Preludes Of the eighteen twentieth-century American presidents, beginning with William McKinley and ending with Bill Clinton, only four currently have claims on great or near- great leadership: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.
Perhaps in time Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton may join this elite group, but at this juncture such a judgment is premature.
On the face of things, Truman’s high standing is surprising. Unlike the two Roosevelts and Wilson—whom nobody would describe by background and education as common men—Truman was notable for his ordinariness. How he rose above the commonplace to become so extraordinary makes Truman’s life and career a compelling puzzle. This is not to suggest that either of the Roosevelts or Wilson had easy, uninterrupted trajectories toward greatness. All three had their disappointments and public stumbles. But Truman’s erratic course toward distinction was more pronounced, with deeper valleys and less spectacular peaks, except for his stunning upset election victory in 1948.
Truman was entirely mindful of how much his advance toward greatness rested on circumstances beyond his control. "We can never tell what is in store for us," he declared. It was his way of saying that chance had a major—maybe the largest—role in shaping his fortunes, for good and ill. "Most men don’t aspire to the presidency," he said after leaving the White House. "It comes to them by accident."1
Yet however much he saw uncontrollable circumstances shaping the lives of great men, he never accepted that external events alone would dictate his fate. Like so many of his predecessors in the White House, Harry Truman was a driven man. "An insatiable demand for recognition," one of his biographers observes, was a dominant feature of his rise to prominence.2 He was confident that personal ambition could make a difference in every life. Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who saw "a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune," Truman took "the current when it serve[d]." He shared a conviction with millions of other Americans that self-fulfillment was a noble calling, the Horatio Alger belief in success through good character and hard work bolstered by good fortune. As the novelist Thomas Wolfe put it, "To every man his chance—to every man, regardless of his birth . . . to become what ever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him—this seeker, is the promise of America."3 Truman’s biography gives credence to Wolfe’s conviction.
Harry Truman’s path to the country’s highest elected office was never linear. Enough setbacks marked his prepresidential career to have tested the character of the most resilient of men, and perhaps encourage a belief in miracles.
Born on May 8, 1884, Truman spent his first six years on southern Missouri farms, where he had memories of a comfortable and even "wonderful" life typical of many other nineteenth- century, largely self-sufficient farm families. In 1890, the Trumans moved to Independence, a town of six thousand people ten miles southeast of Kansas City. Although it was a rough frontier center with no public utilities or paved streets, Independence had public schools at which Harry and a younger brother and sister could receive schooling unavailable in their more isolated farm community.4
When Harry graduated from high school in 1901, he wanted to attend the United States Military Academy, but poor eyesight, which required him to wear glasses with thick lenses, barred him from West Point. That year, when Harry’s father, John Truman, a commodity- livestock trader and speculator, began suffering a series of losses that bankrupted the family, Truman’s possible interest in higher education fell victim to his family’s economic needs. He went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad as a payroll clerk and then as a bank clerk in Kansas City until 1906, when his father, who had resumed farming, pressed his son into giving up his ample $100-a-month job to join him in running the family farm. For the next eleven years, Truman worked long days, through good times and bad, planting and harvesting crops, raising and selling livestock.
During this time, he also maintained a long- standing interest in reading biography and military and political history. "I saw that it takes men to make history or that there would be no history," he wrote in his postpresidential Memoirs.5 He gave expression to his fascination with the military by joining a local National Guard artillery unit in 1905, serving in its summer encampments and attending its drill sessions on and off until 1911. After two tours of duty, however, the demands of the farm decided him against a third three- year enlistment.
In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Truman reenlisted in his National Guard battery unit. It was entirely voluntary; at thirty- three, he was past draft age. But President Wilson’s call to arms appealed to his belief in a larger good: "I felt that I was a Galahad after the Grail," he wrote in an autobiography.6 But more than patriotic idealism motivated him; he could have just as easily served the cause by staying on the farm to help supply food to America’s allies. More to the point, Truman had hopes of using military service as a launching pad for a political career. The competition for office and chance to gain distinction through public service fascinated him. "If I were real rich," he wrote in a letter to Elizabeth (Bess) Wallace, his future wife, "I’d just as soon spend my money buying votes and offices as yachts and autos." And yet he was under no illusions; as he told Bess in the same letter, "To succeed politically, [a man] must be an egoist or a fool or a ward boss tool."7 His father had introduced him to local and national politics as a teenager. In 1900, when he was sixteen, they attended the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City, where the party made William Jennings Bryan its presidential nominee for the second time.8 Truman remembered running errands for a local leader during the convention, which took place in a "great hall" holding seventeen thousand delegates and onlookers, who responded to Bryan’s nominating speech with a boisterous half-hour demonstration. In subsequent years, Truman involved himself in local Democratic Party politics, winning appointments as a town postmaster and as a road overseer, responsible for the maintenance of county highways. By 1917, he understood that war time military ser vice could be of benefit not only to the country but also to someone with aspirations for elected office.
Despite having been out of his Guard unit for six years, Truman still had close ties to many of his fellow soldiers. These friendships, combined with a genial temperament that greatly appealed to most everyone who knew him, led to his election as a first lieutenant. (The Missouri state guard, reflecting a long-standing antagonism to a military dominated by professional soldiers, chose its own officers.) "Because of my efforts to get along with my associates," Truman recalled, "I was usually able to get what I wanted."9 During training exercises near Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he demonstrated keen leadership abilities that soon won him a promotion to captain.
In France, he acquitted himself beyond his highest hopes. After being given command of the least disciplined battery in his regiment—one that had already blighted the careers of two officers— Truman quickly won the respect of his men with a combination of toughness and fairness. At the same time, despite the challenge of mastering the French 75- millimeter cannon, which required math and engineering classes well above anything he had studied in high school, he developed the necessary skills to become an effective artillery officer. At the end of seven weeks in combat, his battery had suffered only one dead and one wounded, and he received a commendation from his division’s commanding general for his battlefield performance.10
In May 1919, after he was mustered out of the army, his highest priorities were to marry Bess Wallace, which he did in June, and give up farming for a business enterprise that could provide a comfortable living as a prelude to winning an elected office. Within days of leaving the army, he and Eddie Jacobson, an army buddy also from Kansas City, laid plans to open a haberdashery shop in a choice downtown locale. Unfortunately, a postwar recession beginning in 1920 doomed their venture and left them with considerable debts.11
But Truman was not dissuaded from running for county office. He saw the path to a successful election through establishing the widest possible contacts and tying himself to Kansas City’s power brokers, the political machine run by Tom Pendergast and his family.12 Like President Warren G. Harding, who had begun his career in Ohio politics as a "joiner" of numerous fraternal organizations, Truman became an active member of several civic, ser vice, and veterans’ associations, including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He saw his participation in these groups as essential for business success and as a means to win support from influential leaders for his candidacy.13
In 1922, as a veteran with ties to influential business and social leaders in Kansas City and Independence, Truman impressed the Pendergasts as someone who could win the eastern district judgeship of Jackson County. Along with a western district judge and a presiding judge or chairman, the three officials administered the county’s affairs. The judgeships were irresistible prizes for a political machine: they controlled numerous patronage jobs as well as the power to assign contracts, particularly for the repair and maintenance of county roads. Truman won his first election by 279 votes out of nearly 12,000 cast for him and three opponents.
Truman’s two- year term was a rude introduction to the uncertainties of a political life.14
Although he and his fellow judges managed nearly to halve the county’s debt of $1.2 million and won praise from the local press for having improved the quality of the county’s roads by rigorous insistence on proper maintenance, Truman nonetheless lost his reelection bid in 1924. Despite a successful primary campaign, which he won by sixteen hundred votes—over 56 percent of the total count—he could not withstand a national and local Republican onslaught in November. With Calvin Coolidge winning handily over John W. Davis at the national level and some Jackson County Democrats, alienated by Pendergast’s refusal to give them a fuller share of county spoils, abandoning their party, Truman lost to his Republican opponent by a five- point margin, 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent.15
But he would spend only a short time in the political wilderness. During the two years before he could run again, he sold memberships in the Kansas City Automobile Club, emphasizing his knowledge of road hazards as reasons for folks to insure themselves against highway breakdowns. While making enough of a living from his effectiveness as a salesman, his investments in two failed bank enterprises convinced him that however uncertain running for political office might be, it was a more reliable career for a middle- aged man with no record of consistent success at anything, except for his two-year army service.
With the Pendergasts outmaneuvering their Democratic Party opponents in 1925 to ensure that they would be "the boss of bosses in Kansas City politics" for the foreseeable future, Truman’s ties to the machine ensured his return to office in 1926. This time he ran for presiding judge, and he won a convincing victory in the November general election, with 56 percent of the vote.16
Harry Truman’s eight years as presiding judge of Jackson County was an exercise in compromised ethics, in the ser vice of his personal ambition and the larger good. Truman turned a blind eye to the voracious appetite of the Pendergast machine for public offices that netted its bosses financial returns equal to the earnings of the area’s most successful businessmen. "I wonder if I did the right thing to put a lot of no account sons of bitches on the payroll and pay other sons of bitches more money for supplies than they were worth in order to satisfy the political powers and save [the county] $3,500,000," he confided to a private record he made of his tenure.17
Although he had numerous second thoughts about staying on the job and suffered hidden emotional strains over having to deal with the corruption that was a fixture of Kansas City politics, he rationalized his continuing presence as presiding judge by devoting himself to the effective deliverance of public ser vices: good roads, well- regarded public schools, a county hospital providing up-to-date medical care, humane treatment of indigents, and proper law enforcement by the police and the courts—all provided without budgetary overruns requiring higher taxes. He took satisfaction in maintaining his own integrity, never skimming money from the many contracts he negotiated, and the plea sure of helping people who could not help themselves. This was especially the case with the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, when city and county unemployment reached historic heights and the jobless relied on local government for make- work and charity to feed and clothe them. He thought of himself as a practical idealist, who was making the best of an imperfect world.
After two terms as presiding judge, however, it was accepted practice for him to move on. He wanted to run for governor of Missouri, especially after the machine’s candidate died suddenly in October 1932, just a month before the election. But Tom Pendergast, the machine’s boss, vetoed the suggestion, telling Harry that in two years he could run for Congress or the county collector’s job, which paid $10,000 a year.
It was another low moment in Truman’s political career. He advised a nephew to shun politics for banking or some other commercial enterprise, cynically declaring that an elected office taught you nothing and left the incumbent vulnerable to changing political circumstances. When Harry asked Tom Pendergast in early 1934 to fulfill his promise and support him in a congressional campaign,Pendergast explained that someone else had already been selected for the seat. By April, as Truman approached the age of .fifty, the only thing he thought he could look forward to was "a virtual pension in some minor county of.ce."18
But in May 1934 came an extraordinary and unpredictable turn of fate. With Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal riding a popular political wave, the Democrats’ chances of defeating the incumbent Republican U.S. senator Roscoe C. Patterson seemed better than good. A leading contender for the nomination was Jacob (Tuck) Milligan, a six- term congressman and an ally of Senator Bennett C. Clark, Tom Pendergast’s rival for control of Missouri party politics.
Pendergast gave substantial thought to who should carry his banner in this crucial statewide contest, which could have large consequences for his machine. Pendergast approached four party stalwarts to run—retired U.S. senator Jim Reed, Congressman Joe Shannon, Kansas City attorney Charles Howell (who had lost a Democratic primary bid for a Senate seat to Clark in 1932), and Jim Aylward, the Democratic Party state chairman. None of them wanted to do it.
That left Harry Truman; his eight successful years as Jackson County’s presiding judge and his substantial contacts in both the rural and urban areas of the state made him a reasonable alternative. Although Truman doubted that he could find the money for an effective campaign and suggested that he wait to run for governor in 1936, Pendergast refused to take no for an answer. He needed Truman to run, and he would supply the money. Truman’s objections concealed a sense of exhilaration at having "come to the place where all men strive to be at my age."19
The three-month campaign leading up to the primary vote on August 7 pitted Truman against not only Milligan but also Congress - man Jack Cochran from St. Louis, who represented the interests of that city’s political machine. The smart money was betting on Cochran, but Milligan’s competition for St. Louis and rural votes reduced the odds in Cochran’s favor.
The three candidates tried to outdo one another in identifying themselves with a popular president and with New Deal programs that sought to provide economic relief and hope for a swift end to the Depression. Since neither Milligan nor Cochran could best Truman in their claims to be Roosevelt’s strongest supporter, they attacked him for his ties to Pendergast and for being his stooge. But what ever doubts they raised about him with voters, it was Truman’s affiliation with the machine and its statewide support from men and women who had been the beneficiaries of the organization’s largesse that served his campaign best. His own contacts with officials in Missouri’s 113 other counties, built up over his eight years of ser vice as Jackson County presiding judge, was a decisive element in helping him win votes across the state.
It was a nasty campaign that descended into ugly name- calling. Senator Clark attacked Truman for his "mendacity and imbecility," while Truman accused Milligan of putting relatives on his congressional payroll and charged Clark with having won his Senate seat by trading on the reputation of his father, Champ Clark, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives. Bennett Clark’s performance in office, Truman declared, demonstrated that there was not much to be said for inherited talent. Tom Pendergast weighed in with press leaks about Bennett Clark paying him a visit at his office in Kansas City to discuss politics, suggesting that Clark was not above seeking an arrangement with his machine.20 The final tally on August 7 gave Truman a 40,000- vote plurality over Cochran and 129,000 more votes than Milligan, who ran third. Of Truman’s 276,850 votes, 137,529, almost half of his total, came from Jackson County, where Cochran received only 1,525 votes. Similarly, Truman won the backing of only 4,614 St. Louis voters.
Riding the Roosevelt wave in the November election, Truman bested Senator Patterson by more than 250,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast. Even so, Truman saw his primary and general election victories as little more than good timing that might not replicate themselves six years later. "It’ll be safer to rent than to buy, of course," he told a reporter about his search for living quarters in Washington, D.C.21 However pleased he was at becoming one of ninety- six senators in a country of 130 million people, he had not lost sight of how uncertain the career of any elected official could be and the challenges he faced in the nation’s capital. "I was timid as a country boy arriving on the campus of a great university for his first year," he recalled in his Memoirs.22 The New York Times was less charitable; it described the new senator from Missouri as "a rube from Pendergast land."23
At the outset, Truman struggled with self- doubt about his worthiness for the office. But advice from the veteran senator J. Hamilton Lewis of Illinois helped ease his concern: "Harry, don’t start out with an inferiority complex," Lewis told him. "For the first six months you’ll wonder how the hell you got here, and after that you’ll wonder how the hell the rest of us got here."24 In time, Truman saw the truth of Lewis’s point. Though there were some senators he held in high regard, he came to feel that he was no less qualified to hold his seat than most of his colleagues.
Nevertheless, neither circumstances nor his performance in office marked him out as a distinguished senator during his first years on Capitol Hill.25 When Truman arrived in January 1935, the Democrats held sixty- nine of the ninety- six Senate seats, a majority that grew to seventy- one to twenty-five after Roosevelt’s landslide reelection in 1936. Such large majorities diminished Truman’s importance to the White House, which saw little need to court a freshman senator who seemed likely to vote with the president without much stroking or prodding. And in fact Truman needed few inducements to follow the president’s lead, so sympathetic was he to Roosevelt’s legislative initiatives.
By contrast, Bennett Clark, who was a less certain supporter, received far more White House attention and backing for patronage requests than Truman. A Kansas City journalist described Truman sitting "in the back row of the top- heavy Democratic side of the Senate at every session, listening, absorbing, learning. . . . His is the conventional way. He ruffles no oldsters’ feathers, treads on no toes."26 He followed House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s famous advice to all new comers—to get along, go along.
Truman’s appointment to the Interstate Commerce Committee gave him the opportunity to chair a subcommittee investigating railroads, which struggled during the Depression against financial collapse. Popular antagonism to big business in the thirties fueled Truman’s committee hearings, which concluded that exploitative Wall Street bankers and lawyers were fostering the railroad’s problems. Truman led efforts to pass regulatory legislation that would make the railroads less vulnerable to "wasteful and destructive competition." But conflicts between labor and business interests blocked passage of a bill that Truman had made the major legislative effort of his term.27
Normally, a one- term senator of a majority party running on the same ticket with a popular president would be the odds- on favorite for reelection. But this was not the case for Harry Truman in 1940. After six years in the Senate, he had no significant legislative initiative to his credit, and his close identity with Tom Pendergast in 1940 was now a major liability.
In 1939, Pendergast had been convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison for fifteen months. Although the IRS and Justice Department, with overt White House support, had brought Pendergast down, Truman refused to abandon his ally, who had done so much to facilitate his political career. To the contrary, he stubbornly defended Pendergast, publicly attacking his prosecution as a witch hunt by Republican judges out to undermine Jackson County’s Democratic organization. With the Roosevelt administration so actively involved in Pendergast’s demise, however, it made Truman look like an uncritical partisan turning a blind eye to his mentor’s corruption. He considered not running again in 1940, but when he decided to do it anyway, he told Bess, "The terrible things done by the high ups in K.C. will be a lead weight on me from now on."28
With FDR offering no support and the Missouri press opposing him, Truman understood that, despite his incumbency, he was the underdog in the primary against a popular Missouri governor, Lloyd Stark. Truman was "a dead cock in the pit," declared Missouri’s leading newspaper, the St. Louis Post Dispatch.29 But Truman pulled off a minor miracle. His outspoken backing of the New Deal, his strong support of military preparedness in a time of international danger, and Stark’s failings as a candidate—his self- importance and simultaneous attempt to win the vice presidential nomination—gave Truman an 8,000- vote margin out of 665,000 ballots cast. In November, Missouri gave Roosevelt its electoral support for a third time and returned Truman to the Senate, though this time with only 51 percent of the statewide vote.30
As had been the case so often in Truman’s life, fate or circumstances intervened after 1940 to change his fortunes. American involvement in the war lifted him to a prominence no one could have anticipated. Even before the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941 that brought America into the fighting, Truman had found a public cause that set him apart from his Senate colleagues. With industrial mobilization spurred by Roosevelt’s announced determination in December 1940 to make America "the arsenal of democracy," Truman seized on allegations of waste and fraud by defense contractors to begin an investigation. He was now the chairman of a Military Affairs subcommittee, and in that role he sought to reduce profiteering and make the national arms build up less costly and more effective.
In January 1941, after traveling to a number of military facilities and defense plants in the South and the Midwest, where he personally saw waste and profiteering that cried out for correction, he proposed to lead a formal investigation. Although the White House was not keen on a congressional probe that might slow down its preparedness efforts, Roosevelt signed on to Truman’s proposal as a way to head off an investigation by a less friendly House committee.
Nearly every member of Truman’s seven-member committee—five Democrats and two Republicans—was a relatively unknown senator. (The exception was Tom Connally, a popular senator from Texas.) Their hearings helped to change this. In the spring of 1941, they visited army bases, where they made news by describing the excess costs of industrial mobilization and the need for ongoing scrutiny to improve the process. By the fall, the committee’s success in unearthing waste and winning headlines produced a larger budget and the addition of three more senators, one Democrat and two Republicans, who saw committee membership as both a national service and a political advantage.
The Truman Committee’s evenhanded criticism of the military, industry, labor, and the administration’s Office of Production Management (OPM) gave it compelling influence with the Congress, the White House, the press, and the public. It forced the president to replace a sprawling OPM with a War Production Board under a single director who could streamline the allocation of raw materials, the granting of contracts, and the buildup of armaments that could supply the war machines of America and its allies.
Between 1942 and 1944, the Truman Committee held hundreds of hearings and issued dozens of reports that won almost unanimous praise from the press and the public for saving billions of dollars and advancing the war effort. Time put Harry Truman’s picture on the cover of the magazine and called his committee’s work America’s "first line of defense." A poll of journalists about the ten most important contributors to the war effort in Washington included Truman, the only member of Congress to win such an accolade. Others described the committee’s work as "the most successful congressional investigative effort in American history." If, according to Truman’s biographer Alonzo Hamby, the committee’s work wasn’t quite as productive or important as many at the time thought, its success came from its ability to reflect patriotic national sentiment about winning the war and putting checks on big business, labor unions, and government bureaucracies.31
In 1944, as the presidential election campaign began and rumors abounded about whether Roosevelt would retain Vice President Henry Wallace, Harry Truman’s meteoric rise put his name on everybody’s short list for the second spot on the ticket. It wasn’t simply luck that had brought Truman to this moment, however. His determination to chair an investigative committee on national defense rested on an eagerness not only to serve the country but also to put himself on a par with earlier Senate giants who commanded an enduring place in the country’s history. That he was now projected into the mix of vice presidential possibilities was nothing he foresaw, but he welcomed the attention as a demonstration that he had established himself as much more than the senator from Pendergast.
Truman’s nomination for the vice presidency in 1944 is one of those political events shrouded in mystery that will never be entirely unraveled. "The President never . . . pursued a more Byzantine course than in his handling of this question," Roosevelt’s biographer James MacGregor Burns says.32
By the beginning of that year, it was clear that Vice President Wallace was a divisive force in the Democratic Party. His identication with ultraliberals who favored expanding the New Deal at the first opportunity did not sit well with party conservatives, chiefly southerners. They opposed any additional expansion of federal authority at the expense of the states and localities, which they feared could mean an assault on the traditional segregation of the races. And even in the North, many were inclined to inhibit further growth of federal bureaucracies and labor unions after the war was won, making them unsympathetic to retaining Wallace, who would be in line to succeed an unhealthy president, whether or not he survived a fourth term.
Wallace had the additional problem of being a bit strange—a man, the journalist Allen Drury said, who "looks like a hayseed, talks like a prophet, and acts like an embarrassed schoolboy."33 Or, as Truman’s biographer David McCullough put it, "Wallace was too intellectual, a mystic who spoke Russian. . . . He was too remote, too controversial, too liberal—much too liberal, which was the main charge against him."34
Roosevelt, who refused to give an unequivocal endorsement to any candidate, which could alienate one or another faction within the party, encouraged several people, including Wallace, to think he would back them for the vice presidency. But Roosevelt demonstrated his intention to dump Wallace by sending him on a fact finding trip to China and Russia in the spring of 1944. It was meant to prevent Wallace from personally pushing his candidacy in the period immediately before the Democratic convention.
Roosevelt played a similar game with James Byrnes, former South Carolina senator and Supreme Court associate justice, who became the director of the Office of War Mobilization in 1943 and was known as the "assistant president." Byrnes had broad national support for his war work and was favored by the conservative wing of the party. Although Roosevelt dropped hints that he preferred Byrnes as his running mate, he was reluctant to elevate someone who was unsympathetic to a number of New Deal measures. To promote interest in a convention that lacked the drama of a presidential nomination fight and maintain backing for himself among all party factions, Roosevelt indicated possible interest in awarding the prize to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Harry Truman, as well as Wallace and Byrnes.
At the end of the day, Roosevelt and the party’s bosses saw Truman as the best alternative. He was a solid New Deal supporter from a border state with ties to conservatives and liberals.
His reputation for honesty and patriotism were unimpeachable. Alongside of Wallace and Byrnes, he was the perfect staunch but moderate Democrat—"the second Missouri compromise," one Wit called him. He was "the mousy little man from Missouri," Time derisively said.35 But did it matter all that much? Truman would be serving in the shadow of a larger- than- life president who, at the end of a fourth term, could anoint anyone he wanted to succeed him. After four years, Harry Truman would likely join the ranks of those many other vice presidents who fell into obscurity and shared Woodrow Wilson’s observation that there is nothing to say about the vice presidency and after you’ve said that, there’s nothing more to say.36
Except for a lunch meeting at the White House in August, Truman had no direct contact with the president during the campaign. Truman traveled the length of the country by train and spoke warmly on Roosevelt’s behalf. Despite attacks on Truman as unit for the presidency, implying that Roosevelt might not make it through another term, the outcome of the election had nothing to do with Truman. It was Roosevelt versus his Republican opponent, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. And although the margin of victory was the smallest of his four elections, Roosevelt won by 3.5 million out of 47 million popular votes, and topped Dewey by four to one in the electoral college, 432 to 99.
In apparent agreement with Wilson, Roosevelt saw Truman alone only twice during the eighty- two days he served as vice president. True, the president was in Washington for only thirty days after his fourth inauguration on January 20, 1945, but during that time he gave no indication that he intended to give Truman any special role. Most telling, Roosevelt never discussed the imminent development of an atomic bomb with his new vice president.37 One journalist, who spent a lot of time with Truman after he became vice president, told another reporter, "Truman doesn’t know what’s going on. Roosevelt won’t tell him anything."38
And this, despite Roosevelt’s failing health. Severe hypertension and congestive heart failure had made it apparent to some people close to the president that his days were numbered. When Lord Mo ran, Winston Churchill’s physician, saw Roosevelt at the Yalta conference in February 1945, he concluded from his ashen appearance, loss of weight, trembling hands, and slow speech that he was suffering from hardening of the arteries of the brain and would not live for more than another few months.39 Roosevelt’s failure to confide in Truman may have indicated that he believed he could survive his fourth term. He made a point of not asking his doctors about his medical condition, which allowed him to deny his physical decline and the need to prepare Truman for a possible succession.
Although Truman understood that the president’s health might be a problem, he was no more prepared for his sudden death than anyone else. When Truman returned a call from the White House late on the afternoon of April 12, 1945, he was told to come over at once. The urgency in White House secretary Steve Early’s voice made Truman uneasy. Though he paled, muttered, "Jesus Christ and General Jackson," and ran through the Capitol to his office and then a waiting car to speed him down Pennsylvania Avenue, he shut out thoughts of disaster by imagining that the president was back in town and simply wanted to discuss some congressional assignment with him.
Ushered up to the president’s quarters, Truman found himself in a room with the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. She delivered the news: "Harry, the president is dead."
When he found his voice, a stunned Truman asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Mrs. Roosevelt replied, "Is there anything we can do for you, Harry? For you are the one in trouble now."40
Truman said later that he felt as if he had "been struck by a bolt of lightning." He told a group of reporters the next day that it was as if "the moon, the stars and the planets had all fallen on me."41
And in a sense they had. A vice president with no national executive experience was now to replace the longest- serving and most revered president since Lincoln, in the midst of a world war. Neither Truman nor anyone else could imagine how he would bring the war to a conclusion and mea sure up to what promised to be daunting postwar challenges at home and abroad.
Excerpted from Harry S. Truman by Robert Dallek
Copyright 2008 by Robert Dallek
Published in 2008 by Publisher H. B. Fenn and Company Ltd
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Robert Dallek is the author of several bestselling presidential histories, including Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power; An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963; and the classic two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant. He has taught at Columbia, Oxford, UCLA, Boston University, and Dartmouth, and has won the Bancroft Prize, among numerous other awards for scholarship and teaching. He lives in Washington, D.C.