THE SURPRISE OF HARRY S. TRUMAN [1884-1972]

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It is an old story that unexpected demands sometimes reveal unsuspected strengths; but rarely has the story played itself out more dramatically than in the case of Harry S. Truman. The historic context offered the perfect challenge to a potential leader, but could the plain man from Missouri rise to the challenge? 

By ordinary measures, he was a success before he became president, rising from a farm background and early failure as a haberdasher to become one of the most respected members of the United States Senate. But that is a long step from historic greatness, and when Roosevelt’s death made Truman the nation’s chief executive he was, as The New York Times later commented, “without experience, without knowledge, without prestige.” 

In 1952, the final year of his presidency, he listened as Winston Churchill recalled their first meeting at the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945: “I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard, I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt. I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you more than any other man have saved Western civilization” [American Heritage History of the Presidents (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1968), 2:864]. 

Jean Monnet put his finger on one of Truman’s key attributes, “the ability to decide … He never hesitated in the face of great decision” [Jean Monnet, Memoirs, trans. Richard Mayner (New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1978)]. Those decisions included the use of atomic bomb on Japan; initiation of a massive airlift to counter the Soviet blockade of West Berlin; the United States’ swift intervention followint the Communist invasion of South Korea; and the firing of General Douglas MacArthur. Of course, what was involved was not only decisiveness but also good judgment. If all his moves had turned out badly, we would not be praising his decisiveness. 

SOURCE: John W. Gardner, ON LEADERSHIP, New York: The Free Press, 1990, pages 42-43. 

Jakarta, 28 January 2014

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