Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman Book Review

Updated on August 17, 2018
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Peg Cole is a self-published author who writes true and fiction stories, book reviews and how-to articles.

President Harry S. Truman

Official Presidential Portrait painted by Greta Kempton
Official Presidential Portrait painted by Greta Kempton | Source

The book, Plain Speaking, an Oral Biography, is a collection of observations by Merle Miller who invested hundreds of hours in one-on-one interviews not only with the former President, but with his staff, family members, former teachers, and a variety of every-day people who knew him before 1935 when he first went off to Washington. They spoke of his honesty, integrity, ethics and the kind of man who was held in high esteem.

Birthplace of former President Harry Truman in Lamar, Missouri.
Birthplace of former President Harry Truman in Lamar, Missouri. | Source

33rd President of the United States

Son of a mule trader and farmer, Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri on May 8, 1884. Elected to the Senate in 1934 after serving as a presiding judge in Jackson County, "he served on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which was responsible for allocating tax money for Roosevelt’s New Deal projects, and the Interstate Commerce Committee, which oversaw railroads, shipping, and interstate transport."

Truman volunteered for duty in World War I at the age of 33 despite being older than the age limit for the draft and eligible for exemption as a farmer. "He helped organize his National Guard regiment, called into service in the 129th Field Artillery and was promoted to captain in France and assigned Battery D, which was known for being the most unruly battery in the regiment. In spite of a generally shy and modest temperament, Truman captured the respect and admiration of his men and led them successfully through heavy fighting during the Meuse-Argonne campaign." (Excerpts from Biography.com)

On April 12, 1945, the sudden death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt catapulted him into the Oval Office after serving as Vice President for 82 days of Roosevelt's 4th term in office. Starting at the culmination of the Second World War, he served during the Cold War and the start of the Korean Conflict until January 20, 1953.

Berlin, Germany

L to R in rear seat of car: President Harry S. Truman, Secretary of State James Byrnes, and Fleet Admiral William Leahy inspect the ruins of Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin, Germany. President Truman is in Germany to attend the Potsdam Conference.
L to R in rear seat of car: President Harry S. Truman, Secretary of State James Byrnes, and Fleet Admiral William Leahy inspect the ruins of Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin, Germany. President Truman is in Germany to attend the Potsdam Conference. | Source

Mr. Truman was a student of history, a man with an intense desire to preserve the records of civilization. In talking about libraries he said, “The worst thing in the world is when records are destroyed. The destruction of the Alexandrian Library and also the destruction of the great libraries in Rome…Those were terrible things, and one was done by the Moslems and the other by the Christians, but there’s no difference between them when they’re working for propaganda purposes.” He believed “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”

“There’s some danger that you may get kicked in the head by a mule and end up believing everything you read in the papers.”

— Harry S. Truman

Former President Harry S. Truman was also a voracious reader. “I always had my nose stuck in a book,” he said, “a history book mostly. Of course, the main reason you read a book is to get a better insight into the people you're talking to. There were about three thousand books in the library downtown, and I guess I read them all, including the encyclopedias. I'm embarrassed to say that I remembered what I read, too.”

Standing between Soviet Leader, Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee at the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
Standing between Soviet Leader, Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. | Source

He also was concerned about the influence of money and donors. “I was always very particular about where my money came from. Very few people are going to give you large sums of money if they don’t expect to get something from it, and you’ve got to keep that in mind.” He was aware of the power and corruption money brings.

“No man can get rich in politics unless he's a crook.”

— Harry S. Truman

He was outspoken and downright humorous in his recollections of those with whom he came into contact. In regard to those of his contacts in the political limelight, he was quick to speak his mind. Of Adlai Stevenson he recalls him as, “a man who could never make up his mind whether he had to go to the bathroom or not.”

Speaking of Henry Wallace, an opponent when Truman ran for reelection, Truman said, “What he said he wasn’t going to do was exactly what I knew he was going to do. I don’t know in Henry’s case if you’d say he was a liar as much as that he didn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.” He says that Wallace accused him of trying to get this country into war with Russia, which he says, “was the opposite of what I was doing.”

He believed that you have to appeal to people’s best instincts rather than their worst which might win you the election, but will do a lot of harm to the country.

Here, newly elected President Truman holds a copy of "The Chicago Times" with an erroneous  headline the morning following the election that read, "Dewey Defeats Truman."
Here, newly elected President Truman holds a copy of "The Chicago Times" with an erroneous headline the morning following the election that read, "Dewey Defeats Truman." | Source

Despite his share of “frustration, of failure, of disappointment, of poverty, of mortgage foreclosures, of heartbreak” and bankruptcy in his haberdashery business, he remained cheerfully optimistic and “never wore his heart on his sleeve.”

His early life reflected the challenges of a studious and somewhat frail child, who preferred reading and learning to the outdoor games and activities of his peers.

About heritage, he said, “I wouldn’t think much of a man that tried to deny the people and the town where he grew up. I’ve told you. You must always keep in mind who you are and where you came from. A man who can’t do that at all times is in trouble where I’m concerned. I wouldn’t have anything to do with him.”

The book captures the essence of his personality, philosophy and ethics in his own words. He makes viable recommendations on books that every citizen should read, he speaks on how to regard those seeking office and cautions the same. “You see the thing you have to remember. When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honors, the twenty-one gun salutes, all those things, you have to remember it isn’t for you. It’s for the Presidency and you’ve got to keep yourself separate from that in your mind.”

July 30, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Medicare Bill in Lamar, Missouri. Harry Truman seated at the table, Lady Bird Johnson in blue, Bess Truman in yellow.
July 30, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Medicare Bill in Lamar, Missouri. Harry Truman seated at the table, Lady Bird Johnson in blue, Bess Truman in yellow. | Source

Mr. Truman’s home-spun and self-enlightened wisdom rings true in today’s world, just as he described the plots and campaigns of the Roman Empire as no different than the modern strategies. Through his forthright appeal to the masses telling the truth about what was going on, he won the bid for reelection, in his own words, “by a statement of fact of what had happened in the past and what would happen in the future if the fella that was running against me was elected.”

Entertaining, funny, witty, and full of important observations about the nature of men and politics, this book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to see for themselves that history repeats itself. Whether it’s dirty campaign tactics or political game playing in Congress, this book is eye-opening in its observations.


Published in the early seventies, this transcription of the narrative interviews with Truman shed light on the personality and viewpoints of this former President.
Published in the early seventies, this transcription of the narrative interviews with Truman shed light on the personality and viewpoints of this former President.

Warning

Truman's often blunt and plain style of speech is considered by some to be profane or vulgar and varies from the politically correct words spoken today. Conversations with this former President reflect the vernacular of those born in the nineteenth century, raised in the rural South. His rare use of certain words to describe people may offend some readers.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Peg Cole

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      • PegCole17 profile imageAUTHOR

        Peg Cole 

        7 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas

        Hi Maria,

        Mr. Truman had a difficult role following in the legacy of FDR. He was special to my dad as well, likely because Dad was active military during WWII during this president's tenure.These were the days when "blunt and plain speaking" was still valued. I liked that Mr. Truman used to play cards with key members of Congress in order to get to know them better and to evaluate their political leanings.

        So nice to see you here and thanks for taking time to comment. Love.

      • marcoujor profile image

        Maria Jordan 

        7 weeks ago from Jeffersonville PA

        Dear Peg,

        My parents respected Truman ... 'blunt and plain' was right up their alley.

        History indeed repeats itself - sorry to be so late to this excellent review.

        Have a peaceful evening. Love, Maria

      • PegCole17 profile imageAUTHOR

        Peg Cole 

        2 months ago from Dallas, Texas

        Hi Genna, From what I read, Truman felt compelled to carry on the legacy begun by President Roosevelt.The Manhattan Project, led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada, was well underway when he took office. By the time he inherited the project, the original $6,000 authorized for the Manhattan Project had grown to $2 billion. He had to decide whether to continue the war at the potential cost of the loss of many lives with a war weary population or end it quickly.

        He was in office when I was born so I was always curious about him.

        Thanks so much for coming by and for the informative comment.

      • Genna East profile image

        Genna East 

        2 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

        Hi Peg. I haven't read too much about Truman, except that I was always impressed with his passion to be a life-long learner and avid reader. He certainly wasn't in the White House long before stepping into the Oval Office after Roosevelt passed away from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Truman was both lauded and criticized for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I've always viewed him as something of a mystery and a paradox, and will have to take a peek at this book. Thank you. :-)

      • PegCole17 profile imageAUTHOR

        Peg Cole 

        2 months ago from Dallas, Texas

        Thanks so much, Liz. Hope you get a chance to read the book.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        2 months ago from UK

        This sounds like an interesting book to read. This is a great review.

      • PegCole17 profile imageAUTHOR

        Peg Cole 

        2 months ago from Dallas, Texas

        Hello Mike, Leave it to a book collector like yourself to notice these things. My copy says, "Copyright 1973, 1974, Published by Berkley Publishing Corporation, Distributed by G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, also published simultaneously in Canada by Longman Canada Limited, Toronto. I found this one on eBay and it's in pretty good shape for its age.

        I believe you're right about him refusing Secret Service protection after leaving office. I think the house shown on the dust cover is where he spent his remaining days. He was born four years after my dad's father. Different times back then.

      • PegCole17 profile imageAUTHOR

        Peg Cole 

        2 months ago from Dallas, Texas

        Hi Jackie, I think it's important to realize that during his tenure, President Truman was not well received by Congress and some of his decisions were not popular. However, looking back, he is regarded as an ethical, honest, and straightforward man. It's interesting to see how time treats things.

        I agree that the monuments should remain to serve as a reminder of our sometimes cruel and unjust history as well as commemorate people who did what they thought was the right thing at the time. I'm not sure the President has any control over what the states choose to do with these. In Dallas, the city council voted to remove a Confederate soldier on a horse along with others. Seems sad to me that we can't learn from history.

      • mckbirdbks profile image

        mckbirdbks 

        2 months ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

        Hello Peg - It looks like this book was first published by Littlehampton Book Services Ltd, 1974. All I know about Truman is he is famous for 'The Buck Stops Here' and he authorized the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. I actually think I read a biography about him. He refused Secret Service protection after he left office. He just went home and returned to being a citizen.

      • Jackie Lynnley profile image

        Jackie Lynnley 

        2 months ago from The Beautiful South

        I don't think the current president has to worry about too many honors (and I doubt he cares) but I hope he will do something soon about all the monuments and history being destroyed. We can do nothing about all they are destroying in other countries but surely it will be stopped here before too late. I know Truman was a good president and that is what it takes, a president that puts Americans first and who we are and always have been. The change that could be coming does not look good to me.

      • PegCole17 profile imageAUTHOR

        Peg Cole 

        2 months ago from Dallas, Texas

        Hello Bill, As a student of history I think you'll find this book quite interesting. Truman was my dad's favorite President and I never knew why until I read this account. I guess Dad could relate to his humble upbringing on a farm and his love of reading. Seems like Truman ran into the familiar blockade of long-sitting representatives as he was not entrenched in the political good-old boy network.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        2 months ago from Olympia, WA

        I really do have to read this book. Truman was a fascinating character in history, but I do not know that much about him. Thanks for the push, Peg!

      • PegCole17 profile imageAUTHOR

        Peg Cole 

        2 months ago from Dallas, Texas

        Hello Flourish, What I found most enlightening about this account of his service was the way he was treated by the incumbent who replaced him in office. Reading about that was quite a shock. So nice of you to stop in and check out this book review.

      • PegCole17 profile imageAUTHOR

        Peg Cole 

        2 months ago from Dallas, Texas

        Hi Peggy, That was one of the things which impressed me most about Mr. Truman as well as his appetite for reading about history. Most remember him as the guy that dropped the bombs at the end of WWII but he carried into action plans already put into motion by his predecessor. Thanks so much for your quick trip to visit this review.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        2 months ago from USA

        I echo Peggy’s sentiments. I’d like to read about this plain-spoken, humble man. It’s great he read so widely and appreciated history. Our current president should take some cues from him. Great review.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        2 months ago from Houston, Texas

        This sounds like a good book to read, Peg. Thanks for the review of it. It is important to learn from history. I liked the fact of Truman's thinking that all the honors, etc. was for the presidency and not him, personally. Some people in office should be reminded of that.

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