Sunday, December 13, 2015


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.)
The Truman PLM was the first library created under the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act, which established a system of privately built but federally maintained libraries. The dedication in 1957 was attended by previous President Herbert Hoover, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1972, funeral services for President Truman were held here before he was interred in the back courtyard, and ten years later his wife was buried by his side.

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
Truman and Benton became good friends during the painting of Independence and the Opening of the West. Truman himself even applied a few brushstrokes to this mural.

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:

We began our tour of the Truman PLM by taking a look at the reproduction of his Oval Office:
Unlike some of the PLMs, we were not allowed to sit in the President's chair or even go behind his desk for photos.
The reproduced Oval Office has the globe, the mantle, the clock, and the portrait of George Washington that are seen in the photo above. All that is lacking are the two men: 

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:
No time was wasted getting him sworn in. He took the oath of office about two hours after Roosevelt's death, using this Bible taken from the desk of a White House usher named Howell Crim. (Lesson learned, keep your scriptures handy. You'll never know when they might be needed for something important.)
In a press conference the next day, Truman told reporters: "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."

Things moved very quickly for Truman. The museum has a sobering line-up of newspapers from the next few months, beginning with these two dated April 2nd and May 12th:

This is an interesting side story from a paper dated May 2nd:

May 8th and May 26th:

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.

We moved on to the "Postwar Challenges" section of the library.

Life in the United States began to return to normal and the economy began to grow.

However, post-war Europe lay in ruins, its people defeated, its industries destroyed, its governments shaky. Unusually bad weather contributed to drought, floods, and freezing winters.
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:
Over a period of four years, the United States provided $13 billion through the Marshall Plan to rebuild the cities and economies destroyed in the war:

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.

Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, presented a Torah in a blue velvet mantel to Truman on May 25, 1948, as a symbol of Israel's gratitude for American recognition and support. A year later Weizmann sent Truman a copper and silver ark in which to place the Torah:

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:
The 1948 election was looming, and Truman was struggling with public perception of everything from his economic policies to his "unrefined and blunt" personality. Southern Democrats didn't like his support for civil rights for African-Americans, and others didn't approve of his "aggressive and provocative" policy toward the Soviet Union:

Norman Rockwell captured how divisive the issues were in his October 30, 1948, Saturday Evening Post cover entitled Family Squabble:

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:
The Truman Library has an original copy:

Why he wanted to remain President is beyond me. There were tough times ahead as the Cold War escalated:
Practicing what to do in the event of a bomb-raid was common in public schools, as was the building of fallout shelters by public and private entities. (My husband's family had an air-raid shelter in the backyard when he was growing up.)

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.
The cartoon below is entitled "Critical years and hard decisions."
In his Farewell Address on January 15th, 1953, he said, "So, as I empty the drawers of this desk, and as Mrs. Truman and I leave the White House, we have no regret. We feel we have done our best in the public service. I hope and believe we have contributed to the welfare of this Nation and to the peace of the world."

It's impossible to leave this museum without a greater appreciation for this man:

A "Flame of Freedom" presented to Truman by the American Legion burns behind the museum and can be viewed from inside as well as outside:
Other miscellaneous memorabilia are included in the rear foyer:

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:

The back courtyard is the burial site for Harry, who died in 1972, and his beloved Bess, who died in 1982. The ashes of their daughter Margaret, along with those of her husband, are also interred here:

A smaller exhibit in the basement of the museum covers basic history during the lifetime of Harry Truman.

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:



It's rare to see a rock on display--other than a moon rock. This one has an interesting history:

Information on Truman's private life is also given in this section of the library:  

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?)
Pictures of Bess and Harry's wedding are included, along with some tender love letters between the two:

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:

There were lots of full-body statues and dignified busts of this illustrious President . . .
 . . . but they didn't compare to seeing The Man himself, conversing with a visitor in the lobby:
We were in a bit of a hurry to move on to our next destination, but I'm kind of sorry we didn't stay to ask a few questions. Who knows when we will have the opportunity to converse with a resurrected former President again?

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):

David 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.


  1. Such an interesting time of history! I really do not understand why anyone would run for president. Interesting place!

    1. Nowadays a retired President makes a lot of money from speaking and book deals, but when Truman went back to civilian life, he had no money and had to sell off some family property. He wrote his memoirs just so he could have enough money to live on. A few years later Congress voted for a stipend for retired Presidents, probably because of Truman's situation.

  2. Amazing that he was for civil rights legislation - and that is before Kennedy who wasn't sure himself. We need a Truman now. Great man.

    1. To be honest, it worked in his favor. While it cost him the votes of the Southern whites, it won the African-American vote for him, which may have been the deciding factor in his re-election. But it wasn't just lip service. He signed an executive order desegregating the military in 1948 and he ended racial discrimination in federal hiring practices.

  3. I remember one of our children hearing criticism of the deicision to drop the bomb while studying history in high school. I explained that Shelley's dad had been training for invasion of mainland Japan - an invasion that might take the lives of half of those who participated. I offered my opinion that my children might not have been around to debate the issue if Truman had not made this important decision.

    1. Great point, Russ. It was a no-win decision that took real courage to make.