HARRY S. TRUMAN: A LIFE
by Robert Ferrell
ISBN 978-0-945707-40-0 $37.50
501 pages including notes, bibliography and illistrations.
Harry S Truman's life was an accident. All of it. Harry just sort of bumped into life, taking whatever was handed him. He was a bank teller, a farmer, a soldier, an oil and mining speculator, and then at the age of 37, he narrowly avoided bankruptcy after opening a fancy men's clothing store just in time for the recession of the early 1920's. Only then did he stumble into his true calling as a professional politician when a member of the infamous Pendergast political machine asked him, on a whim, if he was interested in running for a county judgeship.
This is the now familiar story of the "failed haberdasher" who makes good as the "accidental" 33rd president of the United States. For much of his nearly eight years in the White House, however, Truman was ridiculed by the press and buffeted by numerous controversies and not a few petty scandals. By November 1951, his standing in polls bottomed out at 23 percent. And yet, today his reputation is such that politicians from both parties openly attempt to emulate the straight-talking, no-nonsense demeanor of "citizen Truman."
As much as he admires Harry Truman, Ferrell comes to some surprisingly revisionist judgments about the man from Independence. He writes that in announcing his "Truman Doctrine," the president "overstated the need to oppose the Soviet Union to get a large appropriation for Greece and Turkey through Congress..." Truman turned the Soviets into "a sort of bogey" and exaggerated the military threat, while simultaneously his administration "misestimated the intentions of the Soviet Union, espying a Soviet desire to conquer Western Europe." Citing new archival documents from the former Soviet Union, Ferrell suggests that "Stalin had no desire to conquer South Korea and became the victim of his chauvinistic supporter and seeming puppet, Kim (Il Sung) who may also have been playing the Soviets against the Chinese."
At times Ferrell's Truman is president bypassed by his own advisers. He reports that Truman had so little to do with the Marshall Plan that he learned of the proposal only after Secretary of State George C. Marshall had given his now well-known Harvard commencement address.
Neither is the portrait very flattering on domestic issues. Civil liberties "did not fare well during Truman's presidency." He ordered the wiretapping of a political opponent, Thomas Corcoran, and established by executive order the Federal Employee Loyalty Program which opened the door to Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunting.
Ferrell gives us a similarly mixed assessment of Truman as a man. Harry is humble, unpretentious, and endowed with infinite patience, particularly in dealing with a mother-in-law who "saw him as a man who could not succeed at anything." But as a politician, he cut some ethical corners. Though he never enriched himself in office, Ferrell reveals that in order to make ends meet, Truman put on his Senate payroll, not only his wife but also his sister (who lived on a farm in Missouri).
Ferrell acknowledges these warts and then defends his man by blaming the force of circumstances, the times, the historical context. But one still wonders, was Harry really the right man in the right place?