A.J. Baime’s The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World dives deep into the tumultuous first four months of Truman’s presidency. Tracing Truman’s rise from failed farmer to leader of the free world, Baime constructs a compelling argument that no other President has ever faced such a fraught entrance into the office. Kirkus praised The Accidental President as “a warmly human portrait of an unlikely president,” while historian Doug Stanton hailed it as “history and humanity in lush, vivid color.” A.J. Baime spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on November 8th, 2017.
What drew you to Truman as a subject for a book?
My last book was called The Arsenal of Democracy and in that book there’s a chapter where a man who was at the time a very obscure senator came to Michigan to investigate some problems with the war effort. It struck me as I was researching that this was Truman in 1943. It just blew my mind that this guy who was described as an obscure senator in 1943 could be the man who would become in April of 1945 the most powerful man in the history of the world. It just seemed so strange. I knew some of the story but the more I researched the more I realized how spectacular a human story these four months were. On top of that, my father has kept a portrait of Truman on his office wall for over forty years, so growing up Truman in our household was thought of as a model of integrity.
You talk about how the first four months of Truman’s administration were the most action packed and challenging that a president had ever faced. What were the challenges Truman faced when he entered office?
Basically the best way for me to answer that question is to list the things that happened in the first four months: the collapse of Nazi Germany, the founding of the United Nations, firebombings of Japanese cities that killed thousands of citizens, the liberation of Nazi death camps, the suicide of Hitler, the execution of Mussolini, the capture of arch Nazi war criminals, victory at Okinawa, the fall of Berlin, the Potsdam conference where Truman sat with Churchill and Stalin—who he had never met in person before and they had to figure out a way to map out the future of the war. Then of course we saw the first atomic explosion, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the dawn of the Cold War, and the beginning of the nuclear arms race. So all of that happened in the first four months of the Truman administration.
How prepared was Truman for the presidency?
Well he wasn’t prepared at all. Let me answer that by saying that the setup for the Truman presidency is uncannily similar to what we have today in that you have a figure who comes into the White House, he’s unexpected, he is an accidental president. He’s never been the mayor of a city, he’s never been the governor of a state. It’s this critical moment in world history. The nation is at war. Anxiety ripples across the globe because this figure is so obscure. He has no experience in international relations, people are concerned that this guy is the right guy to do the job.
Truman was completely unprepared. As I say in the book, one of FDR’s greatest failures as a president was knowing that he was in in ill health and he completely failed to prepare a Vice- President to fill his shoes in the event of his death. So when Roosevelt died in April 12th 1945, the Vice-President had no knowledge of the secret Yalta agreement and the atomic bomb project, and no communications with Churchill and Stalin. It’s remarkable.
What was Roosevelt’s relationship with Truman like?
They didn’t know each other very well. As a matter of fact, just before Truman became the VP candidate on the 1944 ticket, Roosevelt had said of Truman “I hardly know Truman.”
There’s a wonderful picture of them together underneath a magnolia tree on the White House Grounds to discuss the election and how they’re going to win it. The picture’s so interesting because its one of the only times that the two men were ever photographed together. They didn’t spend much time together. Officially Truman met with Roosevelt twice in the eighty-two days he was Vice-President and that’s part of the story of Truman being an accidental President.
You write about how Truman never coveted the office of presidency. Why was that?
Well there are two reasons. One, it’s a hard job. I think that like everyone else he was concerned that he would be able to do the job well, anywhere near as well as the previous president had done it. Secondly he was very proud of the work he had done as part of the Truman committee, so he was proud of the work he was doing as a Senator. He was sixty-one or sixty-two and at the time that was fairly old to be President of the United States. He was concerned about his age but really he was convinced he wouldn’t be able to do the job as well as it needed to be done.
So once he had the job, what was Truman’s approach to the office once he was president?
In the first few weeks he knew that he wasn’t prepared. He knew that he didn’t have the right relationships, the right knowledge of all the things around the world. The only things he had that he could bring to the table—besides obviously his knowledge and experience in Congress—were these nineteenth century rural American principles. He comes into his office in his first days and he puts this sign on his desk, “Always Do Right, This Will Gratify Some People and Astonish the Rest.” He puts a quotation in a leather portfolio on his desk in the Oval Office, it’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln, “I do the very best I know how-the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end.”
He had these principles that his mother taught him as a kid and these were the principles that were going to define his presidency and himself as a man as integrity. Honesty is the best policy. Do the right thing. And these very simple rural nineteenth century American principles were going to be the things that carried him through.
You talked about him having that rural background. Truman seemed to be so different from FDR, who represented the East Coast aristocracy.
It’s amazing to think that he had been a farmer and a failed haberdasher. He ran for his first election which was just a rural judgeship when he was forty years old. He was just a man from a small town in Missouri and his personality and his experiences were the exact opposite of FDR’s. He had no college degree. He came to the Oval Office from a completely different avenue of the American Dream as FDR did.
He was self-educated, right?
He had gone to Independence High School and he had taken some law classes at Kansas City Law School, but yes, he was self-educated. That’s an important point I make in the book. When he became president all of these powerful Washington people who didn’t know him well were surprised by how remarkably educated he was and that was because he was a voracious reader. Even as a kid—it was almost destiny—he would study the lives of famous leaders of history and American presidents, never dreaming he would become one of them.
How did the cabinet and the American people view Truman when he became president?
That question is the story arc of the book. At the time of the Democratic National Convention in 1944, 2% of Democratic voters wanted Truman on the Democratic ticket. Even at the height of the election, only 55% of Americans could name FDR’s running mate, that’s how obscure he was. Robert Nixon, who was a White House correspondent at the time, later said “he was a man who came into the White House almost as though he had been picked at random off the street.”
Four months later, Truman had united the nation. Less than four months into his administration, 87% of Americans approved of the job the President was doing. Here are some words that Americans chose to describe him in a Gallup poll. They described him as “fair-minded,” “a hard worker,” “a realist who looks at things squarely and seeks good advice and has no crackpot ideas.” There was an article in the Washington Post three months into the Truman era, “Whole nation reflects era of good feeling inspired by President.” It begins like this: “The mood of the United States is one of extraordinary friendliness. Americans appear to be at ease with each other. they ere more inclined to talk about national affairs, less inclined to argue. In sort there’s a cordiality in the air that this country hasn’t known in years.”
So that’s the story arc of the book. This guy comes out of nowhere, the biggest underdog to ever step into the Oval Office,and he unites the nation in under four months.
Thinking about it from a modern perspective, it’s wild to think of Truman living in that modest apartment and walking across the street to get to his job on the first day.
The stories are just incredible because he was just a regular guy. That terrified Americans at first, but soon after they found that really inspiring. There’s a great quote I use in the book from The New Yorker where they wrote in the early days of the Truman Administration, “FDR was for the people, Truman is the people.” I love that.
What can modern readers take away from Truman’s story?
I think the main character of this book is a very inspiring figure because he does all of the things you’re supposed to do. He doesn’t lie. He’s incredibly hard working and dedicated. He’s incredibly respectful of the presidency. All of these things you’re supposed to do and he’s rewarded for it. The early months of his presidency go extremely well because he’s the guy you want him to be, and that can rub off on all of us these days.