The Trials of Harry S. Truman: A book review by Bob Morris


The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man (1945-1953)
Jeffrey Frank
Simon & Schuster (March 2022)

A honey badger in the Oval Office

With regard to his middle name, Harry Truman told reporters that they should not use a period after the S, “because it didn’t stand for anything but he certainly stood for several admirable values.” That soon becomes clear in this remarkably entertaining as well as rigorous examination of a presidency unlike any other throughout the history of the United States.

According to Jeffrey Frank, “Truman’s standing reflects the applauded events of his time in office, including the post-war rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan; the founding of the United Nations; establishing a stable North Atlantic military alliance[NATO]; recognition of Israel. As a domestic leader, he wanted programs to expand the social and economic benefits of the New Deal — an impulse that led to several attempts to create a national health insurance program — and he was committed to equality for African Americans. He believed that he understood the ‘common, everyday citizen’ as well as anyone in public life, and on that score may very well have been right.”

In his review of this brilliant book for The New York Times (“Everyman as President,” Sunday, April 10, 2021), James Traub correctly notes that Frank devotes far more attention to Truman’s achievements than he does to his limitations “and he deserves credit for judiciousnes on the tormenting decisions Truman was compelled to make…Frank gives us this ebullient, often cantankerous man in full. He quotes the magisterial Walter Lippman as observing that while it was easy to get mad at Truman, ‘neither he nor his critics and opponents were able to keep on being angry. For when he lost his temper it was a good temper that he was losing.'”

Truman encountered dozens of “trials” throughout his life — best viewed as challenges or, for some, crucibles — and eventually became one of the most highly ranked presidents. (I have him at #6 among the first 45, following Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt.) Some people think that crisis develops leadership.  I concluded long ago that it reveals it. Jeffrey Frank offers what I characterize as a 360º perspective on Truman. That is, warts and all. That seems an insignificant price to pay, given the nature and extent of Harry S Truman’s positive impact. His was indeed “the extraordinary presidency of an ordinary man, 1945-1953.”

To those who share my high regard for this book, I highly recommend these sources:

Truman (1992), David McCullough
The Accidental President (2017), A.J. Baime
Dewey Defeats Truman (2020), A.J. Baime

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