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Truman. David McCoulloch. Simon & Schuster (New York). 1,117pp. $30.

Both President Bush, the Republican who voted against Truman in the 1948 Presidential election, and Governor Clinton, the Democrat candidate, sought to revive President Harry Truman who left office 42 years ago; Bush, because he had to recall that an embattled President can |win from behind' despite polls and media antagonism, Clinton because he wants to prove that a Democrat can win with a programme of welfare spending and social care. It became known too, that both candidates had been fervently studying the recent Truman biography, now even a best seller. It is therefore worth looking at it for it helps to get an understanding of basic American feelings. It is the result of tremendous detailed research giving details of arguments and timing from birth to death. Remarkably, and significantly, there is nothing about extra-marital adventures. There weren't any. Only love letters to his wife and mother and a famous savage letter -- from the White House -- fiercely condemning a writer who had dismissed his daughter, Margaret, as a singer. Truman, and this is shown in detail, was the genuine small town |Middle American', from a hard-working, always insecure farming family, in Missouri, a southern state. His parental farm where he had worked, for instance, was repossessed while he was holding office in his State. And after serving in the artillery in World War I, his first enterprise as a haberdasher failed.

Truman had intense self-esteem based on having to fight and juggle for everything since he was on his own. His war service made him identify with the fighting image of the United States. His first public office, County Judge, without experience as a lawyer, was due to his friendship with the son of a powerful political boss, Pendergast. A central feature of US politics is seen here, the power of patronage by political bosses is accepted, posts in government and administration are in their hands. This is why personal relations, loyalty, discretion, ruthlesness, when asked for, are essential.

The President is a Boss too, within the powers the Constitution gives him, exercising a constant competitive balancing act with Congress, that has controversial powers in its Committees. The Cabinet has as much power as the President is prepared to let it have. Truman, for instance, recognized Israel at a vital moment despite furious opposition by his Cabinet. General Marshall, State Secretary, who had led the opposition, would never speak to Clark Clifford, Truman's adviser, on this, again.

Truman was picked by Pendergast for the Senate in 1934 after three others had turned down the offer for personal reasons, Truman never expected this and was uncertain. But he did well. First ignored in the Senate, he made his name as the leading force in the Special Senate Committee that investigated the 1940 Defence Programmes, saving millions in ruthless public hearings.

Again, he was one of six who were considered by Party Bosses for the Vice-Presidency. They agreed on him because he had done that work in the Committee, was from a border state and in essence conservative. In 1944 the Democrats were certain that the |Leftist' Wallace, the then Vice-President, would lose the election for the ailing Roosevelt. So Truman was imposed on Roosevelt. A remarkable feature was the common but never publicized knowledge that Roosevelt was desperately, incurably, ill when running for the fourth time in 1944. Roosevelt did not interfere with the selection. Truman's relationship with Roosevelt was distant and secretly strained. They met very rarely. It was Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, who summoned him to tell him of the death. Truman was overwhelmed and uncertain as to whether he would be up to the job. This is what made him fiercely stick to the decisions he made. The little man from the little village of Independence, Missouri, had to fight against the upper class from the East Coast, the Harvard and Yale men, all the time. But this is also why he made friends of many of them.

His decision to run again in 1948 was to show himself and the world, that he was more than the man who became President because Roosevelt died. He won against heavy odds because he had preserved his image as a straightforward fighter who did no 1948 shows, incidentally, that personal abuse is accepted. But in 1948 nobody would have thought of involving wives and sex. That he was sometimes not straightforward is shown by the revelation that Churchill had shown him in advance the essence of the famous |Iron Curtain' speech for approval but that Truman had denied having known of its content when the media attacked Churchill for stirring up trouble.

The author gives a full and fascinating account of the truly historic actions and decisions Truman took part in; the Potsdam Conference, the Marshall Plan, the Cold War (he preferred |war of nerves') started by Churchill's speech and an 8,000 word report from Moscow by George Kennan., the Guru on the Soviets, NATO's founding, the |Truman Doctrine', committing the US to the defence of Greece and Turkey against Russia, the instant intervention to save South Korea by fighting the Chinese, his bold decision to dismiss General MacArthur, the Korean Commander and World War II hero, for being insubordinate, the Israel decision. Truman has said that he liked Stalin but, after he had faced Foreign Minister Molotov's cold and swift resistance in 1947, he accepted that diplomacy and its give and take did not work with the Kremlin.

All his actions were, of course, started by his simple decision: he never questioned, taken during the Potsdam Conference, and written on a crumpled piece of paper, the decision to use the atomic weapon against Japan, to save the lives of American soldiers. The odds are against having a President like him this time. The story of the |Little Man' playing a gigantic historic role is worth reading despite its length. No details, it seems, are missed.
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Author:Muray, Leo
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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