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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Citizen Soldier’

- - Wednesday, October 24, 2012

CITIZEN SOLDIER: A LIFE OF HARRY S. TRUMAN
By Aida Donald
Basic Books, $26.99, 288 pages

Aida Donald's "Citizen Soldier: A Life of Harry S. Truman" doesn't try to do too much. It doesn't have to. Truman has been the subject of several expansive biographies in the last few decades, most notably one by David McCullough. So it is to Ms. Donald's credit that "Citizen Soldier" checks in at 239 pages, excluding introduction, notes and acknowledgments.

The brevity of this biography serves Ms. Donald's aim of filling in a specific gap in Truman scholarship. She succeeds. Where "Citizen Soldier" differs from other Truman biographies is in Ms. Donald's admittance that she is "more inclined to interpret Truman's life psychologically than other biographers of the president." What this means is not absolutely clear, but Ms. Donald has placed a special emphasis on her analysis of the "Pickwick Papers," letters Truman wrote to himself during his ascension through the vile Kansas City political machine of the 1920s and '30s that have only recently been made available to the public. Ms. Donald wants to know how a man historically perceived to be full of unflappable dignity and goodness adopted such a Manichaean approach to politics.

Ultimately, says Ms. Donald, the Truman of the 1920s was a man "torn between behaving ethically and having to be minimally corrupt." The historical record bears it out. The same Truman who turned a blind eye to thefts of $10,000, and even $1 million from the public treasury when he was a county judge was never suspected by anyone, even political enemies, of personally dipping into the public coffers or accepting a bribe. As Ms. Donald makes clear, Truman's consistently bare-bones living indicates that the man never got rich off politics until he started drawing the annual presidential salary of $75,000 per year. As late as 1940, Sen. Truman and his family were living in "poverty," with his mother-in-law and daughter sharing a room in their two-bedroom Washington apartment. Harry rode the bus to work.

But even in exposing Truman's moral rationalizations, Ms. Donald doesn't undercut those aspects of Truman's life that have rightfully made him a symbol of everyman America. Ms. Donald unveils the origins of Truman's famous virtue in the course of the first 75 pages. A homespun product of the Missouri plains, Truman ("more Roman than Greek") failed at farming, fought in World War I, dropped out of college, was perpetually in debt and endured numerous failures as a businessman, culminating in the disastrous operation of a men's clothing store in 1921, when he was 37.

Along the way, he subordinated his personal desires for success to every other obligation in his life, particularly the economic well-being of his mother: "Harry's ambition to be wealthy, to be free of family responsibilities, to be liked by male friends, had to be hidden, lest he injure those dear to him by breaking away and breaking moral commands to honor thy parents. The demands of life left a knot of rage within him." Reading these words, it's hard not to think of young Harry as a real-life George Bailey, the frustrated, do-gooder hero of the film "It's A Wonderful Life." Credit Ms. Donald with some skillful storytelling. At times, the reader has to convince himself that this career loser actually becomes president one day.

It wasn't until 1922 that Truman entered politics, "his final, and first successful profession." His career in the Senate was undistinguished until he became chairman of a wartime commission that oversaw the War Department's purchasing habits. Truman remained a party line New Dealer and was only begrudgingly accepted as Roosevelt's running mate in 1944. Of course, the most difficult and meaningful episode of his first term was his decision to use the atomic bomb. Truman wrote in his memoirs that he "never had any doubt it should be used," and "it occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood were worth a couple of Japanese cities and I still think they were and are." Still, he was no zealot to use the bomb -- becoming physically ill for days after making the decision, and lobbying hard against the use of atomic weapons during the Korean War.

Ms. Donald frames the rest of Truman's presidency as generally unsuccessful on domestic issues, but critically victorious in the Cold War: "His achievement of standing at the bridge to protect democracies and thwart communist takeovers is massive." Likewise, she discounts revisionist scholars who theorize that intimidating the Soviets was the aim of dropping the bomb. It's unfortunate that Ms. Donald takes a potshot at U.S. foreign policy ("American hubris began with Korea and has not diminished with the years"), but overall, she constructs a very balanced narrative of Truman's foreign policy.

David Wilezol is a producer for "Morning in America," a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.