WHEN HE TOOK OFFICE on the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945, Harry Truman was viewed by most Americans as a man out of his depth in world affairs. When he left office in January 1953, the Korean War was dragging on to an inconclusive finish and the Republican ticket of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon was swept in after a campaign in which GOP orators attacked his administration's record of "Korea, communism and corruption." But Truman lived to see historians rate his presidency as one of the most successful of the 20th century. Now a new volume drawn from Truman's unpublished presidential papers has been compiled by Indiana University historian Robert H. Ferrell and is about to published by Harper & Row as "Off the Record -- The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman." The following excerpts are drawn from this book.
A memorandum dated June 7, 1945, two months after Truman became president:
You know Americans are funny birds. They are always sticking their noses into somebody's business, which isn't any of theirs.
We send missionaries and political propagandists to China, Turkey, India and everywhere to tell those people how to live. Most of 'em know as much or more than we do. Russia won't let 'em in. But when Russia puts out propaganda to help our parlor pinks -- well, that's bad, so we think. There is not any difference between the two aproaches except one is "my" approach and the other is "yours." Just a "mote and beam" affair.
The United States was created by the boys and girls who couldn't get along at home. So-called Puritans who weren't by any manner of means pure came to Massachusetts to try out their own witchburning theories. Roger Williams couldn't stand 'em any better than they could stand England under the Stuarts.
Most every colony on the East Coast was founded for about the same reason by folks who couldn't get along at home. But by amalgamation we've made a very good country and a great nation with a reasonably good government. I want to maintain it and shall do all I can in spite of the hyphenates and crackpots.
I've no more use for Polish-Americans, Irish-Americans, Swedish-Americans or any other sort of hyphenate than I have for Communist-Americans. They all have some other loyalty than the one they should have. Maybe the old melting pot will take care of it. I hope so.
A month later, Truman went to his first major international conference, joining Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill at Potsdam, Germany, to negotiate the future of the postwar world. This is how Truman recorded his first meeting with Stalin in his diary: Potsdam, July 17, 1945
Just spent a couple of hours with Stalin. Joe Davies [U.S. ambassador to Moscow] called on Ivan Maisky [Soviet ambassador to Washington] and made the date last night for noon today. Promptly a few minutes before 12 I looked up from the desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway . . . After the usual polite remarks we got down to business. I told Stalin that I am no diplomat but usually said yes and no to questions after hearing all the arguments. It pleased him.
I asked him if he had the agenda for the meeting. He said he had and that he had some more questions to present. I told him to fire away. He did and it is dynamite -- but I have some dynamite too that I'm not exploding now. He wants to fire Franco, to which I wouldn't object, and divide up the Italian colonies and other mandates, some no doubt that the British have. Then he got on the Chinese situation, told us what agreements had been reached and what was in abeyance. Most of the big points are settled. He'll be in the Jap War on Aug. 15. Fini Japs when that comes about. We had lunch, talked socially, put on a real show of drinking toasts to everyone, then had pictures made in the backyard. I can deal with Stalin. He is honest -- but smart as hell.
By the time of the Korean War, Truman's view of Stalin and the Russians was vastly different, as seen in this entry from his diary: May 18, 1952
The conferences on the Korean Armistice are propaganda sounding boards for the Commies.
Charge them with murdering our soldiers and civilians who are prisoners of war against every rule of the Geneva Convention. Charge them with kidnapping children in South Korea just as they are doing in Berlin and as they did in Greece. Thousands of German children have been deported in the last seven years and have never been heard from. Some 1,500 Greek children were taken from their homes and their parents while the Commies occupied northern Greece. Where are these Korean, German and Greek children? Have they been murdered? We believe they have. g
What has happened to the 1 million German prisoners the Soviets hold or have they also been murdered as the Poles were murdered at Katyn?
Where are the million Japs who surrendered to the Russians? Are they murdered or are they in slave labor camps?
How many South Korean and Allied prisoners have you shot without cause? You claim you hold only 12,000 prisoners. Where are the other thousands of civilians and soldiers you carried off From South Korea?
If you signed an agreement, it wouldn't be worth the paper it is written on.
You've broken every agreement you made at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam. You have no morals or honor. Your whole program at this conference has been based on lies and propaganda.
Now do you want to end hostilties in Korea or do you want China and Siberia destroyed? You may have one or the other, whichever you want. These lies of yours at this conference have gone far enough. You either accept our fair and just proposal or you will be completely destroyed.
Read Confucius on morals to them. Read Buddha's code to them. Read the Declaration of Independence to them. Read the French declaration of liberty and fraternity. Read the Bill of Rights to them. Read the 5th, 6th, and 7th chapters of St. Matthew to them. Read St. John's prophecy on anti-Christ and have your own intrepreter do it.
You've enough real truth here to last you a month. Be sure the world press is briefed on every meeting where you follow these instructions.
After he left office, Truman wrote this previously unpublished memorandum: April 24, 1954
I have often thought of the situation when the Chinese marched into Korea in late 1950. Gen. [douglas] MacArthur had assured me at Wake Island a month or two before the "volunteers" came over the Yalu that it wouldn't happen. Apparently, his information service was not what it should have been. High-ranking military men usually surround themselves with trained "yes men" so they may hear how good and great the commander is and how well his guesses afterward turn to facts.
The great general was not the same man he was at Wake after the Chinese came from the north. He began writing letters to Republican congressman and giving interviews to such sheets as Dave Lawrence [editor of U.S. News & World Report] published in Washington. He even went so far as to crib the two main paragraphs from a message I had expected to send to Mao at Peking, and use them himself as an ultimatum to the Chinese-North Korean commander in the field.
After he was relieved, he spent some time discussing the fact that the president of the United States and the commander in chief would not allow him to carry on a war in Manchuria. Gen. Mark Clark in his book "From the Danube to the Yalu" implies that the "police action" in Korea could have been a victorious "war" in the Far East if he and his predecessors had been given a free hand to bomb Manchuria.
These able field generals see only the front they work to hold and win. The commander in chief must see not only Asia and the Pacific Ocean, he must see Europe, Africa, the whole Southern Hemisphere, the Arctic and the Antarctic.
Now suppose, for speculative reasons, the commander in chief had yeilded to his locally minded and in most cases locally misinformed field generals. What would have happened? The generals say that a few bombs on airfields in Manchuria would have caused a Korean victory to the Yalu.
To have been effective Peking, Shanghai, Canton, Mukden, Dairen, Vladivostok and Central Siberia at Ulan-Ude on Lake Baikal would have had to be destroyed. It would have been a unilateral action by the U.S.A.
On the European side of the Soviet empire, the Russians would have marched to the North Sea and the channel. We have six divisions of our own and about that many of our allies to oppose them. They had over 4 million men in their ground forces. They could not have been stopped.
On the east, we would have wiped out those great Chinese cities and have killed some 25 million innocent women, children and noncombatants.
We'd have had World War III on our hands and no allies. All Central Europe and perhaps Turkey, Greece, Italy and North Africa with the great Near East oilfields would have been under Russian control.
In the first place, I could not bring myself to order the slaughter of 25 million noncombatants. In 1945 I had ordered the A-bomb dropped on Japan at two places devoted almost exclusively to war production. We were at war. We were trying to end it in order to save the lives of our soldiers and sailors. The new bomb was a powerful new weapon of war. In my opinion it had to be used to end the unnecessary slaughter on both sides. It was an entirely different situation from Korea. We stopped the war and saved thousands of casualties on both sides.
In Korea we were fighting a police action with 16 allied nations to support the World Organization that had set up the Republic of Korea. We had held the Chinese after defeating the North Koreans and whipping the Russian Air Force.
I just could not make the order for a third world war. I know I was right.
Truman started off on warm terms with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, but their relations cooled rapidly after Ike entered politics as a Republican. This was Truman's diary entry describing their first meeting after the 1952 elections: Nov. 20, 1952
The president-elect came to see me day before yesterday, Nov. 18, '52. When he came into the president's office he had a chip on his shoulder. Only one photographer was allowed to take pictures in the office. He made three exposures. Two were good, one looked grim. The grim one was used by The New York Times and one or two other Ike papers. The two good ones were used by some of the metropolitan dailies.
The press is still in a bad fix. Only attacks on the administration will sell papers. When Ike has to take unjustified attacks by his fair-weather friends I wonder what effect it will have.
I told him when he came into the presidential office that all I had in mind is an orderly turnover for him . . . I offered to leave the pictures of Hidalgo, the Mexican liberator, given to me for the presidential office, San Martin, given to me by the Argentine government, and Bolivar, given to me by the Venezuelan government, in the president's office. I was informed, very curtly, that I'd do well to take them with me -- that the governments of these countries would no doubt, give the new president the same pictures! Then I gave him the world globe that he used in World War II which he had given me at Frankfort when I went to Potsdam. He accepted that -- not very graciously. . . .
Truman's feelings for Eisenhower never warmed, but they glowed beside his scorn for Richard M. Nixon.
At a 90th birthday party for John Nance Garner in Texas in 1958, Truman said the former vice president was the greatest presiding officer the Senate ever had, including himself and "the squirrel head who presently occupies the post."
Truman received the following telegram next day from W. L. Harriman of Detroit: "Your insults regarding vice president have great magical effect. May transform Republican elephant into squirrel head but may also prove Democratic donkey to be the same old ass . . ."
In response, Truman wrote out a draft telegram of his own:
Your nice wire was appreciated. Non was received when Squirrel Head Nixon called the former president a traitor. Did you wire [Sen. William] Jenner of Indiana when he called Gen. George C. Marshall a traitor with the approval of Wisconsin's [Sen. Joseph R.] McCarthy?
Old-line Republicans love character assassins. They are not assets to free government. Character assassins cannot be insulted. If you love them vote the Republican ticket.
Truman did not support John F. Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, though he later lauded JFK as president. On Aug. 26, in a reference to Kennedy's book, "Profiles in Courage," Truman wrote to his former secretary of state, Dean Acheson:
I'm afraid that this immature boy who was responsible for picking out five great senators may not know any more about the presidency that he will occupy than he did about the great senators. Only one, Henry Clay, belonged in the list. I sent him a list of a dozen or so but it wasn't used. So, what the hell, you and I will take it and not like it but hope for the future.