Essential Books on Harry Truman
There are countless books on Harry Truman, and it comes with good reason, during his first few weeks as Vice President, Truman scarcely saw President Franklin Roosevelt, and received no briefing on the development of the atomic bomb or the unfolding difficulties with Soviet Russia. Suddenly, upon Roosevelt’s death, these and a host of other wartime problems became his to solve.
“America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination, and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of America’s most consequential figures to the height of political power, we’ve compiled a list of the 15 best books on President Harry Truman.
Truman by David McCullough
The life of Harry S. Truman is one of the greatest of American stories, filled with vivid characters – Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Wallace Truman, George Marshall, Joe McCarthy, and Dean Acheson – and dramatic events. In this riveting biography, acclaimed historian David McCullough not only captures the man – a more complex, informed, and determined man than ever before imagined – but also the turbulent times in which he rose, boldly, to meet unprecedented challenges.
The last president to serve as a living link between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, Truman’s story spans the raw world of the Missouri frontier, World War I, the powerful Pendergast machine of Kansas City, the legendary Whistle-Stop Campaign of 1948, and the decisions to drop the atomic bomb, confront Stalin at Potsdam, send troops to Korea, and fire General MacArthur.
Drawing on newly discovered archival material and extensive interviews with Truman’s own family, friends, and Washington colleagues, McCullough tells the deeply moving story of the seemingly ordinary “man from Missouri” who was perhaps the most courageous president in our history.
Harry S. Truman: A Life by Robert H. Ferrell
Robert H. Ferrell, widely regarded as an authority on the thirty-third president, challenges the popular characterization of Truman as a man who rarely sought the offices he received, revealing instead a man who – with modesty, commitment to service, and basic honesty – moved with method and system toward the presidency.
Truman was ambitious in the best sense of the word. His powerful commitment to service was accompanied by a remarkable shrewdness and an exceptional ability to judge people. He regarded himself as a consummate politician, a designation of which he was proud.
While in Washington, he never succumbed to the “Potomac fever” that swelled the heads of so many officials in that city. A scrupulously honest man, Truman exhibited only one lapse when, at the beginning of 1941, he padded his Senate payroll by adding his wife and later his sister.
Harry S. Truman by Robert Dallek
In April 1945, after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the presidency fell to a former haberdasher and clubhouse politician from Independence, Missouri. Many believed he would be overmatched by the job, but Harry S. Truman would surprise them all.
Few chief executives have had so lasting an impact. Truman ushered America into the nuclear age, established the alliances and principles that would define the cold war and the national security state, started the nation on the road to civil rights, and won the most dramatic election of the twentieth century – his 1948 “whistlestop campaign” against Thomas E. Dewey.
Robert Dallek shows how this unassuming yet supremely confident man rose to the occasion and clashed with Southerners over civil rights, with organized labor over the right to strike, and with General Douglas MacArthur over the conduct of the Korean War. Truman personified Thomas Jefferson’s observation that the presidency is a “splendid misery,” but it was during his tenure that the United States truly came of age.
Man of the People by Alonzo Hamby
Insecure, ambitious, a man of honor, a partisan loyalist, an agrarian Jeffersonian Democrat who became a champion of big government, Truman was a complex figure who fought long and hard to triumph over his own weaknesses. In Man of the People, Hamby offers a gripping account of this distinctively American life, tracing Truman’s remarkable rise from marginal farmer in rural Missouri to shaper of the postwar world.
Truman comes alive in these pages as he has nowhere else, making his way from the farmhouse, to the front lines in France during World War I, to the difficult small-business world of Kansas City – all the time struggling with his deep feelings of inadequacy and immense ambition. Hamby provides an honest, incisive look at the rising politician’s relationship with Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, who sponsored his career from the county court to the U.S. Senate. We see how Truman, a ferocious and skilled fighter in factional party battles, tried to balance his sense of honor with his political loyalties.
Free of corruption himself, he nevertheless refused to repudiate Pendergast even when the boss was sinking under the weight of his ties to organized crime. This hallmark among books on Harry Truman also offers the best account yet of his critical years in the Senate, covering not only his World War II probe of the defense program but also his neglected and revealing populist investigations of the railroads during the 1930s. It demonstrates that Truman was one of the most popular and respected members of the upper house.
Conflict and Crisis by Robert J. Donovan
“It was quiet on the second floor. The vice-president walked solemnly into Mrs. Roosevelt’s sitting room, where she waited, grave and calm. With her was her daughter, Mrs. Anna Roosevelt Boettiger, her husband, Colonel John Boettiger, and Stephan Early. Truman knew at a glance that his premonition had been true. Mrs. Roosevelt came forward directly and put her arm on his shoulder.
“Harry, the President is dead.”
Robert J. Donovan’s Conflict and Crisis presents a detailed account of Harry S. Truman’s presidency from 1945-1948.
The Hidden White House by Robert Clara
In 1948, President Harry Truman, enjoying a bath on the White House’s second floor, almost plunged through the ceiling of the Blue Room into a tea party for the Daughters of the American Revolution. A handpicked team of the country’s top architects conducted a secret inspection of the troubled mansion and, after discovering it was in imminent danger of collapse, insisted that the First Family be evicted immediately.
What followed would be the most historically significant and politically complex home-improvement job in American history. While the Trumans camped across the street at Blair House, Congress debated whether to bulldoze the White House completely, and the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, starting the Cold War.
Indefatigable researcher Robert Klara reveals what has, until now, been little understood about this episode: America’s most famous historic home was basically demolished, giving birth to today’s White House. Leaving only the mansion’s facade untouched, workmen gutted everything within, replacing it with a steel frame and a complex labyrinth deep below ground that soon came to include a top-secret nuclear fallout shelter.
The Accidental President by A. J. Baime
Heroes are often defined as ordinary characters who get pushed into extraordinary circumstances, and through courage and a dash of luck, cement their place in history. Chosen as FDR’s fourth-term vice president for his well-praised work ethic, good judgment, and lack of enemies, Harry S. Truman was the prototypical ordinary man. That is, until he was shockingly thrust in over his head after FDR’s sudden death.
The first four months of Truman’s administration saw the founding of the United Nations, the fall of Berlin, victory at Okinawa, firebombings in Tokyo, the first atomic explosion, the Nazi surrender, the liberation of concentration camps, the mass starvation in Europe, the Potsdam Conference, the controversial decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the surrender of Imperial Japan, and finally, the end of World War II and the rise of the Cold War.
No other president had ever faced so much in such a short period of time. The Accidental President escorts readers into the situation room with Truman during a tumultuous, history-making 120 days, when the stakes were high and the challenges even higher.
The Trials of Harry S. Truman by Jeffrey Frank
Truman believed that the point of public service was to improve the lives of one’s fellow citizens, and was disturbed by the brutal treatment of African Americans. Yet while he supported stronger civil rights laws, he never quite relinquished the deep-rooted outlook of someone with Confederate ancestry reared in rural Missouri.
He was often carried along by the rush of events and guided by men who succeeded in refining his fixed and facile view of the postwar world. And while he prided himself on his Midwestern rationality, he could act out of emotion, as when, in the aftermath of World War II, moved by the plight of refugees, he pushed to recognize the new state of Israel.
Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo
On June 19, 1953, Harry Truman got up early, packed the trunk of his Chrysler New Yorker, and did something no other former president has done before or since: he hit the road. No Secret Service protection. No traveling press. Just Harry and his childhood sweetheart Bess, off to visit old friends, take in a Broadway play, celebrate their wedding anniversary in the Big Apple, and blow a bit of the money he’d just received to write his memoirs. Hopefully incognito.
In this lively history, author Matthew Algeo meticulously details how Truman’s plan to blend in went wonderfully awry. Fellow diners, bellhops, cabbies, squealing teenagers at a Future Homemakers of America convention, and one very by-the-book Pennsylvania state trooper all unknowingly conspired to blow his cover.
This gem among books on Harry Truman revisits the couple’s route, staying at the same hotels and eating at the same diners, and takes readers on brief detours into topics such as the postwar American auto industry, McCarthyism, the nation’s highway system, and the decline of Main Street America. By the end of the 2,500-mile journey, you will have a new and heartfelt appreciation for America’s last citizen president.
Harry Truman and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Shogan
When Harry Truman was rescued from political obscurity to become Franklin Roosevelt’s running mate, black Americans were deeply troubled. Many believed that Truman, born and raised in former slave-holding Missouri, was a step back on civil rights from Henry Wallace, the liberal incumbent vice president. But by the end of his own presidency, black newspaper publishers cited Truman for having “awakened the conscience of America and given new strength to our democracy by his courageous efforts on behalf of freedom and equality.”
In this first full-scale account of Truman’s evolving views on civil rights, Robert Shogan recounts how Truman outgrew the bigotry of his Jackson County upbringing to become the first president since Lincoln to attempt to redress the nation’s long history of injustice toward its black citizens – and in the process transformed the course of race relations in America.
Shogan vividly demonstrates the full significance of the thirty-third president’s contributions to that transformation. He ordered the integration of the armed forces and threw the weight of the Justice Department behind the long struggle against segregation in housing and education. And he used the platform of his presidency to relentlessly trumpet the cause of equal rights for those least favored Americans, even making an unprecedented address to the NAACP.
Harry S. Truman by Margaret Truman
In one of the most intimately sourced books on Harry Truman, Margaret Truman writes with unequaled insight and understanding about her father’s extraordinary life and offers rare glimpses at the personalities and politics behind the world events of his time.
1948 by David Pietrusza
Indelibly, we recall the iconic newsphoto: jubilant underdog Harry Truman brandishing his copy of the Chicago Tribune proclaiming “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” But far, far more exists to 1948’s election than a single inglorious headline and a stunning upset victory. Award-winning author David Pietrusza goes beyond the headlines to reveal backstage events and to place in context a down-to-the-wire donnybrook fight against the background of an erupting Cold War, the Berlin Airlift, and the birth of Israel, as well as a post-war America facing exploding storms over civil rights, and domestic communism.
The Autobiography of Harry S. Truman is a compilation of autobiographical writings composed by Truman between 1934 and 1972. Taken directly from his own manuscript material, the volume presents the thoughts and feelings of the man himself. The book touches on details in Truman’s life from his days as a boy until graduation from Independence High School in 1901 to the vice presidency of the United States and beyond. There is also a memorandum written by Truman about the Pendergast machine in Kansas City telling how it was possible to work with the machine and not be soiled by it.
Where the Buck Stops; Edited by Margaret Truman
In the bestselling tradition of Margaret Truman’s biography Harry S. Truman, here are the thirty-third U.S. President’s fascinating theories and opinions on leadership and leaders, plus his picks for the best and worst presidents – all in his bluntly honest “give-em-hell” style.
The Presidency of Harry S. Truman by Donald R. McCoy
It is not too much to suggest that the Truman administration, along with that of FDR, constituted the most important turning point in recent U.S. history. During the Roosevelt administration, the American state system had changed dramatically: the federal government had rapidly become ascendant over state and local governments, and the executive branch – particularly the presidency – had become a repository of vast power. After 1945, it remained for Truman to make the new American state system a permanent feature at home and to define its role on the world scene.
Here are detailed the domestic and foreign policy events of the Truman years – in civil rights, Social Security, employment, public housing, education, health, and natural resources; in the establishment of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty, the increasingly stormy relations with the Soviet Union and the decision to fight in Korea, the creation of National Security Council and the CIA, the unification of the armed forces, and the president’s loyalty-security program.
In analyzing the central concerns and manifold difficulties of the period from 1945 to 1953, this necessary installment among books on Harry Truman deepens our understanding of the administration that made big government a permanent and pervasive feature of the American scene and that raised the U. S. government to its position as an enduring and powerful presence in world affairs.
If you enjoyed this guide to the best books on Harry Truman, be sure to check out our list of The 10 Best Books on President Franklin D. Roosevelt!