This is a pretty meaty book – almost 1000 pages on the life of Harry S. Truman. I didn’t know a ton about Truman before reading; now I truly believe he was one of our finest presidents and a good example of integrity, hard work, and courage. I feel like I learned a lot about the time period as well. I suppose all this means that David McCullough succeeded in his purpose of helping the reader to get to know the real Truman!
Here’s things that I learned from “Truman” (the book; also the man I guess!):
- pg. 58 – As a child he was a bookworm, voraciously reading histories and heroic stories of war and adventure. He gained the conviction that “men make history;” a single courageous individual can change the course of history. He definitely acted on this belief later in life.
- pg. 62 – Truman was a very likeable fellow. He was never idle and never had anything to be ashamed of; he always conducted himself with honesty and integrity. The book tells the story of him not being a very good “horse trader” during his farming days – “When I buy a cow for $30 and then sell her to someone for $50 it always seems to me that I am really robbing that person of $20.” (He was a successful mens-clothing store owner for a number of years and seemed to do ok until the economy went bad.)
- pg. 240 – Politics in his corner of Missouri was controlled by a political machine, and corruption was all around. Truman had ample opportunity to embezzle, etc; but he would have none of it. When running for Senate, his opponents tried to find some dirt on him but couldn’t, although they did for plenty of others. “It looks like everybody in Jackson County got rich but me!”
- pg. 402 – Sense of history – After taking over the presidency from FDR, he had a portrait of George Washington hung in the oval office and used a desk that Teddy Roosevelt had used. (I read a bio of TR a few years ago and there are many similarities with Truman – bookwormish as children; outspoken but likeable adults; stuck to their guns.)
- pg. 458 – At the close of WWII, even though he did order the atomic bomb dropped on Japan (twice), he was not interested in their suffering. “I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in that same manner.”
- pg. 558 – Truman had the ability to simplify exceedingly complex matters. He also said he would rather teach than make history. (less pressure, I suppose)
- pg. 574 – A comment by Bess, Truman’s wife : “Harry and I have been sweethearts and married more than 40 years – and no matter where I was, when I put out my hand Harry’s was there to grasp it.”
- pg. 654 – The presidential campaign of 1948, with virtually everyone predicting a win by Thomas Dewey, Truman traveled 21,928 miles by train in his “whistlestop” campaign. Most people thought he was wasting his time … but in the end “Dewey defeats Truman” was not a reality. Truman was cooly confident throughout, and worked hard and did his best.
- pg. 676 – In a speech just before the election, after talking of modern inventions (particularly atomic weapons), peace and progress: “We have got to harness these inventions for the welfare of man, instead of his destruction. That is what I am interested in. That is what I am working for. That is much more important than whether I am President of the United States.”
- pg. 856 – Making a stand against the communists in Korea, and then limiting the conflict to avoid all-out atomic war with Russia, is now seen as one of the greatest accomplishments of Truman’s presidency. Many, including theater commander and WWII hero Douglas MacArthur (who Truman fired for insubordination – an incredible thing to do considering MacArthur’s popularity, but necessary to re-establish civilian control over the military) wanted to drop atomic bombs on China, but Truman refused to widen the war or let it go atomic. Churchill later said, recalling their first meeting outside Berlin following FDR’s death: “I must confess, sir. I held you in very low regard then. I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt….<pauses>… I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you more than any other man have saved Western civilization.”
- pg. 914 – Truman didn’t generally care what people thought about him; he just tried to do the right thing. “I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus have preached if he’d taken a poll in Israel? It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It’s right and wrong.”
- pg. 966 – after the presidency, Truman was very involved in the construction of his library in Independence (which I visited a few years ago!) and was there personally much of the time. He visited with anyone who wished too, and even did mundane tasks like answer the phone when no one else was there to answer questions on visiting hours, etc.
I’ve read others of McCullough’s books, and they are uniformly excellent. I noticed some similarities with “John Adams,” his other Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. One popular criticism of that which may be extended to “Truman” is that they are works of hagiography rather than biography, ie they don’t mention many faults of their subjects. However, I think this is probably more an indication of McCullough’s preference of studying truly great, bold, upstanding, moral individuals, who in the retrospective of history and comparison to others really don’t have too many faults and therefore are worthy of our study, adulation, and emulation. (On the flipside, both books made me reconsider the regard I hold for certain other historical figures – Jefferson and Ben Franklin for “John Adams” and MacArthur and Eisenhower for “Truman”, all of whom did less than honorable things [but still are vindicated by history], at least where Adams and Truman were concerned.)
Ok, that’s quite enough writing; I think I am approaching the length of the book itself!!!