"The Accidental President"

On April 12, 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt died suddenly and Vice President Harry S. Truman assumed the highest office in the land. By Truman’s own assessment, he was unprepared for the presidency and remarked to a Vermont senator, “I’m not big enough for this job.” This newcomer to national and world politics faced dire challenges at a harrowing time in world history.

Master story teller A. J. Baime draws on previously undiscovered primary resources, including letters and memoirs, to present a pulse-pounding, in-depth chronology as Truman morphs from an ordinary Midwesterner, with no college degree and never enough money to buy a home, one who had never governed a state or served as mayor of a city, to a well-respected administrator and internationally acclaimed political figure. The journalist author draws a portrait of Truman as arguably the most powerful leader in the history of humankind.

About one third of Baime’s book depicts Truman’s early life as a poor farmer and haberdasher in Western Missouri. He then follows the accidental president’s daily schedule as he is forced to make titanic decisions that will shape the United States and the world for decades.

A few weeks after Truman took the oath of office, Germany surrendered (May 8, 1945). It was Truman’s birthday and, while he celebrated both occasions, he was aware that winning in Europe was only half a victory. The allies would still have to attend to the threat of the Japanese.

About this time Truman was informed about the top secret Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. The more he learned about that bomb, the more he was convinced this weapon could force Japan to surrender. At the Potsdam Conference, Chairman Truman met with Churchill and Stalin to determine the best approach for ending the war on the Western front. After this meeting, Truman gave the order to obliterate Hiroshima in order to end the war.

This new world leader became known for his decisiveness, a skill that would serve him well as he helped found the United Nations, negotiate at peace conferences, and order the liberation of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.

By focusing on a pivotal 4-month period of United States’ history, Baime adroitly carves out a very small slice of Truman’s early tenure and depicts it in intimate and absorbing ways. He leads the reader right into the situation room where Truman is assessing ominous challenges.

For those looking for a complete biography of the 33rd President, David McCullough’s “Truman” is the book to read. But if you want a fast-paced, engrossing, well-researched introduction to “the man from Missouri” I highly recommend “The Accidental President,” a name given to him by his daughter Margaret.

A. J. Baime is a regular contributor to the “Wall Street Journal.” His articles have appeared in “New York Times,” “Popular Science” and other periodicals. He has written two books: “The Arsenal of Democracy” and “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and the Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans.” Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt is the publisher of this well indexed 431-page book, which includes a folio of fascinating historic photographs.