Monday, 3 December 2012

“Citizen Soldier” by Aida Donald (Basic Books)

Donald-CitizenSoldierAn engaging, if flawed, short biography of President Harry S Truman

When Harry S. Truman left the White House in 1953, his reputation was in ruins. Tarred by corruption scandals and his controversial decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan, he ended his second term with an abysmal approval rating, his presidency widely considered a failure. But this dim view of Truman ignores his crucial role in the 20th century and his enduring legacy. In Citizen Soldier, Aida Donald shows that, for all his failings, Truman deserves recognition as the principal architect of the American postwar world. The son of poor Missouri farmers, Truman overcame professional disaster and personal disillusionment to become something of a hero in the Missouri National Guard during World War I. His early years in politics were tainted by the corruption of his fellow Missouri Democrats, but Truman’s hard work and scrupulous honesty eventually landed him a U.S. Senate seat and then the Vice-Presidency. When Franklin Roosevelt passed away in April 1945, Truman unexpectedly found himself at the helm of the American war effort—and in command of the atomic bomb, the most lethal weapon humanity had ever seen. Truman’s decisive leadership during the remainder of World War II and the period that followed reshaped American politics, economics, and foreign relations; in the process, says Donald, Truman delineated the complex international order that would dominate global politics for the next four decades.

Aida Donald’s previous book, The Lion in the White House – a short biography of Theodore Roosevelt – was a superb, engaging read. It is easily my favourite short-biography of any president. With this in mind, I was very much looking forward to Donald’s latest work: another short presidential biography, this time about Harry S Truman. Unfortunately, this book lacks the polish and consistent quality I found in The Lion in the White House. Donald argues that a reevaluation of Truman’s presidency is needed in order to fully understand the world he helped create. It is not without its strengths, but the “psychological” approach the author has taken was not as uniformly addressed throughout the text, and as a result we have a biography that is rather inconsistent.

It took until page 74 for Donald to turn her attention to Truman’s political career – in a book that clocks in at under 300 pages, this is almost unforgiveable. After so many pages covering Truman’s move from a female-dominated early life to his preference for male companionship (which is a point somewhat belabored in these first chapters), the psychological impact this environment seemed to have on the young Truman, and a very detailed account of Truman’s time in WWI, it was a very welcome move forward.

A good deal of the information about Truman’s early political career has been improved and enriched by the release of the Pickwick Papers (his “secret record of exculpation” - 80), which Donald states were drawn from extensively. (I’d certainly like to get a chance to go through them myself.) Truman wrote the papers in the eponymous hotel, as a way of recording Tom Pendergast’s wide-reaching corruption and control of Kansas City politics. They also contain more details of his “impressive” early accomplishments. (77) Despite making such a big deal of these papers, they were not drawn from as much as I had expected or hoped. There were a few references to Truman’s writings, but ultimately they did little except add to the gossip-y nature of the earlier chapters.

Donald writes well of Truman’s genuine early-political courage. For example, when he defied the Ku Klux Klan to win the Jackson County judgeship (by 282 votes). During the campaign, the KKK “threatened to kill him after he attacked them in a speech. He had the soldier vote, and his buddies protected him with shotguns in their cars, ready for any eventuality.” Truman’s tenure in this position was marked by a “burst of building and planning”, and wide-ranging general improvements to the County. Truman, Donald says, was “the most energetic and farseeing county judge in the county’s history”. Truman effectively “remade the area”, and his efforts were only stopped when he was eventually elected to the US Senate in 1934.

Donald gives a good, short account of Truman’s evolving experiences and effectiveness in the Senate (to which he was re-elected), and eventual reputation as a fierce budget-balancer and foe of government contractor graft – an ironic position, one could say, given his debt to Tom Pendergast and the highly corrupt Missouri Democratic political machine.

For many readers, Truman’s ascension to first the Vice Presidency and then the White House will be of most interest. Donald provides an account of the official offer (it should be remembered that Franklin Roosevelt had little knowledge of and interest in the Missouri Senator for most of his time in the White House):

He was called to a meeting of the president’s inner circle and Roosevelt checked in by phone to see whether they had persuaded Truman to run with him. It was determined that the president had to talk to Truman himself, and he said to Truman that if he did not run he would split the party during a war. Did he want this?

Truman blurted out: “Oh, shit.” Then, “Well, if that’s the situation, I’ll have to say yes.” He then added, “but why the hell didn’t he tell me in the first place?”

Harry Truman had never aspired to the White House (or the Vice Presidency, for that matter). Unlike many other Senators, if not most, he was not wealthy. His early life had been a constant financial struggle, weighed down by his own poor business choices as well as family debt that he would inherit and shoulder for much of his life. His careers in politics were the first times he had any measure of financial security. It’s safe to say he was not in a position to take George Romney’s advice to Mitt, that one should “never get involved in politics if you have to win [an] election to pay a mortgage.”

For Harry, the Senate was an ideal place – the salary was considerably more than he was used to, and afforded him a level of luxury and security he was not used to, and best of all, calmed Bess Truman (who was also opposed to Harry’s elevation to both the Vice-Presidency and later the Presidency). Shortly after receiving the VP nomination, when a friend mentioned to Harry that he could well be president soon (FDR was visibly ailing), the new candidate replied: “It scares the hell out of me.”

He didn’t have long to wait before his fear was realized.

“Harry, the president is dead.”

“Is there anything I can do for you?” he replied.

The famously gracious First Lady responded, “Is there anything we can do for you. For you are the one in trouble now.”

Truman’s presidency has been written about ad infinitum, and it’s unlikely that it will ever go out of style. I will, therefore, limit how much I write about it here. The account of the atomic bomb and its development was very good: concise, yet detailed, and not buried under facts, statistics or science. The fact that the atomic bomb was referred to as the “Gadget” during development is rather chilling, for some reason. As if the scientists working on it didn’t really appreciate the awesome destruction it could wreak. The chapter about the bomb’s use, first on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, was somewhat woolly and waffly, I thought, and therefore one of the greatest disappointments.

Donald takes the position that is was quite clear that “The use of the atomic bomb may have saved from one million to three million lives and many more wounded,” and that “Japan would not surrender because it had never lost a war.”

The final part of the book is dedicated to Truman’s re-election bid and his post-presidency. His run for re-election came on the back of a “disastrous” stab at civil rights legislation (To Secure These Rights Report, the result of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, February 1948). It’s interesting to note that Eisenhower was floated as an alternative Democrat opponent. Later, however, when Eisenhower was raised once again (and rejected by the general), and despite even Truman once urging him to run, Harry referred to him as a “shit-ass”. He was an excitable fellow, at times.

Truman’s re-election campaign was widely considered pointless, and that his opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, was a “shoo-in” to replace the incumbent. As a result, Dewey “barely campaigned”, believing the hype that was reported so often. Donald offers an explanation for Truman’s surprise win:

“Looking back on the time, it can be calculated that it was in the last two weeks of the campaign that Truman surged ahead of Dewey. It was unnoticed by pollsters because they had stopped their work, so sure they were about who would win.”

The pollsters and newspaper reporters missed a number of momentous events – from the huge crowds in the Northeast and New York (Dewey’s backyard), as well as the “savage” and “relentless” attacks Truman leveled at his opponent. Combined, they were enough to swing enough voters to Truman’s cause.

Truman’s second term saw an escalation in the Cold War tension between the US and the USSR. Following Paul Nitze’s report on US-vs.-USSR readiness and capabilities, the president signed off on the first peacetime armament. Secretary of State Dean Acheson viewed this rush to arms as a “bludgeon” and “an unexpected weapon on policy makers by the military against a State Department engaged in peacemaking, its natural activity.”

Overall, this book was weaker than Donald’s previous presidential biography. It is not devoid of interesting accounts or descriptions of important, momentous events in Truman’s life. It just feels rather imbalanced. Usually, I’m just as interested in a president’s pre-White House years as those he spends in office. But Citizen Soldier just couldn’t hold my attention in the early chapters as much as most other presidential biographies I’ve read. With such a small amount of space, I think it would have been better, in this case, to compress Truman’s early years, and focus more on his political career. At the same time, the author should be commended for managing to cram as much as she did into a relatively short volume. I do think this would have benefited from a little bit more ‘meat’, and exploration of a number of elements of Truman’s life. For example, his early political career could have been expanded. Even his time in the White House could have been expanded. Citizen Soldier has a lot of competition in the market. As far as short Truman biographies go, there has been none better than Roy Jenkin’s Truman (1987) – which is a perfect complement to Jenkin’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2003).

Citizen Soldier improved immensely after Donald focused on Truman’s political career. The author’s prose is excellent, and certainly this is a well-composed biography. The earlier chapters on his childhood and youth were repetitive and a little strange at times. It was certainly nice to get a longer account of his time in the army (something Jenkins does not spend much time on), which I did not actually know that much about. Citizen Soldier is, sadly, not nearly as satisfying as Lion in the White House. The question this raises for me, is whether this was the result of the subject or the author? The book remains worthwhile, and will certainly serve as a good introduction to the life and presidency of Harry Truman. I just think there are better books available that serve much the same purpose.

***

As a final aside, I thought it very strange that Donald continuously refers to the president as “Harry S. Truman” – the “S.” is actually wrong. Truman didn’t have a middle name, just a middle initial (a compromise between his parents who couldn’t decide on which family name to give him). He name was just “Harry S Truman”. That may seem like a strange detail to pick up on, but it is one of the most-well-known, interesting quirk about this president.

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