I mentioned a short time ago that my parents are committed readers of biography (which makes Christmas and birthday shopping really easy). A couple of years ago I bought them a copy of David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning life of Harry Truman. My mother was particularly taken with the biography and its subject and I’ve since enjoyed hearing her reflections on Truman. I asked her if she would write some reflections and what follows is the result. I loved reading it and hope you will too!
To my great surprise, I have come to heartily respect a New Deal Mason. And who is that? Harry Truman–someone I knew little about until I recently received the Truman biography by David McCullough. I am trying to learn more about American history, specifically the history of the twentieth century, so I took it on willingly. I became fascinated by this man almost immediately. Who doesn’t love to read the obscure beginnings of someone destined for fame, and try to understand the hows and whys of his life?
The golden thread that runs through Truman’s life, from first to last, is that of an honorable, incorruptible character. The tributes paid to his integrity would be unbelievable did they not come from so many people over such a long span of time. Here is a sampling, from everyone from his housemaid to Winston Churchill:
A fellow military officer from World War One said he was, “…one of the cleanest fellows morally that I ever saw or know….he was clean all the way through.”
Vietta Garr, a servant in the Truman home for many years said, “I never heard a squabble the entire time I was with them. I have never seen Mr. Truman angry.”
His long-term secretary said, “Never in all the years I worked for him did I ever see him lose his temper. He was always soft-spoken and very considerate to his staff.”
Winston Churchill called him a “man of exceptional character.”
And, from General Marshall, “The full stature of this man will only be proven by history. … It is not the courage of the decisions that will live, but the integrity of the man.”
When Dean Acheson, his final Secretary of State, asked him to speak at Yale, he said, “it is not what he says but what he is which is important to young men, and gets communicated.”
And, finally, Eric Sevareid looked back on Truman with these words, “…It’s character, just character. He stands like a rock in memory now.”
And where did his noble bent of mind come from? From a mother who was unbending in her desire that he “be good”, and from extensive exposure to historical heroes and to the Bible–which he had read twice by the time he was twelve years old. Truman was by no means a Christian–rather, he was a committed Mason–but he loved the ethics of Scripture and tried his best to live by them. His respect for Scripture, as he understood it, was both deep and sincere. As with his great hero, Andrew Jackson, he kissed the Bible at both of his inauguration ceremonies.
During the course of his political career, there were many opportunities for Truman to enrich himself, but he refused to see his office as anything but service. He was often offended by both the private sector and government as they handled others’ money loosely. His national reputation was established during World War II when he tried to root out all corruption from government military contracts. When Truman retired after his second term as president he had neither government pension nor salary. His livelihood came from the sale of the same Missouri farm he had grown up on. He refused all offers to cash in on his standing as a former president, accepting no positions on corporate boards. He did no endorsements, no lobbying, no consulting. His name, and the dignity of his former office, were not for sale.
Truman was an exemplary family man. He respected his father and loved his mother. His deepest relationships through his life were with women–first his mother, sister and two female cousins–then with his wife and daughter. He had fallen in love with Bess in third grade and wooed her tenaciously until they married many years later. He loved her deeply, and faithfully, as the following anecdote from the time of the Potsdam Conference illustrates:
One evening at the end of an arduous session at the palace, a young Army public relations officer, seeing that Truman was about to leave alone in his car, stuck his head in the window and asked if he might hitch a ride. Truman told him to get in and Floyd Boring, who was driving, could not help overhearing the conversation as they headed off. The officer said that if there was anything the President wanted, anything at all he needed, he had only to say the word. “Anything, you know, like women.” … “Listen, son, I married my sweetheart,” Truman said, “She doesn’t run around on me, and I don’t run around on her. I want that understood. Don’t ever mention that kind of stuff to me again.
So what is there not to love about this man on a personal level? From my perspective, not much. And that was the great surprise to me when I consider his political perspective.
Truman inherited the presidency during a uniquely turbulent historical era. He had, perhaps, more–and more momentous–decisions to make than any other American president. With no foreign policy experience, he was thrust into the closing days of the Second World War. Should the U.S. use the atomic bomb to subdue the Japanese? How should Europe be divided after the war’s end? How could so many American soldiers be successfully repatriated? Should he honor Roosevelt’s commitment to the United Nations? As time went on the issues did not get any easier. How should a strong Europe be rebuilt? How should Communists be challenged as they isolated Berlin? Should the US try to limit Communist incursions in Korea? How? Would American forces there provoke war with the USSR or China? What about alleged Communist conspiracy within the U.S.? Should the new nation of Israel be recognized by the United States? How would the surrounding nations respond to that?
Truman was responsible for deciding each of these issues. Decisions had to be made quickly and almost always on the basis of inadequate information. But he made the best decisions he could, then slept at night. His foreign policy tended to be internationalist, so probably not palatable to many Christians. And his domestic platforms also were not compatible with much of what we consider appropriate, either biblically or constitutionally. He was a “progressive” who desired national universal health care and child care policies, for instance. To him, these policies were for the “little guy” and counter-balanced the power of corporate interests and Wall Street, which he detested. (To be fair, he also tried to curb the power of labor unions, as necessary.) It is interesting that though he maintained the New Deal policies of Roosevelt, his predecessor, he did not care for him, or many Washington “insiders” on a personal level.
I love trying to understand the truth of history, and historical figures. What has startled me about Truman is the greatness of his character, again, on a purely horizontal, civic level. As he implemented policy after policy that I would vote against if this nation were run by plebiscite, it is apparent he was doing so from a position of personal integrity and utmost desire to serve his country. I am so prone to judge people’s hearts if their decisions vary substantially from my own. I think Truman’s fundamental weakness was his misunderstanding of human nature. He was a committed humanist and had no category for entrenched personal evil. This influenced many of his decisions in a way that has proven counter-productive over the long term. For instance, against Churchill’s advice, he was not able to believe the worst of the Soviet regime, and Stalin in particular. Therefore, he did not keep Allied soldiers in place to protect the integrity of the Eastern European nations in the aftermath of the Second World War. (Stalin had promised to be good!) They were then systematically overrun by Soviet troops. Another example would be his understanding of the role of the federal government. Unlike the framers of the Constitution, who were fearful of excessive power in the hands of any group, including the various branches of government–after all, mere men–Truman saw big government as a safe, restraining balance to the power of big business and even labor unions. We all know how that has turned out!
So would I have voted for Harry Truman? No. Do I think he has brought harm to this nation with his understanding of the expanded role of government, and his internationalist policies? Yes. But he was a “good” man who tried his best to serve his country with humility and diligence. Such are the paradoxes of life in a fallen world.