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Truman Committee became the model for scrutinizing giant public expenditures

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a little-known chapter in the life of a well-known president. Harry S. Truman of Missouri assumed office when Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945. That was near the end of World War II. Truman oversaw the allied victory in Europe and also ordered the use of a new kind of weapon against Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY S TRUMAN: It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.

INSKEEP: President Biden expects to witness some of Truman's legacy next week when he visits Japan, which is now a U.S. ally, and while there stops at Hiroshima, which on Truman's orders was destroyed. In many ways, Truman presided over the creation of the world order we live in now. But how did Truman ever rise to that position in the first place? Our colleague Steve Drummond investigated that story by researching an earlier part of Truman's political career. In 1941, shortly before the U.S. entered the war, Senator Harry S. Truman set up a Senate committee. He began investigating the mass of U.S. spending to prepare for war. Drummond writes of Truman's work in a new book called "The Watchdog."

STEVE DRUMMOND, BYLINE: Franklin Roosevelt was not crazy about this idea of a junior unknown senator poking his business into the administration's handling of the defense buildup at the time. There was very fierce opposition in the Senate among Truman's Senate leaders. However, it soon became clear that if a Democrat didn't do this, there were plenty of Republicans itching to launch their own investigations. So what they did was toss Truman a bone. They gave him a teeny, tiny appropriation. They said, you go. It was a bit of a steam valve to say, hey, it looks like we're keeping an eye on things. And nevertheless, Truman took that little bitty window and drove a truck through it.

INSKEEP: What did Truman find?

DRUMMOND: So not surprisingly, in this incredible race to get the U.S. ready for war, there were contracts being let overnight, over the phone, handshake deals. Many of them would go on to, you know, be the story that we know. It helped win the war. But there was a lot of money being spent, a lot of it being wasted. There was some corruption. There was just incredible mismanagement. With the Army camps - their very first report, they found $100 million being wasted on Army camps. They found that after World War I, when the government had done this once, nobody could find the plans for building Army camps. He criticized the Army for building camps, what he said, along civil war lines. There was no concrete for parking tanks. There were no facilities for mechanized war, which - that was the deal. That was the way war was being fought, and the Army was, you know, way outdated. So the very first report was very critical, made headlines around the country. And it got the Truman Committee started.

INSKEEP: In addition to saving money, did this save lives?

DRUMMOND: Impossible to count that number, I say in the book. It's very difficult. But yes, there were the landing boats that famously took the men ashore at D-Day and on islands in the Pacific. The Navy had stubbornly favored a very dangerous and poor design of its own making when there was a New Orleans businessman who had invented a much better design. That businessman, Andrew Higgins, went to Truman and said, hey, help me out here. Truman came up with the idea. He told the Navy, take your design and his design. Let's put them together in a test and see how they work.

INSKEEP: I just want to pause for a moment. You go to New Orleans today. That's where the D-Day Museum is.

DRUMMOND: Yes, exactly. And it's in a large part because of Andrew Jackson Higgins, who designed this boat. He couldn't get the Navy to listen to him.

INSKEEP: Now, we mentioned that FDR, Franklin Roosevelt, did not love this, but it seems that over time he grew to like it.

DRUMMOND: Yes.

INSKEEP: And we found some archival tape here. This is Harry S. Truman himself talking about his work on the committee and the way that Roosevelt began to realize he could use this guy. Let's listen. And also, you and I are going to look here at this video of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMAN: He'd call me up and ask me to come down to the White House. And I'd go down there, and I'd say, Mr. President, what's on your mind? And he'd say, So-and-So over here is upsetting the apple cart. We're trying to do something with him without ourselves upsetting the apple cart. I want you to get after him. Well, I'd usually get after him, and we'd straighten him out. He didn't have to do anything. Just have somebody say that good for nothing Truman's going to come and investigate you, and then they'd do the right thing. And that's all there was to it.

INSKEEP: Now, here - I wish...

DRUMMOND: Ah, look at that smile.

INSKEEP: I just love the look of joy on his face.

DRUMMOND: Steve, you have to say, Truman's a lot of fun. It's very fun to write about him. One of the very smart things Truman did was his goal was not to call a public hearing, not to get this on the front page. A lot of times he would call up the secretary of the Army and say, hey, something's going on over here. Hey, secretary of the Navy, fix this. And if they did, fine. Truman was perfectly happy to see - not have Roosevelt be embarrassed. It was when the military or the defense contractors would stonewall Truman. He had a terrible temper. When he didn't get what he wanted, that's when he would issue subpoenas. He would go to a public hearing.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking that in the end, Franklin Roosevelt chose Truman to be the vice president for his fourth term. Does this mean that Roosevelt came to trust Truman as well as to use Truman?

DRUMMOND: Yes. Truman was a very loyal soldier to the New Deal. He admired Franklin Roosevelt greatly. Everyone at the time who was in the know knew that Franklin Roosevelt was not a well man, that he might not likely survive his next term. So there was a lot of drama over who would be the vice president, most likely the next president. And slowly, Truman's name rose to the top of the list. And it was finally Roosevelt at the Chicago Convention who got on the phone and told Truman to take it. Truman didn't want to be vice president.

INSKEEP: Didn't want to be vice president?

DRUMMOND: Well, Steve, many, many people then and since have said they don't want to be vice president. By all accounts, Truman actually meant it. Truman very reluctantly was sort of drawn into taking this job.

INSKEEP: I'm having a memory of Senator Truman, who enjoyed meeting other congressional leaders for a drink, and when he became vice president, he tried to drop by, and they said, actually, you can't come here anymore. It's constitutionally inappropriate.

DRUMMOND: Yes. Yes, it was a different time.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah. But what does this say about our time and Congress today?

DRUMMOND: I think the biggest legacy of the Truman Committee was Truman's invention of this model for scrutinizing giant public expenditures. And virtually every time we have a giant expense bill - $1.5 trillion for pandemic relief or whatever - we see calls from people all over the country saying, you know, we need a new Truman Committee to look into this. We should take a look at this.

INSKEEP: Has writing this book affected the way that you think about the news that you cover today?

DRUMMOND: Oh, very much so. It's - we live in a time when a lot of people have contempt for the people who serve them in Washington, and it seems that contempt is reciprocated. And the Truman Committee was a time at which people all over the country looked and they saw, here's a guy in Washington looking out for us thousands of times during the war. I've read these letters in the National Archives. They took their pen. They wrote in. They said, thank you, Senator Truman. You're doing a great job. I have a son overseas. Thanks for looking out for us. It was kind of inspiring.

INSKEEP: Steve Drummond is the author of "The Watchdog: How The Truman Committee Battled Corruption And Helped Win World War II." Thanks for coming by.

DRUMMOND: Thanks, Steve. Fun talking with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.