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Citizen Soldier: A Life of Harry S. Truman

By Aida D. Donald; Basic Books

This new biography is like our 33rd president: short and to the point. Truman, David McCullough’s 1,100-page tome, is exhaustive, but often loses the plain-speaking Truman. Donald, by contrast, defines the man and his policies in language as simple and straightforward as Truman’s own.

In Donald’s estimation, Harry S. (the S, he said, stood “for nothing”) was “common sense-practical with simple virtues.” The Trumans never succeeded in making a go of their farm. “All his life,” writes Donald, “he remained a virtually, and virtuously, poor man.”

His family harbored deep Confederate sympathies. When young Truman came home in his Missouri National Guard uniform, his grandmother said, “Harry, this is the first time since 1863 that a blue uniform has been in this house. Don’t bring it here again.” But he wore khaki as an artillery officer in World War I and earned his men’s respect in several harrowing duels with the Germans. Though he escaped injury, he often slept wearing a gas mask.

During the war, Truman made friends with a young officer named Tom Pendergast, whose family ran the most corrupt and powerful political machine in Missouri. This led to Truman’s stint as a county judge. He somehow, Donald marvels, remained uncorrupted, but lost the race for reelection in 1924, his only political defeat.

Still, Truman never escaped the Pendergast shadow. In 1935, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, the New York Times misnamed him Henry and called him “a rube from Pendergast land.” Perhaps, but his honesty, competence and stubborn sense of duty earned his fellow senators’ respect. At 61, he seemed ready to finish his second term and retire. Instead, he became FDR’s 1944 running mate. (FDR’s advisers told him that “Truman would lose him the fewest votes in the election. It was,” Donald notes dryly, “a backhanded compliment.”) Within a year, he became the most reluctant president in American history.

Donald gives Truman high marks for championing the Marshall Plan, but most of the credit is properly given to Secretary of State George C. Marshall and his policy head, George Kennan. She notes Truman’s 1946 executive order on antilynching laws, ending the poll tax and desegregating the armed forces, but reminds us that “Truman did not fight hard for this program, given the southern control of Congress….It took almost a generation for a president to touch this subject again.” She makes a solid argument for the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan; characteristically, Truman wrote in his memoirs, “The final decision of where and when to use the atomic bomb was up to me. Let there be no mistake about that.” And she lucidly assesses the Truman-MacArthur clash over the Korean War: “Truman’s gift to the American people was…the bolstering of the constitutional mandate that the president was commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces.”

Personally and politically, Harry Truman really meant what that well-known sign on his desk said: “The buck stops here.”


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.