In Whose Interest?

Thomas Meaney

  • The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World by A.J. Baime
    Doubleday, 431 pp, £20.00, February, ISBN 978 0 85752 366 2
  • The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War by Benn Steil
    Oxford, 606 pp, £25.00, March, ISBN 978 0 19 875791 7

Like Stalin, Harry Truman was a product of the criminal underworld. The Kansas City of his youth was known for its card sharks and conmen. Jesse James was not long dead and the murder rate outstripped Chicago’s. But it was also a town preoccupied with respectability. Farm boys on the make wore suits, mob bosses dined early with their families in ersatz châteaux and the legendary jazz scene – Truman may have heard Charlie Parker live – was a middle-class affair found in labour union halls rather than bordellos. Two Irish gangs, the Goats and the Rabbits, fought for control of the city. Tom Pendergast, the cunning, sickly boss of the Goats, ran his operations out of a two-storey building on Main Street, where the thugs of his Ready-Mixed Cement Corporation were dispatched to buy votes, steal ballot boxes, kidnap candidates or gun down whomever, to keep him kingmaker. The Goats’ capture of local tax revenue partly depended on the contracts Pendergast was awarded by his handpicked county judges (elected administrative posts in Missouri) who controlled the purse strings.

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