A review of Truman: By David McCullough
For the amount of attention the post 1945/91 World Order and the US domestic social deconstruction gets in our circles, the historical circumstances leading towards the decay of American social order do not get much more thorough than books like McCullough’s Truman, Caro’s Johnson or Davis’ FDR. The depths of the American problems with identity and political organization are well felt by our side, but the real historical political and financial actors who steered the country into catastrophe remain almost ethereal to the popular understanding. This is fundamentally a American problem of self understanding and deep loathing of the notion that men and local conditions, not political abstractions or ideological cabals, are at the heart of American history.
The strongest tendency of American historiography is to repackage messianic feeling as history’s inevitable bend; an outlook that has long been secularized to the moral arch of civic goals. This, however, is not how the political actors operated at the time, although they were more than jubilant to have their mundane plays for power and influence reframed as morally transcendent by the pundit class. To this end, David McCullough’s Truman biography is a spirited attempt to redress one of the most blatant discrepancies in 20th century American History. It is an immense effort to find the historiomoral significance in a man who was only a tool for political machines larger than himself, repackaged as the wisdom of Schlesinger’s abandoned “Vital Centrist.”
As McCullough lays out the early story of Truman’s life, he winds through almost 40 years of detail before we get to the event which actually launched his career, the clash of the Jackson County Goats and Rabbits. To me this was one of the most fascinating parts of the book, and where the historical insight into the ethnography of America’s old demographic politics came into play. Missouri has two real cities, Kansas City and St Louis with KC being the Westernmost outlet of the Midwest industrial boom and late 19th century urban immigration. The result was that from Truman’s birth to his start in politics in the mid 20’s, Kansas City’s population had increased by an order of magnitude. The Irish, Italians, Poles, Negros, and Americans began establishing demographic battle lines within Kansas City, which consolidated into two leaders, James Pendergast and Joseph B Shannon. While both men were Irish Catholic bosses in a county that had once been almost exclusively Protestant, they played for different constituencies, and Pendergast, aided by his brothers Tom and Michael were outmaneuvering Shannon’s Rabbit faction. The City had marginalized the surrounding Jackson County countryside, which was mostly made up of unreconstructed and blighted old pioneer families. As Shannon was losing his wards and the 50-50 rule between political machines was collapsing, he took the Pro-Klan position of the surrounding countryside and of the Old Stock.
This tells us two things about the status of the original families of the area by 1920, and their position within the new American hierarchy more generally. As the poster above demonstrates, it didn’t matter if the old families had been Union Jayhawks (Republicans) or Missouri guerrillas and bushwackers (country and eventually Shannon Democrats) both were valued as inferior to the KC immigrant and Negro vote. Secondly, when Shannon turned to the Klan in the early 20s, it was a move of last resort and widely understood as such. Shannon’s exit from politics was marked by him desperately and “ignobly” trying to hold on to some KC asset by playing for the historic populations of Independence and the rural communities of Jackson County.
This is where we start to understand Truman and his real role within the politics of the Missouri Bourbon Democratic machines of the cities. Truman was not an independently ambitious or capable man. McCullough’s narrative gives us the image of a completely unremarkable, almost pathetic figure who manages to fail on the farm, the bank’s clerk desk and as a storefront burgher while his family lives on credit. His single source of fame in the county came from his command of a locally sourced artillery unit that he commanded for a year in 1918, forming a network of local loyalty for Captain Truman that could not exist for ruralites (outside of the National Guard) today, but this and his name made him enough for the Pendergasts. When a Mike and Jim Pendergast walked into Truman’s bankrupt store in 1923, they wanted him to be their man to prevent Shannon from getting the (rural) East Jackson County Judge seat. Truman was not a good orator, he was 40 years old but had almost no other prospects so he agreed to the run. Truman was the perfect candidate for the small race, and held aloof from Shannon’s Klan as a Mason, the older “more respected” pioneer fraternity. The Klan itself was not nearly so organized or focused to realize it needed to be overtly Anti-Truman in a small administrative race. Truman, after all, had friends inside the Klan itself, and Shannon was also a Roman Catholic, but the rough political lines established by the late fight between Tom Pendergast and Joseph Shannon would frame the entirety of Truman’s political development. His positions and loyalties were those of the city bosses who had given him a future, and he would maintain both of these while giving them a man with a folksy, “clean” face.
The spin of McCullough’s narrative is that “Truman may have been a bought man, and he may have had no political drive outside of the Pendergast interests, but everyone got rich except him, and he was a great functionary!” I’m not sure why McCullough decided to write a 1,000 page biography on Truman, and I’m even less sure why he thought this was the angle to take that would make Truman look good, but this argument forces remarkable honesty between McCullogh’s lines. For instance, he remarks that Truman is still indebted from his business failure 20 years later as a second term Senator. This fact is presented to highlight his supposed honesty and incorruptibility despite making everyone in the machine millionaires and preserving the Pendergasts after Tom, the man who brought Truman from sub county judge to Senator gets vaned by Roosevelt’s FBI. The slight of hand is that he expects us to think that Truman never took money despite his campaigns and candidacies being completely bankrolled by Tom Pendergast to the point Tom decided when and how Truman was going to run and for what office. Truman’s cleanliness from the details of urban machine finance was step one of making him a viable candidate in the first place, and it’s not like Truman’s enemies, from Shannon and Cochran to Stark and Wallace didn’t know and say that this was part of Truman’s artificially manufactured image. McCullough includes as much in his book, and so he also attempts to find Truman’s racial and confessional “progressivism” as a reason for celebrating his faux folksy rise to power.
“Politics was personal contact. When winter storms hit the city, trucks from the various Pendergast enterprises would arrive in the West Bottoms loaded with overcoats and other warm clothing to be handed out to the homeless, the drunken derelicts, to any and all who were suffering. At Christmas, Tom gave out three thousand free dinners. Many people would remember for the rest of their lives how at the height of the deadly influenza epidemic in 1918-19 and at great personal risk Tom Pendergast had made a personal survey, house to house, to see who needed help.
All that was expected in return was gratitude expressed at the polls on election day. And to most of his people this seemed little enough to ask and perfectly proper. Many, too, were happy to be “repeaters,” those who voted “early and often” on election day. The woman who worked in the hospital laundry, as an example, started as a repeater at age eighteen, three years shy of the voting age, and enjoyed every moment. She and several others would dress up in different costumes for each new identity, as they were driven from polling place to polling place in a fine big car. It was like play-acting, she remembered years later. She would vote at least four or five times before the day ended. “Oh, I knew it was illegal, but I certainly never thought it was wrong.”
These five maps of Missouri illustrate the reality of Truman’s campaign in a regional context. The defining event for the 100 years of rural Missouri politics was the Civil War and the role different areas in the bitter, irregular, and ceaseless conflict between areas of the state. “Little Dixie” in Missouri’s north were solid Agrarian Populists in the post war, they were Democrats, and they did not feel enthusiasm for Truman’s Kansas City Pendergast driven politics. They only barely swallowed their opposition to vote Democrat in the Senate race against the Republicans, but even so, Truman did horribly with the farmer and town vote across the state, over 60% of his primary vote was from Jackson County alone both times, and over 70% of his Senate vote was from Missouri’s two large cities. Missouri Democratic politics were formed by the ascendency of the Pendergast machine. They have remained hyper-urban ever since. Civil Rights forced the final country defections which give us the modern solid red Missouri save KC and St. Ghetto.
The Republican rural counties in Truman’s day was rural Jayhawk territory. The Northern Ozarks was the host of a particularly brutal front of insurgent warfare that lasted long after Appomattox and arguably until the 1880’s. In neighboring Arkansas, the militia war of 1868 and Brooks Baxter War of 1874 between carpetbaggers and scallawags caused an implosion of the Reconstruction project for the Arkansas Ozark counties. What happened next was more or less a political/ethnic cleansing of unionists from the state as they fled into the Missouri counties. The politics of Rural Southern Missouri skewed more authentically Republican, they had not been punished by Reconstruction, and had bad memories of Southern campaigns and insurgency, and they also had few Negros and no overtly politicized Freedman’s Bureau which had caused the militia war in Arkansas.
When immigration began to explode in St. Louis and Kansas City after the Civil War (160,000 to 772,000 and 4,414 to 324,410 between the 1860 and 1920 censuses, respectively) the foreign vote industrial machines were not allied to the Republicans or the state’s native minority Dixiecrats. It was a new party which picked up the spoils of the industrial Bourbon Democrats, and James Pendergast was the pinnacle of New Midwest Democrat bosses. The rural vote of the state had never let go of its Civil War grudges, and for all intents and purposes, both sides of the former belligerents were left out of state politics by the 1934 Senate Race. The divide had allowed the ascendency of a New Democratic Party which could make a play for the Negro vote, consolidate the foreign catholic vote, and cast the Missourians, Jayhawk and Bushwaker alike as Klansmen bigots. While this is exemplified in many other cities in the 20s and 30’s genesis of the New Progressive Democrats, no candidate foreshadows the rest of the 20th century politic as well as Harry Truman, and no one better demonstrates the lie put forward by the redefinition of left and right under the praxis of Civil Rights.
Here was a folksy man, rising “from the farm” who just somehow “got over his prejudices” despite more frequently dropping the n words in private correspondence than on SALO forum, and he was “clean despite machine politics” whose interests he never dropped. Kansas City and St. Louis served as model examples for the nation of what they had done to the state of Missouri, and demonstrated the power immigration can bring against an exhurb electorate, with tactical exploitation of the American Negro problem. While the rhetoric radicalized over the next few decades, the model remained the same to use, despite its local consequences in Missouri of imploding everything the Democrats had built there. But by this point it doesn’t matter, Jim Pendergast bought James Monroe’s plantation in North Virginia and his kids live there instead, the model local machine became a national one, and Missouri can and has rot. Truman’s artificial face was one shared by every successful anti-racist political “boy from a farm” the rest of the century (save the actual Quaker farmer) and eventually he didn’t even need the farm, just accent coaching. All the while this model held until 2008, until there was no way to reframe what was happening to the Middle American town, and the rural vote was held in such low regard that you don’t even need to acknowledge it anymore. The march of time has decayed the edifice of Truman’s political face, McCullough’s attempt at a thorough touch up job has only exacerbated the ability of men 30 years later to see what Truman’s rise has really meant.
When David McCullough set out to write this biography on the president who became the progenitor of every foreign and domestic policy position for the remainder of the century, one wonders if he had this stylistic choice in mind from the beginning, or if it was a presentation morphed by series of committees of PR people at Yale, the Truman Library, and the National Security Council. Having reserved my full opinion on the book until I could conclude McCullough’s intent in his portrayal of Truman. I left time for him to reprimand his subject until the very end, and as a result I can thoroughly conclude that McCullough had zero intention outside of rehabilitating America’s least popular president without any qualifications. McCullough invites the reader to indulge in the George W Bush image of the serene decision maker, as austere and regal as his other subject, John Adams, while presenting Harry S Truman as quaint and down to earth as the litany of “middle American” candidates that have aped Truman’s Sam Waltonesque image to the present day.
McCullough had dedicated the entirety of his presidential writings to nourishing the current cult of the presidency, mixing the folkish “common wisdom” tropes of American politics with the aloof image of Cincinnatus Americana that has been a cornerstone of Masonic adulation of Washington since the beginning of the republic. McCullough grafts the image of John Adams’ principled and “intentional” unpopularity onto Truman, assigning principles of high office to his most controversial issues, and higher loyalty to abstract constitutionalism that has been the bane of conservative writing since the implosion of the Dixiecrats and Taftites that Truman played a vital role in. McCullough hides Truman’s hypocrisies as best he can under a veneer of higher loyalties never fully articulated but asserted to be higher civic principles. This is at its most jarring in his description of the conflict with MacArthur, where the Yale man assures us that the man whose presidency solidified the present role of the National Security state institutions asserted the “principle of civil control over the military.”
The result is a 1000+ page biography with many glaring holes, with every controversy being adeptly sidestepped and avoided in exchange for describing Truman’s private life, personal quirks, and “good ole fashioned” mindset in the midst of events and figures that dwarf him in every way. By depriving Truman of any real personal agency or affiliation after the death of FDR, we are left with a bumbling boy scout caricature of the man who nuked Japan, murdered his first Secretary of Defense over his opposition to Zionism, launched the first forever war in modern American history, solidified the Pentagons’ role in peace time, founded the CIA, and allowed Hoover to turn the FBI into the most sophisticated domestic surveillance force before beginning a social revolution from above. Maybe Truman was a dope that understood nothing of what he did, and blundered his way into his place as the most disliked president in US history after being the tool of more powerful people his entire life, but in my estimation the biography does him more disservice than even his harshest Republican or nationalist critics by reducing him to this role for the consumption of Clinton and Bush voters. Is it useless? Not quite, I think this book reveals quite a bit about American political realities and the condescending mentality of our literary class since they have branded the triple A label of the Pulitzer Prize on this interpretation of Truman. However, McCullough’s biography it is far from definitive on the era, the man, the decisions, or their consequences, which makes me question if it’s worth the time of anyone trying to come to grips with the early Post War genesis of America the global empire.
As we turn away from the managed career of Judge and Senator Truman, we arrive at the most critical moment of his entire life, the 1944 Democratic VP nomination. In this, Truman too was a pawn of the remaining political bosses and FDR, who was at a difficult political juncture managing his political patronage empire. Bob Hannegan, the St Louis politico who saved Truman’s run in 1940 against Stark by defecting to Tom Pendergast’s organization, had advanced in the national DNC political hierarchy by the Chicago convention in 1944.
FDR was in a difficult position. He had mostly eliminated the populist nationalists from a position to challenge him. Huey Long was dead, Charles Coughlin silenced, Charles Lindbergh thoroughly discredited, Pelley and Smith hounded to obscurity, there was no one left to contest the crown directly. But, FDR’s coalition of Catholic immigrants, Jews, Debsian Socialists, and Southerners was always unstable, and many felt this convention would select two presidents despite Roosevelt’s failing health being largely a secret. The conservative Bourbon Democrats had attempted their own coup 4 years prior when Roosevelt’s VP, former Texas Senator John “Cactus Jack” Garner attempted to primary Roosevelt in 1940 only to be humiliated and the Pro Soviet Henry Wallace replacing him. Wallace was devoutly from the Progressive wing of the party, for a national healthcare and desegregation, but was deeply unpopular politically and dangerous for the stability of the FDR coalition. FDR also had decided he was not going to let Wallace succeed him.
McCullough’s best chapters are on the maneuvering of FDR’s men in 1944 convention, because they are the last important ones that are wholly real. FDR himself falsely declared that he expected South Carolina Senator James F Byrnes to receive the nomination, but privately he was attempting to take focus off of Wallace until he could find a person he could put in place. Byrnes was a New Dealer, but also a staunch segregationist, and in FDR’s calculations Harlem was more important for electoral victory than the entirety of the US South, which was assumed would “vote Democrat regardless.” This marks a substantial departure from a critical Democratic Party policy from maintaining the Southern vote to securing the urban minority and labor vote, which crystallized and intensified as time went on. Truman was put forward as an unassuming compromise candidate from the Midwest, chosen by higher calculation in creating the least offensive ticket and nothing more. The DNC delegates, who put Wallace in the lead after Byrnes dropped out in disgust, had their votes artificially manipulated in the 2nd and 3rd ballots to exclude Wallace voters to the benefit of the political bosses and FDR who put their party machinery behind Truman. It was the most supreme triumph and comeback for the Bourbon Democrats, the disgraced ex Vice President Garner was elated at the choice, as was another junior member from Texas and lifelong Truman man, Congressman Lyndon Johnson.
McCullough’s narrative enters a turning point from this point onwards, before this point, McCullough had tried to rose tint the image of Truman as “the one straight man” in a corrupt political machine in Missouri, but had been essentially honest that he was not an autonomous figure. From the ‘44 conference, that aspect of the narrative disappears despite the clear reasons FDR had selected Truman. Truman was a man who would be quiet, he would do as he was told and not cause controversy, and he was a man who could be inert for years in a useless office without a fuss. He was not briefed on the War, the secret projects, diplomatic affairs, or even domestic concerns of maintaining the coalition party. Roosevelt treated him as a secondary figure, and he was, much to his resentment.
As McCullough shifts to President Truman, we are increasingly subject to a flight of developments and people who are described, then discarded. This is most glaring in the treatments of James Forrestal’s “suicide” in 4 paragraphs and his reduction of MacArthur to a petulant and dangerous “Custer like” showboater. As I’ve shown above, an entire 400 page book was written on the specifics of Forrestal, which is brushed off almost absurdly by McCullough here. Even Joseph Schechtman, revisionist Zionist and Jabotinsky’s secretary has more to say in “The United States and the Jewish State Movement 1939-1949” on the flaws of the treatment of both Marshall and Forrestal as a strategy that nearly catastrophically backfired had someone with less of a tolerance threshold than Truman been in place. As the years go by and the state apparatus slackens it’s grip on information from the era which no g-men survive, McCullough’s narrative has fallen apart completely. Another book on the Truman era: The Assassination of James Forrestal by David Martin has chosen just one of the gargantuan subjects McCullough devotes but sentences skirting in favor for covering Margret Truman’s singing career. Deserving of a full review in itself, this 300 page in depth investigation on a single significant event undoes so much of McCullough’s man and his White House.
But McCullough does not dwell, shifting between the undoing of the Taft Republicans and Southern Democrats from the controversies of Truman’s cabinet. The attacks on both McArthur and McCarthy are almost what you would expect from a Hollywood film; shallow, partisan, and bitter over the remote survival of their memory. Meanwhile Truman’s “Civil Rights” readjustment of US policy is uncritically asserted as a moral given of a man with selfless determination to achieve black equality. To McCullough, he was throwing the southern party into chaos out of purely altruistic motives, and the voter fraud that won Truman’s Senate seat suddenly doesn’t exist in states like Texas in 1948. The whole of the Presidential narrative, some 400 pages, falls unforgivably flat by repeating this presentation, issue after issue.
This is the longest and most thorough of the Truman biographies, finished in the 90’s as the definitive touch up job. And yet it can’t hide uncomfortable realities of the administration in its own footnotes. George C Marshall, his second Secretary of State and third of Defense got a four volume biography 30 years sooner. His other Secretaries of State, Defense, even his particular ambassadors and lesser nominal subordinates have all gotten more extensive treatment than himself, and it isn’t hard to see why. They made most of the important decisions of the state in that critical era. Truman was handed the most powerful executive and centralized rule in American history since Abraham Lincoln, it was a true “Imperial Presidency” with a unitary command bureaucracy and security apparatus. If FDR is responsible for the creation of the National Security State as we have come to understand it, Truman is the man most responsible for losing control. McCullough doesn’t know what to do with this aspect of Truman’s lack of ambition and understanding that cost an additional 44,499 dead Americans and the revival of a unified China. So he makes it the cornerstone of Truman’s “Americanism” and high dignity of office and character. He is not wrong. The endemic problems of American statecraft since Truman have all been characteristics he has fashioned into national tropes.
Truman was the first modern weak executive enfeebling his own office’s ability to enact policy in real terms. Truman presided over the onset of the ever expanding scope of agencies essentially leaderless and uncommunicative with any central apparatus. Truman was ruled by political bosses McCullough assures the reader “are a thing of the past” selecting him as a candidate long in advance based off of marketing data and donor money. But most of all Truman embodied the sheer lack of understanding or feeling plastered over with contradictory usage of faux folksy attempts at mass appeals and regal touting of the dignified high office’s separation from the public attitude.
These are the traits McCullough gives Truman in his “friendly” biography, and like the Hillary Clinton memoirs: What Happened? with its 2 chapters dedicated to banal food reviews, it paints a harsher portrait of its subject than a dedicated opponent who would write that these actions were undertaken only for reasons of cynical self interest.
When one observes other attempts at biographies of earlier presidents, including ones as historically significant as Wilson, enough time has passed to at least straightforwardly address certain realities of the man. Wilson’s strokes before coming to office, his contradictory concepts of both an evangelical democratic world order and global white civilization, his ugly unpreparedness for high office and the interests which lobbied him have all been preserved in detail if not frequently discussed. But Wilson’s White House had no OSS, Wilson’s J Edgar Hoover only lead the Alien Enemy Bureau in the much larger War Emergency Division of the Justice Department, its machine and the men in it had not solidified total information control. Truman’s portrayal and popular memory paintjob over an unpopular presidency is the result of the more sophisticated and longer lasting machine which put and maintained Truman in power. The apparatus has outlived both Truman and Dewey voters, and now calls to us, rummaging through used books to think of Truman through a lens that barely made any sense in the 1990’s. The definitive Truman biography, just as the definitive history of the entire post war era, can only be written by the upcoming generation of autodidactic historians of the right, who will be the only ones capable of seeing these developments through the perspective of actual Americans. We owe it to the generations past, and the generations to come, to tear down the artificial historical edifice erected by works like Truman.
2 Comments Add yours
Good to have this all in one place, but could’ve used a little more work to take it from forum post to article form. In particular, the part about the book on Forrestal’s assassination should link to your review of that book on the forum.
While I am planning to read McCullough’s book, I wonder if you have any other book suggestions about this era you could recommend.