The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World
By A.J. Baime
Hougton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
Until the inadvertent election of Donald Trump, nobody assumed the presidency with less preparation than Harry Truman. There ends the similarity.
Truman was kept in the dark by Franklin Roosevelt. It’s widely understood that he didn’t know about the Manhattan Project (few did). In truth, he didn’t really know about anything. He only met with Roosevelt twice before FDR’s death, and once was during the campaign.
I read David McCulloch’s definitive biography of Truman 15 or 20 years ago. Wisely, Baime has done two things to make this new work stand out. First, he availed himself of a great deal of material that was not available to earlier historians (he even read Truman’s dentist’s calendar). Second, he chose to focus the book day-by-day on Truman’s first four months, covering just enough of Truman’s history as a politician and unlikely rise to the vice presidency to give context.
The effect is a powerful intimacy with the thirty-third president. Baime is a masterful storyteller with an eye for detail. He brings alive the tensions and confusions that filled Washington and the nation in the days following FDR’s death, and the extraordinary way that Truman rose to the occasion. Many Americans had no recollection of any president besides FDR, and Roosevelt’s failing health had been well hidden. His death was a hammer blow to the psyche of the nation, which knew next to nothing about Truman. His subsequent rapid ascent in the public esteem was doubly extraordinary in that nobody expected anything of him. FDR had made the office and role of the presidency so fully his own that nobody, it seemed, had any idea how any man, much less an ill-educated haberdasher from a small Midwestern town, could do the job in Roosevelt’s absence.
The details of how Truman grew into the presidency are fascinating. His wife, Bess, hated the whole enterprise and didn’t want him to be president at all (hello, Melania?). For the first few days after FDR’s death Truman continued to live in a rented apartment and walk to the White House, while Eleanor Roosevelt arranged to move out. He was able to sneak away from the Secret Service and attend church by himself. He knew nothing when he walked into the White House, yet instantly he faced crises on multiple fronts. Stalin was occupying Poland and reneging on the Yalta agreements. The potential of the Manhattan project was becoming clear at the same time that U.S. forces were incurring unprecedented casualties in the fight for Okinawa. The U.S. economy faced collapse as war spending ended, and the Europeans were starving. Churchill was voted out of office in the middle of the Potsdam conference. It is hard to read about the firehose of crises Truman navigated and wonder how well the present American government would manage a single one of them.
Baime’s book is a page-turner—not the sort of thing one often hears about a presidential biography. Perhaps that’s because Harry Truman was so unlike anyone who came before or since. He was, as people came to say about him, someone who could have been your neighbor. Americans wanted him to succeed. A.J. Baime masterfully shows how, in those fraught, dangerous, early days, he did just that.