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Harry Truman, a president for his time and for our time

Just before Christmas, The Wall Street Journal had a piece on presidential oral histories, a relatively rare species that tends to range from revealing to self-serving.

But the story, which selected the best of the bunch, recalled a forgotten favorite of mine, “Plain Speaking,” the blunt reminiscences of an aging Harry Truman as told to the novelist and biographer Merle Miller. 

Miller wrote the book from interviews he had done for a television biography of the thirty-third president that was never produced. After all, who’d be interested in the recollections of an old man who, as president, ordered the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities and ended World War II; saved Europe from communism through the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, aid to Greece and Turkey and the Berlin airlift; supported the creation of NATO and integrated all federal agencies, including the armed forces?

So I’ve been rereading “Plain Speaking” after 40 years or so and, given recent events, I’m finding it refreshing, even rehabilitating. Even the parts that may have been more Truman’s version than history’s. The more fanciful — and often hilarious — tales came after Truman would take an afternoon break for “a small libation.”

Here was a boy whose eyesight was so poor, he turned to books, especially history and never stopped studying; a young man who failed to gain admission to West Point because of that poor vision but managed to get into the Missouri National Guard and see combat in France as captain of an artillery battery. 

Returning to Missouri to marry his childhood sweetheart, over the objections of Bess’ imperious mother, Truman ran a haberdashery in Kansas City with a member of his artillery unit until it failed in the 1922 recession. He was advised to declare bankruptcy but refused to take what he deemed a dishonorable way out and finally paid the last of his debts 12 years later, as he was running for the U.S. Senate. 

Truman got into politics to find work, serving as a county judge, which is akin to a county supervisor in Missouri. He oversaw construction of the state’s first good highways, hiring contractors based on the lowest bids, “even if they came from China,” as he told disgruntled local contractors.

Miller interviewed the former president in the Victorian home he shared with Bess and her mother during most of their married life, in the Truman Library up the road in Independence and over lunch at a nearby Howard Johnson’s. (Bess urged Harry to take Miller to lunch during one of their visits to see daughter Margaret in New York but he explained lunch at Howard Johnson’s was cheaper than at the Carlyle, where the Trumans stayed in Manhattan.)

Truman was extraordinarily patient, even during long disruptions caused by what Miller remembered as an unusually inept and sometimes boorish TV crew. (One asked Bess if she’d “run into the kitchen and get me a glass of water.”)

What emerged from more than 100 hours of interviews is the portrait of a kindly, tolerant Truman. A man of his era, descended from border-state Confederates, Truman was nevertheless an early advocate of civil rights because that’s what the Constitution taught him in school.

Miller writes of a Senate campaign speech in Sedalia, Mo., in 1940, “before an audience mostly of farmers, many of them ex-Ku Kluxers, and not a black face anywhere.” Truman spoke to his generation — and ours:

“If any class or race can be permanently set apart from, or pushed down below, the rest in political and civil rights, so may any other class or race when it shall incur the displeasure of its more powerful associates.”

When Miller declared the words spoken in that place at that time to have been “courageous,” Truman said he was only expressing the constitutional rights of everybody. “The minute you start making exceptions, you might as well not have a Constitution.” Eight years later, President Truman would integrate the armed forces, pass the first federal anti-lynching law and begin the drive for equal rights that continues to this day.

There’s so much more — the 1948 campaign that saw him defeat the highly favored Thomas Dewey and third party defectors from his Democratic Party, Henry Wallace on the far left and Strom Thurmond on the farther right; the Korean War; the controversial firing of the insubordinate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his support for the creation of Israel against the advice of the experts in the State Department.

But to Truman, an expert was sometimes “a fella who was afraid to learn anything new because then, he wouldn’t be an expert anymore” and 11 minutes after Israel became a state in May of 1948, it was recognized by the United States. 

Few men came to the presidency with lower expectations and left the office with greater achievements. 

 

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.