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Maybe Truman wasn't that accidental after all

HISTORY

The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World

By A. J. Baime

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

430 pages, $30

If Harry S. Truman was an “accidental president,” then maybe what this nation needs are a few more strategic accidents.

The term “accidental president,” on which historian A. J. Baime constructs his latest book, is open to broad interpretation. But more on that issue – its historical accuracy and its relevance – later.

To historians, a past president’s “stock” is forever in flux. Iconic presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Andrew Jackson have had their “stock,” their presidential reputations, rise and fall in volatile waves of swinging generational aspirations and morals.

Harry Truman’s “stock” has enjoyed a perpetual bull market for 20 years and it shows no sign of leveling off.

Baime, a freelance journalist, historian and fluid writer, who specializes in the mid-20th century, not only captures Truman’s rise in popularity, but further analyzes why this unimposing senator from the nation’s heartland has so captured the imaginations of two generations.

This is not another Truman biography. There already are many, notably David McCullough’s seminal 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning work. Baime zeroes in on the four months from Franklin Roosevelt’s death, the day Truman became president, to the end of World War II, from April 12, 1945, to Aug. 14 of that same momentous year.

During that span, the unpretentious senator from Missouri produced a mountain of achievements so tall as to make the bogus 100-day claims of the current White House not only ludicrous but ignorantly uninformed.

Truman recalled just two face-to-face meetings with Roosevelt in his 83 days as vice president. But beginning with the afternoon of April 12, Baime describes in exciting and highly charged prose four months of unrelenting activity that left everyone around the new president in awe of his energy.

Besides being inaugurated, Truman learned of the secret scientific experiment at Los Alamos that some thought would change the world; he met with key senators to plot strategy; agreed to address a joint session of Congress in three days, and arranged a meeting with the No. 2 Soviet leader. That was Truman’s first afternoon and evening as president.

His address before Congress, seeking their help and guidance, brought cheers from both sides of the aisle. He had just learned of the secret war room in the White House basement. His first news conference before 348 reporters and photographers brought a surprise: He answered the questions, straight out, without hesitation or obfuscation.

He sent a strong rebuke to Josef Stalin, who was morphing rapidly from ally into adversary. He learned in his first talk with Winston Churchill that Europe was on the brink of starvation. He reacted to word that a powerful leader of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party was floating peace overtures.

Then in swift succession, he was briefed on the atomic bomb (several generals assured him it would fizzle), addressed the opening session of the new United Nations in San Francisco, and learned the Americans and Soviets had met at the Elbe River, portending the end of the Third Reich.

There was the Potsdam summit, chaired by Truman, the successful test of “Trinity” in the desert of New Mexico, the Potsdam Declaration urging Japan to surrender before it was destroyed, and Truman’s 10-point postwar plan for Europe which would lay the groundwork for the Truman Doctrine and shape U.S.-European relations for decades.

There were massive domestic problems: planning for the invasion of the Japanese mainland; the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the surrender of Japan to Gen. Douglas MacArthur; the Soviet intrusion into Asia; and throughout it all, the problem of his beloved wife Bess who loathed Washington, the spotlight and the idea of her husband being president. In addition, White House plumbing didn’t work.

At one point, Truman wrote to Bess: “Being president is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.”

Yet none of this explains Harry Truman’s 87 percent national approval rating. To understand that, Baime delves deeper into the man.

Truman was humble. When 100,000 cheered him wildly at an outdoor event, his characteristic assessment was: “They were cheering the office [of the President], not the man.”

As president, he accepted responsibility, but not credit, for the actions of the nation’s executive branch. “The Buck Stops Here” placard on his desk was more than a motto. He once wrote: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Now, back to the issue of the “accidental president.”

To the purist, the term refers to a president who never was elected, such as Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson or Gerald Ford.

More recently, “accidental president” has been expanded to include presidents who eventually were elected to terms of their own – some accomplishing great things – but men who were not eyed as presidential successors when chosen. That includes Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and maybe even Lyndon Johnson.

Truman doesn’t fit either definition. When Franklin Roosevelt sought re-election in 1944, those close to him were aware FDR was unlikely to complete his fourth term even though he was only 62 years old.

Harry Truman was seen as a compromise candidate. Party regulars recognized Vice President Henry Wallace was not up to succeeding Roosevelt. And FDR, in his usual way, had told at least three men they had his backing for vice president. Officially, he left it up to the ’44 Democratic Convention in Chicago to choose the nominee.

But unbeknownst to the American public, or even most convention delegates, the party leaders had chosen Truman to be, for all intents and purposes, the next president. Many have said it, but Truman meant it when he insisted he did not want to be president. He later writes of being terrified at the very thought.

It is known today that Truman had just informed party leaders in a convention hall back room, most likely filled with the proverbial smoke, that he would not accept the nomination when Roosevelt was summoned by phone, and ordered him “as your commander in chief to take the nomination.”

Truman’s response, spoken like a true former Army captain, was: “Yes sir.  If that’s what you want, that’s what I’ll do.”

Baime never wavers on this point: To Truman, duty to his country was paramount.

So in a devilish sort of way, Baime, without ever writing it, challenges his readers – almost begs them – to disagree with his title and to conclude that his “Accidental President” was, in fact, no accident at all.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor. 

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