Harry Truman - unlike Theodore Roosevelt - was not terribly pleased to become President of the United States upon the death of his predecessor. Though the only 20th-century president never to have spent a day in college, Leuchtenburg writes, "This ill-tempered, lackluster provincial was to lead the nation through the treacherous postwar transition, embark upon extraordinary ventures in foreign affairs, write a new chapter in the saga of civil rights, and leave a larger legacy of new institutions in the executive branch than any other president." Yes, even larger than FDR.
At the outset, Truman was faced with the greatest presidential decision in history: use of the atomic bomb. Leuchtenburg has little tolerance for historiography that argues Truman made the wrong decision. He writes, "it should be noted that Truman did not act impulsively. Both an advisory committee that included the president of Harvard and a panel of prominent physicists had recommended that the bomb be used against Japan as soon as possible, that it target oil plants surrounded by workers homes, and that it should be used without warning."
And what was Truman's alternative? As Leuchtenburg notes, "Attempting to stomp out the Japanese by a blockade would have caused awful suffering [in Japan] and would still have not eliminated the need for an invasion. With the dreadful loss of life caused by the suicidal resistance on Okinowa fresh in mind, [Secretary of War Henry] Stimson was told that an invasion could cost more then 1 million American casualties and an incalculable number of Japanese deaths." Given those facts, Truman's biographer, David McCullough, has asked, "How could a president…answer to the American people if...after the bloodbath of an invasion of Japan, it became known that a weapon sufficient to end the war had been available by mid-summer and was not used?"
Truman was also very resourceful after the 1946 mid-term elections, when the Republicans ended a 16-year Democratic reign. The Republicans built up a six-seat advantage in the Senate and a 58-seat advantage in the House. Republicans - and most political pundits - were writing Truman's political obituary. As Leuchtenburg notes, however, "Publicists and politicians paid too little heed to how much authority resides in the presidency even in the most adverse circumstances, and they underestimated the resourcefulness of Harry Truman. He retained the prerogative of policy initiatives; he alone made appointments to high office, though with the consent of the Senate; he was, if not, as the Supreme Court had stated, 'the soul organ of foreign affairs', [then he was at least] the principal architect; and he could make full use of the veto, which, during his tenure, he did 250 times. Truman knew that the incoming 80th-Congress would target him, but he, in return, could target it."
As much as the pundits misread the situation, far more dangerous for their chances in 1948 was the misinterpretation by Republicans themselves. Leuchtenburg writes, "they believed that the American people in November 1946 were ratifying their desire to eradicate the liberal programs of the past two decades. But, far from signaling a revolt against federal intervention, all groups - including traditional Republicans - favored an extension of Social Security." More than a shift to the Right, it was a wish to slow down the swing to the Left.
Truman's remarkable reelection victory in 1948 has been dissected for nearly 70 years. Leuchtenburg postulates that one often overlooked factor was the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act in June 1947. Truman issued a blistering 5,400-word veto that the Republicans overrode while reading the comics at their desks in a defiant show of disrespect to Truman. As Leuchtenburg writes, while all of that was going on, "Little notice was taken, however, in the gloating by his opponents, of two other features of the episode. In pushing the legislation, Republicans had enhanced Truman's prospects in 1948 by throwing most of labor back into the president's arms." Another irony was that Republicans considered Taft-Hartley to be a major assertion of Congressional power when, in fact, Leuchtenberg argues it actually, "considerably broadened presidential power over labor relations. Unexpectedly, aggrandizement of the presidency turned out to be the most significant legacy of the 80th- Congress."
If it is not already clear that Wiliam Leuchtenburg considers Truman to be the president who had the greatest impact, Leuchtenburg hammers that home in looking at the changes his administration wrought. Leuchtenburg writes that, "Truman headed a government that carried the United States from the largely personal administration of Franklin Roosevelt to the institutionalized presidency of the last half of the 20th-century and beyond. He concentrated especially on framing an appropriate response to the transformation being brought by the Cold War.... Under Truman, who doubled the budget for White House staff, the American government embarked on creating what has been called the 'national security state'."
Although many argue that Truman's unification of the armed services through the National Security Act of 1947 was the greatest example of Truman's imprint [among other things, it created a Department of Defense, the National Security Council and the CIA], Leuchtenburg cites a different effort. "President Truman made the most significant use of his executive power in the field of civil rights on learning of the extent of racial violence in postwar America." After Truman called together the Commission on Civil Rights, and their issuance of the Report to Secure These Rights, "virtually no hope remained that the states of the former confederacy - which Democrats had been able to take for granted in almost every national election since 1880 - would stick with Truman in November 1948.... Mindful that he could ill-afford to drive the south out of the party, Truman moved cautiously on carrying out his civil rights message into action, but he would not recant."
If civil rights was Truman at his best, however, the president's loyalty program in the face of the Red Scare was not his finest hour. As Leuchtenburg notes, "However good his intentions, Truman bears a considerable share of the blame for the excesses. The out-of-control investigations demoralized the civil service, with little to show for all the labor. Careful historical analysis has established that [Alger] Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and others regarded by many at the time as innocent victims were, in fact, guilty; but Truman's program had nothing to do with their apprehension.....Not one instance of espionage was ever uncovered by these [Truman] probes. And this drastic operation gained the president no favor from his enemies [already committed McCarthyites], who regarded it as an overdue concession to the righteousness of their cause and redoubled their attacks."
But the Korean War was the most tragic of Truman's errors. Leuchtenburg writes, "Truman always regarded his intervention in Korea as his biggest achievement when, in fact, it was his greatest failure. If the United States had displayed credible determination, it is improbable that the invasion [of North Korea, after driving the North out of South Korea], and the ensuing war with so many deaths, would ever have happened. Throughout his first term and well into his second term, Truman proclaimed a large role for America in world affairs at the same time that he insisted on a constrained military budget. When he decided to intercede in Korea, he threw into combat - into slaughter - young draftees unprepared for confrontation with hardened warriors in tank brigades. He followed that up by approving a reckless invasion of North Korea - with an outcome that General [Matthew] Ridgeway later likened to Custer's last stand at Little Big Horn - on the fatuous assumption that China would not retaliate, and by tolerating [Douglas] MacArthur's insubordination far longer than he should have." And Truman's actions in Korea played no small role in his successors' actions in Vietnam. Leuchtenburg writes, "The Korean War had long range consequences....Though Truman never considered sending U.S. soldiers [to Vietnam in 1954], his action [in supporting the French there] was a first step toward the ultimate American involvement in Vietnam."
The Cold War also had ripple-effects for the presidency itself. Truman's use of the military without Congressional approval beforehand set the precedent used by his successors. Indeed, Leuchtenburg writes that, "In these years, Truman took a long stride toward the Imperial Presidency. Wilson in 1917 and FDR in 1941 had asked Congress for declarations of war, but after Truman's unilateral action in Korea, the power vested in Congress alone to declare war became almost a relic."
The rehabilitation of Truman's reputation over the past 60+ years is also examined by Leuchtenburg. According to Leuchtenberg, "This national infatuation with Truman derived less from retrospective fondness for his policies than from admiration for his character - a quality, historians came to realize, to which they had given too little attention in appraising presidents." While historian John Lukacs writes that this modern love of Truman, "was the national appreciation for a man of the older American type: outspoken, courageous, loyal to his friends, solidly rooted in his mid-American past, and real - a self-crafted piece of solid wood, not a molded plastic piece."
Yet Leuchtenburg cautions concentrating too much on just Truman's character and temperament because, ""it distracts attention from the substance of his performance. He made too many lackluster appointments, frequently shot off his mouth, paid insufficient heed to the damage wrought by his loyalty program, and, in Korea, badly overreacted. His unsent letters are acutely disturbing. Truman also, though, succeeded in fighting off assaults to the New Deal legacy he inherited and would have achieved much more if he had been able to put through the Fair Deal, especially his proposal for national health insurance. He boldly fortified civilian control of the military, and he expanded the range of the executive office to an extent that has never been adequately recognized."
As it should be, Leuchtenburg gives the last word on Truman to his most famous biographer, McCullough, who wrote, "the arc of his life spanned more change in the world than any prior in history. A man of 19th-century background, he had to face many of the most difficult decisions of the unimaginably different 20th-century. A son of rural, inland America, raised only a generation removed from the frontier…he had had to assume command of the most powerful industrial nation on Earth at the very moment when that power, in combination with stunning advances in science and technology, had become an unparalleled force in the world. The responsibilities he bore were like those of no other president before him, and he more than met the test."