‘Decent’ Harry Truman, thrust into the presidency, kept US afloat in wartime

In “The Trials of Harry Truman,” Jeffrey Frank details the making of a president, whose decisions included dropping atomic bombs on Japan.   

"The Trials of Harry Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953," by Jeffrey Frank, Simon & Schuster, 528 pp.

Jeffrey Frank’s new book “The Trials of Harry Truman” takes a different tack than David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning doorstop “Truman” that became a bestseller 30 years ago. Frank doesn’t spend any time on Truman’s service in World War I or his stint as an enterprising haberdasher in Kansas City. This book isn’t concerned with the making of a man – it’s concerned with the making of a president.

Truman had very little training for that job. He’d been Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president for less than three months when Roosevelt died in April of 1945. Suddenly, Truman was thrust into the Oval Office and found himself in charge of a vast, hyper-industrialized country fighting the greatest war in human history. 

To his credit, Frank seeks to look at the whole of Truman’s time in office. He spends some time, for instance, on Truman’s involvement with the race-related issues of his America. But even Frank, always ready to defend Truman, is forced to admit this involvement was limited. “Truman was never in a hurry when it came to the changes that real racial equality would bring,” he writes, adding optimistically: “but injustice, and unfairness, grated on him, the cruelties inflicted on blacks angered him, and he wanted no part of any of that.” 

It’s hardly a picture of visionary leadership, but Frank is often commendably even-handed in that assessment. He refers to Truman as “a determined man, a man of limited imagination and experience, who happened to be a good man, and who managed to hold tight for nearly eight years as he was hurled through the mid-twentieth century, and wouldn’t, or couldn’t, let go.” It echoes the assessment of former Christian Science Monitor columnist Roscoe Drummond, who allowed, “While he does not count himself a heavy thinker, Mr. Truman knows what is going on in Washington.” 

But perhaps inevitably any weighing of the trials of Harry Truman tends to come back to the most historic, most momentous decision he or any other world leader has ever made: the decision to use nuclear weapons in warfare. 

Truman hadn’t known about the Manhattan Project before he became president, and Frank asserts that the plan to use atom bombs against Japan was already so set in stone that nothing could change it. “In theory, Truman could have decided not to use the bomb,” he writes, “but that would have meant reversing a decision that, as a practical matter, had been made for him.” That’s not exactly “The Buck Stops Here.” 

The justification Truman himself used for the rest of his life – that using the bomb accelerated Japan’s surrender, thereby sparing the lives of half a million U.S. soldiers who would otherwise have needed to slog from island to island in an invasion of Japan – is dismissed by Frank as “something of a fiction.” But that doesn’t seem to matter to him, nor, he argues, did it to the president. “No matter the number, Truman understood that it was a president’s duty to protect American soldiers; momentum overcame doubt and hesitation.” 

This is no justification, as plenty of people understood at the time. Frank quotes an American hostess talking to a friend: “Every time I look at a picture of President Truman, I think what an honest, decent face he has but how incongruous it was to hear from that flat, unimpressive voice those bloodcurdling words about the power of the atomic bomb.” “Bloodcurdling” is the key word, and Frank’s own research only grotesquely confirms it: “Not least of the reasons to go forward was a natural, if chilly, curiosity to see if, and how, the ‘gadget’ … worked in an actual war.” 

“The Trials of Harry Truman” looks with refreshing directness at both Truman’s strengths and weaknesses – readers seeking an even-handed account of the major issues in his administration need look no further than this solid volume. They just need to proceed with caution, as Frank himself admits: “Anyone retelling that story must contend not only with the alarms of the present age but, in the character of Harry S. Truman, with the immeasurable power of sentimental imagination.” 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to ‘Decent’ Harry Truman, thrust into the presidency, kept US afloat in wartime
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today