Character sketches Benjamin Spock (1903–1998)

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Benjamin Spock (1903–1998)

Spock is the pediatrician whose child-rearing guide, Baby and Child Care, has been used by millions of American parents.

A 1929 graduate of Columbia Medical School, Spock became a well-known New York pediatrician for such people as Margaret Mead. He wrote Baby and Child Care while serving in the navy during World War II. The book has sold over 25 million copies—the best-selling original title ever published in the United States.

Although the book was criticized as permissive, it was actually a moderate reaction against the rigid feeding schedules and strict discipline imposed by child-care experts of the 1920s and 1930s.

Spock became an active opponent of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. He was indicted and convicted for encouraging draft resistance, but the conviction was overturned on appeal in 1969. In 1972, he ran as the presidential candidate of the small People’s Party. Even in his radical political activities, his image was that of a kindly, grandfatherly gentleman.

Quote: “I may as well let the cat out of the bag as far as my opinion goes and say that strictness or permissiveness is not the real issue. Good-hearted parents who aren’t afraid to be firm when necessary can get good results with either strictness or moderate permissiveness.” (Baby and Child Care, 1946)

REFERENCE: Thomas Maier, Dr. Spock: An American Life (1998).

Harry S Truman (1884–1972)

Truman was the Missouri haberdasher and machine politician who came to be regarded as one of the great American presidents.

The S in the middle of Truman’s name did not stand for anything. Both of his grandfathers had S names, so his parents just gave Harry the letter rather than choose either one.

Being very nearsighted, even as a boy, Truman spent much time playing the piano and reading history. His hero in American history was Andrew Jackson.

Truman worked on the family farm and at many odd jobs before becoming a popular artillery officer in World War I—an experience that remained one of the highlights of his life. The men’s clothing store he started in 1919 failed two years later, and he then began his career in machine politics. Judge Truman controlled a large patronage army but was never involved in corruption.

His quick temper and blunt-spoken ways were legendary. He often wrote angry letters to critics but only occasionally mailed them.

Quote: “The Republicans work for the benefit of the few bloodsuckers who have offices in Wall Street. This is a crusade of the people against the special interests, a crusade to keep the country from going to the dogs. You back me up and we’ll win that crusade.” (Campaign speech, 1948)

REFERENCE: David McCulloch, Truman (1992).

George Kennan (1904–2005)

Kennan was the American diplomat and ambassador to Russia who is credited with formulating the containment policy but later became a critic of many American Cold War policies, including Vietnam.

There was a distantly related nineteenth-century George Kennan whose career eerily paralleled that of the twentieth-century Kennan. Both were born on the same day, and both became leading American Russia scholars and diplomats of their time.

Kennan served as a U.S. diplomat in Germany and Riga, Latvia, before World War II. He became a scholarly expert on Russia, and his telegrams to Washington, based partly on his close observations of Stalin and the Russians, set out the basic principles of containment even before he wrote his “X” article in Foreign Affairs.

Kennan’s brief term as ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952 was cut short when the Soviet government expelled him, supposedly for critical remarks he had made about the communist rulers. Kennan later objected to the militarization of American foreign policy and ironically became, in the 1960s and 1970s, probably the most influential critic of the American Cold War policies he is credited with initiating.

Quote: “There is nothing—I repeat nothing—in the history of the Soviet regime which could justify us in assuming that the men who are now in power in Russia, or even those who have chances of assuming power within the foreseeable future, would hesitate for a moment to apply this power against us if by so doing they thought it would materially improve their power position in the world.” (Telegram to Washington, 1945)

REFERENCES: George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 1925–1950 (1967); David Meyers, George Kennan and the Dilemmas of U.S. Foreign Policy (1998); a collection of all of Kennan’s published articles in Foreign Affairs, <>, last accessed August 2008.

Thomas Dewey (1902–1971)

Dewey was the losing Republican presidential candidate in 1944 and 1948.

Originally a student of music, Dewey tried for an opera-singing career in Chicago. In 1931, he became the youngest ever U.S. attorney, and in 1935, he became a special prosecutor for racketeering, going after such notorious gangsters as Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano. His career as a relentless prosecutor formed the basis for several Hollywood movies.

Dewey grew his mustache to please his wife, who liked it, but his advisers constantly urged him to shave it off, saying it made him look sinister. Although he was lively and pungent in private, Dewey was obsessed with maintaining a proper public image. He never allowed himself to be photographed except in a tie and vest.

He long remained a power in Republican politics and helped engineer the nominations of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

Quote: “I do not know about the accommodations at the White House for the family.… There is of course no rush about it.” (Letter, fall 1948)

REFERENCE: Richard Norton Smith, Thomas E. Dewey and His Times (1982).

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