The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harry Truman’s surprising successes and overlooked flaws

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On April 12, 1945, Harry Truman stepped into the Oval Office wholly unprepared for the moment. A college dropout and unsuccessful businessman, Truman owed his political career to Missouri’s corrupt Pendergast machine. Though he had served admirably on a wartime Senate committee, his experienced advisers — Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall and James Byrnes — outshined him. Relatively unknown before landing on the 1944 presidential ticket, he had no national following. A wooden public speaker, he could never hope to replicate FDR’s magnetic charisma. Kept in the dark about foreign affairs and unaware of the Manhattan Project, he nevertheless had to contend with the increasingly adversarial Joseph Stalin and forge a path for a nation thrust into a central role in the world.

Succeeding Franklin D. Roosevelt, a mythological figure with unmatched popularity, would have been a herculean task for anyone. For Truman, it seemed nearly impossible. “Here was a man who came into the White House almost as though he had been picked at random from off the street,” a reporter recalled, “with absolutely no useable background and no useable information.”

The pivotal question surrounding Truman is: How did a person so ill-equipped to ascend to the presidency at a time of great uncertainty and peril become such an influential and renowned occupant of the Oval Office?

In “The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953,” Jeffrey Frank doesn’t attempt to emulate David McCullough’s cradle-to-grave biography, published three decades ago. Frank instead glides over Truman’s pre-presidential years to deliver a well-researched, balanced and pithy account that thoughtfully explores the unlikely triumph of one of the nation’s most consequential presidencies. Frank’s prowess as a storyteller brings to life the major episodes of Truman’s tenure while drawing an intimate portrait of his internal struggles as he clashed with foreign and domestic rivals and led a group of heavyweights that came to establish a winning blueprint for the Cold War.

The fact that so many of the trends and conflicts that came to define the United States in the second half of the 20th century germinated during Truman’s presidency highlights his oversize impact.

His mixed record at home served as a harbinger of coming political changes. Desegregating the armed forces and embracing various civil rights initiatives established a beachhead for larger advancements in ensuing decades, even as they instigated the South’s gradual desertion of the Democratic Party. His failure to block the Taft-Hartley Act contributed to the long-term decline of the labor movement and, with it, FDR’s New Deal coalition.

Yet even in defeat, Truman’s boldest moves resonated for years to come. His outsize view of executive power, which the Supreme Court rebuffed when Truman attempted to seize and operate many of the nation’s steel mills during the Korean War, became the norm among future presidents. Universal health care, his most ambitious setback, inspired Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.

The fixation on the dramatic events of his presidency — the tight 1948 election, his standoff with Gen. Douglas MacArthur over Korea, and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan — has masked some of Truman’s worst attributes. Emblematic of his propensity to tap close associates for government postings, none of the four cronies he appointed to the Supreme Court left a lasting mark. Far more troubling was his administration’s initiation of the loyalty oaths, blacklists and other tactics that would come to define the Red Scare, a black mark that, overshadowed by McCarthyism, has also gone overlooked.

While Truman’s use of the atomic bomb inevitably comes up in any discussion of his legacy, Frank joins other historians in characterizing the bombings as a fait accompli no matter who was in office. The author instead points to the Korean War as the defining event of Truman’s presidency. For better and worse, Truman’s imprint is a long-lasting one here as well. The stark contrast between North and South Korea is a testament to America’s success in nurturing a democratic and prosperous ally. At the same time, the unheeded mistakes of the war — undertaking a mission requiring intolerable sacrifices, relying on overinflated military projections and pursuing unclear objectives — plunged the country into a deadlier quagmire in Vietnam.

Viewed through the long lens of history, Truman’s strategic framework for the Cold War proved, for the most part, to be a rousing success. Truman was prone to defer to advisers who, operating without a playbook in a radically remade world, sometimes proceeded without contemplating the consequences of their actions. Despite some blunders, his administration established, under Truman’s steady direction, the hallmarks of American foreign policy for two generations. The Truman Doctrine provided succor to countries fending off Soviet aggression, the Marshall Plan rehabilitated Western Europe, and NATO cemented the budding trans-Atlantic alliance. Four decades and eight presidents later, the United States prevailed in the Cold War by sticking to the template established on Truman’s watch.

America’s slide since the demise of the U.S.S.R. has contributed to Truman’s lofty standing among historians who consistently rank him as one of the nation’s best presidents. Though more educated, more experienced and better prepared for the job than Truman, the two presidents presiding over the end of the Cold War — George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — failed to establish a new vision for the nation. Compounded by the inconsonant and foolhardy foreign ventures of their successors, their missteps contributed to America’s decline on the world stage.

How did Truman, despite his shortcomings, reach a level of success and influence that his successors never achieved? Alongside his resolve and integrity, Frank credits his “steadfast, honorable and sometimes courageous” leadership.

Outside of these venerable attributes, other forces contributed to Truman’s success.

He benefited from a degree of social cohesion absent in later decades. The media, Supreme Court and other major institutions were less divisive at the time, and Americans were more trustworthy of the government and one another. The coming culture wars loomed far over the horizon.

A well-functioning and bipartisan Congress proved to be just as essential. Yes, Truman jousted with Republicans, vetoing more bills than all but two other presidents and badly losing the 1946 midterms before his come-from-behind triumph in the 1948 presidential race. Despite these squabbles, Republicans and Democrats governed — if not always in solidarity — as opponents working toward common goals, particularly in foreign affairs. Arthur Vandenberg, the GOP foreign policy leader, exemplified this mind-set: Instead of indiscriminately sabotaging Truman’s agenda for political gain, the senator discarded his isolationism to back the president’s international aspirations.

Regardless of the actions that, in Eleanor Roosevelt’s eyes, transformed Truman into a “towering figure,” he left a defining imprint on the nation. “The decisions he made,” she expounded on Truman’s 75th birthday, “shaped the very world we live in today.”

Michael Bobelian teaches journalism at Columbia University and is the author of “Battle for the Marble Palace: Abe Fortas, Earl Warren, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Forging of the Modern Supreme Court.”

The Trials of Harry S. Truman

The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953

By Jeffrey Frank. Simon & Schuster. 528 pp. $32.50

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