- Hardcover: 183 pages
- Publisher: Henry Holt (26 November 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805069380
- ISBN-13: 978-0805069389
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.6 x 21.6 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 318 g
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Harry S. Truman: 1945-1953 Hardcover – 26 Nov 2008
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About the Author
Robert Dallek is the author of several bestselling presidential histories, including Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power; An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 19171963; and the classic two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant. He has taught at Columbia, Oxford, UCLA, Boston University, and Dartmouth, and has won the Bancroft Prize, among numerous other awards for scholarship and teaching. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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You could say Harry Truman was dealt a bad hand upon taking office as president, after the unexpected death of Franklin Roosevelt. Neither FDR nor the White House staff had prepared Truman for what lay in store—suddenly thrust into office as a wartime president. The war in Europe was near an end, while the war with Japan continued unabated with no end in sight. Incredibly, Truman was unaware of the atomic bomb. His first 100 days in office were unlike that of any president before or since. He took office in April, saw Germany surrender in May, met with Churchill and Stalin in Pottsdam in July to discuss postwar arrangements, and in August ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in Japan’s surrender. The decision to drop nuclear bombs was the most controversial decision of his presidency, and is second-guessed to this day. The decision was based on saving lives--as many as 500,000 American soldiers and at least one million Japanese civilian lives--should the U.S. Army have launched a ground assault to force Japan's surrender.
Truman’s second year was nearly as fraughtful. Stalin was not about to give up the territory his army occupied, from Poland south to the Balkans, in what Churchill described as an “Iron Curtain” dividing Europe. It was a bad time for Truman, as his biographer David MaCullough has pointed out. “To the press and an increasing proportion of the country, he seemed bewildered and equivocating, incapable of a clear or positive policy toward the Russians.” In the mid-term elections, the Republicans took back both the House and the Senate. Truman was down but not out. “Nobody but a damn fool would have the job (of president) in the first place,” he lamented. “But I’ve got it damn fool or no and have to do as best I can.” The plaque on his desk said it all: The Buck Stops Here.
Over the next two years, Truman set a course that would define his presidency, and that of the nation for the next half century. To contain the Russians, he created the Truman Doctrine, a policy of supplying aid to countries resisting Soviet advancements. He urged his secretary of state, George Marshall, to outline a plan—later known as the Marshall Plan—to provide the financing necessary to rebuild Western Europe and prevent further Communist influence there. When the Soviets blocked access to West Berlin he ordered an airdrop of vital food and supplies that enabled the beleaguered city to remain democratic and free until the Soviets reopened access to the West. And when the nations of Western Europe began to recognize the need for a military network of mutual support, he backed the formation of NATO. Indeed, World War III seemed to beckon at every turn, but Truman remained cool, and enacted the Containment Policy to counter Russian encroachment. The result was cold war instead of hot war.
Truman faced a mountain of difficulties at home as well, with labor unrest (including a national railroad strike), a shortage of consumer goods, inflation at over 14 percent in 1947, and an economy struggling to regain its footing after the slowdown produced by the end of the war. Truman’s approval rating, sky high at 87 percent when he took office, plummeted to 36 percent in 1948, and it was widely believed that he didn’t stand a chance of beating Republican Thomas Dewey in the election that year. Truman complained bitterly, but the truth was he loved a political fight, and relished beating opponents who had repeatedly underestimated him. He embarked on a relentless whistle-stop campaign that took him from one end of the country to the other and resulted in his narrow victory over Dewey. The Democrats also regained both houses of Congress. Vindicated, an exuberant Truman held up an early edition of the Chicago Tribune that proved the pundits wrong. The headline read: “Dewey Beats Truman.”
Truman’s renewed popularity was short-lived. As with nearly all presidents elected to a second term, he would find his job even more difficult (if that were possible) and the political attacks ever more brutal. He began his second term promising a Fair Deal for all Americans, including universal health care, an increase in the minimum wage, increased funding for education, and equal protection under the law for all Americans, regardless of race. Some of this agenda was enacted, taking significant steps to ban racial discrimination in federal hiring, desegregate the military, and raise the minimum wage, but falling short in other goals. When a strike by the steelworkers persuaded Truman to take over the companies involved, he was overruled in the courts. It proved to be one of the biggest blunders of his presidency. When Korea erupted in armed conflict, Truman saw the Communist influence in the North as a threat to the entire region, sending in U.S. troops to stem the tide. When the popular General Douglas MacArthur publicly resisted Truman’s order not to pursue Chinese troops across the 38th Parallel, Truman fired him for disobedience. Later, to his chagrin, he watched as MacArthur was given a hero’s welcome in Congress and a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in Lower Manhattan. For a man of Truman’s pride and sense of decency, it surely was a bitter pill to swallow. By the time he left office, Truman’s popularity had plummeted to a dismal 32 percent.
Truman’s star has been on the rise ever since. Today, he is much beloved. Historians currently place him sixth on the short list of great presidents.
“The ancient Greeks believed that fate is character,” writes the author. “Truman’s current standing as an up-by-the-bootstraps American whose fortuitous elevation to the presidency and ultimate good sense and honesty in leading the nation through perilous times are a demonstration of how circumstances and human decency can ultimately produce a successful life—and a presidency that resonates as a model of how someone can acquit himself in the highest office.” Amen.
The prose is crisp and engages the reader. The story is presented with insight and balance that informs as well as entertains. This is a fascinating era in U.S. history; world leadership, the nuclear age, the emerging cold war and the national security state, the beginnings of the civil rights struggle, Joseph McCarthy and the most surprising election of the twentieth century. Truman's conflicts are also presented; the fight Southerners over civil rights, with organized labor over the right to strike, and with General Douglas MacArthur over the conduct of the Korean War. The author also shows how a President's legacy take time to unfold. Truman had a very mixed record during his time in office but his reputation has risen sharply in retrospect.
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