Congress and Harry S. Truman: A Conflicted Legacy

By Wunderlin, Clarence E., Jr. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Congress and Harry S. Truman: A Conflicted Legacy


Wunderlin, Clarence E., Jr., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Congress and Harry S. Truman: A Conflicted Legacy. Edited by Donald A. Ritchie. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2011. 209 pp.

The subtitle of this collection of essays is certainly appropriate. Participants at the Seventh Truman Legacy Symposium, "Truman and Congress: A Conflicted Legacy," offered a wide array of opinions on Harry S. Truman's relationship with Congress, as his administration tackled the weighty affairs of state. The resulting book includes three contributions focusing on legislative-executive relations, three on domestic affairs, and three on foreign policy matters, as well as a fascinating "Graphic Essay" with images of key documents, White House staff members, powerful members of Congress, and the president at work.

So, how did contributors to this volume interpret Truman's record of accomplishments? To set the stage, Donald A. Ritchie, historian of the U.S. Senate, stressed the circumstances that the new president confronted when he assumed the office: a difficult time politically, with the "gas tank" of liberal reformism "on empty" and citizens eager to get on with their lives (p. xviii). Truman's tenure unfolded, in Alonzo L. Hamby's words, during "a postwar age of conservative restoration" (p. 93).

Nevertheless, a gutsy president accomplished a great deal. Central to Truman's record was a more systematic approach to relations with the legislative branch. In his sweeping introductory survey of White House-Congress relations after Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ritchie emphasized the significance of the Truman administration's pioneering liaison efforts with Congress. Truman was a transitional figure whose dealings with Congress, Ritchie reminds readers, was "halfway between the 'designed chaos' of his predecessor and the 'structural purity' of his successor" (p. xxi). It must be noted, however, that Ken Hechler, White House staff member from 1949 to 1953, believes that interpretation an "exaggeration," and recalled senior administrative assistant George Elsey's description of liaison staffers as "glorified errand boys" for the White House appointments secretary (pp. 4-5).

In the policy realm, the embattled president articulated a broad liberal vision for the postwar years and what Hamby concluded was "a largely unattainable checklist of legislation" (p. 99). Ritchie, Hamby, Susan M. Hartmann, Richard S. Conley, and other contributors to this volume recognized the deep schism that occurred between foreign and domestic policy. Bipartisanship in foreign policy, the focus of Hartmann's assessment of the early Cold War years, led to the enactment of a far-reaching containment program. …

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