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Books and Culture

Matthew Hennessey
The Original National-Security Democrat
A new (and short) biography of Harry S. Truman
4 October 2012

Citizen Soldier: A Life of Harry S. Truman, by Aida D. Donald (Basic Books, 288 pp., $26.99)

One reason Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 was Biden’s standing in the public mind as a serious, centrist Democrat, liberal on domestic issues but a reliable hand when it came to protecting America’s interests abroad. Until recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enjoyed a similar reputation. But the administration’s bungling in the Middle East and its seeming insistence on alienating traditional allies has revived for many a longing for the grand tradition of the national-security Democrat: John F. Kennedy, Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Joe Lieberman.

The original model for this disappearing brand of Democrat was Harry S. Truman, the soft-spoken Midwesterner and accidental president—he assumed office in 1945 after the death of Franklin Roosevelt—who endeared himself to the nation by admitting he felt “like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” In the age of the permanent campaign and the multi-million-dollar ad buy, such political modesty has few remaining reference points. Truman was not just a Democrat from another era, but one from an era rapidly fading from living memory, when a man without a college degree could ascend to the nation’s highest office.

As a child in Independence, Missouri, Truman learned thrift, self-sufficiency, and humility—traits no longer considered congruent with the American personality. His membership in social clubs and service organizations, common for young men of his time but rare in today’s socially networked world, made him a well-known and trusted member of his community. He refused to let failures as a farmer and, later, a Kansas City haberdasher, derail his ambition, which soon was fueling an upwardly mobile political career—first as a county judge and then as Missouri’s junior senator, vice president, and, ultimately, as the 33rd president of the United States.

In her new biography, Citizen Soldier: A Life of Harry S. Truman, Aida D. Donald aptly describes Truman as “an authentic cracker-barrel character.” A former editor-in-chief of Harvard University Press, Donald relies heavily on Truman’s own writings and correspondence to illuminate the major events of his early life and presidency, with, as the title suggests, a particular focus on his wartime experience: his brief yet defining service as commander of an artillery battalion during the Battle of the Argonne Forest in the autumn of 1918. Donald also examines Truman’s role as chairman of the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, the so-called Truman Commission charged with rooting out waste and corruption in military procurement during World War II; his sudden elevation to commander-in-chief after Roosevelt’s death; and his handling of General Douglas MacArthur’s insubordination during the Korean War.

Looming over any discussion of Truman’s presidency is his 1945 order to use atomic weapons against Japan, which has provided endless fuel for academic debates. Was the decision really Truman’s own, or was his hand forced by trigger-happy generals and morbidly curious physicists? Was dropping the bomb a military necessity? Would the Japanese have surrendered anyway? Was the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the killing of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, merely a signal to the Soviets and the world that the United States wouldn’t withdraw into its historic isolationism at war’s end but rather embrace its world-power status?

Donald comes down on the side of those who believe that the bombings saved lives, and not just American ones. She writes: “In a nutshell, Japan had taken 150 times more Asian lives in its imperial wars since 1931 than the United States took in its atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. . . The use of the atomic bomb may have saved from one million to three million lives and many more wounded.” Donald dismisses the notion that Truman was either manipulated into dropping the bomb or blind to the moral consequences of doing so, putting full faith in his claim that “We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”

Fair or not, Citizen Soldier will inevitably be compared to David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman biography, which for nearly 20 years has stood firm as the 1,120-page last word on Truman’s life and legacy. But there is no useful comparison to be made. Citizen Soldier is a slim volume. The text runs just 239 pages, with another 25 pages or so dedicated to notes, acknowledgments, and a bibliography. Donald offers the uninitiated reader—or, frankly, the reader in a hurry—a stylish and economical introduction to this extraordinary American life. Consider it the entry-level Truman biography.

Sacrificed in this effort is any real examination of Truman’s earliest years, his rise in Kansas City Democratic politics, or the extent of the debt he owed to the crooked Pendergast machine. On the latter question, Donald is confident that while Truman was loyal to Boss Tom Pendergast, and was boosted at every turn in his career by the machine, he never took a bribe from the organization or its operatives. This is the consensus view of most Truman historians, but it remains a difficult claim to swallow, given the machine’s acknowledged grip on Missouri politics during the Depression and Tom Pendergast’s national reputation as, in Donald’s words, “a masterly power broker.” How could Truman have been the only clean Kansas City Democrat? And if he was, how did he manage his stunning rise to power? What explains this anomaly?

One supposes there were plenty of authentic cracker-barrel characters in and around Kansas City in the early 1930s. Only one became president.

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