- Defining the Man from Missouri: A Review Essay
Aida D. Donald, Citizen Solider: A Life of Harry S. Truman (Basic Books, 2012).
In researching a forthcoming project, I’ve conducted many hours of research at the outstanding Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, spent long evenings trawling the Internet for newspaper clippings and oral interview transcripts, and read more than twenty books about the life of Harry Truman.
David McCullough’s Truman (Simon and Schuster, 1992)—adapted for the screen several years ago with a wonderful lead performance by Gary Sinise—and Alonzo Hamby’s Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (Oxford University Press, 1995) remain the gold standard for long, richly detailed one-volume biographies, while the efforts of the prolific Robert H. Ferrell have contributed to greater understanding of the Man From Missouri through his private papers and correspondence. Yet, to date, there has not been an insightful book that spans Truman’s entire life that comes in at under 500 pages. Aida D. Donald’s Citizen Solider: A Life of Harry S. Truman (Basic Books, 2012) fills this gap.
Donald’s premise, like that of D.M. Giangreco in his The Soldier from Independence: A Military Biography of Harry Truman (Zenith Press, 2009), is that Truman’s service in the Missouri National Guard and time spent fighting in France during World War I were formative experiences that, combined with the hard work ethic he learned on the Truman family farm, gave him the toughness, endurance, and courage under fire he needed to serve as an outstanding senator, a capable (if short-serving) vice president, and an underrated president.
Many of the book’s most memorable details are in the chapter on Truman’s artillery duty in the Great War. Donald’s descriptions here are evocative, such as when she observes Truman’s company moving heavy field pieces up a hill with the help of draft horses: “Clink, clash, bump, snort, went men and animals all night.” This chapter, aptly titled “Captain Truman Takes Charge,” also provides us with one of the defining experiences in the future president’s life. Though he was thrown from his horse during a barrage from German guns, Truman refused to follow his colleagues in fleeing. Instead, he remounted his horse, unleashed a tirade of profanity at his retreating men, and got them back together.
Truman later referred to this as “The Battle of Who Ran,” but for him, the significance was in who didn’t. A corporal serving alongside the Missourian recalled, “We have a captain who cannot be beaten.” And so it proved, time and again in his life. He showed courage in recovering from numerous financial setbacks when returning to civilian life after the war, including a failed mining venture and the obliteration of his men’s clothing store by the economic downturn of the early 1920s. Though Truman was bedeviled by ill fortune and, sometimes, poor judgment in his business ventures, he was hardworking and self-disciplined. Donald notes that though Kansas City was a den of iniquity in the 1920s, “he was never a part of the Jazz Age, gin-drinking, avant-garde-crazed, selfish,anything-goes culture....He became a take-charge man, a leader, a confident, not-quite-middle-aged man.” While his friends and peers preferred F. Scott Fitzgerald-style indulgence, Truman was involved in his church, the Masons, and the American Legion, when he wasn’t toiling away as an entrepreneur, bank clerk, and, later, when the family farm was in trouble, farmer. According to Donald, the claims of a hostile press in later years that Truman liked his whiskey a little too much are almost certainly false.
This self-control even endured Truman’s connection with the family that launched his political career in 1922, the Pendergasts. Many books, including Robert H. Ferrell’s definitive Truman and Pendergast (University of Missouri Press, 1999), have explored this dubious relationship in depth. In keeping with her succinct style, Donald doesn’t go too in-depth on the topic, but does show impressive scholarship in her use of Truman’s long-secret “Pickwick Papers,” which reveal that he did...