It might seem strange to hear a Republican like me say it, but I am actually a big fan of Harry Truman. He was undoubtedly a Democrat, but the Democratic Party of that time was very different from the Democratic Party of today. I have a lot of admiration and respect for him personally, as well as a lot of respect for his presidency. I once watched PBS's documentary about him (which is four hours long), and so I thought I'd like to offer my review of it here.
Inheriting World War II from FDR
The documentary was made by PBS's American Experience, and it is one of the better episodes in their series. Four hours is the right amount of time for a video on Truman, as he has a very eventful presidency with a lot of important events. The documentary makes use of actual photos and footage of Truman, with the first hour focusing on his pre-presidency life, and the remaining three hours focusing on his presidency. About one hour of that covers World War II.
Surrender of Germany, May 1945
Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 1945
Dropping of the atomic bomb
The most important event of his World War II watch was probably the atomic bomb, and this documentary spends a great deal of time on this event. There has been a lot of criticism of this decision from modern leftists of various kinds, and even some from major American figures of that time. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, criticized the A-bomb decision. Dwight Eisenhower was a great political general, and a political general was sorely needed to hold the fragile international alliance in Europe together; but he was far removed from the Pacific theater, and thus did not understand the important reasons for dropping the bomb. I generally have a great deal of respect for Eisenhower's generalship, but his criticism of the A-bomb decision shows a lack of strategic understanding, which manifested itself in some poor foreign policy decisions during his later presidency. He wasn't a terrible foreign policy president, but he wasn't nearly as good as Truman, who was the president he later succeeded in '52.
Douglas MacArthur signs Japanese surrender document, September 1945
Complicated relationship with Douglas MacArthur
And then there's Douglas MacArthur. General MacArthur, too, criticized the A-bomb decision; and virtually anyone who served in the Pacific (including my Grandpa Wells) knows what a bumbling incompetent he was, not to mention a pompous jackass with a colossal ego. My Grandpa Wells once said that "the only two things Truman did right were dropping the bomb, and firing Douglas MacArthur." While I wouldn't limit my praise of Truman exclusively to these two things (as I've said, I admire him greatly), I will agree with him that these were both strategically sound decisions. In the documentary's coverage of the later Korean War (most of which was during Truman's presidency), they give extensive coverage to his firing of Douglas MacArthur, showing the rank insubordination the general had been guilty of. It was one of the most controversial decisions of his administration, and yet should not have been controversial at all. MacArthur handled the reconstruction of Japan well, but he was ill-suited to combat command, and even more ill-suited to politics. It was good that Truman beat him soundly in '48.
Battle of Seoul, 1950 (during the Korean War)
Chinese intervention in Korean War (on the communist side)
Truman and the Korean War
Not surprisingly, the documentary also dedicates a lot of time to the war in Korea, which began during Truman's presidency and lasted for about three years. This is another area where Truman distinguished himself from his later successor Dwight Eisenhower, because he handled the Korean War well; and despite the bumbling incompetence of Douglas MacArthur, kept it from turning into an endless war like Vietnam later became. Eisenhower made a number of unnecessary criticisms of Truman's foreign policy; showing again that on foreign policy, at least, he was not nearly as good as Truman. Eisenhower defenders often point out that he got us out of Korea within six months of taking office; but I don't think this is because he handled it any better than Truman - rather, I think it was because he inherited a war almost wrapped up from Truman (just as Truman inherited one from FDR), and benefited from a relaxing of Soviet support for the North Koreans following the death of Joseph Stalin. I don't want to make it sound like I hate Eisenhower's foreign policy (I don't), but I think Truman was the superior candidate on foreign policy - though Eisenhower was the better candidate on the economy.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
And yet Truman was still a very good candidate on the economy; far better than his predecessor FDR had been, with his big-government "New Deal." I think it's largely due to Truman that we didn't go into another recession following World War II - I think Truman and Churchill handled the end of the war brilliantly, with its massive reconstructions in both fronts (including the Marshall Plan), the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials of the Axis war criminals, and the problems containing the naked postwar aggression of the Soviet Union. I think the Cold War began the moment that World War II ended; and the moment the Germans and Japanese were defeated, there was a new enemy in postwar communism. Much of the groundwork for the eventual American victory in the Cold War was laid in these critical early years by Truman, and I think it was fortunate that he was the president at that time.
Nuremberg trials, circa 1945-1946
Berlin Airlift, 1948
Comments on Dwight Eisenhower and his relationship with Truman
I should add a few words saying that I do not dislike Dwight Eisenhower - MacArthur, that's another story; but I admire Dwight Eisenhower, and I talk more about him in a post here. I think his economic policies were better, and I don't think his foreign policy was terrible. But I think Truman was the better president of the two; mainly because I like his foreign policy better. Both presidents were good ones, and I'd vote for either of those guys over the moron that we have today. But if I had the luxury of picking between these guys, my vote would go to Harry Truman.
Comments on the making of this film
The documentary benefits from both the superb narration of Jason Robards, and some interviews with Truman biographer David McCullough; who I find the most interesting of the documentary's many talking heads. The filmmaker David Grubin has also made a number of other excellent biographies, including ones of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ; and his considerable skill with documentary biography shines through here in this excellent film about Harry Truman. They handle the controversial issues I've discussed here well; and they spend more time talking about Truman himself than either of his two critics that I've discussed here. It's an excellent film about Harry Truman, and the longest film you're likely to find with actual footage of him.
Harry Truman himself
Conclusion: An excellent biography of Harry Truman
Overall, an excellent biography; and one I'd recommend to anyone interested in the life of Harry Truman.
DVD at Amazon
Also available online at PBS website
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Franklin D. Roosevelt movie
Winston Churchill movies
Dwight Eisenhower movies
World War II miniseries
My Marshall Plan post
My Berlin Blockade post
Korean War miniseries
Cold War miniseries
(I included the last one because it encompasses the Truman presidency - particularly the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Blockade, and the Korean War.)