Truman’s presidency occurred during times of immense global unrest and he was forced to make a few of the most pivotal decisions in US history. These decisions certainly affected the standing and prosperity of the US during his lifetime, but they also had reverberations that would affect the political and economic make-up of Asia and Europe for decades to come.

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to a book. But listening to this one really has me juiced for some more because it was really good. McCullough takes you through the expanse of Truman’s life, beginning with his humble beginnings on the Missouri countryside and detailing the significant events of his life through his death in 1972. Here is a quick timeline:

  • 1884-Born, Lamar, Missouri
  • 1914-Member of artillery brigade, World War I, mostly France
  • 1934-Elected to Senate (D, Missouri)
  • 1944-FDR re-elected to presidency with Truman as his VP
  • 1945-Truman becomes president upon FDR’s death (April)
  • 1945-Authorized use of the atomic bomb in Japan (August)
  • 1946-Threatened to take presidential control of the railroads and draft railway workers if they did not end their strike, effectively settling the strike but alienating labor
  • 1947-Develops Truman Doctrine (policy of containment) and appoints George Marshall as his secretary of state (who subsequently developed the Marshall Plan to assist in rebuilding Europe)
  • 1950-In second term as president, urged U.N. to intervene in Korea and authorized deployment of US troops to Korea under General MacArthur
  • 1951-Ceased aggression in Korea and fired MacArthur from his command in Korea and Japan
  • 1952-Lost New Hampshire primary and cancels re-election campaign
  • 1972-Dies the day after Christmas

These were the highlights in the abridged version I listened to. There was evidently not enough time to talk about the Berlin Airlift, Israel, civil rights, the Fair Deal, the Red Scare, or Vietnam.

I love McCullough’s delivery on the audio book version. He reads it like a grandfather telling a story. He doesn’t use much voice inflection but you can tell he cares deeply about the topic. It’s comforting to listen to his silvery voice and smooth delivery.

There were some chilling moments in Truman’s presidency. Shortly after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, he said these words in his address to the nation.

…we are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake, we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a reign of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.

That’s heavy stuff. Often McCullough would mix in real audio, but not for the above. I’m sure it’s on tape, I wonder if someone would not let him use it or if he thought it would be too horrifying to hear it from Truman himself. The book goes into a fairly lengthy discussion on the aftermath. There is some real audio after the second bomb on Nagasaki from Truman where he tells Japanese civilians to leave the cities because he was going to destroy everything in them. Sobering stuff.

Truman never went to college, but he was worldly, well read, and very grounded. I think this is why he was careful in selecting his advisers and why he deflected a lot of the credit for victories to others but took responsibility for failures. Perhaps his most famous appointment was making George Marshall the Secretary of State in 1947. Marshall engineered the aptly named Marshall Plan to assist in the post-war rebuilding of Europe and to help stop communist aggression. It has it’s detractors, but for the most part it is viewed by historians as an unmitigated success.

Truman’s most famous public brawl was with General MacArthur. MacArthur wanted to continue north of the 38th parallel in Korea because he did not feel that the Russians or Chinese would intervene on the North’s behalf. MacArthur said this in public, which was particularly discouraging to the Truman administration. Truman disagreed, and when Truman relieved him of duty there was a public outcry of massive proportions. MacArthur went on an unprecedented “victory” tour of the US when he got back from Korea and made speeches espousing his ideas for the war and where he thought Truman got it wrong. Truman basically ignored this and eventually the country came around to ignoring MacArthur also. Finally, MacArthur made his “old soldiers just fade away” speech and the public battle between the two giants of US history faded away also.

Truman ended up living out a his life after the presidency in a state of unending wonderment and joy. You may not agree with every decision that he made, but I would say he honored the office of the Presidency.