On April 12, 1945, Harry S. Truman received an urgent summons from the White House. When he arrived, Eleanor Roosevelt told him, “The President is dead.” Truman asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Mrs. Roosevelt responded, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
The next four months included the fall of Berlin, victory at Okinawa, the controversial decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the eventual end of World War II, the famine in Europe and the beginning of the Cold War. Harry Truman—a Midwesterner with no college degree, little money, and the prototypical ordinary man, who was not briefed by his predecessor—was thrust into the presidency in the midst of this tumultuous time.
In The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, acclaimed author A.J. Baime takes us on the wild ride of Truman’s first few months in the White House. His captivating storytelling invites readers into the Oval Office with Truman during this high-stakes period of history.
The Truman Library Institute is partnering with Rainy Day Books to host a free public program featuring A.J. Baime on Nov. 16 at Unity Temple on the Plaza, and we spoke with the author in advance to ask him a few questions previewing his public program:
What drew you to focus on Harry Truman for your latest book?
This book is dedicated to my father. He has kept a portrait of Truman on his office wall for over 40 years. Growing up, Truman was like a god in our household. He set the example: Work hard, do right, do the right thing, and good things will happen for you. So I’ve always had this respect for Truman.
More to the point, there is a chapter in my last book The Arsenal of Democracy where the Truman Committee investigates Ford’s Willow Run bomber factory in Michigan, during World War II. I had so much fascinating material on Truman that hit the cutting room floor, and so it all started there. I wanted to write about Truman even before my last book was finished.
Which decision that Truman made in his first four months most impacted the world we live in today?
The decision to use the atomic bomb. That is certainly the most controversial decision any president has ever made, and it ushered humanity into the atomic age. In my opinion (and this is just Monday morning quarterback stuff), if the atomic bomb had not been used in WWII, someone would have used it later, with potentially unimaginable results. Truman’s decision also feels eerily relevant given the crisis we face with North Korea today.
It seems you’re a fan of Truman’s leadership. What personal characteristics or traits most helped Truman succeed during his first four months as president?
My takeaway from all my research on Harry is this: He learned very simple principles as a child from his parents, and these principles guided him through his life, whether he was parenting his daughter or running for office or giving the go-ahead to use an atomic weapon against Japan. Honesty is the best policy. Do the right thing. As he said later in life, “Right was right and wrong was wrong, and you didn’t have to talk about it.” Those simple values seem to have been lost for so many for so long, and we can see the results in our newspapers every day.
How did Harry Truman change the presidency?
As the first post-WWII president, Truman faced a different job than any president before him. So in essence, he had to recreate the presidency, most notably with regard to foreign affairs. The Truman presidency defined the role of the U.S. in the postwar world in terms of international relations (the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan), and while the political metronome continued to shift between left/right for decades after his presidency, the U.S.’s role in the international playing field has remained relatively constant, right up until the last few months. (Today, this is all up in the air. The role of the U.S. in the community of nations is currently unclear.)
In terms of character, Truman set a new example for Americans, that great leaders can come from unlikely places and that your so-called average person can in fact be capable of extraordinary things. I love the Jonathan Daniels quote: “Americans felt leaderless when Roosevelt died. Truman taught them, as one of them, that their greatness lies in themselves.”
What lessons can the general public learn from Truman’s first four months as president?
Fate can throw mind-boggling challenges at you, challenges you never dreamed you would face. All of us are capable of doing things we never imagined we could do. If we rely on our principles and challenge ourselves to rise above, we can become people we never dreamed we could. Certainly, this is true of Truman’s first four months in office, when this previously obscure politician managed to unite the nation and earn an 87% approval rating, higher than FDR’s had ever been.
Of course a lot of serious events happened in Truman’s early presidency, but what is one funny story that took place in his first few months?
For me, there are quite a few moments of comic relief in The Accidental President. My favorite comes during Truman’s first week in office. He’s living in the Blair House because the White House was not ready for the Trumans to move in. So he’s commuting to work on foot. Pedestrians are stunned to see the president walking down the street and they can’t believe their eyes. The White House press corps is rushing after him (he was known to walk very quickly), forming a farcical retinue. A cab driver honks his horn and yells, “Good luck, Harry!” I just love that moment. There are numerous moments when Truman’s complete lack of airs and his lust for a good joke surprised the people around him, to great comic effect.
The Truman Library Institute and Rainy Day Books are hosting “The Accidental President: Harry Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World” featuring A.J. Baime, Thursday, Nov. 16. The program takes place at 6:30 p.m. at Unity Temple on the Plaza. This event is free but RSVPs are requested.