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About The Book

The Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Harry S. Truman, whose presidency included momentous events from the atomic bombing of Japan to the outbreak of the Cold War and the Korean War, told by America’s beloved and distinguished historian.

The life of Harry S. Truman is one of the greatest of American stories, filled with vivid characters—Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Wallace Truman, George Marshall, Joe McCarthy, and Dean Acheson—and dramatic events. In this riveting biography, acclaimed historian David McCullough not only captures the man—a more complex, informed, and determined man than ever before imagined—but also the turbulent times in which he rose, boldly, to meet unprecedented challenges. The last president to serve as a living link between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, Truman’s story spans the raw world of the Missouri frontier, World War I, the powerful Pendergast machine of Kansas City, the legendary Whistle-Stop Campaign of 1948, and the decisions to drop the atomic bomb, confront Stalin at Potsdam, send troops to Korea, and fire General MacArthur. Drawing on newly discovered archival material and extensive interviews with Truman’s own family, friends, and Washington colleagues, McCullough tells the deeply moving story of the seemingly ordinary “man from Missouri” who was perhaps the most courageous president in our history.

Reading Group Guide

David McCullough

Questions and Topics For Discussion 

  1. Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884.  Nearly twenty years prior, Anderson Truman freed his five slaves, Hannah, Marge, and their three daughters in Leavenworth, Kansas.  Later on, a keeper of the family would conclude that the Truman's never owned slaves.  Since owning slaves was a relatively accepted practice in the Confederacy, why would someone think to rewrite history?  How would you describe the turning point in the American social consciousness over slavery?  Why do you think it took so long for someone to stand up to Jim Crow, even after the senseless killing of nine African-Americans?  How does history influence what lives are valuable within the consciousness of a society?  What other factors are at play?
  2. Truman's boyhood was shaped by deeply instilled values.  Often eager to please and a "bookworm" Truman was the perfect child.  Even at such an early age, Truman displayed a love for politics.  What values did Truman hold that would later make him an outstanding politician?  A significant part of Truman's moral character was reinforced by his education. Do you think that a similar education should be taught in today's public schools?  If so, how?
  3. Truman was a farmer, even though farmers were discouraged to fight, he felt it was his duty to serve in the war in Europe.  The president at the time, Woodrow Wilson said, "upon the farmers rested the fate of the country and thus the fate of the world."  Why were farmers so highly regarded at the time?  What professions or occupations are held in the same regard today?  What professions or occupations should be the last to fight a war?  Explain.
  4. In Captain Truman's first confrontation with the Germans he proved brave and stood his ground when many retreated.  Despite the inexperience of his infantry, not a single soldier was killed in the melee.  In your opinion, what were the critical points in Truman's life that led him to becoming a great leader?  What led him toward an interest in artillery and a fascination for power? 
  5. December 1933 marked the end of prohibition.  Having been repeatedly passed over for a position in Congress, Truman became a bit disgruntled with politics. What is the correlation between the end of prohibition and the political climate of the time? Why do you think Truman was consistently overlooked in the political arena? 
  6. How would you describe Truman's reluctance to run for Vice President with President Franklin Roosevelt?  What factors made Truman the prime Vice Presidential candidate for the election?  Compare and contrast Roosevelt and Truman, what made them the ideal pair?
  7. After the election in 1944, Truman has very little contact with President Roosevelt.  In fact, when Roosevelt was meeting with Churchill and Stalin for his second Big Three Conference, Truman was attending parties and receptions.  Do you think Truman was intentionally left out of the loop of the strategy overseas?  Considering Roosevelt's health at the time why do you think Truman was not briefed on international affairs?
  8. On April 12, 1945 Roosevelt dies of a cerebral hemorrhage.  In the events immediately following his presidential oath, there seems to be a lot of uncertainty about whether he can handle the job.  What other events leading up to this moment give you the impression that he lacks a confidence in himself that is required of a president? 

9.   What were the strongest factors contributing to Truman's victory in the election of 1948?  Compare and contrast Truman and Dewey's campaign strategy.

10. When the steel industry was brought to a standstill due to labor strikes, Truman decides to take government control of the industry.  A sincere advocate for labor unions, why did he feel that was the best decision?  Why did his decision cause a devastating blow in Truman's popular opinion?

11. In your opinion, what were the greatest highlights of Truman's presidency?  What progress did he make in settling The Cold War?  What deeply held values carried him through seven years and nine months in office? 

12. Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III of Illinois remarked that Truman's life was "an example of the ability of this society to yield up, from the most unremarkable origins, the most remarkable men."  What do you have to learn from Truman's life?  Did Truman epitomize the American dream?  Explain.

About The Author

Photograph by William B. McCullough

David McCullough (1933–2022) twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback. His other acclaimed books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, Brave Companions, 1776, The Greater JourneyThe American SpiritThe Wright Brothers, and The Pioneers. He was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Visit

Product Details

Awards and Honors

  • Pulitzer Prize
  • St. Louis Literary Award (1993)
  • Pennsylvania Governor's Award (1993)
  • Colonial Dames of America Award (1993)
  • Harry S Truman Good Neighbor Award (1993)
  • 17th Annual Lincoln Literary Award (1993)
  • Harry S Truman Public Service Award (1993)
  • John P. McGovern Award Lecture/Cosmos Club (1993)
  • Francis Parkman Prize/Society of American Historians (1993)
  • National Endowment for the Humanities Charles Frankel Prize (1995)
  • Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence/St. Nichols Society (1993)
  • National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (1995)
  • Lionel Gelber Prize

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