During the pivotal immediate post-World War II period—the beginning of the Cold War and the dawn of the age of nuclear weapons—the U.S. was led by two quite different presidents from the Middle West. Their decisions during the nearly 16 years of their presidencies affected the lives of millions of people for decades to come. William Lee Miller, perhaps best known for his two acclaimed Abraham Lincoln volumes, Lincoln’s Virtues and President Lincoln, compares and contrasts the public and private lives of these two men in his well-researched and wonderfully readable Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World.
The interweaving between Miller’s two subjects, their similarities and differences, makes for fascinating reading. A scholarship to West Point took Dwight Eisenhower away from Abilene, Kansas; eventually he found great success as a commander in World War II. A lack of money kept Harry Truman from attending college. But unlike Eisenhower, who remained in the United States during World War I training officers and learning much about tank warfare, Truman left the family farm near Grandview, Missouri, and volunteered for the army. He served with distinction as a captain in a field artillery unit in France, and his service in the war became the foundation for his leadership of a Senate committee investigating war production abuses. Truman was a lifelong politician and a candidate eight times at the county, state and national levels. Eisenhower disdained politicians and, as far as we know, did not vote in any election until he was almost 60 years old. That refusal to vote was a tradition among the army’s officer class.
At the same time, both men had Franklin Delano Roosevelt to thank for their elevated roles at key moments in history. When James Roosevelt, FDR’s son, asked his father why he had chosen Eisenhower to command the D-Day operation, FDR replied that “Eisenhower is the best politician among the military men,” a “natural leader” who could convince others to follow him. Miller writes that Eisenhower’s performance at that time was the supreme moment in his career, much greater than anything he achieved as president. As for Truman, FDR had several other options for his running mate in 1944, but he dropped his sitting vice president, Henry Wallace, from the ticket, passed over Senator James Byrnes, who was regarded as the likely choice, and, after meeting with Democratic Party leaders, agreed to their consensus selection of Truman.
Until the presidential campaign of 1952 the two men appeared to have a positive working relationship. But during that campaign, the relationship soured. Candidate Eisenhower criticized foreign policy positions that he had helped to develop during the Truman administration, and in a campaign appearance, he was convinced, for political reasons, to delete from a speech a paragraph praising General George Marshall, Truman’s former secretary of state, who had been instrumental in advancing Ike’s career. Truman believed that the omission was a “shameful” and disloyal decision.
Miller has an especially insightful chapter on the subject of race. His conclusion is that Eisenhower finished what Truman started with regard to integrating the federal workforce and the armed forces. When the latter established his extraordinary Committee on Civil Rights, the first such body in American history, in 1946, its report recommended actions that were to come in the next 20 years. Miller also considers public perceptions of the two men’s legacies. A chapter on judging the two presidencies notes that despite his incredibly low public opinion ratings when he left office, Truman continues to be ranked among those past presidents now termed “great,” while Eisenhower has been steadily gaining ground, showing up now among the “near great” occupants of the office.
In Two Americans, Miller’s masterful ability to combine biography, history and analysis is consistently compelling and a delight to read.