Where the buck stopped; Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, edited by Robert H. Ferrell. New York: Harper & Row. $15.

By , C. L. Compston teaches history at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Truman's conviction that the republic established by the Constitution is the finest form of government in the history of the world is a dominant theme in this collection of the President's papers. His admiration for the United States' system was coupled with a concern that the American people have failed to understand the nature of the government or to recognize its strengths. As a result, Truman gave considerable thought to the subject of education. "The bulwark of our free institutions," he reminds us, ". . . is based on a public school system . . . [and] the fundamental purpose of our educational system is to instill a moral code in the rising generation and create a citizenship which will be responsible for the welfare of the Nation."

Truman's own decision to establish a library was a result of the belief that the office of the presidency had "been neglected and mis-represented by so-called historians." The documents chosen for this collection from the Truman Library holdings are previously unpublished diary entries, memorandums, letters (sent and unsent), and undelivered speeches. While they provide useful insights for the professional historian, they are clearly intended for a less specialized audience. Robert Ferrell has carefully identified individuals addressed or discussed and has introduced each year of Truman's administration with a synopsis of major developments.

Such an edition of presidential papers accords with Truman's opinion, expressed on numerous occasions in these papers, of the need to study the lives of the nation's leaders: to learn from their experiences, partake of their wisdom, and, when appropriate, follow their examples.

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The most valuable political insights provided in this volume are those which convey Truman's own perceptions, values, and attitudes. Realism and a sense of integrity characterize his comments, as exemplified in his recommendation that the "precedent [for a President to serve only two terms] should continue -- not by a Constitutional amendment -- but by custom based on the honor of the man in office." Of the Supreme Court in 1946 he wrote, "It seems to be the ambition of every member of this Court to be a Holmes or a Brandeis. They seem to forget that under our system somebody must be in agreement and it is much more important to be in agreement than to be in dissent."

The political observations selected by Ferrell avoid sophisticated legal and diplomatic evaluations, but instead focus on personalities (including those of Churchill, Stalin, and Nixon), actions (such as Stevenson's blundering in his dealings with the press in the 1952 campaign), and general concerns (among them the selfishness and greed of the American people in the late 1940s). Truman's comments tell us most about him as a person, for we learn what he considered to be important enough to write about and why he considered it important.

Direct and colorful language -- the "sabotage" press, "Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur" -- reinforce the impression of this president as feisty.

In addition, letters dealing with family affairs and his feelings remind us that the President is not merely a public figure. They express the personal frustrations and disappointments that inevitably fall to the chief executive.

This honest and entertaining collection of the President's private papers is useful as both a historical and a personal memoir of the Truman administration and of his thoughts and concerns during retirement.

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