It's hard to remember today what the American outlook was like in April 1945, when Harry S. Truman became president. The country was in the process of finishing off the Nazis and the Japanese. The U.S. economy was roaring, outproducing the rest of the world combined. While other nations lay in ruins, our war casualties were (comparatively) slight. Idealism and optimism were running high. Opportunities for growth seemed unlimited. And in New Mexico, scientists were perfecting the small oblong drum that might make the United States all but invulnerable.
In short, Truman took the presidency when, it might reasonably be argued, his country held worldwide advantages in prosperity and military power greater than any country had ever held, or might hold again. Given this, it would have been hard for anyone in Truman's shoes not to do one or two impressive things. Which makes the central premise of Robert Ferrell's "Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency" difficult to swallow. Ferrell believes that Truman was not just a good president but a great president, one of our most accomplished: that Truman oozed "the qualities of greatness" and has been badly misjudged.
Ferrell, a historian at Indiana University and noted Truman scholar, devotes most of this book--a combined historical analysis and mini-biography--to building his case for Truman as an exceptionally good president. Selective interpretation is, of course, the historian's prerogative, but Ferrell puts on an unusually rosy pair of glasses, seeing every Truman action in the most favorable possible light, and criticizing his subject mainly for trivial faults like sending nasty letters.
Ferrell lauds Truman for the Marshall Plan; for the Fair Deal (a forward-thinking legislative package that presaged many of John Kennedy's and Lyndon Johnson's programs); and for standing by civil rights in the face of Strom Thurmond's racist Dixiecrat challenge. All, clearly, "great" presidential acts. He also credits Truman for the restoration of Japan and West Germany, although he fails to add that Truman's wisest act in this regard was to put these projects in the hands of other men (mainly, Douglas MacArthur and John McCloy), then stand aside.
At the same time Ferrell lets Truman off the hook for everything that went wrong in the postwar period. Truman, after all, presided over America's slide into the darkness of McCarthyism; was chief negotiator at Potsdam, when he gave away the store in return for Stalin's highly dubious and ultimately unnecessary promise to enter the war against Japan; was terribly indecisive about the Korean War, never making up his mind as to our political or military objectives, and opening the door for his humiliating fandango with MacArthur; appointed several corrupt officials to high government posts, so many that he was forced to convene a special commission to investigate his own government, and kidded himself about the atomic bomb, proposing a vague international control authority (thinking, it seems, that if he refused to acknowledge the bomb, it would go away). Ferrell presents Truman as an innocent bystander to all these developments.
The author scarcely even mentions what was perhaps the worst failing of Truman's presidency--abandoning Eastern Europe to Russian totalitarianism. Ferrell simply says that, given the intense domestic pressure to demobilize U.S. forces in Europe, there was nothing Truman could have done. He neatly avoids mentioning the trump card Truman held, and not only never played, but seemingly never even examined--the bomb. If ever there was an opportunity to put this gruesome weapon to any positive use, it was in the late 1940s, when threatening to use the A-bomb would not have triggered Armageddon, because only America possessed it. I am not suggesting the bomb should have been dropped on Russia; however, a few well-placed hints, or a few well-placed B29s at forward bases, might have forced Stalin to withdraw at least part of the way.
We will never know if Truman could have forced the Russians back to their borders, because, even as the president of the most powerful nation in history, he never tried. By the time Eisenhower took office in 1953 the cauldron of history had cooled, Russia had the bomb, and Europe was locked into the dangerous stalement that persists today.
Biographers, of course, have a vested interest in promoting their subjects, since they can bask in the reflected glory. Perhaps this explains why Ferrell makes turbo-charged statements like, "No political figure of the twentieth century, not even Franklin Roosevelt . . . proved as willing as Truman to stand up for what he believed." No figure? Not Gandhi? Not Martin Luther King? Not Churchill, Tito, Mao, Lenin, de Gaulle or the Ayatollah? Not, for that matter, Ronald Reagan, who stood by an unpopular theory for 20 solid years before his eventual success?
The lesson of this book is that, just as it isn't necessary to detest a president in order to reject his politics--a trap many critics of Johnson and Richard Nixon fell into--it isn't necessary to lionize one in order to admire him. If Ferrell's analysis were more realistic, more willing to acknowledge that every man and woman in power can make colossal mistakes, his admiration for the good Truman accomplished would be much more persuasive.