Truman , by David McCullough
Biography of U.S. President Harry S. Truman
Movie starring Gary Sinise as Harry Truman

Harry S. Truman -- 33rd President of the United States

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          Harry S. Truman was born May 8, 1884 and he died on December 26, 1972.

          Truman , a biography by historian David McCullough, was the winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in the Biography category.

          David McCullough's book is also the basis of the 1995 movie Truman starring Gary Sinise as the President, and Diana Scarwid as Bess Truman. (Click here to see the cast list)

          Two of David McCullough's books are on the list "One Hundred Books - A Twentieth Century Reading List" added as an appendix (page 584-590) to the bestseller The Century , by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster. One of them is Truman , which is number 52 on their list, and which they call "the most popular Truman biography", and the other one is The Path Between the Seas , a book about the building of the Panama Canal, which is number 1 on their list.

          To summarize the major events presented in Truman (the biography or the movie):

          Harry S. Truman is from Independence, Missouri. A World War I U.S. Army veteran, Captain Truman fails as a farmer and then fails as a haberdasher. Merely in order to pay his debts, he runs for the office of county commissioner. He wins (1922) and introduces good roads and sewers to the county. A corrupt Missouri businessman named Tom Pendergast helps Truman in this and future elections, which assistance is later to undermine Truman's vow never to allow the slightest degree of corruption or favoritism ("The buck stops here.")

          Having enjoyed public office, Truman runs for the Senate and wins (1932). In the Senate he assumes an investigative role. He is the only Senator who knows the name "Manhattan Project", although he can't find out what the term means -- he is warned never to speak the phrase.

          Japan bombs Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, and the U.S. declares war on Japan.

          In 1944, Truman very reluctantly accepts the nomination to be on the ticket with Franklin D. Roosevelt, only after FDR lectures him about the need for unity in the Democratic Party during the war effort. Roosevelt becomes President and Truman becomes Vice-President. Roosevelt dies in April of 1945, and Truman is sworn into the high office.

Eleanor Roosevelt : Mr. Truman, the President is dead.
Harry Truman : Mrs. Roosevelt, is there anything I
can do for you?
Eleanor Roosevelt : Is there anything I can do for YOU?
YOU are the one who's in trouble NOW.

          Truman is finally told what the Manhattan Project is. It's the top-secret research to develop the first atomic bomb.

          Bess Truman wants nothing to do with the role of First Lady. At a tea party with women reporters from the press, they ask her: "Eleanor Roosevelt held these socials with the press weekly ... how often will you be having them?" She replies, "This is my last one." In fact, she spends much of the coming years in Missouri, and Harry corresponds with her by letters. Bess occasionally appears beside Harry when he has to make speeches; on these occasions Harry jokingly introduces Bess as "the boss", a term she hates.

          The U.S. drops two atomic bombs and Japan surrenders. President Harry S. Truman sincerely expresses the wish that atomic energy shall be used in the future only for peaceful purposes. "If we don't make a mistake, what a paradise we could make of this world."

          Initiating the first federal government recognition of the black civil rights movement, Truman issues an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in several government departments.

          Harry Truman makes enemies of organized labor. He asks Congress to pass legislation that striking workers shall be punished by being drafted into the army. Labor protests that, if it is made a crime for workers to fail to show up at work, this would violate the U.S. Constitution's provision that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist."

          After the State of Israel is established in 1948, it takes Truman quite a long time to decide in favor of recognition of the new nation by the U.S. -- the other option being "Arab oil."

          Truman runs for reelection, opposed by Governor Thomas Dewey (Thomas E. Dewey). Many Southern Democrats oppose Truman because they see in him support for "mongrelization of the races." For the first time, coast-to-coast television carries presidential speeches. "Give 'em hell, Harry!" Truman is far behind in the polls, and based on early returns the press declares Dewey the winner. When the late returns are counted, Truman has won. He makes a speech and tells the American people, "You're going to have to put up with me for another four years."

          Senator Joseph McCarthy thinks he sees Communists wherever he looks. McCarthy accuses the President's administration of "treason" for "building up Russia."

          North Korea invades South Korea. China invades South Korea. In June of 1950 Truman decides to have the United States fight the Korean War. Truman calls the Korean War an American "police action." General Douglas MacArthur , who led the U.S. Pacific forces during World War II , is to administer in Korea. Douglas MacArthur speaks publicly as an extreme hawk, and says in a press conference that he feels the United States should drop fifty atomic bombs on China.

          MacArthur is successful in pushing the Communist forces back to the 38th parallel. Then, against Truman's direct orders, MacArthur send troops across the Yalu River into China. MacArthur has crossed a line which Truman, to avoid tempting China into World War III, had specifically told MacArthur to stay behind. Executive branch control of the military is an American principle. Truman recalls MacArthur and fires him. Hawks across America are furious -- they say the country should keep MacArthur and get rid of Truman. (For the complete story of General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) I recommend reading the book American Caesar , by William Manchester .)

          Truman decides not to run for reelection in 1952. January 19, 1953, Truman's farewell address: he says goodbye to the American people and asks everyone to support the new President Eisenhower.

          Bess is very anxious to get out of the White House for the last time. Truman goes back to Missouri, knowing that his only income will be his Army pension. As he arrives in his home town, an enormous crowd cheers him at the railroad station. links

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