Tuesday, June 09, 2009

PBS: Truman (2 part documentary in American Experience series)


PBS offers a four-hour film in the “American Experience” series about The Presidents, “Truman,” produced by David Grubin in 1997, narrated by Jason Robards. The link is here.

Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, was born in Missouri in 1884, and was somewhat of a “Mama’s boy” who took piano and might have had a career as a concert pianist (like Condoleezza Rice). The movie plays Mozart’s 15th Sonata (C Major, the famous “little Sonata”) as if to suggest he learned it. His father’s reckless business dealings cost him a chance to go to college, and he went to Kansas City to work and help support the family, and then he came back and worked on his father’s farm. He courted a young upper class woman, Bess, with all the courtship expected of young men of his generation. From such a modest beginning, he would go on to become the most powerful man in the world after World War II. He would become a haberdasher, and then began a political career as part of the machine by mobster Tom Pendergast. Eventually he became Senator and became a convenient nominee for Vice President in 1944.

The film actually opens with trains, mostly with steam engines, running around the country, and a story of Truman waking up in a Pullman car realizing that FDR would not live long and that he would become president. The movie documents his suddenly being informed about the atomic bomb, and his decision to use it in August 1946, just after his brinkmanship with Stalin at Potsdam. Truman had come to learn that some apparent allies could indeed be as evil as your obvious enemies.

The second half shows Truman as a peacetime president, having first to deal with labor and strikes, threatening to conscript union rail workers. But soon Truman turned his attention to the Red threat in Greece and Turkey (ultimately to affect the Cuban Missile Crisis later), and even instituted loyalty investigations into the political beliefs of federal employees, leading to purges (especially of homosexuals). But Truman would start to make progressive moves on African American civil rights, desegregating the Armed Forces in 1948, a move that would be mentioned again after 1993 in arguments to overcome the military gay ban. Truman would launch the Marhsall Plan to help save Western Europe from Communists.

The movie then covers the 1948 election, with Tom Dewey’s “fake victory,” which foreshadows the 2000 Bush-Gore debacle in Florida.

Truman would try to supplement the New Deal with a “Fair Deal” which Congress refused.

The would confront the Soviet Union with the Berlin Airlift.

The last major episode in the film is the Korean War, where the decision to commit troops was agonizing and where the South was almost pushed off the map; the landing at Inchon was a real gamble. But then the Red Chinese came in, and Truman had to deny military calls to use nuclear weapons. The film traces Truman's struggle with MacArthur and the back-and-forth battles that led to truce at the 38th Parallel.

Truman’s only child, Margaret, became a vocalist, and gave a concert, but lacked technique. Paul Hume wrote a devastating review, and Truman wrote back an angry letter. The President was said to lack self-control.

Truman's favorite saying was "The buck stops here." Or maybe "the buck stops with me."

The piano theme by Michael Bacon is quite haunting.

HBO made a docudrama “Truman”, directed by Frank Pierson, book by David McCullough with Gary Sinise as Harry.

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