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Truman by David McCullough
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Truman (original 1992; edition 1993)

by David McCullough

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3,377None1,599 (4.42)155
mrminjares's review
David McCullough rarely fails to satisfy. In this 992 page biography, he proves himself a master storyteller once again. The subject is Harry Truman, a man notorious for authorizing the first ever use of an atomic weapon but whose other contributions to history, including the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin Airlift, recognition of Israel, establishment of the CIA and the NSA, establishment of NATO, invasion of Korea, firing of General MacArthur, have shaped the course of events to this day. David McCullough humanizes Harry Truman and even more, presents him as the kind of American Thomas Jefferson idealized as befitting the presidency.

I certainly have greater respect for Harry Truman. I was particularly struck how little he sought politics. His first elected position as county administrator was offered to him by a local political boss. Harry proved so adept at administration that he rode a wave of success all the way to the United States senate. He was loyal to his party in the Senate but not widely known for any particular speeches or legislation. One exception to this was the Truman Commission, which weeded out graft and waste in government contracting during World War II. Truman was propelled to the Vice Presidency against his own wishes, largely due to the fact that Roosevelt was paying no attention to the issue and all the other more popular choices had fatal flaws. Only three months after inauguration, Roosevelt is dead and Truman finds himself suddenly responsible for ending World War II. He is admired by Churchill, and is deceived by Stalin. He somehow survives the ordeal of the Presidency, then decides to make a run for a second term despite low approval ratings. He pulls off an upset victory against Dewey at age 64 after an enormously successful "whistle stop" tour of the United States by train. His second term is dominated by the Korean War, a product of the Cold War and the fear that Russia and the Communists are advancing. The Korean War drives down Truman's popularity once again. He survives to the end of his term and is succeeded by Eisenhower, who became popular as a World War II general and actually served as Chief of Staff to Truman, who thought Eisenhower was a Democrat. Truman's popularity grows once he returns to Independence, Missouri and lives on to the age of 84 surviving not only Eisenhower but Adlai Stevenson, Dean Acheson, MacArthur and a great number of other monumental figures of the twentieth century. ( )
  mrminjares | Apr 28, 2012 |
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There aren't many American presidents of whom I would read a thousand-page biography. Thomas Jefferson, probably. Lincoln, certainly. And Harry Truman. This book reinforced my belief that Harry Truman was a decent, ordinary man who improbably rose to the presidency at a time when the nation faced an unprecedented string of crises and decisions. His political beginnings with the Pendergast Kansas City machine were inauspicious, but once he became a U.S. Senator he distinguished himself by his hard work and integrity while chairing a committee investigating wartime expenditures and excesses. His work put him in line to be selected for the vice-presidency when FDR ran for his 4th term in 1944. In a short time, FDR's sudden death put Truman in the White House, where he was forced to learn and grow in the job during a time of crisis as no president had before, except perhaps Lincoln.

McCullough ably and exhaustively portrays Truman as the man, the politician and the president. Truman had his faults and bad decisions. He grew up with somewhat racist attitudes, but ordered the desegregation of the U.S. military and fought for other civil rights. He held Joe McCarthy in fine contempt, but instituted a Loyalty program to head off Republican charges of being soft on communism. And I think he erred in not detonating a demonstration A-bomb on a deserted atoll rather than dropping the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. But his cool head kept us from a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and China over Korea, and he bravely fired the very popular Douglas McArthur for undermining American policy when his own popularity was tanking. Truman now is seen as one of our greatest presidents, an assessment I agree with. I also think he was a fine fellow whom I would have liked to know. ( )
  burnit99 | Feb 27, 2014 |
I am now an expert on this man. As usual, McCullough brings his subject to life - every single nook and cranny. Fascinating, behind the scenes life and observations of this plain speaking man from Missouri. Truman was much smarter than anyone realized, underappreciated when he was president and an astute politician. Very, very interesting biography and glimpse into this time period of the last part of WWII and through the Korean War. On audio this took me over a month to read! ( )
  ktleyed | Nov 30, 2013 |
Harry Truman is an interesting character, and David McCullough presents an engaging portrait of our 33rd president. McCullough is thorough and readable as he presents a chronological narrative of Truman’s life. Although a credentialed historian, McCullough avoids academic gobbledygook and knows when to end a sentence. He writes in a clean, straightforward fashion that invites the reader to turn the page.

When McCullough writes a biography, he investigates every nook and cranny of the subject’s life until he knows everything knowable about the individual. Attention to detail reveals the real person behind the public facade, but this fixation on the subject produces two flaws in McCullough books: they’re too long and the supporting cast are often cardboard cutouts.

At 1,120 pages, Truman is a long book. A very long book. After gathering all this information, McCullough doesn’t know what to leave out. The 1948 presidential race was historic, but after dozens of pages, I came to believe we would witness every whistle-stop. This is just one example of overwhelming detail. Truman would have remained a tome if cut by 200 pages, but the book would have been a more powerful biography.

McCullough’s focus on the subject of his biographies gives slight notice to other prominent people. The collection of great or notorious leaders during the World War II period probably rivaled the Revolution. At these rare times in history, collective greatness molds and/or reinforces the accomplishments of each individual player. (Doris Kearns Goodwin is a master at capturing the dynamics and undercurrents of formidable characters at formidable moments.) We learn everything about the character and actions of Truman, but Franklin D. Roosevelt, George C. Marshall, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, and the members of his cabinet and staff rotate around Truman with all the animation of carousel ponies. We have faint idea what Roosevelt thought about Truman or why he picked him to be vice president and then chose to ignore him after the election. FDR knew his health was failing, and handpicked a relatively obscure junior senator as his successor. Why? McCullough does not give us much insight because we see events only from Truman’s perspective.

Truman was an enjoyable read and a highly professional biography of one of our best presidents. Despite my grumblings, I read every word of this fine book and returned to reading it at every opportunity. I would highly recommend it … supplemented with other history books about this pivotal period in our history. ( )
  JamesDBest | Oct 16, 2013 |
This review has been some time coming. The trade paperback edition I read is 992 pages plus acknowledgements, footnotes, bibliography, and index. Practically got a hernia carrying it around. I also had commitments to review other books so I had to put it aside occasionally to read and review shorter books, usually fiction. Despite a weekend of football watching, though, I finally finished it Sunday afternoon. Now I'm almost sorry it's done.

Anyone who loves history and biography as much as I do knows David McCullough writes like a storyteller. His prose is never dry, boring, or academic, yet he unfailingly tells the reader what is important to know about a person or an event.

I thought I knew a lot about Harry Truman, a fellow Midwesterner, but I didn't. I simply understood "where he was coming from" as the kids say. His childhood as a farm boy who wore glasses and was also a dedicated student was delightful to read about. In Sunday school he fell hard for a little girl with golden curls and beautiful eyes, Bess Wallace. She was his only love but they didn't marry until they were in their 30s. Mama Wallace never did consider Harry good enough for her daughter, even when she was dying in the White House near the end of his time as President of the United States. Regardless, he never said a bad word about her, ever.

Now that I know the truth about his spell as Tom Pendergast's candidate for county office and the enduring reputation as a product of that political machine, I understand a bit more about why my grandfather had such a low opinion of Truman. Of course, he would have felt that way anyway since Truman was a Democrat which made him, in Gramps' eyes, a spawn of the Devil. Hard to believe this liberal Democrat (me) came from such a staunch Republican family, but I did because when I was old enough to think things out for myself, that was the way I believed. That was a matter I never discussed with Gramps. He would have been horrified.

We were city people, but farmers and small town folks loved Truman. When he went on his whistle stop tour running for president on his own, he stopped in the small towns and he talked their language. They loved his honesty, his humbleness, the way he introduced Bess as "the boss," and his knowledge of their cares and worries. (Although one time she told him if he introduced her thus one more time, she was going to get off the train and go home.) They also appreciated his service in World War I, as a captain of artillery. The men he commanded were to remain his good friends for the rest of his life and participate as honor guards at his inaugural parade.

His Achilles heel was daughter Margaret. No one could criticize her singing or anything else about her without feeling the full strength of Truman's wrath. He had begun to think he would never realize his desire to be a grandfather when she stayed single so long, but eventually she married and Truman would hold the first of four grandsons in his arms just a few days after he was born. Doting grandpa was his proud title from then on.

It was fascinating to read about his taking office after Roosevelt's death. FDR had not liked him very much, and didn't include him in briefings and conferences, so suddenly Truman had a huge learning curve immediately ahead of him. He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps as people used to say and did very well. He was fortunate enough to find some of the best men in the country to man the cabinet and be his advisors. Dean Acheson, in fact, was a close friend until his death.

His performance in Potsdam was surprising to Stalin and Churchill. One of my favorite quotes in the book is from Churchill. He wrote in 1952, "I misjudged you badly. Since that time you more than any other man, have saved Western civilization." (p. 875)

Whether to use the atomic bomb is another period I'm glad to know more about, and Korea. To know what went on in the background and the agony those decisions cost him was a revelation to me. Once a decision was made, he stuck with it no matter how many critics condemned him.

I won't go on but, in short, this is one of the best biographies I've ever read. Thank you David McCullough for giving us this wonderful story, the life of a controversial man who was so vital in our history.

Highly recommended
Source: purchased several years ago ( )
1 vote bjmitch | Oct 14, 2013 |
I listened to the audiobook format of this book, that means more than 54 hours, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Little content could have been removed. The narration by Nelson Runger was wonderful. I have complained about his slurping before, but the producers have removed the slurps. His steady clear pace perfectly matches the informative text. His intonation for Truman, was perfect, both the strength of his speeches in the presidency and his reflections, to-the-point remarks and sarcastic jokes of the elderly man. Our voice does change with age, and Runger has mastered this. (Some voices were, however, in my opinion, too low and ponderous.) At the end, and this is a book that covers all aspects of Truman’s life, from birth to death, i.e. 1884-1972, there were tears in my eyes. This is a book about a man dedicated to fighting for his beliefs, but he was a politician at heart. Keep in mind that I tend to instinctively distrust politicians. It is rather remarkable that I so loved this book. I will try to never again shy away from a book about politicians……well, at least such books written by John McCullough.

Why did I love this book? You learn about American life and values as they were when America was still a land of pioneers to what it had become by the middle of the 20th Century. What the political parties stood for has changed dramatically with time. On completion of this book you have a thorough understanding of the American party system. You travel from an agrarian Midwest value mindset through WW1, the Depression, the New Deal, WW2, the emergence of atomic weapons, the birth of the UN and NATO, the Berlin blockade and successful airlift, the Cold War and McCarthyism, the focus on civil rights, the Korean War all the way up to Kennedy’s presidency. You follow this time-period through the life of a man living through its events, and a man who as president shaped many of these events. McCullough gives you a thorough understanding of all these events and a thorough understanding of the man Truman.

It is an honest book that never shies away from the mistakes made. I wasn’t thrilled with Truman’s friendship and dependence upon Pendergast. I felt that Truman’s relationship with his wife was at first not adequately clarified. By the end I understood Truman, all of him. I believe I comprehend both his familial relationships and the value he put on friendships, which explain his relationship with Pendergast . You see both the good and the bad. I very much admire the strength and forthrightness of Truman who was at heart a marvelous politician. Yes, definitely a politician who fought for his party and made mistakes, but dam he tried his best. Always. He never shirked his responsibilities. He never ran away from a problem, but faced them head on. He was not infallible. I still don’t understand why they never had more children……

I was born in 1951. I understand now what my parents lived through and why they were who they were. I understand now what lead up to the world I was born into. I totally loved this book.

Completed April 20, 2013 ( )
2 vote chrissie3 | Apr 21, 2013 |
Excellent and gripping book. A very underestimated President. ( )
  JBGUSA | Mar 31, 2013 |
Product of the party and the system - which here produced "an excellent choice". Truman was not ambitiuous, but came onto new challenges or was given responsibilities - and rose to the task each time. Principled and down-to-earth. ( )
  ohernaes | Feb 21, 2013 |
If I were to add something to this book, if would be a second, later, set of pictures. If I were to change something about the book, I would make shorter sections. There is no escaping it is a very, very long book, but there is nothing that should have been omitted. ( )
1 vote kaulsu | Oct 16, 2012 |
Near the end of Truman's presidency, Winston Churchill came to visit and remarked, "THe last time you and I sat across the conference table was at Potsdam, Mr. President. I must confess sir, I held you in very low regard then. I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt." He paused. "I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you more than any other man, have saved Western civilization."

Churchill wasn't alone in his doubts about Harry Truman. A common man from Independence, Missouri, Truman became President at a key historical moment in the midst of World War II. In the first few months as President, he made the decision to drop atomic bombs in Japan and negotiated an end to the war with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam. Truman also dealt with labor unrest at home, the rise of the Cold War, the Korean War, and more. McCullough covers these events in just the right amount of detail, and each detail is chosen carefully. While the length of the book may seem daunting, the story never drags. This is a beautiful portrait of an intriguing period of history, and it made me want to read more about many of the supporting players (Churchill, Stalin, Bess Truman, McCarthy, Eisenhower, MacArthur, etc.).

Besides describing a fascinating slice of history, McCullough also provides us with insight into Truman the man. As a Missourian by birth, I recognized Truman's honesty and plainspokenness. People knew where they stood with Truman. But at the same time, Truman was anything but a simple man. As McCullough concludes, "The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of his friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however, appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great American president." But McCullough doesn't avoid Truman's faults - his connections with the Pendergast bosses, his unquestioned loyalty to those from back home, and his occasional temper. What we get in this biography is a complete picture of the man and the times in which he led. ( )
  porch_reader | Aug 22, 2012 |
One of the very best biographies I have ever read. McCullough makes a 900+ page book a breeze to read--not a boring page in the lot. ( )
  tloeffler | Jul 30, 2012 |
How does one write a meaningful review of a 992-page book that covers a broad swath of United States history? David McCullough doesn’t waste a word as he writes about Harry Truman the Man, who was devoted to his family and loyal to his friends, and Harry Truman the President, who loved his country and served it to the best of his ability. One would be mistaken to think that there were two different versions of Harry Truman. His equal allotments of humor, humility, and high-mindedness governed both the private and public sides of his life. His response to questions from reporters on his first day of becoming the 33rd President of the U. S. (and the 7th VP thrust into office after the sudden death of the President) was typical: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Truman faced many challenges that shaped history during his two terms in office. He is probably best known for the decision to use atomic force to expedite the end of WWII. He was also responsible for fostering the Civil Rights movement, establishing Israel as an independent nation, and instituting NATO, the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan. He even got involved in renovating the White House which was in danger of being condemned. One of the biggest thorns in his side was North Korea and the resulting “police action” as he preferred to call the war against Communist invasion. He also didn’t like the prevailing term of “Cold War” and called his relationship with Stalin “the war of nerves.” Truman was sustained through all this turmoil by a quote from another Missourian, Mark Twain: “Always do right! This will gratify some and astonish the rest.”

After spending many hours reading this fine Pulitzer winning work by McCullough, I am proud to call myself a Missourian. Truman worked hard to be a decent man doing the decent thing. I personally enjoyed the references to Harry Truman as a reader. Since I am addressing fellow book lovers, I’ll conclude with Harry’s idea of heaven according to his daughter Margaret: “…to have a good comfortable chair, a good reading lamp, and lots of books around that he wanted to read.” A fine ending to a fine life. Harry Truman died on December 26, 1972 at age 88 in Kansas City, Missouri. He and his wife Bess, who died ten years later, are buried in the courtyard of the Truman Library located in their beloved Independence, Missouri. ( )
7 vote Donna828 | Jul 29, 2012 |
David McCullough rarely fails to satisfy. In this 992 page biography, he proves himself a master storyteller once again. The subject is Harry Truman, a man notorious for authorizing the first ever use of an atomic weapon but whose other contributions to history, including the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin Airlift, recognition of Israel, establishment of the CIA and the NSA, establishment of NATO, invasion of Korea, firing of General MacArthur, have shaped the course of events to this day. David McCullough humanizes Harry Truman and even more, presents him as the kind of American Thomas Jefferson idealized as befitting the presidency.

I certainly have greater respect for Harry Truman. I was particularly struck how little he sought politics. His first elected position as county administrator was offered to him by a local political boss. Harry proved so adept at administration that he rode a wave of success all the way to the United States senate. He was loyal to his party in the Senate but not widely known for any particular speeches or legislation. One exception to this was the Truman Commission, which weeded out graft and waste in government contracting during World War II. Truman was propelled to the Vice Presidency against his own wishes, largely due to the fact that Roosevelt was paying no attention to the issue and all the other more popular choices had fatal flaws. Only three months after inauguration, Roosevelt is dead and Truman finds himself suddenly responsible for ending World War II. He is admired by Churchill, and is deceived by Stalin. He somehow survives the ordeal of the Presidency, then decides to make a run for a second term despite low approval ratings. He pulls off an upset victory against Dewey at age 64 after an enormously successful "whistle stop" tour of the United States by train. His second term is dominated by the Korean War, a product of the Cold War and the fear that Russia and the Communists are advancing. The Korean War drives down Truman's popularity once again. He survives to the end of his term and is succeeded by Eisenhower, who became popular as a World War II general and actually served as Chief of Staff to Truman, who thought Eisenhower was a Democrat. Truman's popularity grows once he returns to Independence, Missouri and lives on to the age of 84 surviving not only Eisenhower but Adlai Stevenson, Dean Acheson, MacArthur and a great number of other monumental figures of the twentieth century. ( )
  mrminjares | Apr 28, 2012 |
David McCullough is a great reader and this abridgement is interesting and has been skillfully done. There were sound bites of Truman's speeches included in the audio, which provided a better understanding of Truman himself. I've visited the Truman Presidential Library and Truman's home and seen a number of documentaries, and I was still surprised by what I learned from this book. ( )
  PlankGeek | Feb 3, 2012 |
not read
  ray-fitz | Oct 15, 2011 |
Our summer book club read. Truthfully I did not read it - I find McCoullough WAY too wordy, and this book, over 1000 pages too heavy even for my wrists to hold, so got it in audio. I do admire Truman, and find him interesting. The part about his childhood and early adulthood, his love for & pursuit of Bess, was interesting. Overall though, I'd recommend almost any other book about him. ( )
  JeanetteSkwor | Aug 1, 2011 |
A great biography of a great man, this is one of McCullough's masterpieces. ( )
  wanack | Sep 18, 2010 |
Outstanding book. Every candidate for President of the United States should read. ( )
1 vote JayHurst | Aug 27, 2010 |
This is an entertaining, easy read, and an informative biography of a somewhat lackluster but critical post-War president. It is a full biography though and begins with the Truman family's origins and ends with Harry S.' death.
  gmicksmith | Jul 29, 2010 |
Great book; chock full of every detail, it seemed, of Truman's background and politics. Just thinking about what a huge undertaking in research and good writing it was, almost made my head explode.The only reason I didn't finish: I reached a point of plodding, and when I reach that point, I take a breather.I may very well give this one another shot one day when I have world enough and time. ( )
  HankIII | Jul 26, 2010 |
Truman by David McCullough (1992)
  ncpoekert | Jun 16, 2010 |
Great biography, great man. Still one of our most under-rated Presidents. Went from Senator to Vice-president to President in less than days. Two weeks after being sworn-in he was at the Potsdam Conference with Churchill and Stalin. Then he was quickly pressed for more historical decisions, most notably use of the atomic bomb, a weapon he was not privy to as VP. But he believed his job was to make decisions, and he did - and took responsibility for them. And he felt that the bomb was not his most difficult decision while President - entering the Korean War was. There are so many wonderful segments to this book - but my favorite was probably the '48 election, one that few believed he could win. The momentum buildup as he made his whistle-stops is incredible to read about. Most of all, I enjoyed the testimonials of the people who got to know Truman personally, how they had generally underestimated him, and came away truly impressed with the man from Independence, Missouri. ( )
  maneekuhi | May 16, 2010 |
David McCullough's writing voice is like reading a personal letter. Mr. Truman had such trying times-in office and at home. ( )
  joyleppin | Jan 26, 2010 |
I read this quite some time ago in high school for summer reading, and I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed it. This may lead to the conclusion that I was an unusual 16 year old, which is likely true, however, I think better case could be made for David McCullough's Truman being an extraordinarily well written biography. It is a doorstopper, but well worth the read. ( )
  psocoptera | Dec 22, 2009 |
This was the first David McCullough book I read and was hooked. His research turns up very interesting facts, and I couldn't put it down. John Adams is my second favorite book by him, but all are interesting. ( )
  janetcoletti | Oct 7, 2009 |
My favorite of McCullough's books. Great story. ( )
  corrmorr | Sep 25, 2009 |
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