What do President Biden and Harry Truman have in common? Both were Senators, both faced (and in the case of President Biden, still face) bitter partisan opposition, both took office in perilous times. In the March 7th issue of The New Yorker, Beverly Gage writes:
Americans today seem to believe that we live in especially exhausting political times. But the rhythms of our moment—pandemic, protest, pandemic, election, insurrection, pandemic, invasion of Ukraine—have nothing on the Truman era. Between April, 1945, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death thrust Harry S. Truman into office, and January, 1953, when Truman handed the Presidency to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the war in Europe ended, Hitler killed himself, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, the Cold War began, the state of Israel came into being, the Soviet Union developed its own nuclear weapons, China underwent a Communist revolution, the West created nato, the world created the United Nations, and the Korean War began.
Gage writes that the postwar period wasn’t a time of bipartisan coöperation and good will. Rather: It was also an era of vicious, operatic partisanship. McCarthy denounced Truman as soft on Communism, Marshall as a tool of Soviet masters.
Reviewing Jeffrey Frank’s new book, “The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953” (Simon & Schuster), Gage writes that the Truman Committee on Civil Rights, created in 1946 following a surge in white-supremacist violence, came out in support of an anti-lynching law, voting rights for Black Americans, and a more robust system of federal enforcement.
However Truman did not win universal health care or nationalize the steel industry or effectively defend the labor movement from corporate backlash. Perhaps the best that can be said is that he tried, often pushing against powerful conservative forces across the aisle and within his own party.
Finally, Gage writes that Frank argues, the events that were averted deserve to be part of the historical discussion, too. Above all, the world did not descend into a nuclear-armed Third World War, a prospect that loomed over every minute of Truman’s Presidency and pervades every page of Frank’s book. That may have been Truman’s greatest accomplishment.