the FBI to the United States, a step he subsequently was to take,” Donovan says.

Yet almost 30 years were to pass before the powers of the FBI came under closer congressional and presidential scrutiny and restraint.

Truman also must have sensed early problems he would have with MacArthur, although it would be six years before he would remove him from command. Exactly two months after becoming president, Truman wrote in his diary: “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur. He’s worse than the Cabots and the Lodges—they at least talked with one another before they told God what to do. Mac tells God right off. It is a very great pity we have stuffed shirts like that in key positions. . . . Don’t see how a country can produce men such as Robt. E, Lee, John J. Pershing, Elsenhower and Bradley and at the same time produce Custers, Pattons and Mac Arthurs.”

The incredible reelection campaign Truman waged in 1948 is one of the great stories of American politics. It was not without its tawdry moments. But it showed Truman as he was—a small-town American unspoiled by Washington, a man of immense courage who could identify with the average voter, and a man who liked a fight.

Historians will be most interested in Donovan’s account of two developments that have continued to influence American lives to this day: the emergence of the Cold War and the intrigue, discord, fumbling, and high hopes that marked the development under Truman of American policy toward Palestine. In both areas, Donovan has unearthed new material. More important, he has given an accurate picture of the times in which Truman worked and has explained how the country and its leaders acted and reacted to the pressures upon them.

Donovan does not hesitate to point out the flaws in American policy, some the results of Truman’s impetuosity, some of his ignorance, some made with domestic politics foremost in mind. Truman frequently lacked finesse in dealing with critical issues and with foreign leaders, Yet it is difficult to believe that a more sophisticated leader could have greatly altered the course of history in that period of tension with Moscow, The strength of this book is that it does not pass judgment on the responsibility for the Cold War; it does provide new information, and it does give the reader an understanding of the opinion, at home and abroad, which influenced Truman’s decisions.

In the last few years, there has grown up a Truman myth, some of it accurate, some not. He was a person who could inspire great affection, even enthusiasm, yet he often failed to inspire confidence. But, as Donovan concludes, he was “able to draw upon the resources of his own spirit, his own courage, humor, hope, good instincts, capacity to learn, willingness to face large challenges, and faith in the people and the American system of government.” While he relied on other men for advice and counsel, and gave some of them wide discretion at times, “Truman was always the president,” Donovan says. He was a very human president, not an ideal one by any means, but a far stronger one than anyone could have predicted on that night of April 12,1945, when “the moon, the stars and all the planets” fell on him.


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