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Synopsis

In Citizen Soldier, historian Aida Donald charts the life and legacy of the thirty-third president, who rose from a modest background to preside over the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War—one of the most momentous shifts of the twentieth century.

Born in late 19th-century Missouri to a family of down-on-their-luck farmers, Truman was an utter romantic and something of a mama’s boy during his childhood. As a young entrepreneur, he experienced several crushing defeats, and only truly found a sense of purpose when he enlisted in the army in 1917. Truman cut his teeth as a leader while serving in an artillery unit in the Missouri National Guard, and returned to the States something of a hero. Back home, however, Truman soon found himself on the losing end of another business venture. When the father of an army buddy encouraged him to run as the Democratic candidate for a judgeship in Jackson County, Missouri, Truman took the plunge into politics.

Truman’s road to the presidency was a rocky one. Donald shows that Truman tried to honor his romantic ideals and be an honest politician, but had to compromise his values in order to get ahead in politics. Indeed, the corruption of some of his early political bedfellows so distressed Truman that he suffered acute psychosomatic illness as a result. But his hard work and dogged persistence eventually paid off, landing him in the U.S. Senate and then the vice presidency. When FDR passed away in April of 1945, Truman unexpectedly found himself at the helm of the American war effort—and in command of the most lethal weapon humanity had ever seen. Truman’s order to detonate nuclear bombs over Japan four months after assuming the presidency quickly brought World War II to a close, but has of course troubled many historians. Donald takes a candid look at the issue, using untapped sources to explain Truman’s decision-making process and expand our understanding of that world-changing moment.

With remarkable clarity and insight, Donald shows how, perhaps more than any other head of state, Truman delineated the complex international order that would dominate the four decades after World War II. Donald also explores the political dimensions of Truman’s presidency, paying special attention to his Fair Deal, which shored up and extended the liberal programs of FDR’s New Deal, laying the groundwork for future reforms and helping to fundamentally transform the country we live in today. Many of Truman’s accomplishments went unappreciated at the time; he managed to hang onto the presidency for a second term, but that was marred by scandal, including a Senate investigation into corruption among officials in Truman’s administration, and he left the White House with an abysmal approval rating, considered by many to be a failed president. Only with hindsight, Donald says, can we truly appreciate Truman’s complex legacy.

In Citizen Soldier, Donald reveals the moments of astonishing greatness and, at times, profound disappointment that defined Truman’s life. A psychologically penetrating portrait, Citizen Soldier presents this underdog president in his many shades of grey, never shying from describing his shortcomings or failures, but also giving full attention to his many accomplishments as a politician and leader.

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