Hardly an Accident: Harry S. Truman’s ‘Accidental Presidency’

A. J. Baime offers his readers an "aw shucks" story of an American Everyman thrust into a position of awesome power and somehow "makin' good".

The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World
A. J. Baime
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Oct 2017

In the introduction to The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World, A.J. Baime claims that his book “poses a new thesis. Regardless of Truman’s legacy, the first four months of his administration should rank as the most challenging and action-packed of any four-month period in any American presidency” (ix).

Now, to call something a “thesis” suggests a few things: 1. that it’s justified based on agreed-upon facts; 2. that it’s something more than the mere enumeration of those facts (no one claims that it’s their “thesis” that 56 added to 79 equals 135, nor is it a “thesis” to claim that Truman had x number of items on his agenda — it is or is not a fact); and 3. that it provides a new way of understanding a given event or situation or set of facts (otherwise it can hardly be called my thesis, but rather, my endorsement of an already established point of view). Unfortunately, Baime’s “thesis” fails to satisfy any of these conditions. With respect to the first condition: what constitutes the facts here? Are we just tallying up the items on Truman’s calendar for those months? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a formidable tally both in number and in gravity; but innumerable grave tasks are the basis of the presidency, and certainly of the presidency during wartime. Comparing the lists of tasks for Truman and, say, Lincoln during the certain points in the Civil War. would require a lot of pointless dickering over what qualifies as a truly momentous agenda item and what is simply par for the course in wartime.

Regarding the second condition, Baime’s seems to feel his thesis is “proven” based on the enumeration of world-shaking events itself. In that case, of course, the list of these events that Baime includes at the opening of the book does all the work—the actual narrative is superfluous to proving the thesis. Again, I’m hardly arguing against the tally or the assertion that this was a particularly fraught four months. But that is an observation, not a thesis. As for the third condition (that the thesis add a new way of understanding a situation), clearly Baime’s assertion here is widely accepted and acknowledged. No one could argue that Truman’s transition into the Oval Office was not accomplished in the midst of turmoil and that during that period Truman was forced to make decisions that would lay out what the future was to hold not simply for citizens of the United States but for the entire world. That is obvious, well-trodden fact, not a thesis.

Declaring that Truman’s first four months in office were the most jam-packed with political activity in the history of the presidency is no more a thesis than claiming that Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player of all time. There are simply too many different and equally valid ways of assessing such postulates. They are opinions—perhaps well-founded or justifiable opinions, but opinions nevertheless.

Now, I’m sympathetic with the impatient reader who is doubtless asking: why does it matter whether or not “thesis” was the appropriate term for Baime to use in the introduction to his book? Regardless of the term employed, the point of Baime’s book is to lay out the overwhelming onslaught of events impinging upon this humble man who was not elected president, was perhaps the least prepared for the office in the history of its existence and, despite all the odds being against him, somehow faced up to the Herculean tasks set before him.

The reason it matters, in my estimation, is that The Accidental President purports to be something it isn’t; that is, a careful consideration of the beginnings of the Truman presidency that offers up an assessment of the manner in which it shaped the world to come. Claiming that his goal is to prove a “thesis” signals to the reader that something more than an enumeration of facts is being accomplished here, that the point is analysis and evaluation. Few moments in the political history of the United States require more careful scrutiny and evaluation than the months leading up to 6 August 1945 and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (to be followed three days later by the dropping of a second such bomb on Nagasaki). That is another day that should “live in infamy” alongside the one that inspired the United States to engage in war with Japan in the first place. But Baime’s book offers precious little in the way of assessment or new insight into the political developments of that era. Instead, Baime offers his readers an “aw shucks” story of an American Everyman thrust into a position of awesome power and somehow “makin’ good”.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with an out-of-the-blue success story. Indeed, the United States has constructed something of a national myth out of the Horatio Alger narrative. A young, impoverished boy achieves financial security, social station, and community recognition through hard work, perseverance, and honesty. The notion of the US as the land of opportunity is founded upon such tales of irrepressible individualists pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Combine that with the “fish out of water” angle—wherein the hero, having attained hitherto unimagined and unimaginable heights of achievement, marvels at his new surroundings in an attempt to accommodate himself to unfamiliar modes of behavior and responsibilities—and you have arrived at a formula that has proven remarkably resilient in the national consciousness.

It has served as the basis of personal mythology, social satire (e.g., Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt) and, at its worst, an excuse for ignoring social ills and our responsibility for ameliorating them. A large part of the vehement rejection of President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech in 2012 derived from the sacrosanct status of this myth for many US citizens. If success relies, in part, upon an infrastructure supplied by governmental efforts (and thus paid for by the people as a body), then that would seem to mitigate the grandeur of the Alger mythos. The rise from “rags to riches” seems less impressive if it isn’t “against all odds”. So, the issue becomes not so much that the Alger narrative is being employed but rather what purpose it’s serving, what understanding of, in this case, Truman’s presidency it’s projecting.

To a certain extent, Baime’s book doesn’t progress very far beyond the “aw shucks” variant of the Alger story. Baime emphasizes every lack of qualification Truman had in inheriting the presidency on 12 April 1945, when President Franklin Roosevelt died at his vacation cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia. At that point, Truman had only been vice president for 82 days, having just joined Roosevelt as his running mate in the last election. Part II of Accidental President, “The Political Education of Harry S. Truman”, provides a thumbnail sketch of Truman’s life up to that pivotal date. This part of the book serves one purpose: to drive home the notion that Truman never dreamed of being vice president and was certainly ill-prepared to be president (perhaps ill-prepared to be a politician of any sort). Baime emphasizes failure and the vagaries of unwarranted success. Truman demonstrated his abilities in World War 1 but had trouble finding his footing in the States. He was a failed farmer and a failed haberdasher.

He was liked, however, by Mike Pendergast, a political boss in Truman’s home Jackson County, Missouri, and the brother of the infamous Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast. Pendergast put Truman up for county judge (not a position within jurisprudence but rather a county commissioner) and thus his political career began. He later became presiding judge (county chief executive) and then Pendergast ran him for the US Senate in 1934, shortly after Roosevelt had taken the presidency. All along the way, the opposition smirked and chided the unknown contender and yet Truman took office in January 1935. There remains the question of just how Pendergast stacked the deck in his favor—within or outside of the limits of the law?

In the 1944 election, the Democratic party leaders were set upon replacing then-Vice President Henry Wallace on the ticket for Roosevelt’s unprecedented bid for a fourth term. Wallace was popular with voters but seen by the party brass as too left-leaning. Now, this is the key to Baime’s Alger narrative. We are meant to see Truman, at this stage, as still a basically unknown quantity and that his ascent first to the vice presidency and then to the highest office in the land was the mere whim of fate. His winning the spot on the ticket and then his taking the oath as president on 12 April are supposed to be viewed as pure bolts from the blue. And indeed, Baime marshals forth every instance he can find of Truman and his surrogates (and even some of his detractors) declaring just that.

But there are several problems with this narrative being accepted at face value. First, by 1944, Truman had been a US senator for roughly a decade. This is not exactly a position without some prominence, and being on the job for a decade makes it hard to accept him as a naïf of any stripe. Second, in the last few years of his stretch as a senator, he chaired what was known as the Truman Commission, a subcommittee of the Committee on Military Affairs that investigated putative misuse of government funds in the preparation for and execution of the war. This position, as Baime acknowledges, landed Truman on the cover of Time magazine. Third, the poor state of Roosevelt’s health was widely known by the 1944 election. Indeed, during the run-up to the nomination for vice president, many of the boosters at the convention reminded delegates that they were really voting for the next president, insofar as it was generally understood that Roosevelt was unlikely to live out the term.

Baime recognizes each of these factors and yet continually plays up the angle that Truman was endlessly shocked by his ascendancy. Truman’s repeated claims of astonishment are simply accepted without the least bit of historical skepticism. But one might see Truman’s assertions as serving a rather clever rhetorical strategy on his part—particularly since he was taking over for a wildly popular president in the midst of a cataclysmic global conflict. What particularly grates at the reader is Baime’s attempt to secure his point through constant repetition. We are simply told again and again to be surprised by Truman’s rise from nowhere. Surprise is a fine place to start, but eventually it has to give way to some manner of comprehension and analysis.

Indeed, repetition is a hallmark of Baime’s writing. The book boils down to a few main points that are hammered relentlessly into the reader’s consciousness: Truman came from nowhere and was unprepared for the job but acquitted himself admirably; he represented the American Everyman in contradistinction to Roosevelt’s elitism; his success stemmed from an innate honesty and forthrightness (echoes, again, of Alger); the Soviets were emerging as increasingly hostile adversaries; and behind all of the events of these four months and serving as their culminating climax was the introduction on the world stage of the atomic bomb. Although he declares at the outset that The Accidental President is not a study of the advent of the bomb, that device serves as the supporting star of the entire affair; moreover, it’s a supporting star that continually threatens to usurp pride of place. Baime treats it as an inevitable force of nature, an ineluctable harbinger of things to come with its own agency. In one of his more lamentable turns of phrase, Baime writes: “The bomb was set to usher in a new epoch, and destiny had made Harry Truman its midwife” (326). The caption under the famous photograph of the Nagasaki mushroom cloud reads like an excerpt from a middle-school history text: “Was Truman justified in using atomic weapons against Japan?” But this is precisely the question Baime dodges altogether; he merely rehearses a few of the primary arguments for and against its use in the book’s “Epilogue”, with an implicit weight granted to the justification of its deployment.

The biographical blurb on the dust jacket declares that two of Baime’s previous books are in development for major motion pictures. The Accidental President reads as though he’s attempting to achieve a hat trick. Throughout, Baime is obsessed with setting the scene: we are always told precisely what alcoholic beverage Truman was consuming at any given meeting; we are informed of each time he declares that someone can “Go to hell” (apparently a favorite expression of Truman’s); we continually hear of the concerns various people express over his inexperience. The Accidental President often reads as a screenplay rather than a historical study and indeed, perhaps that’s what it’s meant to be. Certainly, for all of the faults I have outlined here, it succeeds mightily in conveying a clear, if overly simplistic, portrait of Truman at the most trying moment of his life. Like most screenplays on historical subjects, The Accidental President reduces the complexities of the material to memorable quotations, vivid scenes of confrontation, and the depiction of personalities. What’s missing is a substantial coming to grips with this most important historical moment in all its rich contradictions, all its fertile possibilities and harrowing dangers, all its conflicting motivations.

RATING 5 / 10