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To Thine Own Self Be Truman

June 28, 1992

There are extremes for biography, and most biographies tend toward one or the other, either showing the subject as protagonist of events or dwelling on the subject as a particular human being involved in events. Historian Robert Dallek tended toward the former in writing "Lone Star Rising," but he had lived as an adult through the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and so he carried inside himself a conception of L.B.J. as a person. The consequence was a great book.

In his review of David McCullough's "Truman" (June 7), Dallek shows that he did not live through the Truman presidency as an adult; his praise for Truman comes secondhand. Moreover, his is not really a book review, other than stating that "No one has told the story better than David McCullough."

Harry Truman meant well, sure. And Herbert Hoover meant well; maybe that was why Truman admired Hoover. Truman messed up. The Korean War was exactly the responsibility of Truman, who ignored intelligence reports and withdrew American combat troops from South Korea in 1949; no wonder Truman did not know what to do in that war, from beginning to end.

Truman was so exhilarated by winning the 1948 election that he completely ignored the most significant fact: After 3 1/2 years of Truman, already one out of two Americans thought he was inadequate as a President. Truman's second term was a disaster, but he was so self-enchanted over "the buck stops here" that he was incapable of self-analysis. When he said, "The buck stops here," he meant that he held the authority; he had made a decision, and the decision stood. He never meant that he would accept blame for a wrong decision. There could not be any blame accruing, because he had meant well.

Personal integrity he had; intellectual integrity he lacked. He never surmounted, inside himself, the insecurity of his origin. He could not tolerate any attack upon his policies, because he always looked at such as an attack upon his person, upon his personal integrity.

Dallek said at the end of his review, "In November I may be tempted to cast a protest vote for H.S.T." That would take symbolism to the second degree, a symbolic vote for a false symbol. The presidency cannot be properly exercised by an insecure man who means well.

GILBERT S. BAHN, MOORPARK

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