Years of living dangerously

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 June, 1993, 12:00am

TRUMAN By David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, $213) IT may be an unworthy thought but it does seem at times as though sheer volume influences the committee that awards the Pulitzer Prize. This book, which won this year's prize for biography, weighs in at well over 11/2kg and runs to nearly 1,100 pages. The detail is extraordinary and author David McCullough has obviously and painstakingly done his homework.

It is time for a detailed examination of this perky US president who has tended in the popular conception to be overshadowed by his more flamboyant predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and by some of his successors.

Yet this is the man who produced the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO. He gave the go-ahead for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the development of the hydrogen bomb. He intervened in Korea (eventually having to sack General MacArthur) andmade the first attempts to introduce civil rights and desegregation of the US armed forces.

On the human side, this is a real rags-to-riches story: the Missouri farm boy who became president.

His childhood and adolescence were tough, in the sense that everybody on the farm was expected to pitch in. Then came World War I and Harry Truman served with distinction as an artillery officer in France.

Back home, he tried in partnership with a friend to run a haberdashers' shop in Kansas City but it went bust. It was around this time that Truman's connections began with the Pendergast family, the Mob who ran the area.

Just why the Pendergasts took him under their wing is not clear, because there is no suggestion that he was anything but honest: perhaps they needed a front who was absolutely straight.

Over the years, Truman became a judge, a position he seems to have enjoyed and carried out scrupulously. But he always had political ambitions and when the opportunity of standing for the Senate arose, the Pendergast machine swung into action. Harry took his seat as the junior senator for Missouri.

He served on some of the dullest Senate committees without apparent complaint, and bit by bit, found himself being grudgingly accepted by many of his colleagues. It was a process that took years, with the popular but ailing Roosevelt at the helm. Eventually, to the surprise of many, he found himself elected vice-president.

When Roosevelt died in office in 1945, Truman took over as President. He was faced immediately by huge decisions, including whether or not to use the atomic bomb. He also had to go to Potsdam for his first summit with Churchill and Stalin.

Once the euphoria of victory had abated Truman had to deal with domestic matters. Tens of thousands of workers were sacked as defence plants closed down or cut back - just at the time when hundreds of thousands of soldiers were pouring home, expecting tofind jobs.

In the meantime ''abroad'' would not go away. The conflict between the US and the Soviet Union got progressively worse as Moscow tried to increase its influence in every direction. American aid to Greece and Turkey to prevent a communist takeover cost more than the American contribution to the war in Europe.

All this time Truman had been, as it were, living on borrowed time because he had simply taken over the presidency from Roosevelt. But by 1948 it was time for a general election campaign to see whether he could win office on his own merits.

Truman's chances of winning were not rated highly. Newsweek magazine polled 50 highly-regarded political writers. Their vote was unanimous - all 50 thought that the Republican Dewey would sweep the country in a landslide. But when the voters went to the polls they were unmistakably for Truman. As the author puts it: ''He had won against the greatest odds in the annals of presidential politics. Not one polling organisation had been correct in its forecast.'' Soon the United States was once more embroiled in confrontation with communism, this time in Korea. General MacArthur wanted to fight the war his way without reference to Washington. Truman was adamant that control had to come through the President and the Administration. So Truman sacked MacArthur. There was, of course, a huge outcry, but Truman was unmoved. What this book does make clear is that Truman was never a man to be underestimated.

Apart from its bulk, this is patchily written and the author at times seems overwhelmed by the amount of material at his disposal. But it is likely to be the definitive history of the Truman years.