HARRY S. TRUMAN by Robert Dallek


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Concise biography of the 33rd Chief Executive by one of the nation’s preeminent presidential historians.

It is an odd irony of history that Truman, who during and immediately after his presidency was reviled as a mediocre and corrupt ward heeler, has been reevaluated as a man of principle and one of the great presidents of the 20th century. Dallek (Nixon and Kissinger, 2007, etc.) seems to agree in the introduction to this slim volume, which places the Missourian among the “great or near-great” presidents—a thesis the author ignores for the rest of the book, as Truman blunders his way through one crisis after another and is seemingly outmaneuvered at every turn. Perhaps Dallek can be forgiven, since this entry in the American Presidents series summarizes previous historians’ work and is not intended to revise or add much to the scholarly discourse. Thus, we get Truman deciding to go into politics as a young man partially because it afforded him a steadier income than running a haberdashery. The most gripping part of the book occurs not in 1948, when Truman defeated Dewey in one of the greatest upsets in political history, but three years earlier, when Eleanor Roosevelt summoned him to the White House and handed him the reins of power after the death of her husband. Truman proved to be vastly unprepared for the job and quite unhappy in it. In the president’s defense, Dallek points out that it was a tough assignment: The end of World War II rent huge holes in America’s social fabric; the tenuous alliance with the Soviets was coming undone; demagogues were stirring up domestic fears of communist infiltration. The chief insight Dallek provides is showing how principle was tempered by political calculation as Truman navigated this new universe.

A solid summary of Truman’s life and presidency that is ultimately too cursory to provide much deep analysis or reading pleasure.

Pub Date: Sept. 2nd, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8050-6938-9
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Times/Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2008


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