Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman
is a biography
of the thirty-third president of the United States, written by historian Alonzo L. Hamby and first published in 1995 by Oxford University Press. Hamby, who admits that his scholarly interest in Truman borders on a "quasi-obsession," offers a meticulously researched examination of Truman's life and career and honest analysis of his successes, his failures, and his undeniable flaws. Readers see that Truman was much more than just the coiner of "Give 'Em Hell Harry," "The Buck Stops Here," and other now-iconic catchphrases. He was a man of considerable contradiction whose greatest battles were with his own weaknesses and shortcomings.
The first portion of the book chronicles Truman's formative years. Born to farmers in Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884, Truman grows up a sensitive child, close with his mother both as a youngster and later in life; she would be a constant source of advice, even after he took over the highest office in the nation. "I was kind of sissy," Truman later said of his childhood.
After attending trade school, Truman returns to the family farm, and with his father becomes J.A. Truman & Son, Farmers. Truman is one of the only United States presidents to never earn a college degree. As he farms with his father, Truman dips his toes into venture capitalism, meeting varying degrees of success with several business endeavors.
When the First World War begins, Truman enlists. The war proves to be transformative for him, turning him into a real leader with strong potential. After returning home to Missouri, he opens a haberdashery, marries Bess Wallace, and sees his new business go bankrupt in the recession of 1921.
Shortly afterward, Truman takes his first steps toward a political life, winning a seat as a Jackson County judge. He follows that with a ten-year tenure as the U.S. senator from Missouri, which brings him in contact with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt chooses Truman to be his running mate, replacing his then-Vice President Henry Wallace. Roosevelt and Truman win, and when FDR dies just eighty-two days after taking office, Truman ascends to the Presidency.
"I feel like I have been struck by a bolt of lightning," he says as he officially becomes Commander-in-Chief. It isn't long before Truman must make some major decisions—decisions that would reverberate for generations. Mere months after being sworn in, Truman gives his authorization to drop a nuclear bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the pushback he receives and the innocent people killed or maimed by his decision, Truman is resolute. "I am here to make decisions," he says.
During this same period, the first rumblings of the Cold War emerge. With Russia, Truman also takes a hardline approach, ending what he sees as policies and practices that are "babying" the Soviets. However, there are problems at home, too. America is still adjusting to postwar life with its uncertain economy. There are strikes and financial upheaval for Truman to manage, prompting him to create his Fair Deal economic program. He still keeps his eye trained on foreign policy, recognizing Israeli statehood in 1948.
After winning what is technically his first presidential election later that year, Truman's victory is unexpected, given his abysmally low approval ratings. Nevertheless, he forges on in the Presidency, launching the Korean War, opening the doors for McCarthyism, and surviving an assassination attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists.
Truman's Presidency is also tainted by corruption. Rumors of bribes follow many in his Administration, leading to a congressional investigation. This plays a major role in the 1952 election, in which Adlai Stevenson wins the Democratic nomination after Truman—again courting dismal approval numbers—declines a second full term. Stevenson is subsequently defeated by Dwight D. Eisenhower, ending two decades of a Democratic stronghold on the White House. "I have served my country long, and I think efficiently and honestly," Truman says upon leaving his post. He retires to private life, but not without challenges. He encounters financial hardship, and he and his wife, Bess, eventually become the first two Medicare cardholders. Truman dies after a bout with pneumonia on December 26, 1972, at eighty-eight years old.
Despite the early leadership Truman showed in the military, Hamby argues that the President never fully realized his potential. He failed to define himself as a leader of strong integrity. He struggled to defend himself and his positions and set a positive example for a nation in the midst of significant changes. At the same time, Hamby views Truman as one of the most effective presidents of the twentieth century. He was an ordinary man who worked hard and achieved the position of the most powerful person in the free world. Ultimately, Truman is a man worth honoring, if not for any one particular policy or position, then for the complex, outspoken, and driven person he was.