“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog!” That was just one of Harry S. Truman’s more memorable lines. The man from Larmar, Missouri, a farmer’s son, had plenty more like that one. Truman, to put it in the popular lexicon, was a straight shooter from the old school. He knew how to cut to the chase and get things done.
During WWI, Truman, at age 33, served as an artillery officer for Battery D company He saw action during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. At war’s end, he was discharged with the rank of captain, much respected and admired by his troops, most of whom were “Irish and German Catholics.” One of them, “Eddie McKim, became one of Truman’s lifelong friends,” the author A. J. Baime writes.
Baime described Truman this way: “He was the prototypical ordinary man. He had no college degree and never had enough money to own his own home.” For awhile he even lived in his mother-in-law’s home, who “never liked Harry very much.”
Baime’s book, published in 2017, is entitled: “The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World.” Those “four months” turned out to be truly action-packed. They helped to create the strong, resilient President Truman the nation and most of the world would come to know and respect.
Truman, Baime underscores, became president “by accident” – his own words. In 1944, after serving as vice-president for 82 days, the then-president, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), in office since 1933, died on April 12, 1945.
World War II was still raging against Japan on the Eastern front and Nazi Germany in Europe. The Soviet Union, under the brutal dictator Josef Stalin, was our ally in that massive struggle.
Truman had “never governed a state or served as mayor of a city.” He was married in 1919, to Bess Wallace, and they had one child, Margaret. Thanks to the help of a then-powerful Missouri political boss, Tom Pendergast, Truman began, in the early 30s, his rise up the ladder to eventually the White House itself. No boss Pendergast, no White House for Harry!
Pendergast got Truman a number of low level administrative posts in Jackson County Missouri, with state agencies, and one job with a bureau of the federal government. He then supported Truman’s bid for a U.S. Senate seat in the 1934 election, which he shockingly won. In 1944, FDR picked Truman to be his running mate. “The die” as Caesar once said, “was cast.”
Baime’s book describes what the “first four months of Truman’s presidency” looked like. The term “mind-boggling” doesn’t begin to do it justice.
It began, Baime writes, with the “collapse of Nazi Germany, then the founding of the United Nations, and the firebombing of Japanese cities.” The latter attacks killed thousands of civilians.
The liberation of “Nazi death camps, the suicide of Adolf Hitler, and the execution of Benito Mussolini” quickly followed. The Italian strong man was executed in the city of Milan by Communist partisans. He was then hanged by his feet alongside his murdered mistress, Claretta Petacci. Their “death photo” was truly a shocking thing to see. It may have been the first time I had ever seen a dead body outside of a funeral home.
In Germany, the capture of war criminals, such as “Hermann Goring and Ernst Kaltenbrunner and the fall of Berlin” are all covered in Baime’s book.
On the Eastern front, Baime noted the “victory at Okinawa, which Bill Sloan, a historian, called ‘the deadliest campaign of conquest ever undertaken by American arms.’” While that battle was raging, a Japanese suicide plane crashed into the “USS Bunker Hill,” killing nearly 400 American sailors. The author reported, “It would take 800,000 U.S. troops” to invade Japan. General George Marshall had “set D-Day as November 1st.”
The above was soon followed by the “Postdam Conference, during which the new president sat at the negotiating table with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in Soviet-occupied Germany in an attempt to map out a new world.” Unfortunately, Stalin resisted that effort. Instead, a “Cold War” would ensue, writes the author.
The first four months of Truman’s presidency were all highly-charged with international tensions of every variety and filled with important, seminal events. Author Baime brings them all to life again.
They were all ultra-charged, the author submits, by Truman’s controversial decision, “to drop the first atomic bombs on two Japanese cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. Those monumental actions “did end the war with Japan” and prevented the loss of an estimated hundreds of thousands of American lives from a land invasion. They also ushered in “the dawn of the Cold War and the beginning of nuclear arms race,” Baime reports.
The dropping of the A-bombs also led the Japanese to begin the release of its American and Ally POWs, including a hero son of Baltimore – Harry S. Agro. (1)
To this day, unlike Germany, Japan has had a difficult time confronting and owning up fully to its criminal past and massive crimes. (2) Meanwhile, seventy-five years later, memorials are still being held for the atomic bombs’ estimated 200,000 victims, along with repeated calls to ban nuclear weapons.
During this 40-day period of his presidency, “fifty delegates signed the U.N. Charter in San Francisco. President Truman addressed the delegates in the city’s War Memorial Veterans Building.” Today, the UN is a thriving bastion for international peace and security. It has 193 member states. It’s not perfect, but with the goodwill of its member states, it can be, and often is, effective.
Truman along the way hired his own man to be Secretary of State – James F Byrnes. By then our country had also successfully tested its A-bomb in the desert of New Mexico.
At the Postdam conference, Truman made it a point to tell Stalin to his face the U.S. had an atomic bomb. Up to that point, Stalin had been making off-the-wall demands about the future of Poland and Germany and on other issues. Truman’s strategy worked, Stalin backed off.
Finally, I grew up as a teenager with Harry Truman as my president. This book by A. J. Baime examines and explains many of the critical issues that confronted him early in his presidency. He does it in a fair and balanced way. I liked Truman then and I like him even more now. I’m giving Baime four out of five stars for his fine literary effort. And, I leave my fellow Americans with this thought:
“Give’em Hell, Harry!”
Bill Hughes is a native of Baltimore. He’s an attorney, author, professional actor and hobbyist photographer. In his salad days, he worked on the docks as a longshoreman. Bill also played on three championship soccer teams: sandlot with Jules Morstein; high school at Calvert Hall; and college at the University of Baltimore.