Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World

  • William Lee Miller
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 416 pp.

A look at two consecutive presidents, both ordinary men hailing from the Midwest, each hurled upward via different routes to the most powerful of positions.

This is a book for those who enjoy history and cherish its ironies.

William Lee Miller is a scholar with a light-handed style as anecdotal as it is academic. He keeps his subjects off pedestals and firmly grounded as he relates the momentous events that confronted them and how each rose in stature to respond, for they were two surprisingly ordinary men.

“If Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower had died at the age of fifty, we would never have heard of either of them.

“But they did not die at fifty. Each of these men, after a lifetime of comparative obscurity, was grasped by the hand of history in the turbulent 1940’s and suddenly hurled upward, past thousands of others, to awesome, unimaginable heights. … In an incredibly compressed period (Eisenhower June 24, 1942 — December 7, 1943; Truman July 21, 1944 — April 12, 1945), each was catapulted up through layer upon layer of human function and preferment, past all peers, past all erstwhile superiors, to a unique position at the very top.”

They were Midwesterners from lower-middle-class families of very modest means. Each was outpaced early in life by the successes of siblings. Their experiences during World War I would shape them as leaders and profoundly influence their lives. One of them led an artillery unit on the French front, earned lifelong devotion from the 174 men under his command and returned home to modest regard as a local war hero. The other served in the military, too, but only stateside as a trainer of tank soldiers and he became increasingly frustrated as opportunities to command went to others. At war’s end, he was ignominiously assigned to prepare a guidebook on European battlefields and monuments.

The soldier who saw battle was an over-age “piano-playing, book-reading small-town Baptist sissy with thick glasses who didn’t fight and disliked guns.” He would lead a battalion with four French cannons, two machine guns and 220 Colt six-shooters into several of the last battles of World War I. He was Army Captain Harry S. Truman. The trainer turned guidebook scribe did not lead a single soldier in battle until after he had been promoted to Army Chief of Staff, leaping over 350 senior officers more than 25 years later. West Point graduate Dwight David Eisenhower would become Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II.

Truman came out of World War I with confidence, local recognition and two important friends, both named Pendergast from the Kansas City Democratic machine. They would set him up in politics and pave his way to the U.S. Senate where Truman’s major accomplishment would be leading vigorous, scrupulously bipartisan investigations into corruption and inefficiency in military procurement. Truman was a compromise choice to be Roosevelt’s vice presidential running mate. Thrust into the presidency by FDR’s death from a stroke in 1945, he was given “no chance” for election on his own merits in 1948. He would campaign against Washington — a Republican dominated “do-nothing, good-for-nothing Congress” — crossing 30,000 miles of the country in three first-of-a-kind “whistle-stop” tours where the gritty little soldier would be seen as America’s common man. Against all polls, every pundit of the time and the wisdom of almost every political leader, voters awarded Harry Truman a spectacular election victory over Thomas Dewey, the liberal Republican governor of New York who ran a lackluster, take-it-for-granted campaign.

What Eisenhower gained from World War I and the decades before the next war was expertise in training, planning, logistics and handling huge egos. One peacetime staff position after another would serve him uniquely well when America was thrust into World War II with desperately urgent needs to mobilize and train a massive army of young civilians, equip them and ship them off to war an ocean away. Like many military commanders, Ike disdained politics and politicians, but he developed skills in dealing with peacetime prima donnas that ultimately qualified him to head a fractious and egotistical clutch of commanders from other nations. Later as president, such experiences would also school him in the art of behind-the-scenes political machination, essential as he governed with three Congresses controlled by the other party. Ike was re-elected with positions closer in many respects to Democrats than to the conservatives in his own party.

Miller becomes unabashedly evaluative in his final chapters. In “Judging Presidents,” he shows us history changing its mind — several times — about Truman and Ike. “Harry Truman, according to the polls in the last months he was president, was one of the least popular of presidents. Dwight Eisenhower, throughout his eight years, was one of the most popular. ... But the later judgment of historians and other professional observers ... almost reversed this popular response.” Miller continues puckishly for many pages to show how this was not the end of it. His re-reevaluations are deft and suitably equivocal, as befits a sensible historian.

Miller closes with two insightful chapters, one on McCarthyism’s spume of hate, the other on race relations. (I will forgive a distressingly abbreviated chapter on “Bombs,” likely written hastily, because of Miller’s more thorough treatment of the subject earlier in the book.)

The greatest strength in this book is the author’s acute observations of the human condition. From such a writer, one yearns for even more. For example, there are no details of Truman’s early dealings with the Pendergast machine and how he sidestepped its formidable potential for scandal. Valuable, too, would have been further details on Roosevelt’s choice of Truman as his fourth term running mate at a time when FDR was ill and weakening fast and he and his advisors knew how unprepared Truman was to be president. More, too, is needed than Miller’s fairly superficial treatment of Ike’s decision not to run against Truman in 1948 although he was encouraged to do so as a Republican and even as a Democrat. These are relatively minor objections and argue for a sequel, not a revision.

Miller delights in telling stories. And they are good stories about the greatness as well as the pettiness of two seemingly ordinary Americans vaulted by circumstances beyond their dreams, stories told affectionately with insight and sensitivity, messages ringing with relevance for us today.

Tom Phillips is a retired corporate attorney. He lives in Chicago, loves musical theatre and grumbles a lot about national politics.

comments powered by Disqus