Harry Truman was ambitious, but his journey from a Missouri farm to the White House was largely the result of circumstances beyond his control. Once in the Oval Office, he faced monumental foreign and domestic policy challenges - the end of World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, the founding of the United Nations, diplomatic recognition of the nation of Israel, revolutionary change in China, the Korean War and concern about Communists in the U.S. government; only a few presidents have had to make such crucial decisions with such long - term consequences. When he left office, Truman's popularity ratings were abysmally low, yet he is now regarded by historians as one of the great, or near - great, presidents of the previous century.

Historian Robert Dallek - who has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, as well as books on FDR's foreign policy and the Nixon - Kissinger relationship - brilliantly captures the life, times and achievements of this seemingly ill - equipped politician in Harry S. Truman, the latest volume in the outstanding American Presidents series from Times Books. Dallek notes that Truman loved political combat and besting opponents who underestimated him, as he did in his 1948 victory over his highly favored Republican opponent, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.

The most important foreign policy legacy of Truman's presidency was his adoption of the "containment" strategy, continued by his successors until the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. He agreed to U.S. leadership of NATO, the culmination of earlier actions to assist Western Europe. Truman established the CIA and the office of the secretary of defense. He introduced comprehensive civil rights legislation and desegregated the armed forces. His proposal for national health insurance eventually led to the establishment of Medicare in 1965.

Dallek is scrupulously fair in his account. He acknowledges numerous instances of Truman's missteps. All told, Dallek has given us an excellent introduction to a pivotal period in our history.

Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.

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