On this trip to the Midwest, Bob and I visited three Presidential Library and Museum (PLM) sites, bringing our total to eleven of the thirteen official sites. (We still need to visit Gerald Ford's in Michigan and Teddy Roosevelt's in New York.)
A mural by Thomas Hart Benton covers 495 square feet of the lobby walls, its swirling clouds, rolling landscape, and busy figures almost jumping off the surface:
|Detail of area above the door|
|Detail of left panel below main painting|
|Detail of right panel below main painting|
For more about the friendship between Benton and Truman, see this article in The Kansas City Star newspaper. For more about the painting, visit the museum website. Excellent information is also provided onsite:
Truman became the 33rd President upon the surprise death of Franklin Roosevelt on April 12th, 1945, just twelve weeks into his fourth term as President. Imagine stepping into those shoes during what was one of the most difficult periods in all of American history:
This is an interesting side story from a paper dated May 2nd:
June 21st and June 26th:
July 17th-August 2nd (Potsdam Conference) and August 6th (Atomic bomb hits Hiroshima):
August 8th (Soviet Union enters the War against Japan) and August 14th (Japan surrenders):
It is hard to imagine the pressure that was on Truman during the intense four months these headlines cover.
Poverty, hunger, and homelessness were serious issues:
Meanwhile, the US and its Western European allies were experiencing increasing tension with the Soviet Union, whose armies occupied must of Eastern Europe. Hostility and conflicting plans for post-war recovery cast a dark cloud over the long-awaited peace. The Cold War had begun.
In April 1947 the US responded to Soviet aggression by sending food, clothing, and money to war-torn Europe:
The Soviets responded by blockading access to West Berlin, hoping to force the US and its allies to give up on the city. However, on June 24, 1948, Truman started a year-long series of air drops of supplies that kept West Berlin alive until the Soviets lifted the blockade and pulled out:
But it wasn't just European problems Truman was trying to resolve. On May 15, 1948, the establishment of the state of Israel was announced. President Truman, against the advice of his closest advisers, was the first world leader to officially recognize the new nation.
As if wading through the muck of foreign policy weren't enough, there were plenty of issues at home, including the growing struggle for civil rights, something Truman supported very strongly:
Seemingly unfazed by public and media outbursts, Truman remained ever confident of his victory as he, Bess, and their only child, Margaret, continued on the campaign trail:
Against all odds, Truman was re-elected. This is one of the most well-known photos in American history:
Why he wanted to remain President is beyond me. There were tough times ahead as the Cold War escalated:
Many Americans became convinced that spies infiltrated every aspect of American life, and an atmosphere of fear and suspicion grew:
Then, just a year and a half into Truman's second term, the Korean War began:
Signage in the museum reads, "Power and insecurity, plenty and want, generosity and prejudice--America in 1952 [at the end of Truman's term] embodied all these contradictions. This complex picture was captured in the diverse pages of Life magazine, which chronicled life in the United Sates at the dawn of what some were calling 'The American Century.'"
I loved this Life magazine wall. If we had a few more hours to spend at the museum, I could have spent them reading these magazine stories:
After two successful terms, Truman retired to Independence to write his memoirs. His popularity had plummeted during his second term, due in part to the war in Korea. Few would have predicted that he would some day be considered one of our greatest Presidents.
It's impossible to leave this museum without a greater appreciation for this man:
|We visited this home in Key West, Florida, in February 2013|
One of the unique features in the museum is a notebook that encourage visitors to write about these questions: "In what ways do you think Truman's decisions touch your life today? What do you think about the view of Truman presented in this exhibition? Is it too critical? Not critical enough? Too flattering, or too rough? Is there something important that was left out?" This is another place where I could have spent an additional hour:
This 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan Limousine was used by the White House during part of Truman's Presidency:
There is a big section devoted to propaganda, one of my special interests. I use photos like these to convince my students that the Nazis weren't the only ones who mastered the art of propaganda during World War II:
Truman was a gifted pianist as a boy, and for some time he considered becoming a professional musician. His life took a different course, but he never gave up his piano playing nor his love for music, both classical and popular. He probably remains the most musical of all our Presidents. Shortly after Bess agreed to marry him, he took her to the musical The Girl from Utah. (A great title, don't you think?)
Truman's political career started in 1922 and is outlined in the museum, including his somewhat scandalous connection to "Boss" T. J. Pendergast, who pretty much got him into the Senate because he pretty much controlled county politics for about 15 years.
Truman was the Vice President for FDR's fourth term in office, and he served only 84 days, doing little that prepared him for the Presidency. In many ways, he was just a figurehead, which makes his performance as President that much more remarkable:
I had totally forgotten that there was an assassination attempt during Truman's second term, but that is also covered in the museum:
As with every Presidential Library and Museum we have visited, we came away from this one with increased respect for the heavy weight of the office, the difficult decisions that had to be made, and the character of the man who bore that weight and made those decisions.
If you have more time than we did, you might want to take a tour of Truman's home at 219 North Delaware Street in Independence. This is where Harry and Bess lived during their entire marriage (other than the years in Washington, D.C., of course):
READINGDavid McCullough's Truman won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1993 and is still considered the best biography of our 33rd President. I listened to it on cassette tape about twenty years ago, but now, after having visited Truman-land, it's back on my "to read" list. At 1120 pages, it is a hefty commitment (and a lengthy listen at 54 hours), but how could it be otherwise, given the complexities of this man's life and his impact on United States history? McCullough has tremendous respect and admiration of Truman, and by the end of the book, you will too.