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The senses-shattering origin of Harry S. Truman – True Comics #44

August 12, 2014

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The presidency of Harry S. Truman was nothing if not eventful. Begun in the middle of the greatest war Earth has ever seen and after the death of his larger-than-life predecessor, it was a long series of crises and big decisions. The dropping of the atomic bombs, a decision justifiable after years of unrelenting carnage but one that will likely be second-guessed forever. The beginning of the Cold War, which lurched into motion before the muzzles of World War II stopped flashing. Going to bed on election night 1948 with everyone saying he was going to lose his re-election bid, sleeping soundly, and awakening to find that he’d confounded opponents, pollsters and headline writers alike. Korea. Firing MacArthur, which might have been his finest moment, igniting a public opinion firestorm yet preserving the principle of civilian control of the military, so vital to any true democracy.

And you could list more. HST: A President in Full. And today we have before us a comic the celebrates The Man Before Whom the Buck Stopped. But here’s the thing: none of that stuff had happened yet.True Comics is a title that’s no stranger to this blog. A Golden Age staple, True was like its temporal brethren a thick comic chock full of a feature potpourri, in this case mainly bios and true-life vignettes of topics of interest. Many issues were published during the height of WWII, so there’s heavy dose of then-current military topics amongst the array. As you can see by its cover, this 1945 issue is no different, nor is it remarkable that Truman, the current American president and hence commander-in-chief, would find himself the subject of a brief bio. (Indeed, presidents are no strangers to comics in general: witness rasslin’ Abe Lincoln and rough-ridin’ Teddy Roosevelt.) What makes it interesting is that, coming so close upon the heels of Franklin Roosevelt’s death, it has the feel of reassurance — a confidence boost for the reading public that this new guy won’t, to put it crudely, crap the national bed. And who can blame anyone for needing a boost after news that the man who had been at the American helm for twelve years, through the Great Depression and a global war, had died?

What we get is a straight-forward if somewhat selective chronicle of Truman’s life and times. We see young autodidact Harry burning the midnight oil in Missouri and hardworking adult Harry plowing the family furrows:

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Then there’s a dash of his gallant service is the previous War to End All Wars, where he was an artillery captain and served with distinction in France:

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Then there’s Truman the political animal (his stint as a failed haberdasher gets ignored into non-existence), first as a state judge and untainted product of the corrupt Pendergast machine (which is mentioned), and then a U.S. Senator crusading against war-time waste on his eponymous committee. And then comes his campaign as FDR’s running mate — with no mention of FDR not showing much interest in who his running mate was, much less taking him into his confidence (though, in fairness, these facts weren’t public knowledge at the time). A popular man, generous with his time who can play the piano (this last quality generated the best photo from his presidency) — sounds swell!:

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And then comes FDR’s death and his ascent:

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“He sounds like a good guy!” That pretty much sums up this brief feature. The war was still ongoing during the comic’s Summer 1945 cover date, though Hitler was dead and Japan’s Pacific empire was shrinking one island at a time — hence the necessary reassurance. The historical consensus of Truman is that he was a good president, one who approached greatness. He had guts, and even if some of his decisions were wrong, he made them and didn’t look back. “Being a president is like riding a tiger,” he once said. “You have to keep on riding or be swallowed.” This brief five-page story is a contemporaneous affirmation that he won’t be downed in one gulp, and as such lacks the usual hagiographic gloss that clings to its ilk. You can almost hear a cry of “Give ’em hell, Harry!” echoing down the decades.

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