Decisions

John Kenneth Galbraith

  • Truman by Roy Jenkins
    Collins, 220 pp, £12.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 00 217584 3

The most sordid, even depraved literature of our time, soft-core pornography possibly apart, is the political memoir or biography. In the United States these are now rushed to the press within a few weeks of the individual’s having left or been ejected from office, this in the hope of beating the benign and ineluctable forces that are returning the individual to the obscurity for which nature intended him. A socially adverse public record is, on the whole, advantageous. The more felonious associates of Richard Nixon were unquestionably enhanced as authors by their criminality. However, this is not essential: Mr David Stockman, President Reagan’s first Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the OMB, has been offered a million or so for the rendering of his tenure in public office. This latter involved no known larceny or perversion of law: Mr Stockman gained fame for the single-minded determination with which he cut social services for the poor in order to promote tax relief for the adequately or extremely affluent – a case of financial incentive rewarding the giving of financial incentives, as they are called.

American politicians and public figures ordinarily hire someone to write their books. This improves, on the whole, on the British practice, which is for the particular statesman to write his own. The latter, as I’ve observed their work, are generally competent as to English grammar: they show, however, the desperate need for someone who, reacting to his own boredom, will be led to ask: ‘Will readers, sir, really want to hear all that about your role in the Westland case?’ Lacking also in Britain is our talent for inspired public misbehaviour. Not since Profumo has there been anyone (certainly not Mr Leon Brittan) of sufficiently eloquent misfeasance or public default to justify a really interesting book.

From this depressing background there now emerges Roy Jenkins. As a contrast he is nothing short of spectacular. In Birmingham, long in Whitehall, then in Brussels and lately in Glasgow and over the whole of the Kingdom he has had a political career more obviously interesting than most. Of this he writes not a word. He is a professional biographer of talent – Balfour, Dilke, Asquith – so the question of who did his work, of the forgery normal in the American genre, assuredly does not arise. And for his subject he has chosen not a British politician past, recent or present, but a much-discussed and, indeed, much written-about American President now 13 years dead.

I knew Harry Truman slightly and, in a distant way, worked for him. I had an association with quite a few of the matters, political and otherwise, discussed in this book. And I’ve read some though by no means all the Truman histories. This one certainly ranks with the best. Jenkins does not uncover a great deal of new material – I am puzzled as to why the discovery of some minor marginalia should so often be the test of historical excellence. What counts, surely, is good judgment, good selection from a plethora of materials, and writing that does not turn the reader back to Trollope. On all of these matters Jenkins rates very well indeed.

He takes his subject from birth to death, with engaging emphasis on Truman’s rural Missouri antecedents and a highly professional view of his election campaigns, early and late; with particular attention to his still incredible victory in 1948, missing only Miss Tallulah Bankhead’s famous election-night telegram to both candidates, urging them to ‘unpack’; then, and most important, he examines with a close and informed eye Truman’s major decisions as President. Through all this the reader remains effortlessly and pleasantly with the story. His judgment on Truman, assuming office after the greatest American and perhaps world figure of the century, is favourable but by no means uniformly so. Whatever his virtues, Harry Truman had no talent for considered indecision. Indeed he feared it mortally. In consequence, his tenure was replete with snap judgments, quite a few of them – the cancellation of Lend-Lease in 1945, his unstable handling of the Palestine problem in ensuing years, especially his terrible labour relations – very damaging to the country, to the larger world and to himself.

All of Jenkins’s judgments seem to me well-considered; that does not mean that I would in all cases concur. He endorses, on balance, the initiative on Greece and Turkey in 1947 – the Truman doctrine. I urged then and still think that there was an undue evocation of Soviet intent and design in order to gain passage of worthy aid legislation: some of the same attitudes were at the back of the earlier cancellation of Lend-Lease. Using anti-Soviet rhetoric to win Congressional action would then become a habit. Jenkins is also too kind to the State Department officers who were concerned with the Palestine settlement; some certainly were worried as to the effect on Arab relations; others, the ancient Ivy League cadre – where else but the State Department could a gentleman work for the Government? – were simply anti-semitic.

Finally, a curious omission. While Jenkins tells in interesting detail of Joe McCarthy and his red hunts, he does not tell of Truman’s legitimisation of them by the Government’s own loyalty programme. This caused more pervasive personal grief and horror than did McCarthy himself – all public servants great and small were put under suspicion and required to prove their innocence – and it is not clear that any really damaging people were extruded.

These are not minor quarrels. But I don’t suppose Jenkins or anyone would write a book that those of us who were around at the time and are still overtly conscious would fully accept. But let there be no doubt: this is a professional job that will be applauded equally by American and British readers. And, to go back to my earlier point, let it be a model. Let British politicians on leaving office in the next years write about Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and not about themselves. And let Americans ponder also the Jenkins example. There should be a matching of talents. Henry Kissinger should have written about, say, Lloyd George, Enoch Powell or, perhaps now, Anthony Wedgwood Benn. And Jimmy Carter, forgetting his own unhappy passage, should have turned to, say, Alec Douglas-Home.