A.J. Baime, American history, biographies, book reviews, Harry Truman, presidential biographies, Presidents
Published in 2017, “The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World” is the fourth of A.J. Baime’s five books. His more recent “Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul” was published in 2020. Baime is also an automotive journalist/enthusiast and frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal.
Baime quickly confesses this is not intended as a full-length biography of Truman but, rather, as “an intimate biographical portrait of Truman” during his early presidency. He goes so far as to postulate that the first four months of Truman’s presidency rank as “the most challenging and action-packed” of any four-month period in American history. Hyperbole apparently unintended.
Unsurprisingly, most of the book’s 360-page narrative concerns the early months of Truman’s presidency – as the war in Europe ended and he authorized the use of atomic weapons over Japan. Despite the book’s focus, however, readers unfamiliar with Truman’s life will find a surprisingly comprehensive review of his pre-presidency. But while these nine chapters are too brief to replace a traditional exploration of Truman’s early life, they will prove unnecessary – and somewhat uninspired – to many readers.
There are numerous stretches which will appeal to a wide audience. Baime’s review of Truman’s daily schedule as president is quite interesting as is his discussion of the Trinity nuclear test. And the author’s description of the B-29 air raids over Tokyo is engrossing. Finally, this book observes numerous interactions between the president and his colleagues or advisers which add useful incremental color to the conventional portrait of Truman.
But one overarching issue pervades this text: “The Accidental President” always seems to be a book in search of a cause. While it is clear Baime did not intend to produce a cradle-to-grave biography of Truman’s life, it is never entirely clear what he really did intend to create.
Despite his provocative contention of a historically challenging early Truman presidency, Baime never makes an effort to prove his claim. Inexplicably, he never even attempts to compare the challenges (or pace) of Truman’s first four months to FDR’s…or to Lincoln’s. Instead, he simply deposits a spectacular assertion as a rationale for the book before proceeding to narrate interesting but well-trod history, seemingly devoid of meaningful revelations.
Writing an “intimate biographical portrait” also suggests conveying deep personal insights and interpersonal connections. But here, too, the book falls short. This is interesting condensed history and not a character study. Readers expecting to walk away with a thorough understanding of Truman’s psyche or a robust familiarity with his most meaningful personal relationships will be sorely disappointed. Instead of diving deeply on anything (or anyone), most of the book reads like a drive-by shooting; history is observed…but never seriously analyzed or explored.
Overall, A. J. Baime’s “The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World” is a serviceable but unexceptional review of Truman’s life up through the early months of his presidency. Readers unfamiliar with his life and legacy are likely to find this book generally interesting and insightful. But as a meaningful review of Truman’s life or legacy, or as a purposeful study of the possibly historic nature of his early presidency, the book proves disappointing.
Overall Rating: 3 stars
chris price said:
Steve, with your encyclopedic knowledge of the presidents and your even-handed analysis, it would be of great interest to me and I’m sure many others if you would produce your own ranking of our nation’s presidents. Thanks
Deb Bowers said:
Thank you for this insightful review, it provides an apparently necessary preface!
Ash Jogalekar said:
Thanks for this insightful review. I was intrigued by Baime’s book, but given your review will pass, especially since I have already read McCullough’s magisterial “Truman”.
If you hadn’t already read “Truman” you might get through Baime’s book in reasonable shape. But, having read McCullough’s masterpiece you would likely read this one and feel as though your time could have been better spent…!
I found a copy of this book in a used book store and never got around to reading it. Put it up on eBay for a couple bucks just to see if anyone else would be interested and got a Buy It Now offer for $40 within a couple hours. Surprised, I sold it. But then I figured, “man, if they wanted it so badly maybe I should have read it after all!”
Glad to see Steve has finished this one and wasn’t overly enthused with it. By the time I get to Truman I’ll read this before McCullough’s… if I read this one at all. Thanks!
I actually liked this book. I read McCullough biography years ago, and I thought this book painted a great portrait of a challenging, unstable time in American history.