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Memoirs by Harry S. Truman
reviewed by William P. Meyers

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title: Memoirs
subtitles: Year of Decision (Volume 1); Years of Trial and Hope (Volume 2)
author: Harry S. Truman
publisher: Doubleday
year of publication: 1956
reviewed date: June 27, 2008
format: hardcover, 2 volume set
Amazon.com links: Volume 1 Year of Decisions; Volume 2 Years of Trial and Hope

I spotted used copies of Truman's Memoirs at our local library book sale. They were only $1 each, and I thought they might cast some light on the U.S. War Against Asia, and particularly on the Democratic Party's decision to drop nuclear bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Truman's memoirs are amazing. They are detailed and candid. They give a great deal of insight into crucial political decisions made between 1945 and 1952 that that continue to have significant effects in America and the world down to this present day.

Harry Truman was accused by his enemies of being the corrupt product of the Missouri political machine. Truman admitted to the corruption of the machine, but claimed he was able get the electoral support of the machine without compromising his integrity. In any case in Congress his main task was doing his best to oversee Pentagon spending (this was World War II; we are talking huge expenditures). He was widely praised (except by military contractors) as eliminating waste and seeing that contracts were awarded based on merit. The motto of his committee was "There is no substitute for a fact. When the facts are known, reasonable men do not disagree with respect to them." [p. 168] He was also a staunch supporter of New Deal domestic programs. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) apparently took notice, because he insisted that Truman be his vice-presidential running mate in the 1944 elections. It would be "President-For-Life" Roosevelt's fourth term. Whether FDR knew he was likely to die in office is unknown, but he did die on April 12, 1945, shortly after being sworn in for a new term, but shortly before his arch-rival Adolf Hitler died on April 30, 1945.

At first Truman's main concern was prosecuting the war. Despite overseeing all Pentagon spending for Congress, he had never been informed of the atomic bomb project. The military leaders lobbied heavily for Truman to use the atomic bomb against the Japanese. The Japanese had been trying to surrender, on terms of not being invaded, but the invasion of Japan had been a goal of U.S. imperialists since the 1850's. The idea of "demonstrating," the bomb, or using it on mainly military targets, was rejected in favor of seeking to destroy large numbers of civilians, using the excuse that these civilians were near minor military targets. Truman does not shy from recounting the discussions involved.

Truman did not realize it at the time, but it was U.S. policy in China and Korea that would come to haunt him and the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment for the next half century. In China the U.S. had a ready ally, General Chiang Kai-Shek, and a ready enemy, the communist party. In Korea people believed the war-time promises that Korea would become free, independent, and self-governing. Because atomic scientists were not certain their bombs would work, FDR had agreed that the U.S.S.R. would join the war against Japan, attacking the core of Japanese military strength in Korea and Manchuria. The U.S.S.R. would leave those areas voluntarily, but turned them over to local communist governments. This set the stage for the communist takeover of China and North Korea. It also set the stage for a blame game in the U.S. that would give rise to Joe McCarthy and eventually the folly of the War in Vietnam.

Of U.S. foreign policy Truman said, prophetically, "I was never for the underdog [the USA], in turn, becoming the top dog with complete power to act. When the underdog gets power, he too often turns out to be an even more brutal top dog."

Truman goes into great detail about creation of the United Nations (U.N.). The U.N. was created with a non-democratic structure, a division into first-rate, second-rate, and third-rate nations. If you want to know why the U.N. has not only mostly failed to stop war, but in fact has often actually promoted war as a solution to mankind's political problems, you will wan to read those sections of the book.

Another important foreign policy decision concerned Spain, where the fascist General Franco held power (and Franco had supplied troops to Hitler for the invasion of the U.S.S.R.). Joseph Stalin wanted to oust Franco, but Truman and Churchill made excuses to keep Franco in power rather than to set up a democracy in Spain. Truman does much decrying of puppet governments set up by Stalin in eastern Europe and elsewhere, while seeing nothing wrong with U.S. and British puppet governments being set up in other nations. A particularly dumb move was allowing Britain to grab Hong Kong. This made the U.S. ally, Chiang Kai-Shek, look weak and became a major propaganda point for the Chinese Communist Party.

On the domestic front Truman pushed for national health insurance. He failed to get that largely because of intense opposition from the American Medical Association. Then in 1946 the Republican Party captured control of Congress. The Republican Party back then had a liberal wing that backed many New Deal programs and was better on civil rights than the Democratic Party, which was bulging with southern segregationists. Despite that, it became difficult for Truman to get significant legislation passed to his liking.

Of course the famous presidential campaign of 1948 is recalled in great detail. But Harry Truman spent much of his presidency as a lame duck. The Korean War would occupy most of his energy in his second term and pave the way for Dwight David Eisenhower's election in 1952.

Again, Truman's Memoirs are superb. The importance of this document will be most apparent to those who have already studied the 20th century history of the United States of America.