The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World – A.J. Baime

TrumanOn January 15, 1953, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) gave his farewell address after serving as the Thirty-Third President of the United States. He had taken office on April 12, 1945, after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). At the time of Roosevelt’s death, allied forces were pushing further into German territory to bring the Third Reich to its knees. In the Pacific, the war against Japan continued to rage but in less than six months, it too surrendered after the devastation left by two atomic bombs. In the first four months that Truman was in office, the entire world changed in ways no one could have imagined. Had Roosevelt lived, the war might have ended differently, and domestically, America might have moved forward at a different pace. He did not live to see his post-war plans come to light and for Truman, the title of president was thrust into his lap. He had never wanted the presidency but due to circumstance, he had become what author A.J. Baime calls the accidental president.

In contrast to a standard biography, the focus of the book is on the four months between Truman taking office and the surrender of Japan. The story begins with Roosevelt’s last day alive. Following his death, all eyes become fixed on Truman who is largely unknown to the American people. Washington insiders knew of his background but even within those circles, he was somewhat of a mystery. His unassuming look and plain-spoken Midwest nature made him appear as just another person in the room. But little did anyone know that the next president would usher in a new era in warfare and set the course for future domestic programs and U.S. foreign policy.

Before entering the lengthy discussion of the war and Truman’s role in it, Baime provides a short biography about his early life in Independence, Missouri, and his entry into politics that culminates with his arrival in Washington. One aspect that stood out is Truman’s military service in World War I which is often not discussed. I believe his experiences in combat surely helped his ability to make decisions during World War II. After we learn of Truman’s unusual entry into politics and nomination for vice-president, the author shifts gears and takes us right into the war with a heavy focus on Japan where the U.S. Air Force is conducting firebombing raids under the legendary and controversial General Curtis E. LeMay (1906-1990). Despite the fierce allied attacks, Japan would not surrender but in Europe, the Third Reich was on life support. Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) dream of a master Aryan nation spread across continents had collapsed and the tyrant himself was hiding in his bunker. The Red Army was closing in and the German people knew that retribution from the Soviets was not something any of them wanted to experience. On April 30, 1945, Hitler met his demise and escaped punishment at Nuremberg. Washington breathed a sigh of relief at the German defeat but knew that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) could not be fully trusted. The seeds of the Cold War had been firmly planted as World War II reached its shocking and brutal conclusion. With Germany no longer a threat, the story moves to the war in the Pacific where allied forces are determined to crush the Japanese military.

As the book progresses, it really splits into two stories; the race to finish the bomb and the negotiations at the Potsdam, Cecilienhof conference between Truman, Stalin, and British leader Winston Churchill (1874-1965). The debate over whether Truman should have used the bomb will continue but the author does a good job of showing what was being discussed behind the scenes. Truman knew the decision he had to make was unlike anything a president had faced before. He also knew that he would be judged throughout history for it. Baime summarizes Truman’s historical recognition with this accurate statement:

“Truman is remembered first and foremost for his decision to employ atomic weapons—Little Boy and Fat Man, the only two nuclear bombs ever used against human targets. More than seventy years later, this decision remains almost certainly the most controversial that any president has ever made.” 

However, the war with Japan needed a conclusion, and allied forces had already begun to plan the full-scale invasion of the island on November 1, 1945. The bomb was the ace up Truman’s sleeve, but until a test was conducted, questions surrounding its efficacy remained. All of that changed on July 16, 1945, in Los Alamos, New Mexico when the first successful test was conducted and the outcome of World War II began to take shape.

Remarkably, throughout the reports of carnage, the tension surrounding the bomb program, and interactions with the Soviets, Truman always comes across as incredibly calm. And what we see is that for a man who was the accidental president, he rose to the occasion and showed no hesitation when action was required. The power of the bomb was not lost on Truman or others with knowledge of its existence. Lead scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) also makes an appearance in the story as the full gravity of the bomb’s creation comes down on all of them. No one knows for certain exactly when Truman decided to use the bomb and as Baime explains, there is no written record of it. Eventually, the moment in the book we know is coming arrives on August 6 when the city of Hiroshima receives the first atomic bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki suffered similar devastation which finally convinced the Japanese Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) (1901-1989) that to continue the war would mean Japan’s ultimate destruction.

Finally, the war was over but the destruction and death that ensued were permanently seared into the memories of all who witnesses man’s savagery. Truman personally observed Berlin for himself and the experience is revisited in the book. Survivors of the nuclear bombs provide additional feedback regarding the immediate impact of the detonation. Their words provided a chilling effect to the introduction of atomic weapons. Back in America, Truman’s popularity soared and the little-known senator from Missouri became an American hero. This stands in stark contrast to his wife Bess (1885-1982) whose disdain and avoidance of the public spotlight are also part of the story. The book concludes after the formal surrender of Japan but Baime provides an epilogue that takes a closer look at Truman’s time in office following the war. He never again reached the level of popularity that he enjoyed during the war era but he remains one of the most important leaders in world history. Few knew who he was when took control of Washington on April 12, 1945, but in just fourth months, he cemented his legacy and showed that even an accident president can be just what the country needs.

 “No President could ever hope to lead our country, or to sustain the burdens of this office, save as the people helped with their support. I have had that help–you have given me that support–on all our great essential undertakings to build the free world’s strength and keep the peace. Those are the big things. Those are the things we have done together. For that I shall be grateful, always.” – Harry S. Truman, January 15, 1953

ASIN: B01MQVT9TG

The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded – Ronald Kessler

Kessler-sinsoffatherWhen we think of political dynasties in America, perhaps no other name has had as big of an impact as the Kennedys.  They are both admired and loathed but their importance to  the American experience cannot be understated. The patriarch, Joseph (“Joe”) P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) was once one of the wealthiest men in America.  Yet for all of his financial success, controversy followed him and his family for years after his death.  The family’s success undoubtedly reached its highest peak with second son John F. (“Jack”) Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected in 1960 as the next President of the United States.  For Joe, it was a dream come true and reaffirmed his mantra that “Kennedys don’t lose”.  To most of the public, the Kennedys seemed like figures out of a story book and the media’s creation of the term “Camelot” that was given to the Kennedy White House, further enhanced the family’s mythical status.  The image presented to the public gave the impression of a fairytale marriage that any single person would envy.  Today, we know through the benefit of hindsight that the truth is far less glamarous and behind the scenes, there were dark storm clouds gathering as infidelity, old man Joe’s influence and one foreign crisis after another made life as the first family strenuous to say the least.  Rumors have persisted over the years that Joe Kennedy provided the money for all of his sons’ political campaigns and that the money he provided was used in several places to swing the election to his son Jack.  And while there has never been documented evidence of such, statements have been made by many individuals that action were taken to give Kennedy the election.  All knowledge of what really did happen went with Joe Kennedy to the grave and I doubt that even his sons knew the whole story.  He was a master at compartmentalization and for years, remained chameleon like figure.  Ronald Kessler decided to take another at Kennedy’s life and what he found has been compiled into this book that peels back the layers that have shrouded the Kennedy family is mystique for several decades.

I should point out that the book is not about the Kennedy presidency nor is it focused on Jack’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. In fact, the murder receives only a small section in the story.  Joe Kennedy is the center of the story and the author takes us deep inside his world in a time before Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) started a second world war. the stock market was less regulated, Hollywood was for the taking and the 1919 National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act) turned bootleggers into millionaires.  Joe’s numerous ventures both legal and illegal are discussed in the book and show that he was not above defying the law in order to reap hugh profits.  After providing background information on the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families, Kessler shifts gears and the story picks up pace as Joe begins to implement his vision for financial success and political fame.  Kennedy had always portrayed himself as the Irishman who overcame bias and adversity to rise high in American society.  It is a moving story but there were many things he left out and Kessler leaves no stone unturned.  The real Joe Kennedy is revealed here and what we learn may prove to be more than some readers have bargained for.  If you hold the Kennedy family in high regard, then this book might cause you to re-evaluate your views of them while inducing feelings of bewilderment, sympathy and in some cases, pity.

There is no question that Kennedy was shrewd and domineering businessman, never afraid to throw his weight around.  And those abilities would bring him into the circle of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) whose relationship with Joe takes up a significant portion of the book.  Historians know very well the story of the “appeasement at Munich” where Czechoslovakia was carved up on a silver platter for Adolft Hitler by former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) with the full support of U.S. Ambassador Kennedy.  But when Hitler decided to invade neighboring Poland on September 1, 1939, it became hauntingly clear that the appeasement was a distraction from Germany’s master plan.  Kennedy’s view that England would lose the war by 1940 caused consternation and outrage in Britain and Washington.  And it would put a deep strain to develop in the relationship between Kennedy and Roosevelt. Drawing upon written correspondence and statements by those with knowledge, the book reveals the high level of contempt in which Kennedy was held by many in government. Roosevelt himself does not spare Kennedy his wrath and it is an interesting look behind the scenes as the German army rolled across Europe.  Some readers might be puzzled by Kennedy’s behavior.  One possible explanation can be found in Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts’ The Day the Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which discusses the link between Nazi Germany and American bankers and investors.   I personally wondered why Roosevelt tolerated Kennedy as long as he did.  There is a good explanation for that as well which is provided within the story, further highlighting the fact that politics is a ruthless business.   As the war rages on, Kennedy eventually moves back to the United States and like a piece of chessboard, he is moved from one position to another but never attains a position within the White House. He would live vicariously through Jack who’s victory over Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the moment Joe had been waiting for.

I have often heard of the Kennedy curse and tragedy did follow the family constantly.  The deaths of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s (1890-1995) children affect both deeply and the mantra of “Kennedys don’t cry” comes off more as a slogan than a way of life.  In spite of Joe’s antics throughout the book, there did exist a very personal side to him that was often unseen and rarely revealed.  The memories provided by his former mistress Janet DesRosiers shows him in his most humble state and also provokes more questions about the marriage between Joe and Rose which comes off as more than unorthodox.  What we learn about their union sheds light on the difference between liberal and puritanical views.  Stories of the Kennedy men and their love lives is nothing new and in the case of Joe, he certainly had his fun.  But while reading the book, I asked myself if he would have behaved in the same manner had his marriage to Rose taken a different course? We can only speculate but what is clear is that “love” is not always what we think it is and many secrets always exist behind closed doors. On occasion in the book, statements by their children regarding their childhood provide a very sobering picture of life at home and there are very few positive comments about their mother Rose, who is more like a visiting relative than full-time mother.  They do however, show the utmost respect and admiration dad Joe who emerges as the glue that holds the family together.

Far from being “Camelot”, the family was more like an episode of reality television gone wrong. However, there is no question that the Kennedy possessed enormous ambition and it propelled them to high places.  For them, losing was not an option.  And John F. Kennedy remains one of America’s most beloved presidents.  Aside from Joe, the author does discuss incidents that arise in the lives of the children, most of which are highly serious.  Ted (1932-2009) as the family called him, has a series of incidents that severely injured or took the life of someone in his company.  Yet his accidents are only a few in a long series of events in the Kennedy family that involved tragedy due to recklessness or substance abuse. And no story about the family is complete without a discussion regarding the missing sister, Rosemary (1918-2005) who outlived all but one of her brothers.  Her story is perhaps one of the most tear-jerking parts of the story and I warn readers who are sensitive or may know someone labeled as having a mental disability that this part of the book might be difficult.  But, the discussion presented by Kessler points out some things about Rosemary’s intellect that show just how primitive the mental health field in the 1940s. Today, I believe that had she been born in another era, she would have lived a far different and close to normal life. But sadly, she was born in a time where most doctors did not understand what her condition actually was and resorted to drastic measures that changed her life permanently and served as a major source of regret throughout Rose’s life.

To say that the story by Kessler is unbelievable would be an understatement. This is a raw and unfiltered look at the life of Joe Kennedy and his family whose name is a crucial part in the our nation’s past. Some readers may be surprised at what Kessler reveals and others may feel indifference.  As time moves forward, the  Kennedys will be remembered at best, a dynasty from another era that continues to fade into the distance.  Admittedly, I was aware of a good number of the facts revealed by the author and had no illusions about how fierce and ruthelss Joe Kennedy could be.  I believe it is for that reason that I was never shocked while reading the story.  However, I did learn more about the the level of dysfunction that existed within the home and how unusual family ties were.  For further reading, I do recommend that readers consider Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot  , in which the author explores many alleged family secrets. The book is controversial but overall very well written and I do believe Hersh was right about some things but not about everything. However, it is still a good read and completely breaks down the myth of “Camelot”. I have no doubt that there are many family secrets that remain carefully guarded.  In the end, no family or individual is perfect and this story is proof of that.  Further, we can have all the material items we want in life and still suffer from loneliness.  Joe comes to understand this quite well and his unguarded moments show that even those of us with a strong facade are at times highly vulnerable on the inside.  Regardless of your opinion of him, Joe Kennedy remains firmly entrenched in American history as the founder of a dynasty that once captivated an entire world.  And if you decide to read this book, be aware that there is far more to the man you may have ever imagined.

ASIN : B006YC7AH4