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Letters of a Most Uncommon Common Man
Harry Truman’s lifetime correspondence with his adored Bess opens a window on their time
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
Dearest of all to him are the three women in his life—Mamma, “for whom there is no substitute,” Margaret, his “Baby, ” and Bess, who, as he tells her time and again, is the finest, most beautiful girl in the world. He is burning with ambition chiefly to please them, to be worthy of them. “There’s no one wants to win half so badly as I do, ” he writes to Bess in 1916 when he’s looking into a Texas land speculation. “I am so crazy to make things go I can hardly stand it,” he confides later, when he’s caught up in a mining venture in Oklahoma. He had first proposed to her (by letter) in 1911, and she was still keeping him waiting. As it turned out, they weren’t married until he returned from the war in June 1919, when he was thirty-five, she a year younger. Ten years later, having at last made a name for himself in local politics, he would tell her, “I might even have been a financial success if I’d started with you sooner.” And twenty years later still, as President, he would write, “I hope to make you a happy wife and a happy mother. Did I? I don’t know. All I can say [is] I tried. There is no one in the world anyway who can look down on you or your daughter.”
It is the high-hats and the stuffed shirts of the world, those who are nearly always looking down at someone, who figure foremost among his pet dislikes. He also has little use for coffee, cigarettes, guns, California (“rich and God forsaken,” he calls it), dentists, lawyers, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe Kennedy, jaywalkers, and daylight saving time. Interestingly he doesn’t seem to care much for Franklin Roosevelt either. To Bess at least, he portrays Roosevelt as a supreme egotist, unreliable, an easy dispenser of “hooey.”
In judging himself, Truman is characteristically direct and, in sum, pleased. He has a “gift of conversation, ” he knows, and a good smile. He proves an exceptionally able officer in the war, with a marked gift for leadership, and he is as proud of that as anything he ever accomplishes. In Washington, as a senator, he can outwork just about anybody. If he has no talent for making money, then, he tells Bess, no Truman ever did.
The letters also show him to have been more softhearted and far more affected by emotional and mental strain than he let on. The Harry Truman who makes the toughest sort of decision, then goes upstairs and goes immediately to sleep, is not the man encountered here. As a county official during the Depression, he has to fire some two hundred people in a single day, at the end of which, at home alone, he vomits his supper and is sick much of the night. Later, faced by the “continual pounding” of his Senate work load, always desperately short of money, he suffers from insomnia and savage headaches.
He obviously wrote with no self-serving sense of “history” watching over his shoulder.
“I don’t expect to go into anything where I can’t say what I please when I please,” he tells Bess in 1918 contemplating his future.
“I want her to do everything,” he says later of their child, “and have everything and still learn that most people have to work to live, and I don’t want her to be high hat.”
“Politics should make a thief, a roué, and a pessimist of anyone, but I don’t believe I am any of them,” he concludes in 1933, on the eve of his first run for the Senate.
While his talk of niggers or of the Chink doctor who attends his dying father, of kikes in the Army and New York, is disturbing, it is also a sure sign that he wrote with no self-serving sense of “history” watching over his shoulder. Besides, the Chink is “more honest and trustworthy” than any doctor he knows. For his partner in his first business venture, the ill-fated Kansas City haberdashery, he chooses a Jew, his Army friend, Eddie Jacobson, and Eddie Jacobson is a “crackerjack.” As President, moved in part by Jacobson’s impassioned views, he would provide the crucial support of Israel.
Once, in 1949, as Truman was beginning his second term, the writer Jonathan Daniels, who was working on a Truman biography, came to Independence to soak up some of the local atmosphere. At one point, as he was being driven out to the Truman farm by Truman’s sister, Mary Jane, she turned to him and said, “You know, Harry isn’t any more in favor of nigger equality than I am.” But she was wrong. Harry had changed, where she and others hadn’t. He became a champion of civil rights because, as Daniels and others knew, it was a matter about which he felt strongly. The change was a measure of his growth, his underlying decency.