The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World by A. J. Baime, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US $30.00, Pp 448, October 2017, ISBN 978-0544617346
When FDR chose Harry Truman to be his fourth-term vice president, nobody expected this Midwesterner with no college degree to ascend the White House and reshape the world. President Truman, who became president on April 12, 1945, after the death of President Roosevelt, left a polarizing legacy. Historians have ranked him among the greatest and among the worst chief executives. His administration was deeply resented when he left office in January 1953. At the end of his first four months in the White House, he had completely changed the world he had inherited from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
During these four months, President Truman saw the collapse of Nazi Germany, the founding of the United Nations, dropping of the first two atomic bombs on Japan, the execution of Benito Mussolini and the suicide of Adolf Hitler, and most importantly, the Potsdam Conference where he along with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin remade the world. This was the dawn of Cold War and the beginning of the nuclear arms race. In The Accidental President, A. J. Baime says that, regardless of President Truman’s legacy, the first four months of his administration should rank as the most challenging and action-packed of any four-month period in any American presidency. Through declassified war documents, personal diaries, international communications of the highest diplomacy, and other primary sources, the figures who appear in his book will tell you that themselves. Arguably, no other four-month period has had so much import in shaping the world we live in today.
Baime says that President Roosevelt had played the role of the chief executive as if history had written it for him. Prestige was his defining characteristic, in an age when Victorian values and class structure still dictated so much of people’s lives. He served as president longer than any other man and was the first to be widely considered one of the all-time great American presidents during his administration. Harry Truman was the prototypical ordinary man, in contrast. He had no college degree. He had never governed a state or served as mayor of a city. He became president by accident.
Harry Truman is remembered first and foremost for his decision to employ atomic weapons. More than seventy years later, this decision remains almost certainly the most controversial that any president has ever made. Ironically, Harry Truman’s greatest strength came from what was perceived, on April 12, 1945, as his greatest weakness: his ordinariness. In the words of Jonathan Daniels, “Americans felt leaderless when President Roosevelt died. Truman taught them, as one of them, that their greatness lies in themselves.”
The Accidental President is an exceptionally important biography of President Harry Truman. Author and historian A. J. Baime focuses on the first four months of President Truman and shows how history thrust him into the presidency at a very critical moment in history. Baime’s principal thesis is that it was President Truman driving the world events and not being driven by historical events. Baime rightly points out that historians have not given enough attention to his role in remaking the world at that critical moment of history. The Accidental President is so beautifully written that it will absorb you immediately and you will start believing that you are sitting in the Situation Room and watching President Truman leading the western world.