Read Truman Online

Authors: David McCullough

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Presidents & Heads of State, #Political, #Historical


Praise for
“Perhaps the highest tribute one can pay a biographer is to say that through him one comes to know his subject almost as though in person. In fostering the reader’s acquaintance with Harry Truman, not once does McCullough get in the way. This is in every respect a splendid work.”

—Myron A. Marty,
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Since I’ve been in national politics, whenever I’ve been asked who my favorite political leader of the century is, I have always said Harry Truman…. David McCullough has always been a favorite of mine. The Truman biography is outstanding.”

—Jimmy Carter,
The Boston Phoenix

“Exemplary and riveting…. The book is like a comfortable Victorian three-decker novel. There are two plots, a hero and heroine, and a glittering cast of characters ranging from Dean Acheson, Churchill and General Marshall to the Pendergasts and General MacArthur, as well as a splendid collection of Shakespearean clowns…. McCullough’s book will stand for a long time as the outstanding analysis of an extremely important subject: the greatness of Truman, and its role as an exogenous ‘cause’ in the history of his time.”

—Eugene V. Rostow,
Times Literary Supplement,

“An impressive and valuable study of Truman, worthy of its subject.”

—C. Vann Woodward,
The New York Review

is biography as good as it gets, as absorbing and readable as it is voluminous. McCullough writes like a novelist, digs like a zealous reporter and puts things in perspective like the superb historian he is.”

—Lorenzo Carcaterra,

“This is the biography of President Harry S. Truman against which not only all other Truman biographies but probably all other presidential biographies will be measured. It is comprehensive, well reasoned, insightful and yet elegantly simple. It is written with a love for the subject that is contagious.”

—Steve Weinberg,
The Kansas City Star

“McCullough takes us on a beautifully guided tour of recent history—a journey that is as much a celebration of American experience as it is a captivating portrait of the ordinary ‘man from Missouri’ who became an extraordinary figure in the Cold War world. Keeping Truman himself always vividly in the foreground, Mr. McCullough has written a stirring, masterly, thoroughly absorbing book.”

—Jean Strouse, author of
Alice James: A Biography

“We are always at Truman’s side, at poker and bourbon and at his high moments. Coverage is complete and fascinating…. Now we know Truman in all his candor, courage, straightforwardness, determination and his occasional blunder…. This long, penetrating book is biography at its best.”

—W. A. Swanberg,
Chicago Sun-Times

“Sweeping and vivid…. As a comprehensive and highly readable account of one of the most American of Americans, this is a distinctive and distinguished volume.”

—Hoyt Purvis,
The Dallas Morning News

“An enthralling and fluidly told surprise-success story…. A book that handles an enormous amount of material with deftness, taste, and an acute understanding of Truman’s world and the men who made it.”

—Rhoda Koenig,
New York

“Superbly researched and carried forward by McCullough’s narrative drive,
is endlessly readable. The Harry we were all wild about is re-created exactly as Harry was—feisty, preposterous, decisive, tireless, outrageous, but always honorable, always courageous, always guided by his inner gyroscope of conscience and character.”

—William Manchester, author of
William Spencer Churchill: The Last Lion

“David McCullough brings Truman vividly to life in this masterpiece of American biography. It’s a superb political study and human history.”

—Steve Neal,
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Splendid…an elegantly written, even moving work…deserves a wide audience—if nothing else to remind us of what we were and what we had.”

—Stanley I. Kutler,
Chicago Tribune

“Surefooted, highly satisfying biography…. an impressive tribute to a man whose brisk cheerfulness and self-confidence were combined with a God-fearing humility.”

Publishers Weekly

“Not only outstanding biography but a great American story as well—by a master of the art. It is about how modern America was made. It is also about character and leadership in a time that needed both.”

—Daniel Yergin, author of
The Prize

“Harry Truman has found his biographer. David McCullough’s monumental
perfectly mirrors its subject—vivid, straightforward, fast moving, intensely human, never boring for a moment. Truman himself once asserted the right to be both a president and a human being; it is McCullough’s great achievement as a biographer that he has managed to pin both Trumans to paper.”

—Geoffrey C. Ward, author of
The Civil War: An Illustrated History

“David McCullough has a rare gift for combining scholarship with storytelling. His
ranks with William Manchester’s
American Caesar
and Edmund Morris’s
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
among the finest biographies of our time. To call
definitive is an understatement. For what Mr. McCullough has created is a vast panorama of American life and politics, from the stagecoach to the space capsule, all swirling around a seemingly ordinary protagonist whose extraordinary qualities make Truman’s life a stirring confirmation of democracy at its finest.”

—Richard Norton Smith, Director, Herbert Hoover Library

“A fresh, wonderful new biography…My only complaint about this marvelous book is how much it makes me miss the old guy with the snappy bow tie.”

—Daniel Schorr,
USA Today

“Plain wonderful.”

—Justin Kaplan

“Masterful…. Everyone seems to be reading
Those who are sixty years of age or more, and therefore old enough to have adult memories of the man himself, recognize the loving accuracy of McCullough’s account. Professional historians of any age will acknowledge that McCullough has done the hard work necessary for good history and has added zest and imagination—qualities often absent from academic writing.”

—Gaddis Smith,
The Yale Review

Also by David McCullough








Rockefeller Center

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, New York 10020

Copyright © 1992 by David McCullough

All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

& S
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Designed by Eve Metz

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

McCullough, David G.

Truman/David McCullough.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

1. Truman, Harry S., 1884–1972.

2. Presidents—United States—Biography.

I. Title.

E814.M26 1992

973.918′092—dc20 [B]         92-5245 CIP

ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-6029-9
ISBN-10: 0-7432-6029-5

Visit us on the World Wide Web:


We can never tell what is in store for us.

S. T

Part One
Son of the Middle Border
Blue River Country
As an agricultural region, Missouri is not surpassed by any state in the Union. It is indeed the farmer’s kingdom….

The History of Jackson County, Missouri,


n the spring of 1841, when John Tyler was President, a Kentucky farmer named Solomon Young and his red-haired wife, Harriet Louisa Young, packed their belongings and with two small children started for the Far West. They had decided to stake their future on new land in the unseen, unfamiliar reaches of westernmost Missouri, which was then the “extreme frontier” of the United States.

They were part of a large migration out of Kentucky that had begun nearly twenty years before, inspired by accounts of a “New Eden” in farthest Missouri—by reports sent back by Daniel Morgan Boone, the son of Daniel Boone—and by the fact that in 1821 Missouri had come into the Union as a slave state. The earliest settlers included families named Boggs, Dailey, and Adair, McCoy, McClelland, Chiles, Pitcher, and Gregg, and by 1827 they had founded a courthouse town called Independence, pleasantly situated on high ground in Jackson County, in what was often spoken of as the Blue River country. Those who came afterward, at the time of Solomon and Harriet Louisa Young, were named Hickman, Holmes, and Ford, Davenport, McPherson, Mann, Noland, and Nolan, Freeman, Truman, Peacock, Shank, Wallace, and Whitset, and they numbered in the hundreds.

Nearly all were farmers, plain-mannered and plain-spoken, people with little formal education. Many of them were unlettered, even illiterate. They were not, however, poor or downtrodden, as sometimes pictured—only by the material standards of later times could they be considered wanting—and though none were wealthy, some, like red-haired Harriet Louisa, came from families of substantial means. She had said goodbye to a spacious Greek Revival house with wallpaper and milled woodwork, the Kentucky home of her elder brother and guardian, William Gregg, who owned numerous slaves and landholdings running to many hundreds of acres.

The great majority of these people were of Scotch-Irish descent. They were Baptists and they were Democrats, and like Thomas Jefferson they believed that those who labored in the earth were the chosen people of God. They saw themselves as the true Americans. Their idol was Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory of Tennessee, “One-man-with-courage-makes-a-majority” Jackson, the first President from west of the Alleghenies, who was of their own Scotch-Irish stock. It was for him that Jackson County had been named, and like him they could be tough, courageous, blunt, touchy, narrow-minded, intolerant, and quarrelsome. And obstinate. “Lord, grant that I may always be right, for Thou knowest I am hard to turn,” was a line from an old Scotch-Irish prayer.

With their Bibles, farm tools, and rifles, their potent corn whiskey, their black slaves, they brought from Kentucky a hidebound loathing for taxes, Roman Catholics, and eastern ways. Their trust was in the Lord and common sense. That they and their forebears had survived at all in backwoods Kentucky—or earlier in upland Virginia and the Carolinas—was due primarily to “good, hard sense,” as they said, and no end of hard work.

They were workers and they were loners, fiercely independent, fiercely loyal to their kind. And they were proudly prolific. David Dailey, recorded as the first man to break the prairie sod in Jackson County, came west with a wife and twelve sons, while Christopher Mann, who outlived everybody of that generation, had already produced with his Betsie seventeen sons and daughters and with a second marriage fathered eight more. (Years afterward, at age eighty-seven, this memorable Jackson County pioneer could claim he had never lost a tooth from decay and could still hold his breath for a minute and a half.) They believed in big families, they came from big families. Children were wealth for a farmer, as for a nation. President Tyler himself had eight children, and in another few years, at age fifty-four, following the death of his first wife, he would remarry and have seven more children, making a total of fifteen, a presidential record.

Solomon Young, who was one of eleven children, and his wife Harriet Louisa, one of thirteen, were from Shelby County, Kentucky, east of Louisville. And so was Nancy Tyler Holmes, a widow with ten children, who made the journey west to Missouri three or four years later, about 1845, once her sons had established themselves in Jackson County. Carrying a sack of tea cakes and her late husband’s beaver hat in a large leather hatbox, she traveled in the company of several slaves and her two youngest daughters, one of whom, Mary Jane Holmes, was secretly pining for a young man back in Shelby County named Anderson Truman. He was one of twelve children.

If Solomon and Harriet Louisa Young were acquainted with any of the Holmes or Truman families by this time, there is no record of it.

Nearly everyone made the expedition the same way, traveling the wilderness not by wagon or horseback but by steamboat. The route was down the winding Ohio River from Louisville, past Henderson and Paducah, to the confluence of the Mississippi at Cairo, then up the Mississippi to St. Louis. Changing boats at St. Louis, they headed west on the Missouri, the “Big Muddy,” fighting the current for 457 miles, as far as the river’s sudden, dramatic bend. There they went ashore at either of two miserable, mudbound little river settlements, Wayne City or Westport, which put them within a few miles of Independence, still the only town of consequence on the frontier.

With the “terrible current” against them, the trip on the Missouri took a week. The shallow-draft boats were loaded so deep the water broke over the gunwales. Wagons and freight jammed the deck, cordwood for the engines, mules, horses, piles of saddles and harness, leaving passengers little room. (One side-wheel steamer of the era that sank in the river and was only recovered more than a century later, carried cargo that included everything from ax handles and rifles to school slates, doorknobs, whale oil lanterns, beeswax candles, 2,500 boots and shoes, and thousands of bright-colored beads and buttons intended for the Indian trade.) Day after day, the heavy, shadowed forest passed slowly by, broken only now and then by an open meadow or tiny settlement where a few lone figures stood waving from among the tree stumps. Some trees towering over the river banks measured six feet through. On summer mornings the early filtered light on the water could be magical.

These were the years of the great Missouri River paintings by George Caleb Bingham. The river Bingham portrayed was the settlers’ path. The distant steamer appearing through the sun-filled morning haze in his
Boatmen on the Missouri,
as an example, could be the
Henry Bry
any of twenty-odd river packets that carried the Kentucky people.

The only notable sign of civilization west of St. Louis was the state capitol on a bluff at Jefferson City, a white limestone affair, “very substantial in execution,” within which was displayed a full-length portrait of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri’s own thundering voice of westward expansion. The painting was said to have cost the unheard-of sum of $1,000.

Besides those from Kentucky, the migration included families from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, who, with the Kentuckians, made it a predominantly southern movement and so one of numerous slaveholders other than Nancy Tyler Holmes. Possibly, Solomon Young, too, brought slaves. In later years, it is known, he owned three or four—a cook, a nursemaid, one or two farmhands—which was about the usual number for those bound for Jackson County. They were farmers, not cotton planters, and for many, a slave was a mark of prosperity and social station. Still, the accumulative number of black men, women, and children traveling to the frontier was substantial. Incredibly, one Jabez Smith, a Virginia slave trader who set up business near Independence, is on record as having transported more than two hundred slaves.

White, black, young and old, they crowded the upbound steamers in the company of hellfire preachers and cardsharps, or an occasional pallid easterner traveling west for his health. Old journals speak, too, of uniformed soldiers on their way to Fort Leavenworth, blanketed Kaw (or Kansas) Indians, French fur traders and mountainmen with their long hair and conspicuous buckskins—a seemingly endless, infinitely colorful variety of humankind and costume. Nancy Tyler Holmes is said to have worn a white lace cap that concealed an ugly scar. As a child in Kentucky, during a Shawnee uprising, she allegedly saved herself by pretending to be dead, never moving or making a sound as she was being scalped. True or not, the story served long among her descendants as a measure of family grit.

The feeling in surviving accounts is of noisy good company and wild scenery and of “history” as an immediate and entirely human experience. Lieutenant John Charles Frémont, the celebrated Path Finder, came up the river in 1842, on his first exploring expedition to the Rockies. (One traveler described Frémont’s party as “healthy and full of fun and elasticity…by no means a choir of Psalm-singers, nor Quakers. They ate, drank, talked, sang, played cards and smoked cigars when they pleased and as much as they pleased.”) The following year, 1843, came John James Audubon. In the summer of 1846 a young historian from Boston, Francis Parkman, stood at the rail of the
marveling at the immense brown sweep of the river, its treacherous snags and shifting sandbars. “The Missouri is constantly changing its course,” Parkman was to write in
The California and Oregon Trail,
his classic account of the journey, “wearing away its banks on one side, while it forms new ones on the other. Its channel is continually shifting. Islands are formed, and then washed away, and while the old forests on one side are undermined and swept off, a young growth springs up from the new soil upon the other.” It was “frightful,” he noted, “to see the dead and broken trees, thick-set as a military abattis, firmly imbedded in the sand, and all pointing downstream, ready to impale any unhappy steamboat that at high water should pass over them.” The landing near Independence was described approvingly as a “wild and enterprising region.”

It was also in that summer of 1846 that Anderson Truman came on from Kentucky, and, for some unexplained reason, on horseback, which was one of the few exceptional things ever recorded about Anderson Truman. Possibly he couldn’t afford boat passage.

Of this first Truman to reach Jackson County, there is not a great deal to be said. His full name was Anderson Shipp (or Shippe) Truman. His people were English and Scotch-Irish and farmers as far back as anyone knew. His father, William Truman, had come into Kentucky from Virginia about 1800 and reportedly served in the War of 1812. Andy, as he was called, grew up on the Truman farm near the tiny crossroads village of Christianburg, Kentucky. He was slight, gentle, soft-spoken, thirty years old, and without prospects. Nonetheless, Mary Jane Holmes, who was five years younger, had seen enough in him to defy her mother and marry him. On the pretext of visiting a married sister, she had returned to Kentucky earlier that summer and once there, announced her intentions.

Her mother, the redoubtable Nancy Tyler Holmes, was horrified, as she let Mary Jane know in a letter from Missouri dated July 24, 1846—a letter dictated to another of her daughters, which suggests that Nancy Tyler Holmes may have been illiterate. Since hearing the news she had been unable to sleep or eat. “Mary are you the first daughter I have that has refused to take my advice?” What made Anderson Truman so unacceptable is unclear. An explanation given later was that Mother Holmes thought Mary Jane was “marrying down,” since the Trumans had no slaves.

The wedding took place in Kentucky in mid-August at the home of the married sister, a handsome red-brick house with white trim that still stands. Then Mary Jane’s “Mr. Truman,” as she would always refer to him, set off by horse for “the wild country” of Missouri, intending to stay only long enough to secure the blessing of his new mother-in-law.

His first letter from Missouri reached Mary Jane a month later. To his amazement, he had been welcomed with open arms, her mother and sisters all hugging and kissing him, everybody laughing and crying at once. He was urged to stay and take up the frontier life. He could be happy anywhere, even in Missouri, he wrote to Mary Jane, if only she were with him. “As for myself I believed that I would be satisfied if you was out here…I believe I can live here if you are willing.”

She arrived by steamboat, and with her mother’s blessing and the wedding gift of a Holmes slave named Hannah and her child, the young couple settled on a rented farm belonging to a prominent local figure, Johnston Lykins, a Baptist missionary (preacher and physician) who had come to the frontier originally to bring salvation to the Indians, but had lately turned to land speculation. He and others were in the throes of founding a new town on the Missouri’s great bend, at the juncture of the Kansas River and the Missouri, this to be ambitiously named Kansas City. To such men the future was in towns and trade. They talked of geographic advantages plain to anyone who looked at a map. Here was the Missouri, the great “natural highway” downstream to St. Louis, and so to New Orleans, Louisville, or Pittsburgh. There, upstream, beyond the great bend, stretched all the Northwest and its immeasurable opportunities.

Here also, importantly, began the overland trails to Santa Fe, California, and Oregon. Jackson County was the threshold, the jumping-off point, to an entire second America of dry grasslands reaching clear to the Rockies. In a newly published guidebook to the Santa Fe Trail called
Commerce of the Prairies
(1844), the author, Josiah Gregg of Jackson County, portrayed Independence as
port of embarkation for the “grand prairie ocean.”

In fact, Independence, “Queen City of the Trails,” was the country’s first western boomtown, and to newly arrived settlers, after long days on the river, it seemed a metropolis of stores, blacksmith sheds, wagon shops, of crowded streets and unceasing commotion. The crack of bull-whips split the air like rifle fire as wagon trains made up for Oregon. Mexican caravans from Santa Fe rolled in with still more wagons, pack mules, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in Mexican gold to be spent on American trade goods. The spring Solomon Young and his family arrived, one Santa Fe caravan of twenty-two wagons is reported to have brought $200,000 in gold specie. Like a seaport town Independence had a customshouse.

Other books

A Faint Cold Fear by Karin Slaughter
A Tinfoil Sky by Cyndi Sand-Eveland
Two Americans in Paris by Ritt, Julia
Because I Love You by Tori Rigby
Unhinged by Findorff, E. J.
The Ferryman by Christopher Golden
Back To The Viper by Antara Mann
Bloodland: A Novel by Alan Glynn
The Merciless II by Danielle Vega