Harry Truman: “True Man” of Steel

“The record of Harry Truman’s efforts on behalf of black Americans is a remarkable presidential story of moral courage and political recklessness.”1 Michael Gardner relentlessly attempts to address this idea in his book Harry Truman and Civil Rights. Gardner’s book focuses on Truman’s undying support for federal civil rights reform, capitalizing on Truman’s moral righteousness and how it affected his decisions to instigate civil rights reform in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In Gardner’s view, Truman’s political motive for advocating the civil rights of African Americans was virtually nonexistent. Depicting Truman as a saint, Gardner emphasizes how Truman pushed federal civil rights reform at his own political risk and treated every colored man and woman with the utmost respect. Although his language can be classified as slightly loaded, Gardner successfully addresses a wide range of Truman’s civil rights reforms, offering insightful analysis of the factors that influenced Truman’s decisions throughout his presidency as well as solid evidence of Truman’s deep deference towards his people. Despite being slightly repetitive, Gardner’s constant reiteration of ideas effectively emphasizes his central idea that Truman’s actions were based solely on moral motivations. Gardner’s writing proves to be enlightening and intriguing because it constantly addresses the irony of certain political situations surrounding Truman, further highlighting the significance of Truman’s decisions regarding civil rights.
The opening chapters of the book assess the role of Harry Truman’s historical background in shaping his crusade for civil rights. In the first chapter, Gardner delineates the circumstances of Truman’s childhood. Born in 1884 in Lamar, Missouri, Truman was raised in a Southern culture that “conditioned [him] to be a racist.”2 Truman’s mother was placed into a concentration camp by Union soldiers at the age of eleven, an event that induced in her a deep hatred toward Abraham Lincoln. As he does throughout the book, Gardner highlights the irony of Truman’s determination for civil rights reform, as it was counterintuitive to his racist upbringing. Gardner then elaborates on the effect of Truman’s former World War I experience as captain of Battery-D, a group of Irish-American soldiers, on his racial tolerance. In a letter to his fiancée, Truman wrote that the Irishmen he fought with were “as fine a bunch as were ever gotten together.”3 Truman’s words reiterate the significance of his experiences in World War in influencing his respect for people of other ethnic backgrounds.
As the book progresses, Gardner elaborates on the specific groundbreaking measures that Truman enacted at the start of his presidency to ensure that his civil rights policies would become reality. Truman first established a Committee on Civil Rights, a multiracial committee that, according to Gardner, was a particularly revolutionary achievement mostly because of its “Noah’s Ark makeup.”4 In other words, its members were fifteen people of a wide variety of social backgrounds, including “two women, two southerners, two business [leaders], two labor [leaders].”5 One distinct member was Sadie Tanner Alexander, who was a black female attorney and thereby represented two different minorities. Furthermore, in 1947, Truman made a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at the Lincoln Memorial, a venue that Gardner felt was “appropriately”6 chosen for an event as important as the first time in history that a president had ever addressed the NAACP. Gardner explains that this speech was “historically important”7 because it was the first public statement by a U.S. president that promised that the federal government would be fully “committed to the fledgling civil rights movement.”8
The latter half of the book begins by centering on Truman’s 1948 presidential candidacy as well as on the dissent among different groups within the National Democratic Convention with regard to a civil rights plank. Gardner stresses the Democratic Party’s campaign strategies for the 1948 elections, detailing that it recognized the need to win the votes of “the western states, labeled western Progressives; the unions, commonly called big city labor; and the Southern conservatives.”9 According to Gardner, the Democratic Party Platform Committee that met in July 1948 reached an impasse when three different civil rights planks: the original Truman plank, which was constitutionally grounded; the Moody Plank, which emphasized states’ rights; and the Biemiller plank, which reiterated the Truman plank in more specific terms.10 This section of the book also gives rise to Gardner’s description of Truman’s “Great ‘Comeback’ Campaign,”11 in which victory had seemed a bleak prospect for Truman due to the widespread criticism that his consistent advocacy of civil rights had subjected him to.
In the final section of his book, Gardner emphasizes Truman’s overall strength of character and the civil rights legacy he left behind. The historian praises Truman for his undying support for civil rights even in the face of political adversity. According to Gardner, Truman was a great judge of character and “knew how to size up the men around him.”12 Furthermore, Gardner presents Truman’s willingness to give a commencement address at Howard University as evidence of Truman’s genuine goodness of heart. Gardner specifies that Truman did what no other president had ever done—“deliver the commencement address and remain for the entire two-and-one-half-hour ceremony”13—and views Truman’s civil rights legacy as a landmark in history that has endured the winds of time. He comments that even in a culture that accepted racial segregation, Truman “crossed one civil rights frontier after another,”14 instigating “a movement that could no longer be ignored.”15 All of the characteristics that Gardner applies to Truman reflect Gardner’s deep respect for Truman’s advocacy of civil rights as well as for his strength of character.
Gardner’s thesis in this historical work is that Harry Truman’s presidential efforts to defend the civil rights of African Americans exemplify “moral courage and political recklessness.”16 Throughout the book, Gardner recognizes the significance of Truman’s accomplishments in the field of civil rights and maintains his belief that Truman’s attitudes were influenced significantly by his desire to do the right thing from a moral standpoint. For example, Gardner details that Truman believed his political decisions “should be based on what was right or wrong for all Americans.”17 His delineation of this point demonstrates his respect for Truman as a man of high morality. Gardner also emphasizes the significance of Truman’s specific civil rights achievements such as his establishment of a Committee on Civil Rights. The author states that even in the midst of severe international and domestic political unrest, Truman decided to issue “Executive Order 9808, which established a multiracial Civil Rights Committee.”18 By adding background information such as this, Gardner emphasizes the significance of Truman’s accomplishments regarding civil rights at a time of great turmoil.
Michael Gardner sees Truman as a man of strong moral character and unfailing righteousness, praising him for his “genuine passion for civil rights”19 as well as for his undeniable deference for his fellow man. Throughout the book, Michael Gardner’s writing reflects the influence of his personal life on his perspective of Truman. As a communications policy attorney in Washington, D.C.,20 Gardner possesses a plethora of first-hand experience in the political spectrum, contributing to his credibility as an effective historian. Furthermore, Gardner’s background provides abundant evidence that his solid global perspective has influenced his liberal opinions and consequently his motivations for writing this book in praise of Truman’s civil rights accomplishments. In 1982, Gardner founded the United States Telecommunications Training Institute, of which he is now the pro bono chairman.21 Additional experience that has also contributed greatly to Gardner’s global understanding and reverence for civil rights includes his service as a U.S. Ambassador to the International Telecommunication Union Plenipotentiary Conference in Nairobi, Kenya,22 where he helped to establish international communications standards and promote the growth of telecommunications in developing countries. For eight years, Gardner also served as a Modern American Presidency professor at Georgetown University.23 Furthermore, Gardner has served in Presidential Commissions under Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush, Sr.24 These credentials demonstrate Gardner’s experience in politics and further establish his credibility as an experienced political historian. Gardner’s admiration for Truman’s civil rights policies comes from his own concern for the welfare of the populace, a motive reflected in his membership on the Dean’s Advisory Board of the UCLA School of Public Health as well as his membership on the President’s Committee for Mental Retardation.25 Gardner has also lectured in Independence, Missouri, at the Harry S. Truman Library,26 a location that influenced him to compose his historical work on Truman and civil rights. As a father of two daughters, Gardner completely understands the incredible influence a parent’s ideas can have on his children. Ultimately, he fully grasps the significance of Truman’s passion for civil rights reform because such a desire was uncharacteristic of a man raised in rural Missouri by a mother who despised Lincoln.
Gardner’s historiography is classified in the Neo-Conservative school of historiography, which includes historical literature written from the 1980’s to the present and is characterized by its “re-assertion of consensus historiography.”27 This school of historiography is part of the many reactions to the radical changes supported by New Left social movements. As a Neo-Conservative, Gardner emphasizes the importance of traditional American values, describing Truman as a man who “never lost his basic good judgment about the quality and integrity”28 of his colleagues. The image of Truman painted by Gardner champions the idea that the U.S. is a country of the utmost morality and stability, characteristics that Neo-Conservatives see as representative of the United States. According to Gardner, Truman embodied the values of racial toleration that we hold so dear today, as can be inferred by Gardner’s portrayal of Truman as someone “who was not put off by a person’s lesser economic status or skin color.”29 Gardner capitalizes on how Truman “grew to understand and enjoy his fellow man.”30 This flattering portrayal of Truman again reflects the Neo-Conservative view of the U.S. as a “uniquely moral, stable country.”31 Furthermore, as a Neo-Conservative historian, Gardner stresses the importance of the Federal government in the development of American culture.
The reviews of Steven Goldzwig of the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs and Joe Dunn of the journal The History Teacher both analyze Michael Gardner’s historical work in depth. Goldzwig in Rhetoric & Public Affairs describes Gardner’s book as “credible”32 and “enlightening.”33 He comments that the chronology of the book contributes to the author’s argument that Truman “never wavered from the cause of civil rights.”34 However, Goldzwig criticizes Gardner for downplaying “the complexity of Truman’s decision” to create the PCCR, omitting the fact that the president “needed the African American vote for the 1948 election.”35 According to Goldzwig, the author also neglects to elaborate on the “actual deliberations”36 of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Goldzwig disapproves of the fact that Gardner does not mention the process by which the committee reached a consensus. The reviewer also refutes Gardner’s stance that Truman’s attitudes about civil rights were moral instead of political. Goldzwig instead introduces the idea that Truman was not entirely influenced by a moral cause but instead pertained to the fact that NATO would soon be built and Truman wanted his country to be seen “as a solid and reliable partner.”37 Goldzwig also mentions that Gardner’s writing is “too repetitive at times.”38 He is critical of the author’s constant emphasis on the same few points over and over again. Despite these countless setbacks, however, Goldzwig believes that the book shows that “a president’s strong character”39 can serve as an important source of influence for equality. In contrast, one of the only positive comments that another reviewer, Joe Dunn, gives for the book is that Gardner “guides the reader through the important Vinson civil rights cases.”40 In general, Dunn denounces the author for being “overly enthusiastic, even gushy.”41 He also condemns the fact that Gardner “tends to proclaim his position rather than to refute the opposition.”42 Dunn describes the work as “retro-liberal”43 in comparison to the 1970’s book on Truman’s civil rights policies written by McCoy and Ruetten. Taking into account Gardner’s profession as a communications policy attorney, Dunn mentions the similarity of the book to a lawyer’s legal brief.
Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks by Michael R. Gardner is a comprehensive documentation of the pioneering involvement in civil rights reform by the thirty-third president of the United States. Gardner effectively addresses almost all historical aspects of Truman’s obdurate position on civil rights and the factors that shaped his viewpoint and motivated him to set procedures for the enforcement of civil rights reform by the federal government. As a former member of several presidential commissions, Gardner has a commendable amount of experience in political matters, experience that can be seen in his thorough understanding of the Truman administration and its policies. However, although all-encompassing in many aspects, Gardner’s writing is blatantly biased, constantly addressing the moral aspects of Truman’s decisions with regard to civil rights while dismissing the political factors involved. Although he mentions that Truman indeed “still occasionally used the pejorative word nigger,”44 Gardner downplays this fact by adding that Truman publicly advocated “full equality throughout the United States”45 in his NAACP speech. Therefore, despite his comprehensive understanding of Truman’s accomplishments with respect to civil rights for Blacks, Gardner does not give a completely objective historical account of the events surrounding Truman’s “moral crusade”46 for civil rights. Gardner’s literary style, however, is rather captivating because he uses figurative language throughout his writing. His comments that Truman had “poisoned the political well”47 with his stubborn support for civil rights reform and that the president had more “civil rights bombshells to drop”48 create a tone of light-hearted contemplation that allows the reader to make connections and to relate to the author’s message.
Gardner agrees with the contention that “the 1940s was a watershed in American history,” considering Truman’s civil rights breakthroughs to be “revolutionary.”49 He also constantly emphasizes Truman’s initiative in instigating civil rights reform, highlighting the significance of the president’s formation of “a multiracial Civil Rights Committee.”50 In stressing Truman’s initiative in the face of great opposition, Gardner demonstrates his view that Truman’s presidential decisions made the forties a milestone era in the history of America. The author even specifically characterizes Truman’s nomination of a black lawyer to the “all-white federal court system” as a “landmark event.”51 His repeated comparison of Truman’s accomplishments to those of Abraham Lincoln also demonstrates his belief that the forties were a “watershed” in the country’s history. For example, Gardner comments that Truman had attacked racism in the U.S. “as it had not been attacked since Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.”52 The historian also stresses the significance of the forties in history by downplaying the significance of John F. Kennedy’s presidential accomplishments in civil rights reform in the sixties. Highlighting JFK’s refusal to address the black Americans in the 1963 march on Washington, Gardner points out the irony of JFK’s common association with civil rights while according to Gardner, Truman was even more influential in the development of America’s civil rights policies than JFK was.
Michael Gardner wrote Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks in order to focus on the moral influences of Harry Truman’s civil rights policies. He believes that Truman showed “genuine humanity toward black Americans”53 and pushed for federal intervention on the issue of civil rights for colored people chiefly because he felt it was morally righteous. Although biased, Gardner’s account of Truman’s civil rights legacy is comprehensive and well-written, a masterpiece of historical literature.

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