Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon:
Truman and the Idea of the Common Man

The Truman memoirs are devoted mainly to Truman’s political career, which of course is as it should be. But the book is not strictly a political autobiography. Truman tells us a good deal about his life apart from politics—and we must remember that he was thirty-eight years old before he got involved even in local politics. Some of his more personal reminiscences are unconvincing. For example, in writing about his childhood (which he does “without any introspective trimmings”) he sees himself as a less mischievous, untroubled Tom Sawyer, a carefree, rough-and-tumble American farm boy who was forever having the time of his life:

I pulled the wagon with the two boys in it into the hole and upset it. It seemed a good thing to do, and it was repeated several times, taking turn about. When my mother found us, we were plastered with mud and dirty water from head to foot. What a grand spanking I got as the ringleader!

I would sit in the judges’ stand with Grandpa and watch the races, eat striped candy and peanuts, and have the best time a kid ever had.

My mother and grandmother dried a lot of peaches and apples, and what fine pies they would make in the winter.

My mother’s older sister, Aunt Sally, was a lovely person, as were all my aunts.

There were four children in [Aunt Emma’s] family, and we really had a grand time when we spent the day with them.

Those were wonderful days and great adventures. My father bought me a beautiful black Shetland pony and the grandest saddle to ride him with I ever saw.

We had an old Negro woman who washed for us every week and sometimes cooked for us. She had three boys and two girls, and what a grand time we had.

I do not remember a bad teacher in all my experience. They were all different, of course, but they were the salt of the earth. They gave us our high ideals. . . .

In Independence we made a number of new acquaintances, and I became interested in one in particular. She had golden curls and has, to this day, the most beautiful blue eyes. We went to Sunday school, public school from the fifth grade through high school, graduated in the same class, and marched down life’s road together. For me she still has the blue eyes and golden hair of yesteryear.

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The fact that the whole picture is a little too sweet, a little too conventional in its healthy, old-fashioned Americanness gives us no warrant to doubt its truth. On the contrary, it is very important to understand that this is how Truman has genuinely come to see his childhood. But it is also impossible not to feel that all those grand times he had must be partly the product of a rather wilful memory. At the age of eight he was fitted with thick glasses which kept him out of games (he had to content himself with umpiring in baseball “because I couldn’t see well enough to bat”); he was probably more delicate as a child than he lets on, for at ten he had difficulty in recovering from a case of diphtheria (“my legs, arms, and throat were paralyzed for some months after the diphtheria left me, but [my brother] Vivian made a rapid and complete recovery”); and he was enough of a solitary to have read “all the books in the Independence Public Library and our big old Bible three times through” by the time he was thirteen or fourteen. No wonder, then, that history and biography were his favorite reading matter and that “the lives of great men and famous women intrigued” him: “I wanted to know what caused the successes or the failures of all the famous leaders of history. . . . Reading history, to me, was far more than a romantic adventure. It was solid instruction and wise teaching which I somehow felt that I wanted and needed.”

At this point Truman teeters on the edge of complete honesty and one waits for him to admit simply that he was an ambitious, perhaps lonely boy who dreamed of greatness. But no. He read history because “I felt that I ought to know the facts about the system of government under which I was living, and how it came to be. . . . [It was] a valuable part of the total education which I hoped to have some day.” Not only was he ambitious, but he lived under the tyranny of a need which is crucial to an understanding of his later development as President:

I used to watch my father and mother closely to learn what I could do to please them, just as I did with my schoolteachers and playmates. Because of my efforts to get along with my associates I usually was able to get what I wanted. It was successful on the farm, in school, in the Army, and particularly in the Senate.

But, he might have added, it was not necessary in the Presidency. Truman flowered in the Presidency, as perhaps no man except Lincoln has ever done, possibly because the office liberated him for the first time in his life from the eternal compulsion to please those around him. From the moment he fired Byrnes, there is a kind of exhilarating quality—as of a man who has suddenly lost his fear on the battlefield and become daring through the sheer joy of fearlessness—in the way Truman the President slashed about him with what often seemed highly impolitic vigor, culminating, of course, in the dismissal of MacArthur. He had only to please an abstraction now—the “people”—not those “associates” who nagged and pressed their demands on him and may have been skeptical of his abilities. And pleasing the people turned out to be a means of self-realization for him: he identified himself so completely with the people that he was unable to distinguish between his feelings, his needs, and theirs.

To please the people was to please himself, for he was the people, he was good old “give ’em hell” Harry Truman, the ex-haberdasher, “plain folks” in the White House. But this affectionate character he developed only gradually. By now the name of Truman has grown so resonant with intimations of the colorful and the spirited that it takes an effort of the imagination to remember what he looked like to the world at the moment of Roosevelt’s death. In 1945 when people said that Truman was an ordinary little man, they said it with dismay and condescension. Of course he was “solid”—everyone remembered the Truman Committee as a courageous and honest investigating body that went after all the corrupt contractors who were growing fat on the war effort, and everyone knew that Truman (despite his uncomfortable associations with the Pendergast machine) had a fine New Dealing record in the Senate. But with the death of Roosevelt, the nation turned its eyes to the bespectacled, sharp-faced little fellow and saw prose where before there had been poetry, it listened to the stumbling, wooden delivery of his speeches where before it had heard the most mellifluous oratory in living American memory, and it mourned, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra at the death of Antony, “The odds is gone and there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon.”

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And indeed the truth is that at the beginning he was prosaic, though never “ordinary”—it is absurd how we get trapped by our own metaphors. He came into the Presidency with no big ideas or new conceptions—yet one guesses from hints dropped here and there in the memoirs that he was not altogether surprised to find himself President and had been preparing for it; instead, he stated his determination to continue the policies of his “great predecessor” (what else could he do, after all?). The first matters he addressed himself to were problems of detail and administration:

When there is a change in administration, there are bound to be some changes in the Cabinet, but I knew how necessary it was for me to keep an open mind on all the members of the Cabinet—until we had had an opportunity to work together. Their experience with President Roosevelt and their knowledge were necessary to me in this crisis. I intended, also, to maintain a similar attitude toward the heads of all the federal agencies. But I had some mental reservations about the heads of certain temporary war agencies.

These he records as his thoughts just a few minutes after he was sworn in, only two hours after Roosevelt died, and they suggest not merely that he had been thinking about the Presidency, but also how he intended to feel his way into his new job.

There is no question that he took over in the White House almost immediately. But he had to exercise a certain tact:

President Roosevelt’s belongings were numerous in the room. Ship models and ship prints were especially obvious, and the desk was laden with mementos. Everywhere were signs of the man who had labored there so long. I had no wish to change the room as yet, but I was forced to use the desk, and so I asked an aide to put away the former President’s belongings. Except for the objects on the desk, I carefully avoided disturbing the late President’s possessions.

The symbolic drama in which Truman was involved vis-à-vis Roosevelt is enacted in that passage. He tells us that he had never been very close to Roosevelt, and in his eighty-eight days as Vice-President he saw him only once or twice. Now he had to move through the magic presence of Roosevelt into a job, and move he did—by clearing away the desk. He immediately had reports submitted to him by each executive department on the policies of the government, and he studied them late into the night, with the same earnest diligence that marked those boyhood days when he pored over Plutarch and Abbott, and when he made it his business in school to look up the background of “each great event in history . . . to find out who brought them about.” This is the same man, too, who, before leaving for Washington after his election to the Senate, “read the biographies of every member of the Senate and studied every piece of information I could find on our chief lawmaking body.” This was also the man who as a freshman Senator served on two of the busiest committees in the Senate—Appropriations and Interstate Commerce—and never missed a meeting. This was the man who in addition requested to serve on a subcommittee that was formed to study the railroad system and who then “began at once to read all of the records I could locate of earlier testimony concerning the railroads. I read past newspaper accounts of the industry’s financial tangles. I ransacked the Library of Congress for every book on the subject of railroad management and history, and at one time had fifty volumes sent by the Library to my office in the Senate Office Building.” In short, this was a methodical, hard-working, almost pedantic man who felt most at home with details and who was clearly uncomfortable with any but the simplest abstractions: a personality indeed antithetical to Roosevelt’s.

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But perhaps the most revealing touch in either of the two volumes of the memoirs is this letter Truman wrote to his mother toward the end of his first week as President. After telling her the story of how he found out that he had become President, he goes into the domestic arrangements:

This afternoon we moved to this house, diagonally across the street (Penn. Ave.) from the White House, until the Roosevelts have had time to move out of the White House. We tried staying at the apartment, but it wouldn’t work. I can’t move without at least ten Secret Service men and twenty policemen. People who lived in our apartment couldn’t get in and out without a pass. So—we moved out with suitcases. Our furniture is still there and will be for some time. . . . But I’ve paid the rent for this month and will pay for another month if they don’t get the old White House redecorated by that time.

Now even allowing for the fact that this is the kind of thing a man might feel would interest his old mother, it is nevertheless astonishing that Truman, who had just been through the most overwhelming five days of his life, who had just had the “most momentous, and the most trying time anyone could possibly have,” who had just inherited “the most terribly responsible job a man ever had,” who “felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen” on him—it is astonishing that this man could have had rent on his mind. Astonishing and yet wonderful. Truman is blessed with what can only be called a limited imagination which never allows him to make an unnecessary fuss or to go beyond the strictly relevant considerations of a given problem. “By nature not given to making snap judgments or easy decisions,” he tells us, “I required all available facts and information before coming to a decision. But once a decision was made, I did not worry about it afterward.” Only a man of limited imagination could have said of the atomic bomb, “Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used.” Only a man of limited imagination could have said, on seeing the rubble of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, “That’s what happens when a man overreaches himself.”

And only a man of limited imagination could have been so little awed at Potsdam, confronted by the two greatest figures in world politics when he himself had only just succeeded to the position of the hero who had been the third. Of course he represented the United States, but he was still Harry Truman of Missouri facing Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, and still he was undaunted. “I told them frankly that I did not wish to waste time listening to grievances but wanted to deal with the problems which the three heads of government had come to settle. I said that if they did not get to the main issues I was going to pack up and go home. I meant just that. Stalin laughed heartily and said he did not blame the President for wanting to go home; he wanted to go home too.” He also chides Churchill no less than three times for not liking the same kind of music that he and Stalin enjoyed (“Chopin, Liszt, Tschaikowsky and all the rest”). And again he writes to his mother:

Stalin gave his state dinner night before last, and it was a wow. Started with caviar and vodka and wound up with watermelon and champagne, with smoked fish, fresh fish, venison, chicken, duck and all sorts of vegetables in between. There was a toast every five minutes until at least twenty-five had been drunk. I ate very little and drank less, but it was a colorful and enjoyable occasion. . . . It was a nice dinner.

Of course, we must beware of taking some of these remarks too much at face value. What we have here is another example of Truman’s disposition to regard himself as the typical Midwestern American, Tom Sawyer grown up, the prissy Innocent Abroad who is disappointed when princes drink beer like “us common folk” and who finds the Folies Bergère a “disgusting” spectacle, but whose innocence is in the last analysis an assertion of moral superiority. Moreover Truman is not above coyness in this regard. He knows very well that if Churchill and Stalin condescended slightly to him, the joke was on them, just as he knows that in the end his methodical way of doing things was a match for the Churchillian brilliance. When he met Churchill for the first time at Potsdam, he showed the Prime Minister his detailed agenda for the meeting and asked to see his. “I don’t need one,” said Churchill. (Did Roosevelt need one, we wonder?) Truman lets Churchill’s laconic reply pass without comment, but later he makes this observation. “He always found it necessary . . . to make long statements . . . and then agree to what had already been done. . . . On several occasions when Churchill was discussing something at length, Stalin would lean on his elbow, pull on his mustache, and say, ‘Why don’t you agree? The Americans agree, and we agree. You will agree eventually, so why don’t you do it now?’ Then the argument would stop. Churchill in the end would agree, but he had to make a speech about it first.”

And Truman knows what the impact will be on the reader when he tells the story of how his old schoolmate Charlie Ross, upon being appointed as Truman’s press secretary, telephoned Miss Tillie Brown (who had been their teacher in Independence). “You and Harry have made good,” Miss Brown said, “and I am very proud of you.” What else Miss Brown might have said is difficult to imagine; nevertheless she neither fainted nor shrieked when Truman got on the phone to “report” to his old teacher. Ladies like Miss Brown (not to mention his mother) obviously had an enormous influence on his character and their matter-of-fact refusal to make too much even of the Presidency symptomized an attitude that Truman absorbed. Though fascinated by power and greatness, he is genuinely unimpressed with high position per se. A job is a job to him and the main thing is to do it well.

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Truman’s development in the public mind from the colorless “ordinary man” into the symbolic “common man” is one of the major political facts of our time. It would have been fascinating to hear from Truman himself how the revision was accomplished, but on this point he is completely silent. Indeed, he takes such pains to demonstrate the consistency of his political principles over the years as to make it appear that the Presidency changed him not one whit. By his own account he has always been an internationalist in foreign affairs, but there is very little in his background to explain the dramatic burgeoning of a Senator from Missouri who had been mainly interested in taxes and railroads into one of the most responsible international statesmen of history. Similarly he claims always to have been “a Jefferson Democrat living in modern times,” the latest representative of a “tradition” that includes Jackson, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt, and whose distinguishing mark is that it fights for the welfare of “all the people” against “the special crew who has the inside track.” From the memoirs it would be impossible to tell that Roosevelt chose Truman as his running mate in 1945 primarily because Truman, as a Border State Senator of reputedly moderate views, was a more acceptable candidate to the conservative wing of the party than Wallace. The only indication Truman gives of the surprise that greeted his twenty-one point Fair Deal message to Congress in September 1945 (from which, incidentally, he dates his assumption of the Presidency in his own right) is this comment made to him by Judge Rosenman:

You know, Mr. President, this is the most exciting and pleasant surprise I have had in a long time. . . . I suppose I have been listening too much to rumors about what you are going to do—rumors which come from some of your conservative friends, and particularly from some of your former colleagues up on Capitol Hill. They say . . . that a good part of the so-called ‘Roosevelt nonsense’ is now over . . . that the conservative wing of the party has now taken charge.

Truman could not have had this reputation on Capitol Hill for nothing, though it must have been based on his privately voiced opinions and an estimate of his character, rather than on his voting record (which was consistently New Deal, including support of the measure to pack the Supreme Court).

But the fact is that he believed it to be the President’s duty under the Constitution to represent “all the people,” as against Congress which mainly provides a voice for special and regional interests. This is one reason why in the White House he came to identify himself more and more closely with the “common people,” and, by extension, with minorities like the Jews and Negroes. But his conception of the Presidency was not the only reason for the changes in Truman.

Neither his liberalism nor his increasingly strong anti-Communist foreign policy made him very popular with the most vocal elements in the nation. The press hated him for his reconversion program and for the Fair Deal; many liberals hated him simply for not being Roosevelt (who, they were sure, would have known how to live in peace with the Russians); and, one guesses, many of those associates whom Truman had been trying to please all his life refused to acknowledge that he was the boss and could make all the decisions. Byrnes in particular (like “those striped pants boys in the State Department”) seems to have been rather insolent:

[Secretary of State Byrnes’] message told me very little that the newspaper correspondents had not already reported from Moscow. This was not what I considered a proper account by a Cabinet member to the President. It was more like one partner in a business telling the other that his business trip was progressing well and not to worry.

And there are other indications that a good number of the people around Truman were not ready to do him justice.

In any case, Truman’s real virtues—his conscientious attention to detail, his ability as an administrator, and most important, his decisiveness—did not form a style calculated to excite anyone to rabid admiration, and least of all a nation still enthralled by the spell of Roosevelt’s “brilliance.” But at some point Truman began to believe that he was vox populi, not merely in his Constitutional position, or even merely in his political principles, but in his very soul. He may not have been brilliant, but he was something better: the salt-of-the-earth American writ large-plucky, loyal to his friends, devoted to fair play, outspoken, competent, honest, strong but never bullying. Even his foreign policy (the Marshall Plan, Point Four, and the Truman Doctrine) he saw as a reflection of the American character, his character: generosity combined with a principled toughness (“The American people have accomplished much and attained greatness not by the use of force but by industry, ingenuity, and generosity”).

The process by which Truman came to regard himself as the quintessential embodiment of the average American is impossible to trace in the memoirs. But there can be no doubt that it was in the 1948 election campaign that he finally succeeded in crystallizing this image and projecting it onto the public mind. In his whistle-stop tour of the country, that “one-man circus” during which he addressed millions and sometimes made a dozen or more speeches a day, he threw away the prepared manuscripts whose stilted rhetoric he always had such trouble mouthing, and spoke extemporaneously for the first time. And the new Truman, the grinning, cocky, vernacular, “give ‘em hell” Harry, began to emerge for all to see:

I simply told the people in my own language that they bad better wake up to the fact that it was their fight. If they did not get out and help me win this fight, I emphasized, the Republicans would soon be giving the farmers and the workers the little end of the stick again. I spoke bluntly and sincerely, and warned the people that if they were fools enough to accept the little end again, they deserved it.

It was often vulgar and at times demagogic, but Truman’s portrayal of his own character was reinforced by the drama of the campaign itself. How completely be seemed the little man, forsaken and alone, with the newspapers solidly against him, with the public opinion polls insistently predicting his defeat, with the Dixiecrats on the right and the Wallace Progressives on the left agitating against him from out of his own ranks! And when the miracle came to pass and he had won, it seemed to the whole country that his morality-play picture of American political life had been vindicated, that the Good in the person of the average man had triumphed over the clever and the powerful.

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A politician’s relation to his own public image can be very complicated, and by now it must be impossible for Truman to disentangle the man he “really” is from the figure he has created in our minds. For example, the one image of Truman that is missing almost entirely from the memoirs is that of the shrewd politician dominating the smoke-filled room, in love with the camaraderie of the political game, not to mention the excitements of the poker game. And what of the Truman who seems to have averted his eyes—like the Jacksonian he is—from shady financial dealings in his own administration? How does Truman fit this side of himself into the Mark Twain character he has assumed? By a theory, it would seem. What he appears to see today as he looks back over his career is a peculiarly American success story. He is the poor farm boy who made good by dint of healthy ambition, hard work, faithful service, luck, and mastery of the political craft. But the craft of politics, he reminds us, is two-sided, involving principles on the one hand, and on the other, the ability to muster the support that makes it possible for a politician to realize his principles and become a statesman.

No one can deny that there is an important truth in such a representation of his life, and it would be true even if he was indeed half-aware of the dubious practices of some of his appointees. But we can see quite another moral significance in his career when we contemplate the fact that this extraordinary man who has probably done more than anyone else to keep the world alive on the edge of an apocalypse, was able to emerge into greatness only by becoming, in his own eyes and in the eyes of the nation, a perfect symbol of the average American.

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