Blogs > HNN > David O. Whitten, Review of D.M. Giangreco's "The Soldier from Independence: A Military Biography of Harry Truman" (Zenith, 2009)

Apr 18, 2010 11:41 am

David O. Whitten, Review of D.M. Giangreco's "The Soldier from Independence: A Military Biography of Harry Truman" (Zenith, 2009)

[David O. Whitten is Professor of Economics at Auburn University. He wrote this article for On Point: The Journal of Army History.]

The Soldier from Independence is the first of a proposed two-volume study of Harry Truman's military career.  An historian and previous editor of Military Review, Giangreco recently published Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947.

Giangreco's book illuminates the combat experience neglected in studies of the thirty-third President of the United States.  Truman, captain of an artillery battery of federalized Missouri National Guardsmen, led his unit in World War I.

Twenty-first century soldiers will be struck by the amateurism of the World War I U.S. Army.  After enlisting in the Missouri National Guard, Truman was commissioned because he was popular, had run his family's farm, and displayed competency as a construction crew paymaster and bank clerk.  Truman's work history, despite his lack of military experience, his limited formal education, and eyesight too poor to pass a legitimate physical examination for a commission or enlistment, suggested the intelligence essential to successfully lead men in an increasingly industrialized army.  Shortfalls notwithstanding, Truman was a successful staff and line officer.  Readers have to decide if the captain's appointment to an important leadership role was an intelligent selection or dumb luck.

When the Missouri Guard was nationalized and sent to training camps, Truman impressed his superiors with his grasp of technical skills necessary to lead an artillery battery and others with his horsemanship in an army reliant on animal power for transportation.  Both in the States, and in France, Truman was an ardent student of artillery.  It is unlikely that he considered himself undereducated for his Army role.  He did, nonetheless, understand the importance of training for his responsibilities.

Considering Truman's future role as leader of the free world, the most important feature of his war experience was his demonstration of leadership.  His impressive work as a student of artillery made Truman the officer to solve a regimental problem:  D Battery, "Dizzy D" was home to especially raw military talent.  The potential for productive enterprise was present but untapped in the absence of a leader who could harness able but undisciplined men.

Brining unruly Battery D to heel saved the battery and revealed Truman as an officer and leader.  The men of D had a stake in Truman's success in commanding them.  Had he failed, the battery would have been broke up and divided piecemeal among other units.  The rowdies of Dizzy D took the measure of their new commander and came up short.  He did not waver or dither but took immediate and stern action to get the men in line.  His leadership brought Truman the support and respect of his men, and together, they created one of the best batteries in the regiment.

Truman demanded discipline and performance from his men, and in return he looked out for them.  Giangreco's military biography of Truman is a study in command and proper and successful employment of authority.  Truman was a good officer.  Moreover, Truman did not limit his gutsy behavior to the men beneath him in rank; when necessary, he stood up to his superiors.  When infantry needed artillery support, and Battery D was the only unit in a position to provide it, Truman blatantly ignored an order to fire only within his designated range and provided the needed firepower.  His own superiors were ready to prosecute him for that dereliction of duty, but General John J. Pershing saw Truman's action as an example of the kind of sensible responses demanded of officers if the war was to be won with minimal casualties.

Thereafter, Truman's superiors used the work of Battery D as proof that their command was well led.  Pershing's support was invaluable to Truman because he worked in an environment where professional soldiers (read West Point men) used Guard officers as scapegoats for their own shortfalls.

Giangreco's thoroughly researched and carefully written military biography of Truman in World War I fills a void in what is generally known and understood about the thirty-third President.  The book is well written and a worthy read.

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