Today's Reading

PART ONE

War and Peace

1

HARRY TRUMAN

The Buck Stops Here.
—HARRY TRUMAN

YEARS AFTER THE FACT, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 stand in stark relief on history's timeline. An obvious turning point in history that meant life on earth has never been the same.

Also standing in stark relief is the seemingly lonely figure of the man who "made the decision" to take the step that, yes, effectively ended the carnage of World War II and brought a new kind of carnage. An immediate slew of horrendous death, injury, and destruction was unleashed by the bomb.

The permanent specter of total man-made destruction has stalked and haunted the world since 1945 and is possibly the most salient feature of modern life.

You and I all know that Harry S Truman was the man behind that decision to drop the bomb. That sentence almost seems to beg the use of the word "hiding" to modify "behind"—who would want to be tarred with such a decision? Wouldn't you want to be invisible or at least anonymous? Yet, in today's phrase, Truman owned that decision. He made it, he acknowledged, it and he never looked back.

And that sentence, though true on its face, also begs us to ask—How did he do it? How could he do it?

This book starts with Truman's story because of that decision. And because he was President, America has had a global impact that is still felt today. He left us a model for how we as a country must continue to provide the leadership for which these uncertain times call. I hope some of the thinking in this chapter will affect the thinking of big-time policy makers, and I intend to share what follows and indeed this entire book with heads of all the countries around the world.

* * *

The atomic bombs were dropped on August 6 and 9, 1945.

Barely four months earlier, on April 12, President Roosevelt had died and Vice President Truman had been sworn in to succeed him. Roosevelt had just begun his unprecedented fourth term and had this new VP (two other men had served with him in his previous twelve years in office). Accounts agree that FDR barely acknowledged Truman; in fact, didn't know him well, only met with him once during the 1944 campaign and twice after they were sworn in. Not the best move by a wartime leader who was visibly staggering under the load of his office, knowing he was near death.

History seems to tell us that Truman knew nothing about the existence of the bomb until about two weeks after he was sworn in; it's possible that he had been told of it, but only in a cursory way. (Even Truman seemed to contradict himself on this point.) In any event, the scant four months that he was in office was the only time that was available to Truman to ponder the question—hardly seems like enough.

A friend once told me that the most important decisions are made in the first 10 seconds of realizing that they have to be made. I have not been able to find, nor did I actually ask, the factual source to back up that assertion. But I quickly understood he did not mean that those decisions were superficially made, but that they were the product of a lifetime of preparation.

Truman had that lifetime of preparation, with many factors working for and against him. He was what I would call a "man of parts," a complex man. Every reader has a lifetime of preparation, some good, some insignificant. Consider the following for Truman.

* Intelligent though not well-educated, he knew how to take in new information, how to learn.

* He loved reading and music and was also a warrior.

* As a boy, he was "encouraged" to be a "mama's boy," a condition not helped by shyness and bad vision. In his prime, he was jaunty, healthy, athletic, and he dressed well.

* Well into his adulthood (he was thirty-five when he married Bess, whom he first met when he was eight and she was five), he formed a strong marriage and family, and a stable and unpretentious personal life.

* He was a man of regular habits (which, in the White House in those very different times, included a shot of bourbon after morning exercise and a rubdown before breakfast).

* After a difficult childhood (poverty and thwarted dreams), he came to know himself and be comfortable in his own skin.

* A man of deep but not overt faith, he had a strong moral sense that encompassed all situations, public and private.

* He was plainspoken and forthright, saying pretty much what he meant and meaning what he said.

* His work and then political life in Missouri (he held odd jobs, and was also a farmer, a soldier and a judge) and in Washington D.C. (a decade as a Senator) entailed many years of weighing conflicting courses of action aimed at doing the right thing.

* He was popular and collegial, with many "buddies" as well as close friends and intimates. Not all of these people had unblemished characters, shall I say, but somehow their mud did not stick to him.


I say all this (and could say more) to show that Truman was not a saint and that things did not come easily to him. In fact, the circumstances of his early life were enough to kill many a future, and as an adult, he did not win every battle. But I think his ground must have been exceptionally fertile when it came to making the key decision of his and millions of other people's lives.

Look at the points cited here. How many apply to you? What could you add?

* * *

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture by Ben Horowitz.
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