In the classic “oral biography” of Harry Truman, many of the President’s most trenchant words may simply have been invented
The story as Harry S. Truman told it was pretty good, even for that eminent storyteller. He was having a taping session with two friends, William Hillman and David Noyes, and his yet very active mind—he was seventy-seven in 1961—went back to 1944, when he was running for the Vice Presidency. In that antediluvian year he remembered being at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, and “who should be in the suite but old man Kennedy,” Joseph P. Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy. Truman was with Bob Hannegan, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Bob was hitting up old Joe for some money for the campaign in which Roosevelt was running for a fourth term. Joe was not being cooperative. “And he commenced throwing rocks at Roosevelt, saying that he had caused the murder of his own son by bringing on a war.” Joe meant Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., blown up with his bomber on a dangerous mission. “I stood it as long as I could,” said Harry Truman, “and I said, ‘If you say another word about Roosevelt, I’m going to throw you out that window.’”
Then the former President told Hillman and Noyes, “But be very careful about use of that because his son is President of the U.S. and he should be the grand boy.”
It’s a good story and can stand by itself. But a third auditor at the taping, and distinctly a minor figure in the recording of Harry Truman’s thoughts, a writer for a proposed television series that was never aired, Merle Miller, later went off with the tapes and arranged a quite different story. In 1974, after Truman’s death, and with knowledge that it is not possible to libel the dead, Miller published his own version in a best seller entitled Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman . Truman, according to Miller, was in Boston in the Ritz-Carlton, and “who should be in his [Hannegan’s] suite but old man Kennedy, the father of the boy that’s in the White House now? Old man Kennedy started throwing rocks at Roosevelt, saying he’d caused the war and so on. And then he said, ‘Harry, what the hell are you doing campaigning for that crippled son of a bitch that killed my son Joe?’ I’d stood it just as long as I could. . . .”
So it went, in the writing of Plain Speaking . Would-be readers of Truman’s words received Miller’s words.
The result for Miller was sales of half a million copies in hardcover, well over a million in paperback, a book widely regarded as a classic and that is still in print. The result for Truman was that the former President has ever afterward appeared as a bull in the American political china shop. For years thereafter, whenever he was talked about, the American public, and many scholars too, quoted him out of Miller’s book.
Miller made notable additions, beyond simple rewritings. For one thing, he was addicted to profanity. There was a marked insertion of what reviewers described delightedly as Trumanisms but which in truth were Miller’s profanities. That the President could use “cusswords” was beyond question. But Truman in the great bulk of his speaking and writing was not a profane man. A believing Baptist, he never would have taken the Lord’s name in vain. If he used an expletive, it would have to do for a considerable time; he was fully aware of shock effect. The crudeness with which Miller introduced especially one three-letter word should have made the book unbelievable. In this regard one recalls the surprise and dismay with which Truman’s longtime private secretary, Rose A. Conway, once attended a performance of Samuel Gallu’s Give ‘em Hell, Harry . Miss Conway afterward asked the Kansas City television reporter Randall Jessee, himself a close friend of Truman’s, “Did you ever hear the President say such things, Randall? Did he ever talk like that?” Jessee agreed that he did not.
But to continue with Plain Speaking , another evidence of false speaking was the plethora of references to the President’s drinking. The President, Miller wrote, would step out of taping sessions for what the author cutely suggested were “small libations.” Mr. Truman, according to Miller, said his wife did not like this sort of thing, but of course a President is hardly under control of his wife and, Truman related, he continued to take nips. When he and Miller went for lunch to the nearby Howard Johnson’s restaurant, at the bottom of the small hill on which stands the Truman Library (some of the taping sessions were held in the library in Independence, others in New York), “we would always have two or three before setting out, and they were never slight, although they were libational.” But all these references were unlikely, and they should have been warning signs. It was well known that President Truman could nurse a single drink for an entire evening, that all his talk about bourbon and branch water was a part of senatorial, even presidential, bonhomie. Truman was hardly a drinker of any sort. As for the Howard Johnson’s story, it is difficult to take seriously. When the President first went back to Independence after his retirement in 1953 and was driving into Kansas City each day to the Federal Reserve Bank Building, where he had a suite of offices, waiting for the library to be built, he tried once or twice to have lunch in an ordinary restaurant, but matters immediately became impossible as autograph seekers swarmed around him.
Much more serious distortions came from including in the book material that was not on the tapes in any form. The tapes recently became available in the Truman Library, and it is possible to check.
What is not on the tapes looms large in the book. A chapter on Israel has no basis in them; the same holds for the next chapter, on Herbert Hoover; and for the chapter after that about a flying trip to Mexico in 1947.
Beyond question that book’s worst misrepresentations pertained to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, about whom the tapes say almost nothing. The book is full of hostile Truman commentaries on Eisenhower.
For many readers the most notable passage in Plain Speaking was the recital of an aspect of the much-talked-about friendship between Eisenhower and Kay Summersby, his World War II driver-secretary, the pretty Irishwoman who after the war published two reminiscences, Eisenhower Was My Boss , a straightforward account of wartime duties, and Past Forgetting , a salacious book, with graphic detail of an affair. According to Truman in Plain Speaking , Eisenhower informed Gen. George C. Marshall that he intended to divorce Mamie Eisenhower and marry Kay Summersby. Marshall, Truman allegedly told Miller, wrote back to Eisenhower that he should not do it and promised that if he did, he, Marshall, would drive him out of the Army and presumably make any postwar political career impossible.
Other than what Miller averred was on the tapes, there was almost no corroborating evidence for the tale. The only person who supported it was Truman’s former military aide Maj. Gen. Harry H. Vaughan, who may have been Miller’s source. “General Eisenhower asked General Marshall if he thought a divorce would hurt his military career,” he said in an Associated Press interview after Miller’s book came out. “Marshall told him it certainly would, and would be a very stupid thing to do.” According to Vaughan the letters wound up in Pentagon files. When some years later Ike was running for President, rumor of the letters leaked out, Vaughan said, and supporters of Eisenhower’s opponent for the Republican nomination, Sen. Robert A. Taft, wanted to get hold of the letters and publish them; Truman, who was then President, interceded and returned the letters to Marshall. Vaughan said he could personally confirm the existence of the letters because “I saw them.” When a reporter inquired about the letters at the Marshall Library, in Lexington, Virginia, an assistant archivist said there was no letter from Eisenhower to Marshall discussing the divorce of his wife. The Eisenhower-Marshall correspondence, the archivist said, was only one archival box among the three hundred in the library. General Marshall’s biographer Forrest Pogue told one of the present writers years ago that there was nothing on this subject in the Marshall Library.
In the Miller tapes in the Truman Library there is no Truman conversation, nothing, about Kay Summersby.
The tapes do not support the book’s text—not by any means. Miller’s claim that he and Truman went to lunch at Howard Johnson’s and that he picked up information that way is unbelievable. He also claimed that during videotaping sessions there was a great deal of time wasted while “waiting for somebody to change the film in a camera or do something or other to one of the tape machines.” But it would not have sufficed to allow Miller to hear the President say the many, many things that are not on the tapes.
Anyone who has read Plain Speaking may wonder if Truman in his voluminous unpublished papers now in the Truman Library, which include all his correspondence after the Presidency, ever expressed himself about his (as Miller claimed himself to be) “oral biographer.” Actually he did. After the television program failed, Miller disappeared from the scene, writing an occasional letter to the President in 1961-62, one of them from Spain. On two of these letters Truman wrote, “File.” Then, suddenly, in 1963 Miller sent Truman the draft of an article, enclosing a letter relating that he had sold the story to The Saturday Evening Post and “I do hope that you will like it.” Someone, probably Truman, for it sounds like him, composed a letter in response: “I thank you for sending me the article which you proposed for The Saturday Evening Post . I am not in favor of such articles, especially this one which has so many misstatements of fact in it. I am sorry that that is the case and if you publish it I shall make that statement public.”
But the proposed reply quickly turned into something else, for the former President engaged a law firm and threatened to sue, forcing Miller to withdraw the article.
After Truman died, Miller published his book.