Harry Truman has a reputation for being a bit boring. It’s a sentiment I find hard to refute…and yet I found several aspects of his life fascinating.
He possessed no business acumen and almost every venture he attempted failed; he had a reputation for being impeccably honest but was sponsored by a disreputable political boss; and he seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time – on the battlefield and in politics.
You can call me crazy, but in many ways Harry Truman reminds me of a mid-western Calvin Coolidge. The similarities in their lives and personalities are incredibly striking. (But, alas, only Truman was faced with the decision about whether to drop an atomic bomb…)
At the end of his presidency, Truman’s reputation was the poorest of any modern-day president. And yet during the last several decades his legacy has been completely reassessed and Truman is now widely ranked among the top ten presidents in our nation’s history! (I’m sympathetic with the re-evaluation but not sure I would go that far.)
During the past seven weeks I read four biographies of Truman totaling a little more than two thousand pages.
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* “Truman” by David McCullough – This 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic is easily the best-read Truman biography and was reportedly a major catalyst for the 33rd president’s enhanced reputation. As one would expect from McCullough, the narrative is gripping and Truman’s personality comes alive brilliantly. And as the the longest of the Truman biographies (at nearly 1,000 pages) there is little about Truman which does not find a home here. But even ardent fans of this book will admit that McCullough is occasionally too fond of his subject and there could be more hard-hitting analysis. (Full review here)
* “Harry S. Truman: A Life” by Robert Ferrell – this book was published two years after McCullough’s iconic biography and in many ways the two couldn’t be more different. Where McCullough’s is colorful and unfailingly friendly toward its subject, Ferrell’s is carefully dispassionate and analytical. McCullough’s book is enormously engaging while Ferrell’s is wonderfully educational. And while Robert Ferrell’s writing style is not as dynamic as that of history’s greatest storytellers, it is thoughtful, penetrating and deeply enlightening. (Full review here)
* “Harry S. Truman” by Robert Dallek – this 2008 member of the American Presidents Series is by far the shortest of the four Truman biographies I read (with just 153 pages). Biographies in this series are often excellent at what they cover, but are usually forced to leave a great deal of material on the cutting-room floor. This book is no exception. Dallek provides a wonderful synopsis of Truman’s life and a time-starved reader will walk away notably enlightened. But anyone who wants to walk in Truman’s shoes and see the world from his perspective will have to look elsewhere. (Full review here)
* “Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman” by Alonzo Hamby – this 1995 classic was the last of four Truman biographies I read. Written by a noted Truman expert, this biography was scholarly and detached, but extremely analytical and insightful. In many ways it reminded me of Robert Ferrell’s biography…but with even more detail and heft. And Hamby provided what was the best review of Truman’s legacy – something I always appreciate in a presidential biography! (Full review here)
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[Added May 2021]
* I recently read A.J. Baime’s 2017 “The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World.” As its sub-title suggests, this is not a comprehensive biography of Truman. But neither is it exclusively focused on the first four months of his presidency. And although it begins with a bang (a claim that Truman’s first four months were the most challenging and active of any four-month period in American history) the thesis goes inexplicably untested and unproven. Readers new to Truman may find it intriguing, but for most everyone else this will seem a book without a purpose. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Truman: “Truman” by David McCullough
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Several readers have requested I share my thoughts on which supporting characters are interesting enough to warrant a biographical detour. In Truman’s case there are several people who seem particularly compelling:
– George Marshall (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, 5-Star General)
– Douglas MacArthur (5-Star General)
– Dean Acheson (Secretary of State)
– Joseph McCarthy (U.S. Senator, ardent anti-Communist)