At the end of the movie ‘Truman’, my husband and I agreed, “We must visit his library.” Recently we visited Independence, MO. the hometown of former President Harry Truman. We learned he claimed he read all the books in the library. As an adult he read five newspapers daily and read history and biographies prolifically. He spoke like the farm child he was – earthy and to the point. His reading and experiences directed his controversial decisions.
He saw the results of the severe disciplinary decisions against Germany after World War I. As president he laid the groundwork for lasting peace with the Marshal Plan to restore Europe and Japan. After WWII, returning African-American veterans were attacked. One veteran suffered a severe beating that blinded him. Truman took the one step he could to reduce racial tension: he integrated the military. As president at the end of WWII, Truman received reports about the Jewish holocaust. The day Israel declared itself a sovereign nation, he recognized it, even if it meant trouble with oil-rich Arabic nations. As a WWI veteran, Truman understood the military served under the president. As president, he pulled General MacArthur out of Korea when the general flaunted his commands as the nation’s commander-in-chief.
Due to his controversial decisions the democratic party split during the 1948 election. Lacking the full party’s support did not deter Truman. He campaigned extensively. Election night he listened to newscasts predicting he would lose. At 4 a.m. the Secret Service woke him to say he had won the electoral college. His popularity did not improve during the next four years. He left office with the lowest ranking in popularity of any president then and for decades afterwards.
His tenacity in the face of constant rejection began decades before when he courted Bess Wallace who rejected his initial marriage proposal. He called on her every week for nine years. Before he entered WWI as a 33 year-old, she finally agreed to marry him when he returned.
The brigade in France did not expect their new Captain Truman to last two weeks. Instead, he won their respect and lifelong friendship. No one died in battle under his leadership.
Truman considered himself an ordinary citizen who happened to become president. The guide at his home said, “His grandson did not know Harry had been president. He came home from first grade to ask his mother if it was true that his grandfather was president. She said, ‘Yes, he was. That just shows that anyone’s grandfather can become president.’”
After leaving the White House, Truman refused to demean the office and profit from his former position. He supervised the building of his library. He went to the finished library every day to work in his office and often told guests, “I’m the man.”
As we drove around Independence, we followed large signs marking the streets of Harry’s daily walk. We enjoyed a sundae in the Clinton Soda Shop where Harry had his first job as a soda jerk and bought Harry’s favorite orange flavored Polly’s Pop – a locally manufactured soda.
Bess and Harry never owned a home. They lived with her family and inherited a house from Bess’s mother who never approved of Truman. Our guide said, “At every dinner she sat at one end of the table and Truman at the other end. Perhaps they learned diplomacy.” His wife felt uncomfortable in the public eye and returned often to Independence and her mother.
We came, we saw and we returned eager to read more about the man who knew the reality of the sentence he popularized, “the buck stops here.”