Harry Truman's presidency was one of the most turbulent of the 20th century and one of the most important. What was it that made this untrained and untried leader, catapulted into the highest office at one of the most critical periods in our history, a strong president? His White House years were marked by constant crises, some of his own making. He often appeared to the public as a small-minded, petty politician with little understanding of complex issues. His popular support was seldom very high and in the end was near rock bottom. But today most historians give him high marks, even listing him among the great presidents.
These letters and diary entries are often intemperate, partisan, compulsive outpourings. He himself referred to one or two of them as "spasms." He showed good judgment in relegating them to a bottom drawer; he had blown off steam and perhaps that was worth doing. None included in this volume was ever mailed. Yet they are vivid reminders of the man from Independence, and they are valuable for the historian and biographer. That would please Harry Truman, for he loved history and biography.
At 4 a.m. on May 14, 1934, he wrote in his diary that he would make "the most momentous announcement of my life" that day, to run for the United States Senate. When he was 9 or 10 years old, he added in the same entry, his mother gave him "four large books called Heroes of History. . . . I spent most of my time reading those books, Abbott's Lives and my mother's big Bible." In the 1950s, after having served as president, he recorded this thought: "Readers of good books, particularly books of biography and history, are preparing themselves for leadership. Not all readers become leaders. But all leaders must be readers. . . . No one ever loses by reading history, great literature--and even newspapers."
None of the presidents since Truman could be called a student of history, except perhaps John F. Kennedy, who read widely but certainly never as deeply as Truman. Perhaps if they had known more history they would have been better presidents. These letters and notes, mostly written at white heat, are full of historical references and Bible quotations. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the two other historian presidents of the 20th century, would have applauded.
Prof. Monte Poen, the able editor of this volume, notes that at 16 Harry "had already decided that most everything human beings experience had happened before--sometime, somewhere. His high-school theme books look like a present-day college honor student's, with world-history lecture notes neatly organized and detailed, English compositions that speak of duty, honesty, loyalty, and courage. History proved, young Truman argued in one, that the person who chooses security above risk in life exposes himself to deep trouble." Duty, honesty, loyalty, courage, even fearlessness--old-fashioned words, of course, but they describe Harry Truman and help explain his strength. He was not a speculative thinker or philosopher. He was a decisive, practical politician from populist Middle America with a spare, direct writing style. He never beats around the bush in these letters, never tries to be diplomatic or ingratiating. He always goes straight to the point and without apology.
Although Truman did not mail any of these letters, either because an aide urged him not to do so or because he had second thoughts, he must have spent considerable time on them. He did, of course, send out other vitriolic letters, similar to the abusive letter he wrote to Washington Post music critic Paul Hume, who had criticized daughter Margaret's singing. He apparently never forgave Hume, for included here is a letter to Post publisher Philip L. Graham complaining of a Hume review of a piano concert Truman had enjoyed and Hume had criticized. The president asked why Graham had not fired Hume.
Truman's relations with working newspapermen were excellent. Yet he hated many of their publishers, particularly Hearst, McCormick, Scripps-Howard, Pulitzer and Gannett. He said that if Joseph Pulitzer was in heaven, "I want to go to hell." "Many a great and talented scribbler has sold his soul to these purveyors of 'Character Assassination,' " he wrote. "The old Moslem assassins of Mesopotamia have a much better chance of a considered 'judgment' in the end, than have these paid mental whores of the controller of our so-called 'free press.' "
Two of the most violent letters are to Adlai Stevenson, who, knowing Truman's unpopularity, tried to distance himself from the president in the 1952 campaign. Truman was furious. He wrote that Stevenson seemed to be running against the Democratic president instead of against the Republicans. "I'm telling you to take your crackpots, your high socialites with their noses in the air, run your campaign and win if you can," Truman wrote from the White House. And a few days later: "I have come to the conclusion that you are embarrassed by having the President of the United States in your corner in this campaign. . . . Since the convention you have treated the President as a liability." The letters were never mailed and Truman calmed down and campaigned hard for Stevenson.
But there was disappointment again in 1956, when Stevenson was renominated, and in 1960, when John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination. Truman wrote to Dean Acheson that he was "blue as indigo" since Kennedy, whom he described as "this immature boy," won the nomination. Truman was a small "d" Democrat, and he did not think that Kennedy's father was. He was incensed two years later when he read that Kennedy as president went to a dinner that guests paid $1,000 to attend. "When the Party of the People goes high hat on a cost basis, it no longer represents the common every day man--who is the basis of the Democratic Party," he wrote. He was true to his principles to end.