Warning: this post contains spoilers for A.J. Baime’s The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World
Most of the time, when I read biographies, they’re thick, heavy pieces that cover in great detail every year of a person’s life, from the time their born to the time they die. Although some eras of that life are inevitably covered in more detail than others, since there is simply more information and more to discuss, the level of detail is generally fairly consistent. This is certainly the case with most of Chernow’s biographies, of which I am very fond. With The Accidental President, however, we are presented with an incredibly zoomed-in view of, as the subtitle suggests, the first four months of Truman’s presidency.
I must say, I did not miss the massively detailed background that is included in most other biographies. There was enough backstory, from birth on along Truman’s course of life that brought him to the White House, for the man to make sense, and to understand the context, but his history was not belabored. That left more words to spare when Baime got around to talking about his main topic, the first four months of Truman’s presidency, and he used them to fully explore that period in all of its depth and available detail. Considering the circumstances of Truman’s rise to power, it makes for a fascinating read.
Although Baime claims at the beginning that he does not intend this work to be another addition to the vast body of literature available on the employment of the atomic bomb to end the war against Japan, the development, testing, and ultimate implementation of nuclear weapons underpins much of the storytelling through all four months covered in depth. It almost seems like he had a great deal to say on the subject of the atomic bombs, and was resisting as best he could. However, he does present a fairly nuanced analysis of the decision in the epilogue, which is appreciated.
Most interesting to me was the insight the book offered into how a president is brought up to speed, and what the transition is like as someone becomes president. It’s not like there are a collection of online courses you can take that will bring you up to speed with everything you need to know to be president of the United States. In less that four months, Truman had to go from knowing almost nothing about the details of foreign affairs involving a two-front world war and a complicated system of international alliances and rivalries, to knowing enough to negotiate with the likes of Stalin and Churchill, both of whom had far more context than he did, and had been conducting negotiations with each other throughout the war.
The book, for all intents and purposes, ends after the conclusion of World War II, and Japan’s surrender. There is a brief discussion of what happened afterwards, that Truman was reelected in an upset election for a second term, and that he eventually died after his presidency, but it is very bare bones, overview level. Considering how tumultuous the world was in the years immediately following World War II, there would have been a great deal that could have been discussed here, and I am tempted to find another Truman biography that explored the rest of his presidency in more detail – perhaps later this year. My reading list never gets any shorter, no matter how fast I read.
I would recommend giving this a read – it was interesting, and not terribly long – but I would add that I think it would have been more interesting if I had read it closer to when I read a biography of Roosevelt. That would have improved the context of the book overall, and helped draw out the contrast that this book starts to sketch between FDR and Truman. If you want to learn more about this lesser-known president, consider giving The Accidental President a try.