The Truman Presidency. by Cabell Phillips. Macmillan. 463 pp. $7.95.
The Truman Administration: A Documentary History. by Barton J. Bernstein and Allen J. Matusow. Harper & Row. 518 pp. $10.00.
Cabell Phillips is an honest researcher. He reports wryly that he journeyed out to the Harry S. Truman Memorial Library in Independence with high hopes of finding Truman’s working papers on major White House decisions and policies, only to discover that these were considered to be the former President’s personal papers and were still restricted. (Now Mr. Phillips is down on all Presidential libraries and wants the records centered in Washington.) The author is equally candid about his use of the immense amount of books, articles, and official documents on the Truman administration. “In most cases I found the supply overwhelming, so I chose a manageable few and trusted to luck that I had made the right selections.”
Happily, Mr. Phillips has relied mainly on his journalistic skills, Washington memories and contacts, and his long experience in the New York Times Washington Bureau to produce a warm and evocative account of Truman’s Presidential years. With some of the freshness and nostalgia of Only Yesterday and similar books he helps us relive the sad, jarring days after Roosevelt’s death, the sordid efforts to decontrol prices, the fierce postwar strikes, the seesaw struggle in Korea, and of course the 1948 election campaign, the Hiss case, and the struggle with McCarthy.
But Mr. Phillips wanted to do more than report these events; like the rest of us, he is curious as to how Harry Truman, who had failed in so many ventures in life and entered office with so little promise of greatness, could rate so high today in the historians’ pantheon. Although he does not develop Truman’s mediocre achievements of earlier years in the same graphic detail as Alfred Steinberg in The Man From Missouri, Mr. Phillips does raise the issue as to how, in his words, “so ordinary a man [could] adapt so well to the most exacting political office in the world.” But he never really answers this key question—a question so vital in a day when Presidential quality and character are so crucial to the nation and the world. Rather, he contents himself with citing at the end an arresting but nebulous column by Eric Sevareid on Truman’s character—his simplicity, honesty, and self-discipline.
So Mr. Phillips leaves it up to the reader to solve the mystery of Harry Truman. Unhappily, although the interplay between Presidential personality and Presidential office has long fascinated American historians and political scientists, we have come up with little hard theory or solid generalization as to the nature of the relation—especially the effect of the office on the man. Hence, there is a tendency to retreat to simplistic ideas—even to a kind of Gabriel-over-the-White-House theory that crisis produces greatness, that strong Presidents are forged in the crucible of high-pressure decision-making. (The trouble is that pressure can disintegrate character as well as harden it.)
My own hunch—without having worked in the Truman documents—is that Truman benefited more than he or his historians have recognized from the organization and power and tradition of the Presidential system he inherited. Under the pressure of war, Roosevelt had created a truly executive office that attracted talent and knew what to do with it. It may even be possible that Truman’s chairmanship of the wartime investigating committee brought him close enough to the problems and perspectives of the Presidency, even while he was probing some of the administration’s failures, to make the war years a kind of Presidential apprenticeship for him.
Some support for such a thesis can be found in Phillips’s book. He brings out convincingly the contrast between Truman’s creativity, firmness, and sophistication in foreign policy-making, and his wobblings and relative ineffectiveness in domestic. Not that his general domestic program was faulty; Truman was, after all, continuing strongly in the New Deal tradition. But he seemed to lose control not only of Congress but of his own administration. We remember the Marshall Plan and the other great ventures. But the same President fumbled again and again in dealing with domestic matters to which, as a New Deal senator and Midwestern politician, he should have brought a practiced hand and even finesse.
Two examples of this lack of skill: in 1946, James Patton, head of the Farmers Union, wrote the President demanding that he fire Secretary of Agriculture Clinton Anderson for undermining price controls. Here is Truman’s answer: “I read your letter . . . with a great deal of interest and I regret very much that you are at odds with my able Secretary of Agriculture. You know, as far as Cabinet positions are concerned, they belong to the President and, as long as Secretary Anderson is satisfactory to me, I’ll keep him. I think you are entirely misinformed on his attitude. I think he is as able a Secretary of Agriculture as the country has ever had and I intend to keep him.” This is an honest answer, quite probably written by Truman himself, and one that breathes his courage and independence. But it was not one that would persuade Truman’s critics; it was not convincing on policy. A second and far more serious instance: during the railroad strike of 1946, an angry and frustrated President went before Congress to demand that he be authorized to “draft into the Armed Forces of the United States workers who are on strike against their Government.” He had brushed aside questions and warnings from his staff and Cabinet. He even wrote a speech in which he planned to call on veterans “to come with me and eliminate the Lewises, Whitneys, and the Johnstons; the Communist Bridges and the Russian Senators and Representatives and really make this a government of, by, and for the people.” More cautious White House hands got him to tone down the speech, but Truman’s final public position was still both dangerous and feeble as policy.
How explain the strange convolutions in domestic policy in the earlier years? In large part, I think, by the difference between Truman’s advisers in foreign and domestic policy. Within a few weeks of his accession, he jettisoned almost all of Roosevelt’s domestic brain trust and top officials. But in foreign policy—where the President doubtless felt less knowledgeable and more dependent on the White House inheritance—he kept on men of the stamp of Stimson, Harriman, Marshall, Acheson, Kennan, and Bohlen.
Support for such a view is found in Bernstein’s and Matusow’s documentary history of the Truman administration. Not only have the editors produced a model for this kind of collection, with its penetrating editorial prefaces, imaginative selections, handsome format, and remarkable range of materials (to mention a few: opposition speeches in Congress, excerpts from congressional hearings, the Hiss-Chambers confrontation, Congressman John F. Kennedy’s anti-Truman statement on China policy). Even more important, because of its emphasis on decision and policy, the book enables us to make judgments about Truman and his administration. And one cannot help being struck by the contrast in the early Presidential years between the prudence, continuity, and creativity that marked foreign policy, and the hasty judgments, improvisation, and fumbling in domestic policy.
After the 1948 election, Truman built up a corps of able men in domestic policy too. As we look back on the period we can conclude, I think, that Truman’s greatness or near-greatness was an amalgam of his own sturdy self-assertiveness, his awareness from reading American history of the indispensability of a strong Presidency, his role as both leader and agent of the New Deal coalition, and—perhaps most important of all—the quality of the men continuing in the historic office around him. The exact relation of these forces may continue to elude us; but surely it is out of such materials as these, in varying combinations, that Presidential greatness is fashioned.
It was President Harry Truman, just after the second world war, who first signed laws allowing women to become permanent members of the armed forces. By 2025, estimates say, one in every four military personnel will be female. America’s move comes alongside a shift towards integrating armed forces across the worldhttp://econ.st/1QMNz47