Monday, February 19, 2018

A Great President Gleams

Review by Bill Doughty

USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75)
Presidents Day is, of course, held in honor primarily of Washington and Lincoln, among our greatest presidents and commanders in chief. This holiday is also an opportunity to reflect on another great American who once occupied the office of the presidency: Harry S. Truman.

Truman is namesake of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75).

As with many other of our nation's great leaders like Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, and JFK, Truman was a dedicated reader of books. As we explore the life of HST, it's apparent that his famed "common sense," came from an uncommon love of learning and discovery.

President Truman reads a book on the "Truman balcony" of White House. First Lady Bess Truman is seated at far right, partly obscured. (Truman Library)
Truman is featured in a compelling book about the integration of the military, called "The Double V" by Rawn James, Jr.  (A review on Navy Reads is forthcoming and, once posted, will precede this blogpost.)

James tells us of Truman's love of the works of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, including "Gleam," which he and his friends chose as the title of their high school yearbook. "On the cover of the inaugural issue, framed by a student's artwork, were Tennyson's words":
Not of the sunlight, Not of the moonlight, Not of the starlight, O, young Mariner, Down to the haven, Call your companions, Launch your vessel, And crowd your canvas, And, ere it vanishes, Over the margin, After it, follow it, Follow the Gleam.
We can't help but read these words and think of the Navy, which – along with the other military services – Truman helped integrate. 

Tennyson also figures in the massive biography, "Truman" by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 1992).

McCullough reveals that HST kept a neatly folded copy of "Locksley Hall" in his wallet. 

This is the excerpt of that poem chosen by McCullough, foreshadowing the future of civil and military aviation as well as the United Nations, but remarkably written in 1835 and published several years later:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro' the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Truman brought up Tennyson in his remarks at a dinner for members of Congress sponsored by the Civil Air Patrol, May 14, 1952. He read from "Locksley Hall," noting how he'd carried the poem with him for 30 years and pointing out how Tennyson seemed to predict modern aviation and even a nuclear age:
"Now, that was written in 1842 by Alfred Tennyson. That is a prophecy of the age in which we live now. And we are faced with a much greater age than the one that Tennyson dreamed about. If we will just keep our feet on the ground and our heads level, I am sure that this discovery of the way to break the atom will bring not only fantastic things for us to use, but it will be used for peaceful purposes – just as all the other destructive articles that have been invented have been used for that purpose."
Truman, who would one day have an aircraft carrier named after him said, in those remarks:
"We are making a great deal of progress in the science of aviation now. In fact, I think we are at the door of the greatest age in history in everything. If we can prevent a third world war-and I have been trying 7 years to prevent that third world war, and I hope we will be successful at it – the young people today, I think, will see a fantastic age, an age that our fathers and grandfathers dreamed about, but never thought would happen."
McCullough reveals Truman's love for Plutarch, Shakespeare and Mark Twain ("patron saint of literature"). He also read Dickens and Sir Walter Scott, and he immersed himself in history and biographies. McCullough describes the Truman home:
"At home in the small, simply furnished apartment on Connecticut, Truman's corner of the living room included a chintz-covered armchair, a reading lamp, his phonograph, and his record collection. In a small, free-standing bookshelf within arm's reach was a leatherbound set of Plutarch's 'Lives,' a two-volume 'Andrew Jackson' by Marquis James, all four volumes of Freeman's '(Robert E.) Lee,' the Bible, 'Stories of the Great Operas,' a biography of John Nance Garner, and 'Don Quixote.'"
Truman reads while on vacation in Florida, circa 1947.
Beside his chair is "The Lincoln Reader" by Carl Sandburg.
McCullough writes, "Margaret could not recall her father sitting down quietly at home without a book in his hand."

At more than 1,000 pages, McCullough's masterful biography provides a complete look at the 33rd president in our nation's history. (Truman considered himself the 32nd president, since Grover Cleveland had two nonconcurrent terms.)

We see Truman embrace the best of the values of his upbringing and shed the worst, including the racism of his place and time – growing up in Missouri of the early 20th century. We learn about his heroism as an Army captain in World War I. We experience his failure in business (but his repayment of his debts) and his success in politics and as an elected leader who advocated for a strong military while rooting out corruption and waste.

Truman died Dec. 26, 1972. "He was remembered in print and over the air waves, in the halls of Congress and in large parts of the world, as a figure of courage and principle." He "followed the Gleam."

McCullough concludes:
"That he would later be held accountable by some critics for the treacheries and overbearing influence of the CIA, as well as for the Vietnam War, was understandable but unjustified. He never intended the CIA to become what it did. His decisions concerning Vietnam by no means predetermined all that followed under later, very different presidents.His insistence that the war in Korea be kept in bounds, kept from becoming a nuclear nightmare, would figure more and more clearly as time passed as one of his outstanding achievements. And rarely had a president surrounded himself with such able, admirable men as Stimson, Byrnes, Marshall, Forrestal, Leahy, Acheson, Lovett, Eisenhower, Bradly, Clifford, Lilienthal, Harriman, Bohlen, and Kennan – as time would also confirm. It was as distinguished a group as ever served the country, and importantly, he had supported them as they supported him.Born in the Gilded age, the age of steam and gingerbread Gothic, Truman had lived to see a time of lost certainties and rocket trips to the moon. The arc of his life spanned more change in the world than in any prior period in history. A man of nineteenth-century background, he had had to face many of the most difficult decisions of the unimaginably different twentieth century. A son of rural, inland America, raised only a generation removed from the frontier and imbued with the old Jeffersonian ideal of a rural democracy, he had had to assume command of the most powerful industrial nation on earth at the very moment when that power, in combination with stunning advances in science and technology, had become an unparalleled force in the world. The responsibilities he bore were like those of no other president before him, and he more than met the test.Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear. Yet he was not and had never been a simple, ordinary man. The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of his friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great president.'Watch the President,' Admiral King had whispered to Lord Moran at Potsdam. 'This is all new to him, but he can take it. He is a more typical American than Roosevelt, and he will do a good job...'He was the kind of president the founding fathers had in mind for the country. He came directly from the people. He was America."
Truman personified the lines in Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" that the common sense of ordinary citizens and universal humanity – found in books – would ultimately "hold a fretful realm in awe."

President Harry S. Truman eats lunch with members of the crew of the USS Augusta (CA 31) July 12, 1945. Seated with him are: Albert Rice, Seaman First Class, Independence, Missouri and Elmo Buck, Pharmacist's Mate Second Class, Marceline, Missouri. (United States Navy and Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

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