Book reviews: American history


Review date: May 1997.
I've finished reading the first volume of Harry S. Truman's memoirs: Year of Decisions. It covers his life until the end of 1945, but especially 1945, the first year of his presidency. It's fascinating to read in full detail and in far more formal style the material covered in his oral biography Plain Speaking. Truman is a fascinating man. He is a thoroughly modern man in the sense that his moral compass is fixed. For him, issues of right and wrong are pretty much clearcut.

This first volume of his memoirs explain, sometimes in excruciating detail, the facts, communications, and deliberations behind many world-shaping events. Particularly good coverage is given to the Potsdam conference with Churchill and Stalin. Unfortunately the writing can get boring when diplomatic letters are quoted in full. It seems he did the historic thing by putting many documents in one spot. But it sometimes makes for dull reading.

It seems he goes into great detail when the diplomatic and bureacratic record is available. Yet the treatment given to other topics fell far short my expectations. In particular, the use of the atomic bomb is covered in Chapter 26, and not elsewhere with much substance. That is, pages 415 through 426 deal with the development, testing, decision to use, targeting, and actual use in war of the atom bomb. That's just too short, as many modern authors have attested to with their recent volumes. He does, however, give much more coverage on the desirability for international control of nuclear technology and the plan he drew to try to make that a reality, primarily through his high hopes for the United Nations. Yes folks, a President of the United States at one time was a very strong proponent of the UN.

Many would do well to read Truman, a thoroughly sensible person on many many topics, especially in the midst of the many shrill voices then and now. However, the most entertaining and thought provoking moments are provided in Merle Miller's oral biography of Harry Truman, Plain Speaking. My favourites still are his dressing-down of Joseph McCarthy, of the dogmatic reactions to Cuba, and of Douglas MacArthur.

Truman's moral compass acted again and again, giving him the internal fortitude to make decisions. Many have have complained that he was a simpleton. I don't think so. He was certainly well read and understood what he was doing. I think maybe we're just uncomfortable with his certitude, for we live in many shades of grey, a post-modern world. Harry Truman, forever the modern man.

In due time I will certainly read the second volume of his memoirs, Years of Trials and Hope: 1946-1952.

Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, by Merle Milller. This is a remarkable book about a remarkable man. He's not just ``the one after FDR and before Eisenhower''. It's a very human portrait of a great President, a President who often referred to that part of his life as ``when I got that job at the White House''.

The book is distillation of transcripts of interviews that were conducted in 1962 for a television series that never got made. His views on the CIA, Richard Nixon, the role of government and the military in a free society, and many other topics are both refreshing and prescient.

Truman was in charge during tumultuous times, and it's quite amazing to read his words first-person: no ghost writer gets in the way to whitewash the facts as he saw them.

Here's a direct quote about MacArthur and generals in general: ``I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. That's the answer to that. 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. That's why when a good one comes along like General Marshall ... why, you've got to hang onto them, and I did.''

On J. Edgar Hoover: ``One time they brought me a lot of stuff about his personal life, and I told them I didn't give a damn about that. That wasn't my business. It was what he did while he was at work that was my business.

On Castro: ``Now, when Castro came into power, if I'd been President, I'd have picked up the phone and called him direct in Havana. ... `Fidel, this is Harry Truman in Washington, and I'd like to have you come up here and have a little talk.' He'd have come, of course, and he'd have come to the White House, and I'd have said, `Fidel, it looks to me like you've had a pretty good revolution down there, and it's been a long time coming. Now you're going to need help, and there's only two places you can go to get it. One's right here, and the other's--well, we both know where the other place is. Now you just tell me what you need, and I'll see to it that you get it.''

Absolutetly refreshing. A must-read.

Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Robert F. Kennedy. This is RFK's beautifully parsimonious insider account of the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you're at all interested in this topic, read this book. Highly recommended, if only as a reminder of how so much can be said in so little space. It contains copies of many of the documents of the time, e.g. JFK's televised speeches, and communiques between Khruschev and JFK. Notably absent is Khruschev's first letter to JFK of October 26, 1962; as of 1971, at least, it is still classified as secret.

A nice touch is RFK's brief analysis of why the government worked well. In particular, RFK praised the decision to have multiple alternative viewpoints expressed and argued in the presence of the President. This avoids the "groupthink" problem. This was a big problem with the decision to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, and ironically (because it involved many of the same people), U.S. involvement in Vietnam. (For a droning treatise on this latter problem, read The Best and the Brightest.)

Naturally, the story is one-sided, so be sure to supplement your reading on this topic with other sources before making strong statements one way or another. For example, I found Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis on sale at the GSU booksale. It examines the crisis from three different conceptual models. This is on my to-read booklist.

The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. This describes the hows and whys of the US involvement in Vietnam. The first half of the book is mostly about the Kennedy administration, the second about the Johnson administration. A perfect book if you're into this kind of thing. Personally, I'm more into Roosevelt and Truman and the early Cold War. This book is deep historical analysis. It's also long. Very long. Started June 28, finished late August.
At the beginning of January 1995 I finished reading The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933. It is the first volume in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Roosevelt. I find FDR the most fascinating of presidents because he steered the United States out of the Depression and through most of World War II. He virtually created the modern style of governing out of the ashes of Hoover's Republican debacle. We need another FDR in the States, not a Newt Gingrich.
On my reading list is the second volume in the Roosevelt series, The Coming of the New Deal. After that come Harry Truman's memoirs, Year of Decisions and Years of Trial and Hope.
On the Republican side, I've also read Reagan's America by Gary Wills. It is a deep look at Reagan's life and the roots of his political philosophy and his enormous appeal to the American public. It was quite an eye-opener. Recommended for liberal and conservative alike. I pushed me towards liberalism.
I plan to read Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's All the President's Men. It'll be another go at understanding why, when I was three years of age, all the U.S. TV stations were occupied showing Congressional hearings into Watergate.
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