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Harry Truman... unexceptional, mediocre, unaccomplished man who happened to become President during WWII?


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Initial post: Nov 30, 2012 8:47:06 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 30, 2012 9:36:41 PM PST
Who was Harry Truman? How did he end up President of the United States during one of the most crucial times in history?

There is a new documentary series on Showtime narrated by Oliver Stone. Stone rips Truman pretty mercilessly. Stone says that Truman was a failed businessman and low level bureaucrat who was elected to congress as a pawn, and that Truman originally was a joke to his colleagues. Then that Truman was elected to VP as a compromise between warring factions in the party because Truman was so mediocre.

Stone states that Truman was a sissy boy when he was younger, then implies that Truman acted like a bully as President to compensate for his sissy youth. Stone even oddly implies that Truman's mother thought her son was gay, which even if there is proof of this, is a rather low blow.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 30, 2012 9:07:16 PM PST
nameinuse says:
I know he never went to college.

Posted on Nov 30, 2012 9:29:32 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 30, 2012 9:37:59 PM PST
Truman was a man of exceptional fortitude, guts and old-fashioned wisdom who never questioned himself and never looked back once he made a decision. He ended World War II and played a large role in the formation of Israel. Even a great man like Winston Churchill was impressed by Truman's character once he met him. He was definitely one of our finest presidents.

Oliver Stone was probably giving a summation of his impressions on what others at the time thought of Truman. Stone is a pretty dedicated liberal -- I highly doubt that he, personally, would disapprove of ol' Harry.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 30, 2012 11:04:39 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 30, 2012 11:18:28 PM PST
Truman was highly respected by the soldiers who served under him in France in World War One. His battery was noted for being manned by soldiers who were difficult to discipline, and they almost broke and ran during the first attack they encountered. He had a horse fall on his leg during this artillery barrage and climbed out from under the horse and continued to direct his men setting up their artillery battery. They were very impressed. Not only with his courage, but also with his talent for cussing. He probably would have got along a lot better with Patton than he did with MacArthur.

He did wait a long time to get married, but that was only because it took him almost 15 years to persuade Bess to marry him, and because he stubbronly wanted her and nobody else. In fact, stubborn is the key to his personality. He may have been a little bit hen-pecked as a husband, and he was certainly not a shrewd businessman, but he was a leader of men in critical times, and a tough and cagey politician. One of my favorite Presidents.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 6:13:54 AM PST
Joe Anthony says:
nameinuse says:

"I know [Harry Truman] never went to college."

I say:

I think that I read somewhere that Truman took college courses but never earned a degree.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 6:47:16 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 1, 2012 7:34:37 AM PST
Joe Anthony says:
0-0 says:

"Harry Truman... unexceptional, mediocre, unaccomplished man who happened to become President during WWII?"

I say:

Truman is a curious case, Since the biography of Truman that was written by David McCullough; Truman has been most often lauded; but in his own time as president he appears to have been quite unpopular, especially during his second term when a bad economy, the war in Korea, the rise of communism in China, and the situation of the Soviet Union acquiring the atomic bomb caused many Americans to doubt Truman as an effective leader at home, or on the world stage.

Truman's rather unremarkable Missouri background and subsequently unremarkable career as a US Senator juxtaposes a presidency that transitions the country and the world into a new age of atomic weapons, the Cold War and Civil Rights. All-in-all, I agree with what Robert Bykowski said about Truman's "fortitude and guts"...and whether you agree or disagree with the his most important decisions which concerned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was a decision to which he took full responsibility. I read in McCullough's book that Robert Oppenheimer approached Truman at the eleventh hour and begged him not to drop the bomb as Oppenheimer thought that his involvement in the making of the bomb was not to use it but to keep from people from going to war in the first place. Truman replied to Oppenheimer that the "blood is on MY hands and not YOURS"...that kind of decision making and taking ownership of what you do as a leader, indeed, takes fortitude and guts and I don't know if I could handle it if I were president.

On Civil Rights, Truman laid the foundation for integration by doing so with the US military, and it's sad that President Eisenhower, who came right after Truman, was so blind to the fact that there was serious racial unrest in America that needed to be addressed on a presidential level.

The involvement in Korea was unavoidable as the events of 1948 (or 1949?) with China going communist and the Soviets acquiring the bomb had placed everyone in America in a panic concerning the communist denomination of the world. I think, in this context, that if any other person were president at the time, he or she would have decided to fight the Korean War. It, however, took President Dwight Eisenhower to get us out of Korea and, ultimately, warn the country on the danger of the "military-industrial complex".

I feel as though Truman was a remarkable president; he was brash and bold; sometimes right and sometimes wrong; but always seemed to be intent upon doing his best and standing by his decisions. He demonstrated the capacity to grow as a leader, as well. It just goes to show that humble origins and an unremarkable past, does not necessarily lead to a someone being a bad leader. Indeed, in Truman's case it was quite the contrary.

If anyone's interested, David McCullough's book on Truman, entitled "Truman" is excellent and even though it is about 900+ pages long; it is one of the most well-written history books I've ever read; and that's important, because history books, IMO, tend to be poorly written in most cases.

Posted on Dec 1, 2012 7:01:31 AM PST
R. Largess says:
JA - Good assessment of Truman and McCullough's book, which is excellent. Also Pleshakov and Zubok's "Inside the Kremlin's Cold War" say that Stalin's papers show that he was considering war in Europe and intended the Korean War as a feeler to test the US response.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 7:06:11 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 1, 2012 6:28:09 PM PST
First of all, I think that Oliver Stone is an extremely talented film-maker, a strong writer of dramatic fiction and a master of telling a compelling story. His film JFK definitely deserved the two Oscars it won for its brilliant editing techniques and cinematography.

However, as an historian, a trustworthy researcher and presenter of that research and a reliable witness, Mr. Stone fails miserably. Citing his "documentary" of Truman as a reliable account is almost as lame as citing Dinesh d'Souza's paranoid fantasy about President Obama as a reliable political guide.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 7:15:24 AM PST
R. Largess says:
And by the way, doesn't Oliver Stone think LBJ had JFK assassinated? I would say his presentation of Truman is very ideological.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 7:27:21 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 1, 2012 7:45:15 AM PST
I have little to add to Joe Anthony's fine post about Truman as presented by David McCullough's book on the 33rd president. And I pretty much agree with his final assessment of the Truman presidency.

There's a common phrase about the American president that talks about a man "growing with the office". I have often argued that Truman is one of the three best examples of men who "grew with the office". (The other two I give that accolade to are Chester Alan Arthur and John F. Kennedy.)

From his background as a prodigy of Kansas City Democratic machine boss Tom Pendergast and his performance in the Senate, one would have expected Truman to turn out to be a Democratic liberal version of Warren G. Harding. But then he was faced with bringing the greatest war in human history to a satisfactory conclusion, with Stalin as his most important ally. Shortly thereafter, he had to confront Stalin (who as at least as evil a leader as Hitler, if not more so) in constructing the post-war world order; he had to rebuild a war-ravaged Europe or let it fold inward until various political extremes emerged victorious to reshape the continent; he had to return America to a peacetime existence and reward fittingly all those who made the sacrifices that won the war; and he had to face domestic opposition from Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his ilk, who had no regard for what scabrous lies and vile calumnies they spewed out to advance their own political careers.

(And if we want to talk about mediocre, unexceptional {note: aren't they synonymous?} unaccomplished men whose impact on American and world was far greater than they ever deserved, there's no better place to begin than with Joe McCarthy himself.)

So by 1952, he was unpopular? Who wouldn't be unpopular if he or she had tried to do the best in a domestic and geopolitical landscape so fraught with landmines. The verdict of history is much more important here, and that verdict largely gives Truman the credit he deserves.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 7:39:08 AM PST
Joe Anthony:

One thing I would disagree with in your otherwise compelling post about Truman's presidency. (Kudos for the good job there.)

As I recall, J. Robert Oppenheimer did not have an 11th-hour change of heart about dropping the A-bombs on Japan. Despite the fact that a large group of scientists working on the Manhattan Project decided that the work should be abandoned once Nazi Germany had been defeated, Oppenheimer stuck to his guns and supported the use of the weapons his team had created.

Later (1946), at a White House meeting where Truman presented the Medal of Merit to Oppenheimer, the brilliant physicist sadly said, "Mr. President, I have blood on my hands." Truman's response: "Here's a handkerchief; wipe them off."

I think that Oppenheimer was both intelligent and honest enough to see that although something is necessary and the better of two unpleasant choices, what is ugly and wrong about that decision and resultant action are not washed away by the successes of what happened. Truman was a little more hard-hearted about the matter. This was one of Truman's personality flaws that deviled him all his life.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 7:39:23 AM PST
A visit to the Truman Library should be mandatory for Oliver Stone.
A list of how Truman's decisions affected American history would make about half of David McCullough's book.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 7:44:12 AM PST
Bubba says:
I wonder if Oppenheimer kept the handkerchief, it would have collectors value if it was monogrammed and the present owner could show provenance.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 7:46:54 AM PST
Bubba:

You wrote, "I wonder if Oppenheimer kept the handkerchief, it would have collectors value if it was monogrammed and the present owner could show provenance."

If so, it would have turned up by now on eBay.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 7:49:28 AM PST
Bubba says:
Either eBay or on the Pawn Stars show.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 8:25:59 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 1, 2012 8:27:03 AM PST
Lientje says:
Ronnie Reagan never graduated from high school, but did get into a mediocre college and graduated from
there with mediocre grades. And then went on the be a mediocre actor. And he then went on to darn near ruin our country.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 8:29:14 AM PST
Harry Marks says:
Richard Lord -
"From his background as a prodigy of Kansas City Democratic machine boss Tom Pendergast and his performance in the Senate, one would have expected Truman to turn out to be a Democratic liberal version of Warren G. Harding."

Truman made several comments on this that are relevant. Pendergast asked him to run largely because he had run a roads department (many of them known for cronyism and corruption) with exemplary honesty and effectiveness, according to Truman, and Pendergast "never asked me to do anything dishonest". This is a believable portrait of a poster boy and front man, but he was also a U.S. senator. His prominence which made him a viable option when the two factions could not be reconciled in 1944 was due to the "Truman Committee" which investigated war profiteering, including surprise inspections on the spot. It helped to make the investigative powers of Congress a major player in the age of Big Government being opened up by Social Security and the Cold War.

His re-election in 1948 was a masterpiece, as effective a job of politics as any in American history, including Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (speaking of a relatively obscure "mediocrity" elevated due to deadlock between more established and prominent figures). First he let Hubert Humphrey, the young anti-Communist firebrand from Minnesota, deliver a major speech against racial segregation to the Democratic Convention, leading directly to the walk-out by the Dixiecrats and, one might argue, to the Southern Strategy by which Richard Nixon locked the Republican Party into its current lame status as a prisoner of the counterculture of ignorance (with major assists from the witless Ronald Reagan and the feckless Newt Gingrich). Then, with criticisms of the "Do-Nothing Congress" that Obama might have made use of, he turned an apparently certain defeat into a narrow victory, showing that the Democrats could win without the Solid South and that he had his heart in the moral center of America.

I think Stone may be echoing a common reaction by the left to the removal of Henry Wallace (who came within 82 days of being president), who was definitely more progressive than Truman but, in my opinion, could never have been as effective at seizing the moral high ground and pivoting the momentum of the New Deal into renewal and reform throughout America. He was better as an activist, bringing a mixed-race entourage into the South to be provocative, and beginning the concern for LGBT issues at a time when almost no one else dared to speak about gay issues.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 1, 2012 12:19:29 PM PST
Joe Anthony says:
Harry Marks says: "I think Stone may be echoing a common reaction by the left to the removal of Henry Wallace (who came within 82 days of being president), who was definitely more progressive than Truman but, in my opinion, could never have been as effective at seizing the moral high ground and pivoting the momentum of the New Deal into renewal and reform throughout America. He was better as an activist, bringing a mixed-race entourage into the South to be provocative, and beginning the concern for LGBT issues at a time when almost no one else dared to speak about gay issues."

I say:

I think that I remember reading somewhere that when Henry Wallace ran for president in 1948 as a Progressive (against Truman [Democrat], Thomas Dewey [Republican] and Strom Thurmond [States' Rights]) that there was a group called "Bachelors for Wallace" that was probably the first time in American history that any kind of political activism on behalf of gay rights had taken place; albeit at the time, it was a movement that was cloaked in euphemistic language. I'm not even sure if Wallace was even aware of the true nature of "Bachelors for Wallace"; as it all sounds rather incredible given the year was 1948, a full twenty years or so before Stonewall.

Posted on Dec 1, 2012 12:36:54 PM PST
IGS says:
When I was a child, I had a history teacher who thought that historical judgment was too near, but he thought that the greatest American Presidents (being those who affected the nation most greatly) were, in no particular order, Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and FDR. But he mentioned a few near greats and Harry, Wilson, Jefferson, and a few others. He was a socialist but he tried to be fair. I think that on balance, Harry was just plain Harry and in his spot he did a great, if not brilliant job. Likely better than I would.

Posted on Dec 1, 2012 12:43:15 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 1, 2012 1:00:33 PM PST
DarthRad says:
A key part of "Who was Harry Truman?" that hasn't been mentioned yet was his Truman Committee.

Truman had been relegated to the back benches of the Senate and was widely disregarded as a product of the corrupt Missouri Democratic machine of Tom Pendergast.

As the US war industry started to ramp up for WWII, Truman started getting complaints from ordinary Americans about how corruption was ruining the war effort. He took it upon himself to personally investigate, travelling around the country. This became the Truman Committee:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truman_Committee

This was a bipartisan committee that rooted out corruption at the highest levels and saved the country billions of dollars and put a number of corrupt businessmen, politicians, and generals in jail. It made Truman famous, and, despite his origins as the lackey of a corrupt machine-boss politician, solidified Truman's personal reputation for honesty.

Of note, the Committed started BEFORE WWII started for the U.S. Which just goes to show you how America was already preparing for war.

Truman's knowledge of the defense industry that sprang up as a result of WWII also made him seem like somebody capable of running the country during a time of war.

So, it was the KEY to getting Truman nominated as vice-president in 1944.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 2, 2012 4:56:10 PM PST
patrick says:
Does Eisenhower really able to claim credit for finally bringing the war to a conclusion, or had it not simply run its course of hopeless stalemate and finally everyone involved wanted an end to it, seeing as it could apparently not be won without significant broadening/escalation?
The North Koreans couldnt go on walking out of talks over the colour of the chairs forever?

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 2, 2012 5:00:21 PM PST
patrick says:
Im not sure what he thinks about it...all I recall is Donald Sutherland in a trench coat sitting on a park bench sprouting nudge-grin-wink conspiracy innuendos about "look who benefits", and Stone making alot of money off that..

Interesting thread, examining someone like Truman, but no it shouldnt begin and end with Oliver Stone.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 6:19:13 AM PST
Read Truman

or see Truman [VHS]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 7:39:44 AM PST
DarthRad wrote: <<As the US war industry started to ramp up for WWII, Truman started getting complaints from ordinary Americans about how corruption was ruining the war effort. He took it upon himself to personally investigate, travelling around the country. This became the Truman Committee:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truman_Committee>>

There is a scene in Truman [VHS] of a committee hearing where Gary Sinise (Truman) tells a defense company executive something like: "Jesse James had to get up at 3AM in order to steal a few thousand dollars from the railroads. You are able to steal millions from the comfort of your corporate offices."

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 8:53:27 AM PST
John M. Lane says:
I'm not a big fan of Harry Truman's, but Oliver Stone's negative critique of him strikes me as unfair. Some of Truman's harshest critics came from the hard left, like self-professed Stalinist, Howard K. Zinn, whose hatred of Truman stemmed from his national security programs. Truman considered Communist subversion to be a major threat and instituted a number of programs to expose them and mitigate the threat they posed.

Communists and their fellow travelers on the extreme left responded with a visceral hatred of Truman which continues to this day. Indeed, it may be an underlying cause of Stone's harsh treatment of Truman.
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Discussion in:  History forum
Participants:  23
Total posts:  55
Initial post:  Nov 30, 2012
Latest post:  Jan 2, 2013

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