I’ve got the usual suspects on my list of favorite presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But whenever I mention that my number one favorite is Harry Truman, everyone does a double-take and asks, “You like the dude that dropped the atom bomb?”. Yes, that dude. Truman seems to be well-known for blowing Hiroshima and Nagasaki to smithereens, but they forget that had FDR lived, it would had been his action instead. It is a sad state of affairs when Truman is only known for making that still hotly-contested decision.
May 8th is Harry S Truman’s birthday, and in honor of this special date I will share with you all why we should give our 33rd president a second look.
1. He meant what he said and said what he meant. Unlike his predecessor who liked to pit people against each other and often left people mistakenly thinking that he agreed with them, Truman never left any ambiguity about how felt about a subject. One would never see him backtrack on what he said by saying that it was “taken out of context” and “it’s not what he meant”. He was known for speaking plainly and meaning every word. He was so much like this that when he began doing speeches, he couldn’t follow the speech. He was much better conveying the information in his own way and speaking off the cuff.
2. He was not in the pocket of special interests. As a Jackson County judge, he worked tirelessly to get the roads in his county fixed. The Jackson constituents were a pretty stingy bunch and most likely would not vote for the funds to make the project possible. Truman made his case, won the funds, and then hired the most qualified and least expensive contractors to do the work. He bypassed the contractors who normally did that kind of work because they were slow and overcharged. His project was finished early and under budget. When he went from being a Jackson County judge to being elected senator, he had the support of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City, a political machine that was known for being very corrupt. Truman never fell into their party line, nor did he follow any of their directives. His goal was to serve the people of Missouri to the best of his ability. As senator, he began the Truman Committee to investigate all of the companies making supplies for WWII to make sure they were not price gouging. He personally visited every factory, and as a result, saved the government millions of dollars.
3. He would not allow himself to be bullied. He didn’t earn his nickname “Give ’em hell, Harry” for nothing. In 1922 Truman, for who knows why, almost signed up for KKK membership to receive their backing and because it was “good politics”. Once he learned that he could not hire Catholics, he refused to join. He was in charge of battery in France made up of primarily Catholics in WWI, and wouldn’t go against them because some group wanted him to.
4. He was a common man who understood the difficulties of the common man. Harry Truman did not have to wear jeans, roll up his shirtsleeves, and unbutton the top button to try and prove to everyone that he, too, could be a common man. Truman, impeccably dressed in a crisp suit, tie, and Panama hat, spoke the layman’s language because it was his life. He grew up on a farm; his family lost their money so he couldn’t go to college; he worked at a bank to make something of himself; returned to the farm when his father needed help; and opened a haberdashery shop that went under. He spent the majority of his life in debt, and was in debt when he became president. When people told him their woes, he knew what they meant and could speak to them using nuts and bolts language instead of lofty rhetoric. When he did his Whistle-stop Campaign in ’48 to beat Dewey, people came out in droves to see him. He spoke specifically about the issues facing that stop and could talk to people on a human level. Dewey could not condescend to do as much, and I believe this difference is why Truman was the upset in that election.
5. He was always the underdog who came out on top. A common theme in Truman’s life was to be underestimated. His wife Bess’s mother never thought he was good enough for her daughter even after he became president, but he had set his sights on her when he was five and from then on she was the only woman for him. He was a devoted husband and doting father. When he served in WWI in Italy, he was named commander of a rough and tumble Irish battalion known for scaring away commanders. They made a bet he wouldn’t last two weeks, but through his bravery in battle and his hard-nosedness, he won their respect and devotion. When he became senator no one took him seriously because he came out of the Pendergast machine, but after a couple of years, he won their respect, too. When FDR died, the biggest question going around was “Who-man?” The general public knew nothing about him, and he had to fill giant shoes. He had a war still on, a bomb he’d never heard of until two weeks after he became president, Churchill and Stalin to meet, and Germany and Japan to contend with. He rose to the occasion. But even with that, everyone doubted that he could win a second term on his own. He did.
6. He made hard, unpopular decisions, but he made them. Truman thought that when a decision was needed, a decision should be made. Dropping the bomb, starting the policy of containment with the start of the Korean War, and supporting the formation of Israel are all controversial decisions. On the flip side, he also desegregated the armed forces by executive order and didn’t play around with steel factories when they wanted to strike during the war.
7. He refused to make money off of the presidency. Truman was still hurting for money after the presidency, and he received many offers from companies who would “hire” him and pay him oodles of cash. He refused by saying that his name wasn’t for sale, but he did sign a book deal for his memoirs. The expenses required for his memoirs ($135,000 for staff, office, mailing) was greater than what he made a year ($37,000), and finally Congress instituted a presidential pension of $25,000. Truman had had to sell some land to keep afloat.
8. He was an avid reader and scholar of history. Truman read history voraciously and his goal was to learn from it. He constantly referred to decisions made by former presidents and other world leaders to guide him in his own decision making process. For a man who lacked a college education, he had a thorough command of the presidency, the Constitution, and the role of government in everyday life (how many of our current politicians can say the same?). He read to learn, not to make quick sound-bites full of errors. He took the past as it was and did not try to manipulate it for his own gains. He saw his role as president as part of a long tradition that needed to be maintained.
9. He was loyal. One of my favorite anecdotes was when one of his co-senators was going to have a luncheon that turned out to be on the same day some prince was going to visit DC and also have a luncheon. Truman’s pal was concerned about whether or not he would be there; Truman said that yes, he’d been invited to the prince’s lunch, but had let them know that he already had plans. He knew how to shape his priorities.
There you have it. The purpose of this list is not to espouse his politics, but for people to see what kind of man he was. If only many of today’s politicians, whether at the city, state, or nation, could live up to such a man.
Sources and recommended reading:
Affection and Trust: The Personal Correspondence of Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson, 1953-1971. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.
Algeo, Matthew. Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009. Print.
McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Print.
Truman, Margaret. Harry S. Truman. New York: Avon Books, 1972. Print.
Truman, Margaret Ed. Where The Buck Stops: The Personal and Private Writings of Harry S. Truman. New York: Warner Books, 1989. Print.