When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April 1945, World War II was not over. His successor, Harry S. Truman, faced crucial choices both then and in the years to come. Some, such as the custody and use of nuclear weapons, had never been faced by another president. As Truman’s longest serving secretary of state, Dean Acheson, said of that period, “Not only is the future clouded but the present is clouded.” As president, Truman was forced to make quick and risky decisions in a time of war scares, rampant anti-communism, the beginning of the Cold War, stubborn labor strikes and petty scandals. When he left office after almost eight tumultuous years, his approval rating was 31%. More recently, however, historians have begun to consider him in the category of “near great” presidents.
Jeffrey Frank, author of the bestselling Ike and Dick, considers Truman’s achievements and misjudgments in the engaging and insightful The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945–1953. In Frank’s assessment, Truman was “a complicated man concealed behind a mask of down-home forthrightness and folksy language.”
Truman thought the point of being a politician was to improve the lives of his fellow citizens. Overwhelmed at times, he at least made some excellent cabinet choices, such as George Marshall and Acheson. At the beginning of his presidency, Truman needed to conclude the war and assist in the founding of the United Nations. Other milestones followed, including the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin airlift, the recognition of the state of Israel, the creation of NATO, the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur and more.
Truman’s two most controversial decisions, to use the atomic bomb and to enter the Korean War, are covered in detail here. On domestic matters, Truman worked for a national health care program but was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1948 he sent a civil rights program to Congress that included a Fair Employment Practices Act, an anti-poll tax bill, an anti-lynching law and an end to segregated interstate travel, but it also failed to gain enough support.
The first detailed account of the Truman presidency in almost 30 years, The Trials of Harry S. Truman is very readable. Anyone who wants to go behind the scenes of those pivotal years will enjoy this book.