For some reason, Harry Truman falls into the lesser category of presidents in my mind. I’ve never thought of him as bad, per say, but just…unmemorable. He lacked the flash of Reagan or Kennedy, or the divisiveness of Clinton or Obama, or the corruption of Nixon, or the ineptitude of Carter or Bush. He is overshadowed by his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, for not being the savior of the nation, and his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, for not being a war celebrity (though, Truman did serve in WWI). When I think of the end of WWII, I think of the atomic bomb. The Cold War. Korea.
I would call him the “Gerald Ford” of presidents were it not for the president actually named Gerald Ford. My point is that he doesn’t stand out.
Why I don’t think of Truman as a remarkable president is a bit perplexing, because he so clearly was. He guided us through a dark transitional period that saw us born anew as the leading global power. It was a period when American exceptionalism has never been more valid, when the good will we received from the rest of the world had never been so high, and when our ability to shape the course of human history had never been so promising. And shaping human history is precisely what Truman did. From the Marshall Plan, to the Truman Doctrine, to the birth of post-war civil rights. The tendrils of his policies touched every corner of the earth, and left a lasting impact.
I felt that this was an exceptional biography, not simply because it adequately covers the subject, but because it walks that delicate line between telling the story of a great person in human history without falling into the trap of mythologizing him. This biography serves a dual roll of lifting Truman to prominence while also keeping him firmly planted within the historical reality that created him. Harry Truman was a simple man, and that’s explicated repeatedly in the communications with his wife (whom he courted for years as a poor farmer), or with the simple rejection of his advanced station in life – he moved back to Independence, Missouri following the presidency, and he refused Secret Service protection after retiring. The Harry Truman described by McCullough is both familiar for his simplicity and unknowable for his antiquarianism. He feels like the 19th century, like he always rode in a horse and buggy. His achievements, which are legion, are clearly described without being the centerpiece of his life.
In the end, the world we currently inhabit would be unmistakably different had it not been for Truman’s guiding hand, and this biography gives him all the recognition he deserves while simultaneously keeping a real perspective of the subject. I don’t know if higher praise can be given a biography.