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Truman and Eisenhower
on May 2, 2012
Harry Truman (1884 --- 1972) served as the Democratic 33d president of the United States from 1945 -- 1953 while Dwight Eisenhower (1890 -- 1969) served as a Republican as the 34th president from 1953 -- 1961. Both leaders had many similarities and many differences. Both played critical roles in the tumultuous period following WW II and, of course particularly in Eisenhower's case, in the War itself. William Lee Miller's new book, "Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World" (2012) is a parallel biography of these two leaders and their era. Miller is Scholar in Ethics and Institutions at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. He writes generally about earlier periods of American history, including two books about Lincoln and a study of John Quincy Adams and the "gag" rule. In this book, as in his earlier works, Miller concentrates on ethical issues in political affairs. The book would have benefitted from a more detailed introduction and statement of the author's purpose. Miller writes:
"This book is a brief narrative of the careers of [Truman and Eisenhower]. Part of the reason I chose to interweave their stories is to compare and contrast these men, in their relationships to the great issues with which they dealt and to each other (they came to have a considerable antagonism, as we shall see; their interaction is an interesting part of the story.) Another reason for telling their story jointly is that, together, their careers reveal central aspects of American culture at crucial moments in history. Both were president at times that required important national decisions."
In their early years, Truman's and Eisenhower's paths did not cross, but their lives were somewhat parallel.
The two men were born only six years and 150 miles apart in the American Midwest. Both came from rural, struggling families and both attended public schools and were raised in small Protestant denominations. Truman wanted to attend West Point but was prevented from doing so by his eyesight. Eisenhower attended West Point by accident.
Miller discusses the careers of Truman and Eisenhower during WW I and in the years between the two World Wars. Enlisting when he was already beyond draft age, Truman saw combat and showed strong leadership ability commanding an artillery unit. Following the war, Truman failed as a haberdasher, but succeeded as a local politician in Missouri with the help of the corrupt Pendergast machine. In 1940, Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate. Eisenhower was eager for combat experience during WW I, but had only a series of stateside assignments to his great frustration. In the years leading up to WW II, he made strong contacts but functioned largely in a long series of desk jobs. Miller discusses how the different experiences of Truman, as a politician, and Eisenhower, in the relatively insulated world of the professional soldier, may have shaped their subsequent conduct when each became famous.
Miller's book picks up focus when it discusses WW II as Eisenhower became the supreme allied commander and Truman an influential senator and surprise vice-president. Miller offers a brief account of Eisenhower's role in the Normandy Invasion and on his ability to secure consensus among allies in crisis times. At the same time, Miller describes how Truman assumed the presidency, for which he appeared unprepared by background, upon Roosevelt's death in April, 1945. Truman was faced immediately with decisions of moment, incluing the decision to use atomic weapons on Japan, and decisions on resisting Soviet agression following the war.
From 1945 to 1952, Truman and Eisenhower worked closely together. According to Miller, Eisenhower always had certain reservations about Truman. For his part, Truman encouraged Eisenhower several times to run as the Democratic candidate for president in 1948. With Eisenhower's decision to run for president in 1952, the relationship between the two grew frosty, to say the least. Miller offers a good account of the chill for which Eisenhower apparently bore the larger responsibility.
Miller offers perceptive comparisons of the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies and of the manner in which subsequent historians have understood and evaluated them. He offers chapters on the responses of the two leaders to the demagogery of Senator Joseph McCarthy, on Truman's and Eisenhower's accomplishments in Civil Rights, and in their conflicted attitudes towards nuclear weapons. The treatment is careful and balanced although I found it overly critical of Eisenhower in some respects. A short final chapter of the book describes the eventual resolution of the feud between the two men in the years following their presidencies.
The book is not a product of independent research in primary sources but instead draws extensively on leading published accounts about Truman, Eisenhower, the Cold War and WW II. The factual materials in this book thus have been covered more thoroughly and in greater detail in several other histories. The book lacks a bibliography and, as Miller points out, most of the many quotations and sources in the text lack ready references. The book will be difficult to use by readers interested in tracking down sources. The book is smoothly written, respectful of its subjects, and offers Miller's measured judgments. It is valuable for its broad portrayal of the United States during the Cold War and for Miller's thoughts on the leadership styles and accomplishments of two great Americans. The study will be of most value to readers with some prior knowledge of Truman, Eisenhower, and their times.