I have just finished reading “Truman” by David McCullough, a biography of the man who was President of the United States from 1945 to 1953. Truman grew up in a family in western Missouri, near Kansas City, which was beset by financial difficulties which deprived him the opportunity to go to university.
He opened a clothes shop which failed. He worked as a farmer for half a decade, with modest success. He joined the army in 1917 when the US entered the World War, leaving his sister to run the farm on her own.
It was in the war that Truman’s leadership qualities became evident and, on return from the war, he was encouraged to enter local politics with the support of the Pendergast machine, which controlled Democratic Party politics in his part of Missouri. At that time the Democratic Party was dominant in Missouri politics, in marked contrast to the present situation.
Truman was staunchly Protestant in his religious outlook but was able to work well within the Pendergast machine, which was dominated by people of Catholic and Irish ancestry.
Truman, and his family, would, like much of western Missouri, have had Confederate sympathies and one of his heroes was Robert E Lee. But he was the first Democratic President to promote civil rights for African Americans, so much so that he was opposed in the 1948 Presidential Election by a Southern Democrat, Strom Thurmond.
In many ways he was an accidental President. As Vice President, he became President when Franklin Roosevelt, who had just been elected for a fourth term, died. The death was not unexpected, but Roosevelt had done nothing to prepare Truman for his responsibilities. The way in which he was selected by Roosevelt was casual to the point of being irresponsible. Truman proved to be a more straight talking and uncomplicated leader than Roosevelt had been. He was an effective decisionmaker.
One of the attractive things about this book is the way it describes Truman’s daily life. Apart from his time in Washington, he lived with, and in a house belonging to, his mother in law in Independence, Missouri.
He was devoted to his family and much of the material in this book comes from his letters to his wife, daughter and cousins.
Harry Truman was President of the US when it was at the height of its powers. He made sure that the US would play a leading role in containing the advance of Communism and in promoting the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from war.