New Truman bio offers balanced perspective on his presidency


ROBERT A. COHN , Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In his superbly written new biography, “The Trials of Harry S. Truman,” Jeffrey Frank, a Presidential historian, avoids both adulation and harsh judgment of the Man from Missouri.

For admirers and skeptics of HST, Frank, who previously wrote about Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, presents a rigorously researched description of the man who took over the presidency on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945.  After taking the oath, the “pale and shaken” Truman asked White House correspondents to “pray for me” stating that he felt like, “the sun and moon and all the planets had crashed down on me.”

Frank recounts how Truman, who earned his political chops in the Kansas City machine controlled by boss Thomas Pendergast, had overnight gained the presidency from FDR, who only months before had won a fourth term.  Truman has been described as “a child on a toboggan sled,” having had only one or two conversations with Roosevelt before being thrust into the presidency.

In addition to his background as a product of the Pendergast machine, Truman partnered with his World War I buddy Eddie Jacobson in a Kansas City haberdashery, which went bankrupt.  Jacobson would later play a crucial role in Truman’s decision to promptly recognize the Jewish state of Israel despite severe pushback from his own Secretary of State, George C. Marshall.

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Harry S. Truman

Truman did not have a college degree but was a self-taught student of history.  He was fated to bring World War II to a successful conclusion; his momentous decisions included dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, entering the Korean War and firing the immensely popular General Douglas MacArthur as Commander of the United Nations in Korea.

Frank’s excellent new book should be read in tandem with the magisterial Pulitzer Prize winning 2003 biography “Truman” by David McCullough.  Both McCullough and Frank agree on most of the crucial events of Truman’s career – including the role that Truman’s one-time business partner Jacobson played in getting a reluctant HST to agree to one last meeting with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader who would soon become the first president of the Jewish state in 1949.

Truman, whose job approval rating had fallen to 36%, was widely expected in 1948 to lose to Republican candidate Thomas Dewey of New York.  The scrappy Truman traveled the nation by train giving his opponents “hell.”  When all the votes were counted a smiling Harry S. Truman held aloft a front page of the Chicago Tribune with the premature headline: “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

The Man from Missouri, whose career is splendidly chronicled in Frank’s riveting new book, never gave up on himself.  Truman, who had been derided as the “Accidental President,” is now ranked by historians in the top-tier among his fellow past presidents.