The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World

The Accidental President is a unique biography. A couple of chapters are dedicated to Truman’s upbringing and his “political education,” but as the subtitle suggests, the book focuses on the dramatic four months between April and August 1945. Those four months contained more world-changing events than most centuries: the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April and the atomic bombings off Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. In between those two events, Harry S. Truman became the most powerful man in the world. Though he dealt with wars on multiple fronts – the Pacific and the East, yes, but also at home with his wife who did not approve of his newfound presidential status – he also took control of a country where most of the population knew no other President than FDR, and, who all asked the same question when he took the oath: Who is Harry Truman?


On the morning of April 12, Truman dictated a letter to his sister-in-law, May Wallace about her dog. “I imagine Spot is getting fatter and fatter. I have gained nine pounds myself.” In another letter to James Pendergast, Truman dictated something about the War Production Board. But this letter would not be sent yet. Later that night he added, “Since this was dictated I’m Pres. of the U.S…Pray for me with all you have.”

During the war, the federal government employed 3.4 million civilians, “with enough committees and organizations to fill seventeen pages in fine print in the Congressional Directory.”

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” – Harry Truman

The Veep’s job was “a graveyard of politicians.” “The Vice President has not much to do,” Truman said. When asked what he would do with this “spare time,” he answered: “Study history.”

During his eighty-two days as VP leading up to him becoming the president, Truman had visited FDR on official business just twice.

When Elenor Roosevelt told Truman about FDR’s death, Truman was astonished.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked her.

“Is there anything we can do for you,” she replied. “For you are the one in trouble now.”

The night of FDR’s death, “Senators and statesmen sat with strong drinks distilling the world’s anxiety into the ink in their diaries,” Baime writes. I thought that was a beautiful piece of language.

Harry’s father raised he and his brother “to believe that honor is worth more than money. And that’s the reason we never got rich,” Harry said.

In the first grade, Harry got diphtheria. He couldn’t do anything but read, so that’s what he did. Here, Baime explains, “Harry had begun his political education without knowing it…In the stories of great men and women lay the answers to all the questions that were forming in the young boy’s mind, and as he learned, their triumphs and mistakes had shaped history’s path.”

“In reading the lives of great men,” he wrote, “I found that the first victory they won was over themselves…Self-discipline with all of them came first.”

In another entry he wrote:

In other words, I began to see that the history of the world has moved in cycles and that very often we find ourselves in the midst of political circumstances which appear to be new but which might have existed in almost identical form at various times during the past six thousand years.

The time spent on the farm in isolation helped him learn too. “I have memorized a whole book while plowing forty acres,” he wrote.

Later in the book, the author writes, “His lifetime’s reading had familiarized him with the triumphs and tragedies of innumerable worked leaders. Now he had become one of them.”

At thirty-three, Truman signed up for the draft. Though his eyesight was poor, he memorized the letters on the chart before he had to take his glasses off so he wouldn’t be deemed unfit for service.

Aboard the *George Washington*, Truman wrote, “There we were watching New York’s skyline diminish and wondering if we’d be heroes or corpses.

Tom Pendergast was the political kingpin of Kansas City. Here’s how he defined what his role, which I’ve found to be a pretty great description for all of politics:

It’s a very simple thing when you come down to it. There’s people that need things, lots of ‘em, and I see to it that they get ‘em. I go to my office on South Main Street in Kansas City at seven o’clock in the morning and I stay there when I’m in town till about six o’clock at night and during that time I see maybe 200, maybe 300 people. One needs half a ton of coal. Another woman’s gotta get a job for her boy. I see to it that they got those things. That’s all there is to it.

In politics, as much in life, things are rarely black and white, right or wrong. A lot of the time, you have to choose between lesser of two evils. This happened when Truman found out that one of the two judges working under him was collecting “kickback money in the road-building program. He was forced to look the other way in order to prevent more injurious crimes from occurring and to keep on the good side of Boss Pendergast, who had given him his career,” Baim explains.

When Truman became a Senator, he got a good piece of advice from J. Hamilton Lewis: “Don’t start out with an inferiority complex. For the first six months you’ll wonder how you got here, and after that, you’ll wonder how the rest of us got here.”

During his time in the Senate, Truman worked hard. “He routinely was up at five and arrived at his office at seven in the morning,” Baim writes. Edgar Faris, a secretary, recalled “That man was there earlier than everybody. I don’t care if he went to bed at 2 a.m., he was up at five and we was down at that office. That man really worked.”

At the Statler hotel, Truman outlined a philosophy and campaign that he and his staff would stick to until the end:

• The Senator will not engage in personalities and asks his friends to do the same. Avoid mentioning the Senator’s opponents in any way.

• Avoid getting into controversial issues. Stick to Truman – his record as a judge, as a Senator, as a military man.

• While others discuss issues not involved in the primary, each worker will carefully avoid getting into those traps.

• The press is a function of our free institutions. If they are wrong in their attitude, try to make them see the true light, but under no circumstances attack them.

• Political parties are essential to our republic, our nation, and we must not attack them. What we’re doing is to show by our actions what we think our Party is destined to do: Provide basic laws for a more abundant life and the happiness and security of our people. >

Another one of Truman’s mottos was, “There is no substitute for a fact. When the facts are know, reasonable men do not disagree with respect to them.”

After FDR named Truman as his running mate, he and Bess smiled for the photographers, “the flash light newspaper picture boys,” is what Truman called them.

When Tom Pendergrast died, Truman attended his funeral, much to dismay of his political strategists. But they didn’t matter. Tom did a lot for Harry, and Harry knew that. Connely said, “I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to his funeral.” “That’s right,” Harry replied. That’s just the type of man he was.

On the first day of Office, after addressing the staff, Admiral Leahy reminded behind to speak one on one with Truman. Leahy was the top military advisor to Roosevelt and had a special connection with the now late President. Leahy told Truman, “If I am to remain your Chief of Staff, it will be impossible for me to change. If I think you are in error I shall say so.”

”That,” Truman replied, “is exactly what I want you to do. I want you to tell me if you think I am making a mistake. Of course, I will make the decisions, and after a decision is made, I will expect you to be loyal.”

The candidness of Truman was refreshing to the press. “I don’t know if any of you fellows ever had a load of hay or a bull fall on you,” Truman told a group of reporters. “Last night the whole weight of the moon and stars fell on me…If newspapermen ever pray, pray for me.”

Truman’s new daily schedule was relentless. “Being President is like riding a tiger,” Truman wrote in one of his memoirs. “A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Somewhere else he wrote, “It takes about 17 hours a day. And then you get as much sleep as you can, start over again and do it the next 17 hours as best you can. No man can do it as it should be done.”

The intense pace lead to extreme isolation. “It is the extraordinary isolation imposed upon the president by our system that makes the character and the opportunity of his office so extraordinary,” Woodrow Wilson once said.

During the summer, his wife and daughter went home to Independence and Truman stayed alone in the White House. He wrote Bess:

I stay here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches, all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of him: “His family is gone, the house is bare and stiff and he’s the loneliest man I ever saw. He’s not accustomed to doing night work…and he doesn’t like it. He’s not at ease and no one else is. I am so sorry for him and he tries so hard.”

Truman was relentlessly efficient. Undersecretary of State Joseph Grew wrote, “When I saw him today, I had fourteen problems to take up with him and got through them in less than fifteen minutes with a clear directive on every one of them. You can imagine what a joy it is to deal with a man like that.”

At Postdam, he wanted the agenda for the next day’s discussions set before today’s were over. “I don’t want to just discuss,” he said. “I want to decide.”

Truman wasn’t the playboy Roosevelt and other men were. When at Potsdam, an army colonel whispered, “Listen, I know you’re alone over here [without your wife]…If you need anything, you know, I’ll be glad to arrange it for you.”

Truman was furious. “Hold it; don’t say anything more. I love my wife, and my wife is my sweetheart. I don’t want to do that kind of stuff…I don’t want you to ever say that again to me.”


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