Colin Morrissey



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Colin Morrissey
L. Grothaus
History 1919-1960
10-25-09

I read the book A life of Harry S. Truman: Man of the People by Alonzo L. Hamby which was published by Oxford University Press in 1995. Hamby is a Harry Truman guru who has been studying him for more than thirty years. His research interest started on Truman just years after he left the office of presidency. Hamby lived in the time when Hamby was president. He recalls that he first became interested in Truman was when he first developed a conscious view of the outside world. Alonzo Hamby was born on January 13, 1940 in Humansville Missouri. Hamby is a white male that is a product of small town mid-America life in the middle class. Hamby started his education at Southeast Missouri State pursuing a B.A. degree in teaching. Hamby then won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship scholarship in 1960, and used it to achieve an M.A. at Columbia University. This scholarship only lasted a year and money was tight, luckily Hamby caught word of the National Defense Education Act fellowships, tied to the study of the Truman presidency, at the University of Missouri. Hamby decided to write his dissertation on "Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism, 1945-1948” as one half and write another half later. Writing this dissertation got Hamby reconnected with William Leuchtenburg a professor that he had at Columbia. He was interested on the basis that he had just started a Columbia University Press Contemporary American History Series. The result was a finished product of Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism (1973). Ever since then, Hamby has surrounded himself with the study of 20th century U.S. history, especially in the political and cultural realm. He has written several other books since his first including The Imperial Years: The United States Since 1939 (1976), Liberalism and Its Challengers: F.D.R. to Bush (1992), and recently For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s (2004). Hamby has become a member of the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Southern historical Association, and Ohio Academy of History. I think it is safe to say that Alonzo Hamby is a valid expert on the subject of Truman based on his backgrounds in education and publication. He truly is a guru on Truman because he has surrounded his life around the study of history during that time period and of Truman himself.

Hamby wrote this book to present Truman as a historical figure in whose career finds not just an interesting individual, but a picture of the evolution of American Social and Political democracy in the first half of the 20th century. Truman has been ranked under some peoples books as a top 8 president to ever take office and Hamby is trying to prove why Truman was such an important figure. Covering Truman as an interesting individual and also the way he evolved America in the mid 20th century is a huge task, but I believe Hamby’s attempt is admirable and accomplishes his goal.

The individual character of Harry S. Truman was displayed frequently through out the book. People would say that Truman is a bold and outspoken person that will speak his mind when his authority is challenged or not respected. Harry Truman is described as a county administrator, state senator, two fisted democrat, henchman who was loyal to the machine who accepted dishonesty. Others didn’t see him as a strong leader because he was so erratic when dealt with people. He was not the type of person you could have a conversation with and negotiate with easily because of how erratic he could be. Truman wanted things his way and would be aggressive towards others to make his point. Throughout his presidency he vetoed more bills than any other president besides FDR in the 20th centenary. When entering office he stated that he is there to make decisions not to just pass the decision on. This is where the motto of “The Buck Stops Here” was coined by him. He believed it was his job to make all the decisions no matter what other people might say. He prominently displayed the sign at his desk showing that he has the authority and when he feels its time the buck will stop and a decision will be made.

The buck did stop several times for Truman where he had to make crucially tough decisions. Truman had the daunting task of becoming president during a time of war. He was abruptly put into the point of president after FDR died of a stroke. This was a weird coincidence because Truman really wanted no part in the vice president of the United States, let alone the President of the United States. He felt pressured into taking the vice presidential ticket after the Democratic Party urged him that without his help he would disrupt the unity in the party.

On several occasions as president Truman had to deal with the USSR. Truman felt that the diplomacy with the USSR should be a one way street quoting, “If the USSR doesn’t go with their promises to the United Nations then they should go to hell”. On another occasion when talking with Molotov of Russia Truman was reported as being very aggressive. Molotov said, “I have never been talked to like that in my life”. Truman was reported saying back to Molotov, “Carry out what everyone agreed upon and you won’t be talked to like that”. This goes to show you that Truman wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and tell things how it is. Truman was not too terribly afraid about sending off a bad message diplomatically if it was something that he believed. The one thing that Truman hates the most is when a man does not keep his word. The leaders of the USSR were the kinds of people who did not keep their word so Truman had a hard time respecting them.

Post war diplomacy was high on Truman’s list as soon as he got into office. He had to make decisions and talk with people about what is to become of the world after this war. Truman was impartial to the unconditional surrender idea. He left it up to congress to vote whether we want that to be our policy or not. Truman had to deal with the fact that the USSR was not going along with Anthony Eden’s agreement of letting Lublin Polish people in Poland’s government. The issue of Poland was only one of many promises that the USSR broke. Truman absolutely despises those who can not keep promises and so the USSR gave him some headaches. Truman would send Hopkins to Moscow to make some agreements, but the USSR would not budge. Truman instructed Hopkins to agree to let the whole Polish issue go along with the Balkans area. Later, Truman would talk with Stalin and found out he was not so bad. Truman was quoted saying, “He was an honest man but smart as hell”. In these meetings Truman urged that he would rather go home then have endless discussions. Through all talks with Russia Truman still had to in diplomacy with allies. The British for example did not like the fact that at times we did not talk with them first before talking with Russia. Truman often times took the British allied-ship for granted.

Truman implemented the Marshall Plan to help out Western Europe. This proved to be a good idea because if all of Western Europe is hurting economically then communism might seem like a good option. Truman was really thinking when he implemented this plan. He also wanted to serve a some what humanitarian effort at the same time. A similar humanitarian effort with other political implications occurred with the Berlin airlift. We kept supply Berlin with food because the perception of letting Berlin go would be a loss.

Another of the big decisions on Truman’s plate was what to do with this bomb that has been in the making. As the intense fighting in the Pacific proved that the Japanese would fight fiercely and to the death casualties began to stack up. The closer the United States got to Japan the harder the fighting was in terms of casualties. Japan was seen as if they would not stop fighting until they were stopped. Showing the Japanese a trial of the bomb perhaps would not do anything. We didn’t have many bombs anyway so Truman enacted to use the bomb. Some people believe that Truman used the atomic bomb in order to intimidate the USSR as well as to of course end the war in the Pacific. This could be the case because after we had the bomb Truman was more assertive in talking with the Russians. Truman used the bomb as a bout of confidence and a way to pull some weight diplomatically.

Truman had to deal with the Korean War in his time in office. Truman soon found out that his troops were under-equipped for this sort of a war. Truman took the risk of saving money on the military because we had the atomic bomb, but in a war like Korea there are no targets to hit. Truman was faced with the problem of having an unsuccessful war effort in Korea. This was a major embarrassment because the United States is supposed to be a strong power, and they couldn’t even handle a small country. The whole situation went over wrong because the line was barely changed and we got China involved.

Truman ended up relieving General MacArthur because he wanted to attack China’s supply bases north of the Yalu. This went against what Truman wanted to do but MacArthur continued to pursue it in congress. Truman felt as though MacArthur was not respecting his leadership so he relieved him of the position. This was an unfavorable move in the public eye because MacArthur was well liked because he was a great war hero. Truman did not care what the public thought because on of his main pet-peeves are people who do not respect. When Time Magazine asked him about it Truman said, “fired him (MacArthur) because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President... I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail".

Truman was not afraid to let his opinion be heard which made him a unique president and person. Truman wrote about his cabinet at one point making comments about each person. Truman choose not to send it to anyone, but some of the things he said showed how Truman simply spoke his mind. Some of the good ones are that he calls his treasury a “block head nut” and he speaks of the agriculture secretary as “a nice man, who never learned how his department was set up”. Now you might be able to see why some people thought he was erratic and not leader quality. How could a man so outspoken and bold be a leader and deal with countries?

Truman tried to get some social change for the United States in his Fair Deal. Truman was dedicated on getting some more civil rights and advocating national health insurance. When advocating for civil rights Truman a war veteran himself said, “My forebears were Confederates, but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten”. Neither one of these issues got far in his administration but the fact that Truman raised the issue helped for later topics on the issue. The only thing that did pass in the Fair Deal was Housing Act of 1949 which let government play a bigger role in mortgages and public housing.

When Truman’s time was up in the office there was speculation on whether he could stay for more than 2 terms. After all FDR stayed for more than 2 terms in office. Truman simply said, “Serving two years is enough for a man any longer and he might get too powerful; he commented that Washington set the standard of two terms and so would he”. This goes to show you that Truman respected American tradition and our democratic system. Truman served in one of the most challenging presidential times and he had enough work during his presidency. Truman definitely was a unique president in the way he acted yet great in the way he handled most issues. Truman was definitely a man who shaped history in the mid 20th century.

Noam Chomsky was probably one of the more famous reviews on this book. Chomsky simply says, “Alonzo Hamby is well qualified to write one. As he says, Truman was a 'man of the people,' whose life 'exemplifies' many aspects of “the American experience”. Chomsky commends Hamby for writing the book in a way that does not try to interpret complex and ambiguous material in ways not liked. Hamby did not exemplify “scholarly ideologues” or as having a biased attitude toward Stalinism. Noam Chomsky comments on a few sections of the book and gives a little summary of the book. Overall, Chomsky does not believe this books account should be subject to critical evaluation. Chomsky explains, “He provides a picture of personalities and domestic political maneuverings, but little beyond. Truman deserves better, however one judges his achievements”. It was almost as if Chomsky was being too critical about the book himself. The fact that Noam Chomsky said Truman deserves better than this book is an extremely bold statement.

David Oshinsk reviewed the book for the New York Times. Oshinsk realized that there was a theme of the need to be recognized and respected dominated Harry Truman's life. Oshinsk discovered Hamby displayed this theme of Truman extensively throughout the book. Oshinsk is critical however saying, “It lacks the narrative drive of David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Truman," published in 1992”. What Oshinsk did believe Hamby did well was that he, “provided a clear interpretive framework for understanding the relationship between Truman's personal traits and his momentous Presidential decisions”. Oshinsk thought Hamby skillfully reminded us of the real Harry Truman without slighting his accomplishments.



I thought that Alonzo Hamby wrote a compelling book that told us of what kind of man Harry Truman was and why he exemplifies the American experience. I thought this book was written in a way that covered Truman as an interesting individual and also the way he evolved America in the mid 20th century. I think that Hamby demonstrated thoroughly what kind of man Truman was. Coming into the book I had no idea of what Truman’s personality was like. I soon discovered just the kind of person Truman was by Hamby’s incorporation of quotes and descriptions. I also got a vast feel of how much Truman really did while in office. It seemed like Truman did everything and more than a typical president usually has to do. Hamby covered the historical facts well and gave us an idea through covering of the American experience. It was almost like Truman was “A Man of the People”. I believe because of this Hamby proved his thesis to write a well written book. I think Hamby asked the appropriate questions of the past covering all you needed to know about Truman’s era and more. For the most part I think Hamby stayed unbiased or prejudice. I believe he stayed on the side of giving factual information and not so much personal interpretation. I would caution however, that Hamby might have made Truman out to be a greater president than he might have really been. I would make this assumption because Hamby has admired Truman ever since he was a little boy. I think I learned a great deal from reading this book. I learned a lot about the kind of person Harry Truman was and a lot of Historical things that happened during Truman’s life and presidency.

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