From Publishers Weekly
Noted presidential biographer Dallek (An Unfinished Life
) turns his skilled pen to the man from Independence. In brisk prose and with the confidence of his vast knowledge of the era, Dallek interprets the life of the simple man who, having unexpectedly and with little experience assumed the presidency when FDR died, surprised everyone by so skillfully shouldering huge burdens. In his day, that meant ending the war with Japan (by authorizing the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki), ordering American troops to repel the invasion of Korea, firing Douglas MacArthur and facing down the Soviets. It also meant protecting the New Deal from erosion, dealing with striking labor and taking unprecedented steps to desegregate the government and armed forces. Just listing these achievements makes clear why Dallek, like other historians, places Truman high on the list of American presidents. Like so many other biographies in the splendid American Presidents series, Dallek's little book is now the best starting point for knowledge of Truman's life and for an astute assessment of his career. (Sept. 2)
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The first paragraph of Dallek’s yeomanly contribution to the American Presidents series pontificates that, with the Roosevelts and Wilson, Truman is one of the “great or near-great” twentieth-century presidents. What follows suggests that he was the best of those four, anyway. FDR had told him nothing, even of the atomic bomb that he would have to decide whether to use. He got no immediate credit for his administration’s real achievements, such as the Marshall Plan. His party fractured beneath him when he headed the ticket in 1948. He got blamed for FDR’s failings, such as employing the Communists Joe McCarthy demagogued about, and for an early career beholden to crooked Kansas City Democrat Tom Pendergast. That he very quickly adapted to wartime leadership, prevailed in 1948 by sheer energy and common-man appeal, seized initiative against security risks before Congress did, and was the clean cog in Pendergast’s machine went largely unappreciated almost until his death. Dallek leaves little doubt that you must disagree with Truman philosophically to consider him less than a damn good president. --Ray Olson