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Eight Days With Harry Truman
The elder statesman sets the record straight on JFK, LBJ, Stalin, the bomb, Charles de Gaulle, Douglas MacArthur—and, most of all, the American Presidency
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
Truman was particularly irked by the “professional liberal,” whom he distinguished from “real liberals” like himself. Professional liberals lived by slogans and saw American politics as an ideological war, which Truman considered alien to the genius of the Democratic party. In his lifetime the party was a sort of political melting pot in which conservative Southerners and moderate border-state men like Truman found common ground with Eastern liberals. “Professional liberals are too arrogant to compromise,” Truman said. “In my experience they were also very unpleasant people on a personal level. Behind their slogans about saving the world and sharing the wealth with the common man lurked a nasty hunger for power. They’d double-cross their own mothers to get it or keep it.”
Truman’s collective opinion of reporters was also not very high. Their favorite game was second-guessing the President, which is “awfully easy to do.” Adjusting his glasses firmly to let me know he was not speaking lightly, Truman said, “Any six-year-old’s hindsight is worth a President’s foresight, you know.”
Woodrow Wilson, the austere intellectual from Princeton, would seem to be an odd favorite President for a man of the people like Harry S. Truman. But it was Wilson who had fired young Harry Truman with a desire to participate in World War I—a decision that changed his life.
With deep admiration in his voice, Truman recalled the way Wilson had aroused America’s idealism. “I’ve always wished I had the ability to do that,” he said. Talking about Wilson led almost naturally to the hardest question I asked Truman that week—his opinion of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was silent for a full minute, gathering his thoughts. “He was the coldest man I ever met,” he finally said. “He didn’t give a damn personally for me or you or anyone else in the world as far as I could see. But he was a great President. He brought this country into the twentieth century.”
That last sentence prompted a scathing commentary on the naked capitalism that had ruled the country before FDR created Social Security, unemployment insurance, and myriad other New Deal programs to soften the impact of hard times on ordinary people. I could hear the populist rhetoric of Truman’s agrarian youth in his use of the term Wall Street as a synonym for greed and brutal selfinterest.
Having paid FDR this tribute, Truman admitted he found it hard to forgive his predecessor’s refusal to brief his Vice President on any of the great issues confronting the nation in the final months of Roosevelt’s life: the agreements struck at Yalta with Stalin, the creation of the United Nations- and the program to build the atomic bomb. Mrs. Truman was far more vehement about this; she made it clear she regarded Roosevelt’s isolation of Truman, and his concealment of his own precarious health, a serious dereliction of duty.
Truman said he had first realized how frail FDR was when he met the President for lunch at the White House during the 1944 campaign. “His skin was the color of old newspaper. His hand shook so badly he couldn’t get the sugar in his coffee. He talked like a phonograph record played at the wrong speed.”
I gradually became aware that Mrs. Truman’s animosity toward Roosevelt had even deeper roots. When her husband ran for re-election to the Senate in 1940, he was probably the most loyal New Deal Democrat in Congress. Yet the President declined to support him because of his association with Boss Tom Pendergast. Mrs. Truman was, in her quiet way, a ferocious partisan politician. She never forgot or forgave Roosevelt’s ingratitude.
Simultaneously I discovered that a man who could claim his whole family had always voted the straight ticket immediately rose to the status of the favorite son in Mrs. Truman’s eyes. On my second or third day in Independence, she asked me how I was getting from my motel to the library each morning. (Margaret, of course, slept in her girlhood bedroom.) I casually replied that the Secret Service sent a man to pick me up. “I don’t want you dependent on them ,” Mrs. Truman said. “From now on you can use my car.”
This evoked a cry of outrage from Margaret. “She won’t let me drive that car!”
For the rest of our stay, I drove Mrs. Truman’s aged automobile—I think it was a Dodge—around Independence. It made for some interesting moments at busy intersections. For the first few days, when traffic policemen saw me coming, they would stop cars in all directions and wave me through, then gaze in chagrin when they realized Bess Truman was not behind the wheel. Powerless to explain to them that I was being granted this privilege because of my ancestral Democratic credentials, I’d lower my head and keep going.
For the first few nights I hesitated to ask about the atomic bomb; even the question had the hint of accusation in it. But it finally had to be raised. To my relief Truman was completely unruffled. He said from the day he had made the decision, he had never lost five minutes’ sleep over it. He had saved the lives of a half-million American men who would have died invading Japan.