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Chapter Four The Army The decision to go into the army during World War I was the crucial event of Harry Truman's life, and he made that decision, let it be added, because he was a patriotic citizen of the United States, and not because of what the army might do for him. iTo be sure, he was no student of the great issues that divided Europe, and if he read about the carnage on the front-the killing by machine guns, artillery, and poison gas-he never mentioned it in letters to Bess. Nor did he understand the submarine issue that divided the United States and Imperial Germany. The sinking of great liners with frightful loss of life does not seem to have crossed his mind; again, he never mentioned it. Like millions of other Americans, he had felt as remote from Europe as if Jackson County were somewhere in China surrounded by the Great Wall. Then, of a sudden, the country was at war. President Wilson established its purpose: But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts-for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. It was Wilson's supreme oratorical effort, the greatest speech of the twentieth century. To such a task, the soon-to-be war president said, Americans could dedicate life and fortune, spend blood and might for the principles that gave the nation birth and happiness and peace. "God helping her, she can do no other!" The farmer near Grandview was an unlikely candidate for the draft; he would not have to go-he was thirty-three years old-but he had belonged to the Guard and thought he should volunteer. "1 believe that the great majority 56 57 / The Army of the country was stirred by the same flame that stirred me in those great days. I felt that I was a Galahad after the Grail."l The decision meant much for the direction of his life, far beyond anything he imagined. From it followed a whole series of experiences over two years, in the United States and abroad, that stretched his mind beyond anything he had known in Kansas City and on the farm. The army itself was instructive, and years later he wrote his nephew Fred, Vivian's son, who was in the army in another war, of the wisdom the army had taught him. The ways of the army were peculiar, he told Fred, and then recited the wellknown three ways to do things-the right way, the wrong way, and the army way. But out of that experience came understanding of the varieties of human conduct when under pressure from a system: "I went through a lot of it in the last war and it is rather difficult to fool me on facts and conditions."2 Much more important, the army also showed him that he could be a leader of men. Never before had he undergone such an experience. The Guard was a casual organization, really just a lot of fun. But when he became commander of Battery D, he found himself with 193 men of diverse backgrounds , far different from the bank clerks and salesmen and lawyers in the Guard. He had to control them, else they would control him. His success made him understand he could do the same on a much larger scale. And, as matters turned out, when he came back to Kansas City after the war he had a political base. At that time Guard units across the country were raised locally, inducted en masse, and kept together. In World War II this practice had to be abandoned, because local units sent to dangerous assignments could be wiped out en masse as well, causing the morale of people back home to suffer dramatically. In World War I, Truman found he possessed the friendship not merely of his battery but of hundreds of other men in his field artillery regiment, which had enlisted from Kansas City or nearby. If he ran for public office in Jackson County, they would vote for him. Service in the army made it possible...


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