Harry Truman in the Brotherhood of Light Lessons

Harry Truman is back in the news in 2024 due to the multiple Oscar-winner Oppenheimer, which I have not yet seen. But there is also a new book to report. A major new historical study of Truman’s predecessor as Vice President, Henry Wallace, unveils new evidence from Kremlin archives that became available to Western scholars after the downfall of the Soviet Union. The World That Wasn’t by Ben Steil describes the turmoil in the Democratic Party over Wallace’s Communist associations in America and Russia, which led to his replacement by Truman as the vice presidential nominee in 1944. Truman is highly praised as a much better prepared and qualified VP candidate, who became a better president than Wallace could have been as the Cold War unfolded.

When Henry Wallace was replaced in 1944 as the running mate of FDR, Upton Sinclair’s alter ego Lanny Budd was disappointed that Democratic Party leaders trusted Harry Truman more as vice president and future president.  Various scandals made Wallace a liability in the coming election, and FDR’s failing health meant that the vice president would likely succeed the president within a year. In fact, Truman only served 82 days as vice president. In One Clear Call, ninth in the Lanny Budd series of spy novels, published in 1948, Sinclair disparaged Truman as a centrist but hinted that fate might prove the party leaders correct:      

“They were astonished and a little frightened by the clamor of the workers in Chicago, who did want Wallace and came to the convention hall and said so.  All the same, the delegates cast their votes for Senator Harry Truman, whom they knew and liked, and of whom they could feel certain that he didn’t have any eccentric ideas. In so doing they were making more history than they dreamed—something which happens frequently to humans, who are fated to live in the present, to forget the past quickly, and have no means of penetrating the future.”

By the final eleventh volume, published in 1953, Sinclair has become a Cold War realist Democrat, like many former Socialists who had come to distrust Stalin, the Soviet Union and American Communists.  Lanny Budd is sent by Truman on a spy mission to Moscow: “He explained that some three months previously he had been flown to Moscow as a personal representative of President Truman, to interview Marshal Stalin on the President’s behalf.”

David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1993 biography of Truman was my April audiobook selection, and an interview with the author helps explain why he was drawn to this subject.