I like Harry Truman, so I was pleased to hear about a new book, The Accidental President by A. J. Baime, a great story focusing primarily on the four months between his rise to the presidency and the end of the war.
His earlier life is covered, with particular attention to his brief tenure as vice president. He served as an artillery captain in World War I. Before going to France, he and Eddie Jacobson, “a fine Jewish boy,” organized their battery’s canteen, or supply shop. They did a booming business, which gave him the opportunity to test for the captaincy. In France, he took charge of Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery, the most incorrigible unit in the service. Other commanders had failed to bring the men into line. Harry let them know he was the boss and never had trouble with them.
After the war, in November of 1919, he and Eddie opened a haberdashery. Then a recession hit. By the spring of 1922, they were out of business. It took Harry years to pay off his debts.
Harry had served in the war with Jim Pendergast. Jim’s father, Mike, and uncle, Tom, ran the Kansas City Democratic political machine, and Mike suggested Harry run for county judge. Harry did, and won. The county judges controlled the salaries of municipal employees, and typically got kickbacks, but not Harry. Honesty was the major plank of his platform.
When the Pendergasts suggested he run for senator, he agreed. The Pendergast machine got him elected, and many senators refused to speak to “the Senator from Pendergast.” The boss did ask him to vote certain ways, which Harry did on inconsequential matters, but he always sided with FDR. “Back Roosevelt” had been his campaign slogan.
After Harry was nominated to be vice president in 1944, he realized when he met with the obviously ailing FDR that he would not remain the vice president for long. When he campaigned for Roosevelt’s fourth term, he said, “Ask yourself if you want a man with no experience to sit at the peace table with Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek.” Ironically, he would be that inexperienced man.
Truman’s style is contrasted with FDR’s. He came into the presidency totally unprepared, but I suspect he did a better job than Roosevelt would have. Roosevelt was too willing to acquiesce to Stalin, whereas Truman stood firm.
One huge difference between Truman and his predecessor was how they dealt with their cabinets. Roosevelt enjoyed causing discord among the cabinet members and watching them bicker. How can you efficiently run a government that way? Truman surrounded himself with a team that would work together. He didn’t ramble on at meetings as FDR had, but got to the point and moved on, to the astonishment of the cabinet members.
Truman didn’t have the formal education expected of a president, but he was widely read, and his very ordinariness is what made him great.