A man unprepared for the presidency faces dire challenges.
On April 12, 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt suddenly died, Harry Truman (1884-1972) ascended to the presidency. By his own estimation, he was the wrong man at the wrong time. “I’m not big enough for this job,” he remarked to a Vermont senator soon after being sworn in. Many in the U.S. echoed his concern: “The gravest question mark in every American heart is about Truman,” a senator from Michigan wrote. “Can he swing the job?” Drawing on letters, memoirs, and published sources, journalist Baime (The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War, 2014), a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and other publications, offers a fast-paced, well-detailed chronology of Truman’s transformation from an official with little administrative responsibility into a politically astute and ultimately beloved leader. After giving a standard overview of Truman’s biography in the first third of the book, the author follows the new president’s day-to-day—and sometimes hour-by-hour—schedule as he confronted the challenges of a nation embroiled in war. Just weeks after he took office, Germany surrendered. It was Truman’s 61st birthday, and although he felt relieved, he knew, as he announced to the press, “our victory is but half-won.” The Allies still faced “the treacherous tyranny of the Japanese,” and Truman received conflicting advice about how to surmount that threat. Just days before Germany fell, he had learned, for the first time, about the development of the atomic bomb, a weapon that he believed could force Japan’s unconditional surrender. As weeks turned into months, his colleagues “singled out a curious trait about Truman”: his firm decisiveness. “You could go into Truman’s office with a question and come out with a decision more swiftly than any man I have ever known,” his Soviet ambassador said. As Baime shows, that decisiveness came into play at his meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam and in his go-ahead to obliterate Hiroshima.
A warmly human portrait of an unlikely president.