Have you ever been put in a situation that you weren’t ready for at all, but somehow managed to rise to the occasion and do what needed to be done? Imagine being Harry Truman. He grew up a poor farmer’s son in Jackson County, Missouri, didn’t graduate from college, failed at multiple businesses, and stumbled into politics, before being thrust into the role of the world’s most powerful man and required to make monumental decisions that would affect the course of history over the next 70 years.
Today on the show, I talk to writer A.J. Baime about his book The Accidental President that highlights the unexpected rise of Harry Truman to commander-in-chief. We discuss how an unassuming, nerdy-looking fella commanded the respect of fellow soldiers during World War I, how Truman became Vice President under FDR, how he felt when Roosevelt died and he had to assume the presidency, and how he managed his self-doubt and insecurities after taking up residence in the White House.
- What was Truman’s early life and young adulthood like?
- Truman’s WWI experience
- Truman’s political education in Missouri, and why his reputation was slightly tarnished going into office
- His unlikely path to the US Senate
- What life was like here in the US during WWII
- How Harry Truman fell into the 1944 Vice President nomination
- Why Truman was kept out of the loop about the war effort
- What goes through Truman’s mind when he learns of FDR’s death?
- The advice Truman received from his mom upon becoming president
- How did the nation react to FDR’s death?
- Truman’s decision making in using the atomic bomb
- The world-changing events of the first 4 months of Truman’s presidency
- What every man can learn from Truman’s experience of being unexpectedly thrust into the most powerful position in the world
- How Baime took lessons from Truman in the writing of this book
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Leader’s Bookshelf
- Tom “Boss” Pendergast
- Missouri’s 1934 Senate election
- Missouri’s 1940 Senate election
- The Truman Committee
- Truman taking his first oath of office
- How to Increase Your Courage and Bravery
Connect With AJ
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Now, have you ever been put in a situation that you weren’t ready for at all, but somehow managed to rise to the occasion and do what needed to be done?
Imagine being Harry Truman. Grew up a poor farmer’s son in Jackson County, Missouri. Didn’t graduate college. Failed at multiple businesses. And stumbled into politics before being thrust into the role of the world’s most powerful man and required to make monumental decisions, including dropping the atomic bomb that would affect the course of history for the next 70 years.
Today on show, I talk to writer AJ Baime about his new book, The Accidental President, that highlights the unexpected rise of Harry Truman to Commander-in-Chief. We discuss how an unassuming, nerdy-looking fellow commanded the respect of fellow soldiers during World War I. How Truman became vice president under FDR. How he felt when Roosevelt died and had to assume the presidency. And how he managed his self-doubt and insecurities after taking up residence in the White House.
After the show’s over, check out the show notes at AOM.IS/accidental president. And AJ joins me now via ClearCast.io.
AJ Baime, welcome to the show.
AJ Baime: It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: So you got a new presidential biography out about Harry Truman, called The Accidental President. Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World.
Now before we get into Truman and why he’s the accidental president, what was the impetus behind this book? Is this a time period that you’ve been writing about and then it sort of naturally fell into writing about Truman?
AJ Baime: Yeah. That’s absolutely right. First, let me just say I actually studied biography in graduate school, which kind of makes me a rare specimen. And especially a guy who studied writing biography actually writes biographies? It’s pretty rare.
But this is an interesting book because it’s sort of a portrait of a guy, but it’s really just about four months of his life. It’s the first four months of his accidental presidency, which is basically the World War II presidency of Harry Truman.
My previous book was called the Arsenal of Democracy, and there’s this chapter in there where this unknown senator in 1943 is investigating Detroit car companies, wondering why these car companies are not producing military equipment as fast as they said they would. And it struck me as amazing that this guy who was so obscure in 1943, very few people really understood who he was, should become the most powerful man in the history of the world just two years later.
And that’s what the book’s about, is what happens after that. Suddenly he becomes the most powerful man in the history of the world. What does he do next?
Brett McKay: All right. So we’re going to talk about, we’re going to get to how Truman became president by accident. And like his whole political career, as we’ll see, is a complete accident, pretty much.
But before we get there, let’s talk about his political education. Like what allowed him to get to that point where he was kind of thrust into the world stage in this position of supreme power, and do okay, as we’ll see here.
So first, I mean, like Truman. What was his childhood and teenage years like? Was he, grew up on a farm? What was that like?
AJ Baime: Well, let me just begin answering the question like this, people were amazed when he became president. That this was a guy who had never gone to college. Never had the money to own his own home. You know, he’s following in Franklin Roosevelt’s footsteps and people are stunned. Who is this obscure man?
And one of the things that was so interesting about it was his upbringing. You know, he came from rural Missouri. He was raised on a farm. He was a failed businessman. He was pretty much a failure at everything he’d ever tried. He was a haberdasher, he had a clothing store, and that failed.
The only thing he’d ever been successful at was as a soldier. He was a captain in World War I, and he led troops into battle successfully. The only other tools he had were the teachings of his mother. His mother instilled in him these really basic, rural principles. You know, sort of the fabric of a human being. Always tell the truth. Honesty is the best policy. Do the right thing.
Those were the tools he had. No college eduction. But he did have these principles, you know? And the other thing he had was, as a kid, he’d been ill a little bit as a kid and he was a voracious reader. And he had read the entire Independence library. So he didn’t have a great education the way Roosevelt did, but he had this extraordinary knowledge of American history and American leadership.
Brett McKay: Yeah, speaking about his mom, when he became president, I loved her advice to him. She said, “Be good, Harry, but be game.” I loved there. It epitomizes what you need to do in order to be a president or a politician. You got to be good, but you got to be kind of savvy, too.
AJ Baime: That was one of my favorite moments in writing this book, was actually typing out that line. Because I remember when I found it during my research. I was like, “Oh, this is good.” And it’s really this dramatic moment, where again, he becomes president by accident, it’s the night of April 12th, 1945.
You know, we’ll get to the point of how he gets there, but when he finds out, he has no knowledge of the atomic bomb. He’s been the mayor of the city. Never been the governor of the state. And all of sudden, he’s president of the United States. And he goes home. He’s shocked.
His wife is in tears because she doesn’t want to be the First Lady. She doesn’t want her husband to be president. He goes into a room and shuts the door and calls his mom. And his mom says, dot, dot, dot. What you just said. “Be game, Harry.”
Brett McKay: Be game. Be good, but be game.
Well, let’s talk about his military work. Because I thought it was interesting because I didn’t know that about Truman. Because as you highlighted in the book, Truman as a kid was kind of a nerd. Like he had glasses, he wasn’t very athletic, he hung out mostly with women. His mom, his sister, like those were the close people in his life.
But somehow he was able to manage or command a lot of respect from the men that he led. So what was it about Truman, despite having the stature of sort of being a pencil neck, that he was able to command the respect of the men he led?
AJ Baime: Well, that’s a great question. And you’re right, he was a nerd. He would wander around in his glasses. You know, for a kid his age growing up, it was very rare in a rural place for a kid to wear glasses. Everybody called him four eyes. He was not allowed to play sports because glasses were very expensive in rural Missouri at the end of the 19th century.
By the time he goes to war, he’s always well into his 30s. And I think one of the reasons he wanted to go, he enlisted, was because he had nothing going on in his life. He was a farmer and a failed businessman and chasing this woman around, you know, who ended up being the First Lady, who really wanted not that much to do with him.
And here comes this war and he’s like, “You know what? I don’t want to live my life in this boring, obscure way. I want to go and find heroism. I want to be a hero, like all of the people I’ve read about in books.” So he enlists and he goes oversees and he suddenly finds himself, for two reasons.
One is because he helped recruit soldiers back in Kansas City, and two, because of his age. So he takes a test to be a captain and he passes, and he’s terrified. I found these really moving, I actually create the scene where he has to walk out in front of these troops for the first time and say, “Hey, I’m the boss.” And it’s a very moving moment.
And he finds in himself, he doesn’t even realize he has these leadership qualities. And it’s during World War I that he realizes that there’s things in him that he doesn’t know about that he wants to explore. When he gets back, he begins his political career.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s sort of the recurring theme throughout Truman’s life. Like he was filled with self-doubt. He was put in positions he thought, and he even said, “I can’t do this.” He would tell his wife. He’d write letters. But he somehow found it in him to rise to the occasion. And we’ll see that started in the military, and it goes all the way throughout his political career.
Well, let’s talk about his political career. He didn’t start off as a senator. He started off as a county judge in Jackson County, Missouri, right?
AJ Baime: That’s right. So he’s a judge in a rural place and he becomes sort of well-known in the county where he lives as sort of tool of a guy named Boss Pendergast. There was a gentleman named Boss Pendergast. Some wouldn’t call him a gentleman, who had liquor racquets and he owned a cement company. And he was basically kind of a crook. And he was in control of the Democratic party in Kansas City and much of Missouri.
He liked Truman because Truman had served in the war with his son or nephew, I forget which one. It was his nephew. And so Boss Pendergast has his eye on this guy Truman, and he gives him a chance. He gives him, you know, he has to be elected. So Truman runs for office. He’s never run for anything in his life, but he has this guy who has tons of money and tons of backing, who basically gets the job for him.
And so now he’s the judge in this county, and that’s where he gets his start. And his whole beginning of his political career is basically a table set by this guy Pendergast. So when he finally runs for Senate, he wins against all odds, he gets to Washington, and no one will shake his hand because they think he’s just this stooge of this crook named Pendergast. Which is true, in fact.
And eventually Pendergast goes to prison while Harry’s a senator. It’s a great embarrassment for him and appears to be at that time the end of his career.
Brett McKay: What’s interesting about him being elected county judge, basically county judge is like a county commissioner, right? They don’t really do judge stuff.
AJ Baime: Right. It was basically an executive position in the cabinet.
Brett McKay: Right.
AJ Baime: They had to decide, you know, who would be employed and where county money would be spent.
Brett McKay: What was interesting, the way you described, yes, he was elected by this Democratic, you know, machine boss. But at the same time, he was a stooge, but at the same time, he had the reputation of having integrity and making sure county money was spent wisely. How was Truman about to do that, both being sort of a political pawn but at the same time, develop this reputation as someone who got stuff done, but did it also with integrity?
AJ Baime: Well, that’s a great point. Now, Boss Pendergast, Tom Pendergast, everybody knew he was a crook. Everybody knew he controlled and fixed elections. And one of the things Pendergast really liked about Harry Truman was that Harry was a local boy. Everybody knew him in the county, in this rural county, as being an honest little fella.
Nobody thought that Harry, you know, they thought he was little and normal, like there was nothing special about him. But he was a guy who could be trusted. And so Boss Pendergast, you know, he trotted out Harry Truman. He said, “Look. Truman’s my boy. Nobody can say anything about bad about Harry Truman.”
Truman was in fact, fought against corruption in the county. And there was this one point in the 1930s where he realizes, it’s a very dramatic moment, he realizes where he’s at, what he’s a part of, and the fact that Pendergast has created his political career. And he’s still just a little guy in this rural county.
And he starts renting this hotel room in Kansas City and he sits up all night, probably with a bottle of bourbon, and he writes out this political philosophy. And those documents exist. You see him exploring who he is, what is right, what is wrong, what is the political philosophy, where do I fit into this whole thing?
Through reading those diary entries, essentially, you really get this wonderful window of who he is and who he wants to become.
Brett McKay: As county judge, did he get stuff done? Did he actually improve the lives of people who lived in Jackson County, Missouri?
AJ Baime: Absolutely. So basically, one thing he did that was the most important thing that he did, was he convinced the county to issue a bond. I think it was six million dollars, which at the time was a tremendous amount of money, to build roads. And it’s the 1920s and Harry says, “Listen. You know, we have all these cars now but you have to look 10 years from now. We’re going to have five times this number of cars, so we should have paved roads that go within two and a half miles of every farm in this county.”
And people thought he was crazy. But he won the public over to issuing this bond and everybody thought that this six million dollars raised by the county was going to go to crooks. And Harry Truman saw to it that it did not, that roads were built. That’s really how he earned his reputation.
And as I write in the book, you know, those roads just created his career and he followed them all the way to Washington, D.C.
Brett McKay: All right. So he gets elected as Senate. Even though it was, you know, the boss helped him get there, it was a fight. It was kind of like, he wasn’t sure he was going to win this thing.
AJ Baime: Absolutely. I mean, in Kansas City, in rural Missouri, politics at the time, especially during the Depression when it was so important who won an election because everybody … If I won an election, all my friends have jobs, so these were very bitterly fought contests. In fact, during these elections, especially Kansas City, there were instances of beatings, of murders. You know, election day can be a very violent affair.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Whenever I read about elections in the past, it’s always crazy how crazy it was. I’m always surprised at how nuts it was. You know, stabbings at the ballot box. It was terrible.
AJ Baime: Gun play.
Brett McKay: Right, right. So he gets elected senator. No one knows who he is. Everyone ignore him. I’m sure Truman was typically filled with self-doubt. So what did he do to rise to the occasion of being in one of the most hallowed halls of elected office in America?
AJ Baime: For starters, he keeps his mouth shut. He remains very obscure and he just votes pretty much on everything according to Roosevelt. However Roosevelt voted, he voted, because he thought Roosevelt was the answer to the Democratic party’s prayers, and in fact, he was.
So Truman was an honest guy. He was accused of all of this kind of stuff of being Pendergast’s stooge. He was called the Senator from Pendergast. But very gradually over these years in the late 1930s, he becomes friends with all these other senators and they realize that he is a man of great integrity, of total honesty, super hardworking. And very slowly, he gains the respect of all of these other senators, who begin supporting him and working with him on different committees and things.
He remains very obscure. And Tom Pendergast goes to prison in 1938, ’39 for fraud and all this other stuff. And Truman is sure his career is over at that point because he’s Pendergast’s stooge. And that leads to the 1948 election, which is one of the most exciting annals of politics, it’ the 1947 election in Missouri.
It’s incredible because everybody expects Truman to lose. Nobody gives him a chance. And he gathers his team together. He’s got no money and he puts together this grassroots campaign and he wins. It’s fascinating.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And one of the things that he did to build that trust, Truman loved playing poker. That was his thing to do.
AJ Baime: That’s absolutely right. And the descriptions of his poker games. And that’s another way that he made friends and he loved to play poker. So there’s quite a few scenes in the book where he’s playing. Especially when he becomes president, because one of the lines, I can really, there’s so much source material to work with that I was able to really paint these scenes very vividly and cinematically.
There’s this one moment where Fred Vincent, who’s a fellow politician when Truman is president, he leans over and forgets, you’re supposed to address the president as Mr. President. And Vincent leans over the table and says, “You sonofa-, oh, I’m sorry, Mr. President.” Like that. He loved poker.
Brett McKay: Yeah. All right. So he gets elected. Surprise victory. I think at this moment, this is where Truman started actually making a name for himself as a politician, is after this election, right?
AJ Baime: That’s right. So World War II starts and Truman founds this committee to investigate the defense effort. You know, I think young people today would find it difficult to understand what happened in the United States during World War II, unless you’ve read a lot. Everybody was affected. Everybody’s life changed.
To turn this capitalist economy we had into the great arsenal of democracy, as FDR called it, that meant closing any business that didn’t have something to do with the war effort. And turning all these businesses, car companies, insurance companies, farms, everything, to serve the war effort, because that was the only way we were going to defeat Hitler.
Now, as this conversion of our economy is happening, it’s a bumpy ride. A lot goes wrong. There’s a lot of war profiteering. There’s labor strikes. All kinds of stuff going on. And Truman founds this committee to go around the nation and figure out where the bottlenecks are, who’s cheating, and how to make sure that our soldiers are getting the best airplanes, the most airplanes.
Because really, the great arsenal of democracy, World War II is lining up to be a contest of mass production. Whoever can build the most trucks, tanks, airplanes, guns, field tents, field kitchens, helmets, cigarettes, you know, rations, whoever can build more will win.
So Truman goes around and he starts reporting on national defense and fixing problems, right? And he creates this first report and he slaps it on the desk, it goes all over Washington. And the next day the New York Times wrote, “The first question we have about the Truman report is, who the hell is Truman?”
Brett McKay: He was sort of like a burr in the saddle of a lot of, maybe even Roosevelt too. Like it was kind of, sort of who’s this guy mucking things up for us?
AJ Baime: He absolutely made a lot of enemies in the process. But by 1943, you know, he’s still very obscure but he lands on the cover of Time magazine, which at the time was an important thing. And he’s called the billion dollar watchdog. And that’s how he sort of gets to be known in America.
Brett McKay: And again, he’s building on that reputation of doing the right thing, being good, but being game, right? As Ma Truman told him to do. So, 1944. U.S is in the middle of World War II, and fighting Japan and in Europe. There’s a presidential election. This is a big, big election because you don’t want to, you know, Roosevelt has been leading the war effort. You don’t want to interrupt that.
At the same time, Roosevelt is sick. People are aware that he’s not doing well. So people know that, okay, whoever gets selected as vice president is probably going to be president within a few months, and is going to be leading the war effort. So you think, okay, we’re going to pick a vice president that has some experience with international affairs. Experience with the war effort. So how the heck did Harry Truman end up on the ticket with FDR in that election?
AJ Baime: It’s a great question. I spent a whole chapter talking about the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago where Truman shocks the nation, ending up as the VP on the ticket. So basically what happens is everybody’s talking about who’s going to be the vice president for exactly just what you said.
People sort of assumed that FDR was going to beat Thomas Dewey and win. And they also assumed that there was a good chance that FDR was not going to live through the next term because clearly, just looking at him, it was apparent that the war had taken his toll and he was not doing great.
So there was a meeting in the White House not long before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where all these leaders from the Democratic Party get together and try to decide who the VP’s going to be. And they start bringing up all these names and essentially what happens is, all of the most qualified candidates have something wrong with them.
For example, James Burns would have been the best choice for most of the American public. However, Burns had left the Catholic Church to marry a Protestant woman, and Catholics hated him. So you had this vast population in America who might vote against the ticket just because Jimmy Burns was on it. Plus, he was from South Carolina, which meant that the black vote in northern cities might vote against the ticket because they didn’t like the south, okay?
Then you had Henry Wallace, who was the current vice president, who was too far to the left. And he made everybody very, very nervous. So he was out.
Alben Barkley, he was a great choice but Barkley had gotten in a dustup with Roosevelt. They had an argument about something, there was some bad blood there.
So the way it was termed at the time was quote, Truman just dropped into the slot. So Truman goes to the Democratic National Convention expecting to nominate James Burns for VP on the ticket. At the time, a Gallup Poll says two percent of Americans, actually two percent of Democratic voters think that Truman should be the vice presidential candidate.
But all of these machinations happen and Truman himself is shocked to find out that FDR wants him to be on the ticket and he has no choice but to accept, against his wishes. He doesn’t want the job. But when FDR gets on the phone and says, you have to do this or you’re going to split up the Democratic party in the middle of the biggest war in history, you know, that’s on you.
So Truman ends up on the ticket. The nation is shocked. They don’t really know much about this guy. And of course, they win.
Brett McKay: Well, why didn’t Truman want to be on the ticket? I mean, a lot of people, today you think, oh, everyone wants … If you got asked to be vice president, yeah, heck yeah. What was Truman against?
AJ Baime: Well, a few reasons. One is the vice president had relatively little to do. The only official job that the vice president had was to preside over the Senate and vote if there was a tie in the Senate. It was basically, you know, it was a boring job.
The second this is Truman was very nervous. He didn’t want to follow FDR’s footsteps into the White House if FDR died and he became president. He was not prepared to lead the United States during the climatic months of World War II. He had no college degree. He had never been the mayor of a city, or governor of the state. He was clearly not the best man for the job, and he knew it and he was terrified.
But he had no choice. And when he becomes vice president, he basically is just praying that FDR’s going to live through the term. And 82 days later, FDR is dead.
Brett McKay: What was interesting about this, you’d think, okay, the inner circle of Roosevelt, they know he’s not doing well. They know Truman’s next in line because he’s vice president. You’d think they’d educate him about what’s going on with the war effort. You’d think they’d let him know about the development of the atomic bomb.
But Truman, he even said, “I know about as much about the war effort as the guy on the street knows.” Why was Truman kept out of what was going on with the war effort, even though he was vice president?
AJ Baime: Well, a lot of historians have said that that was FDR’s greatest fault. So soon after the election, FDR takes all of his top advisors and they go off to negotiate with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta. And Truman is left in the dark. He’s left at home. He has no knowledge of the atomic bomb project, the Manhattan Project.
He just never worked his way into FDR’s inner circle and I think FDR, that was his biggest mistake as president.
Brett McKay: So yeah, Roosevelt dies. Truman suddenly, he’s president. And the way you describe it, I love how you start off the book talking about how he became president. Sort of this cinematic, I mean, like you said, it’s very cinematic. It’s just so much fun to read.
Again, I’m sure he feels completely out of his depth. What was going through his mind and maybe his wife, what were the conversations he was having with his wife about whether or not he could, you know, step into this job and do a good job with it?
AJ Baime: Well, thank you for saying that, firstly. I spend the first 38 pages on one day. It’s April 12th, 1945, and I lead the readers through Truman’s day. He wakes up that day. It’s raining. He drops his daughter off at George Washington University. He goes to work. He meets with a buddy named McKimm for lunch and they’re planning this poker game. And he tells his buddy McKimm to go make sure there’s tons of whiskey. And they were going to play in a hotel room at the Stafford Hotel.
And then suddenly, the day finishes. It’s 5 o’clock. He goes over to Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House. He’s in his office. And Sam Rayburn hands him a bourbon with water and says, “Oh, by the way, the White House called. Call Steve Early at the White House.” Truman calls over and he’s told that he has to come to the White House immediately.
And he right way, he knows something’s wrong. So the next thing you know, he’s running. He’s like sprinting through the halls of the United States Capitol, gets down to the White House, and sure enough, Mrs. Roosevelt is there. And he finds out that the president’s dead.
And there’s all of this stuff that has to happen. He calls the Cabinet. He has to get the Cabinet together. He has to call the Chief Justice, you know, and get all these people to the White House so he could take this 35 word oath. And that happens. And it’s this extraordinary, dramatic moment. He’s sorry that his mother can’t be there, so he asks if he can have a photographer take a picture.
That picture is now one of the most famous pictures of World War II, of when Truman is taking the oath. His wife is there, of course. Right after it all takes place, the Secretary of War, Henry Stimpon pulls him aside and privately says, “Oh by the way. We have this secret weapons you should know about. And that’s really all I can tell you about it now.”
So even then, he still really doesn’t know about the Manhattan Project.
Brett McKay: I mean, Roosevelt, for people who weren’t alive at the time or don’t know about World War II history. Roosevelt was like a very beloved figure in America at that time. People put up portraits of him in their house. How did the American people respond to this guy from Nowhere, Missouri, suddenly being President of the United States? Just as he was World War I, you know, a battalion commander, command the respect of the American public, and maybe even the inner circle of Roosevelt?
AJ Baime: Well, that’s really what the book is really about. Because I say, right on the first page, that you cannot underestimate the shock to the world. The world felt when Roosevelt died. And you read this in the diaries of everybody who was powerful at the time, writing in their diary on April 12th, “Oh my God. Truman will be president.”
You know, in Moscow, in Germany. Eisenhower smoking cigarettes recorded what he was saying at that time. The world was stunned because they don’t know who this guy is. And the narrative of the book, it’s to me, very inspirational because it’s really the story of this guy who comes out of nowhere, stuns the world, becomes president, completely unprepared to do so, and in four months wins the war and has an 87% approval rating. Higher than FDR’s had ever been. So he unites the nation, drops the bomb, wins the war.
Brett McKay: How did he do it? I imagine, like you talked about it, he was filled with self-doubt. He had a conversation with his wife, and his wife was like, I don’t know. Even his wife was like I don’t think you can do this.
AJ Baime: Even his wife doubted him.
Brett McKay: Again, how did he rise to the occasion? Like what was it about Truman that allowed him just to keep plugging along and doing the job that he had to do?
AJ Baime: That’s an excellent question. And I’ll go back to something that we talked about at the beginning of this conversation. You know, he really didn’t have an understanding of all of how anything worked in the White House, who the people were, who staffed the White House. He didn’t have experience in executive government. Again, never been mayor of city, never been governor of a state.
But the thing he did have were these rural 19th-century principles. Honesty is the best policy. Do the right thing. Make yourself useful. And then, of course, you know, he puts this sign on his desk that says, the buck stops here. And that meant that he understood that he was responsible. And it was those sort of principles that carried him through.
Brett McKay: One thing that impressed me about Truman was his ability to make decisions. I think that impressed a lot of the sort of inner circle of Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, his kind of leadership style was he would pit cabinet members against each other and kind of see things play out.
But Truman, again, the buck stopped with him. He made a decision. He made sure that it got done.
AJ Baime: That’s right. His decisiveness at times alarmed people around him. I don’t want people to think that The Accidental President is focused just a canonization of Truman. It’s more than that. He made some big mistakes.
One in particular during the first four months of his presidency, and that really had to do with his decisiveness. He felt like that was his job was decide things. And sometimes he would decide on a matter before he was entirely educated and move on quickly. So not everything went as smoothly as he would have liked.
And he understood that that was going to be part of the learning process.
Brett McKay: Well, I mean, one of his most controversial decisions was using the atomic bomb. Did he make that decision, like didn’t really think twice about it? They had it, so they had to use it? Or did he wring his hands about it? What was that process like for him?
AJ Baime: Well, I think it was a terrible, terrible decision to have to make. I think, actually, it was easier to make than people may imagine today. For two reasons. One is all the major advisors around him who knew about the bomb, including Winston Churchill, there was never any doubt that the weapon should be used. And the reason why was very clear to Truman.
On June 18th, 1945, he held a meeting in the White House to figure out … We had already defeated Germany. The Third Reich was gone. Hitler was dead. We were still fighting the Japanese and the Japanese were fighting us savagely. They would choose death and suicide over defeat. We didn’t know how to get what we wanted from the Japanese, which was unconditional surrender.
So at that meeting on June 18th in the White House, General Marshall, head of the Army, says, “Okay, we’re going to plan this ground invasion in. It worked with the D-Day invasion in Normandy. We’re going to do that again in Japan.” And they’re sitting around the table talking about how savagely the Japanese fought. We’re going to fight.
If we attack them in their homeland, women and children are going to take up arms and fight to the last square foot of land. It was going to be an awful, awful, bloody battle. And the attacking force was going to be 766,700 American soldiers. Think about that number. That was how many soldiers we were going to send over to attack the mainland of Japan.
And Truman said, well, you know, he says to himself, well, we have this bomb and we can this war now, save potentially hundreds of thousands of American lives. Maybe even save Japanese lives if we just use this bomb and get it over with. And that’s what happened.
You know, he talked about this decision for the rest of his life and it remains the most controversial decision any president has ever made. But in the end, I don’t think it was as difficult to make as one might imagine.
Brett McKay: Right. Right. Well, I mean, another thing you point out in the book, it’s about the first four months of his presidency. So much happened in those first four months. You know, he won the war in Europe, won the war in Japan, had to decide to use the atomic bomb. And basically, he was also part of the discussions that set the world order for the next 70 years, or 60 years, in the entire world. People forget that, that was Truman, he had a role in that.
AJ Baime: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, this book ends when the war ends. My next book is about the year 1948 and that has a lot more of what we’re talking about here. The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the founding of Israel. All of this stuff that really launched us into the post war world.
You could make the argument that the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were the most influential foreign policy plans since the war. We’re probably, you could say were highly useful to us until the last six months or year.
Brett McKay: Right. And what’s crazy, he’s a guy from Jackson County, Missouri. He was a nerdy kid from Jackson County, Missouri, who didn’t go to college. And he was the guy who put all that into place.
AJ Baime: It’s very unexpected. I mean, he’s basically the ultimate underdog.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I’m curious, as you wrote this book, and there’s a lot of debate about Truman’s legacy with the bomb. And even the firebombing that happened in Japan, and some of the other decisions he made later on. As I read this book, I thought there was so much you could learn from his experience of being suddenly thrust into positions that you didn’t feel like you’re ready for, but you’re somehow able to rise to the occasion.
I mean, is that something that you got out of the book and if so, what do you think, besides the rural advice that he got from his mom, what was it about Truman? Is that replicable? Can other people do that, or was there something special about him?
AJ Baime: I think yes. You know what? Really, in the end, is the guy just had guts. He had courage. I have to say, when I was writing this book, it was inspiring to me because when you write a book like this, you spend thousands and thousands and thousands of hours reading and thinking and organizing.
And you’re by yourself. And you can get very lost in your material, and you can get very nervous that you’re not going to hit your deadline. It’s a difficult thing to do. It’s a difficult way to make a living. You find you have to start taking your, I’m not an old guy, 46 now, I was younger than that when I was writing this book, and I’d have to take my blood pressure every day because it can get that intense.
Sometimes you find you can’t sleep because you can’t get the stuff out of your head. The reason why I’m bringing that up is because the character I was writing about sort of helped me through because I thought to myself, “If Truman can survive what he’s going through in the first four months of his presidency, I’m not going to start complaining about my life.”
Brett McKay: Well, AJ, this has been a great conversation. Is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book?
AJ Baime: Trumanbook.com. Or my Facebook page, which is Facebook.com/AJBaime. But you can get it anywhere. Amazon. I encourage people just read the reviews on Amazon. It’s a new book. There’s already 183 reviews up on Amazon. It’s a five star book, man.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, AJ Baime, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
AJ Baime: Been a pleasure. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was AJ Baime. He’s the author of the book, The Accidental President. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Also check out our show notes at AOM.is/accidentalpresident, where you’ll find links to resources, where we delve deeper into this topic.
Brett McKay: Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website, at artofmanliness.com. And if you enjoyed the podcast, got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps us out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member if you think they’ll get something out of it.
As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.