He was an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
He came from modest Midwest roots, loved music and books, and adored his future wife Bess Wallace from the first day he saw her in Sunday school when he was six years old and she was five.
He was also a failure at multiple endeavors and businesses, plus he had to overcome a somewhat tainted political pedigree as part of the Pendergast machine in and around Kansas City, Missouri.
He was Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, from Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945 (when Truman was Vice President) to 1953.
Understanding Truman’s roots and perspectives means understanding his Midwest origins and the town he loved – Independence, Missouri. You can start by going into the building on the town square where he worked as a boy. It was Clinton’s drugstore and soda fountain then, and is still Clinton’s Soda Fountain eatery today.
This particular Clinton’s has been in business since 1988, and other merchants and retailers have occupied the space since Truman worked there, but it’s fun to imagine the future President cleaning the floor here in the late 1890’s.
Wrote Harry in a 1941 letter to his daughter Margaret, which is framed and hanging in the back of the shop,
“I can remember the first $3.00 I received for working a week – seven days from seven o’clock until school time and from four o’clock until ten at night, all day Saturday and Sunday. I had to wipe off bottles, mop the floor every morning, make ice cream for sodas, and wait on the customers…. That three silver dollars looked like three million and meant a lot more.”
I’m not sure that the sundae they call “Harry’s Favorite” really WAS his favorite, but it’s okay to have a little “willing suspension of disbelief” and order one.
If you’d like to visit and tour the white Queen Anne style Truman home a few blocks away at 219 North Delaware Street, or the Truman Farm, get tickets at the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site visitor center which is half a block from the soda fountain, in a 1928 former fire station.
Only eight people at a time can tour the home, and they were sold out during the only time we had to go, so if you’re interested, get there early.
There is a short film you can watch at the Historic Site visitors center, plus a little memorabilia and photos of the home’s upstairs rooms, which are off limits to the public.
Truman used to take walks around town, wearing a jaunty hat and a cane (that is why you’ll see red and blue signs with that silhouette everywhere.) Follow in his footsteps by picking up the Truman Historic Walking Trail brochure to get an in-depth stroll around town; there are plaques at almost all of the stops.
Make sure to take plenty of time to explore the Truman Presidential Library and Museum, about a mile from the downtown square.
It is part of my family’s lore that my goldfish “Goldie” met its demise in the parking lot here during a cross-country move when I was a child. We came out from the museum to find it floating, um, sideways in its container. Whatever I saw in the museum that day did not stick with me into adulthood.
The front entrance foyer has a giant colorful mural about American westward migration, painted by Missouri native Thomas Hart Benton, one of my favorite artists. Truman himself did a few strokes of blue sky in the upper right corner when he dropped by one day as Benton was working.
It is sobering to stand in the museum’s re-created White House Oval Office, decorated as it was in 1950 during Truman’s presidency.
There are a number of personal touches, like an ear of corn in Lucite on top of a vintage console TV set, and historic airplane prints everywhere. I never knew that Truman was such a flying enthusiast.
The museum walks you through Truman’s tumultuous first four months as President right after Roosevelt died – the war against Germany came to an end, the United Nations Charter was signed, the Potsdam Conference took place, Japan was firebombed in an effort to force surrender, then the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then finally Japanese surrender and the end of the war in the Pacific.
All that in four months, after the traumatic death of the man who had been President for twelve years and who had basically ignored Truman and only met with him twice (!!) after Roosevelt’s final Inauguration. Imagine the nation’s eyes turning to this unknown man….a short, bespectacled, plain spoken Vice President, now elevated to the Presidency, who some derisively called nothing more than a “failed haberdasher.”
That first four months was closely followed by shifting to a peacetime economy, the Berlin Airlift, the launch of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the formation of NATO, the controversy around Israel’s founding, and in 1948 Truman’s dramatic decision to desegregate the U.S. military.
After a detailed look at his campaign for reelection and the “whistlestop” train tour, you’ll find one of the famous newspapers that prematurely printed incorrect election results in Truman’s race against Republican Thomas E. Dewey.
The Korean War, which continues to affect us to this day, has a display that struck me.
It is an angry note from the father of George Banning who was killed in Korea, opening with, “As you have been directly responsible for the loss of our son’s life in Korea…” and ends with, “Our major regret at this time is that your daughter [Margaret] was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.”
Meaning, Mr. Banning told Mr. Truman that he wished Margaret Truman was dead, too.
The Purple Heart and note were found after Truman died in 1972, in his personal office desk there at the Library.
In addition to dramatic geopolitical events, the Library devotes a lot of space to details of Truman’s family life, including voluminous correspondence with his beloved wife Bess.
I was touched by his list of one-line summaries of what was going on every year on their wedding anniversary (they married in 1919.)
Look at the very top – “Broke and in a bad way” followed by “Eastern Judge. Eating” meaning he’d gotten a job as a judge and they were finally surviving a bit. Good times came and went for many years, based on this list.
There is also a special exhibit about Truman’s wartime service in Europe with the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI.
He served bravely under fire, and you can learn a lot about his thoughts on leadership and wartime through his letters back home to Bess.
When the war was over, before he and his men were sent home, Truman took the opportunity to spend 24 hours in Marseilles and 24 hours in Paris, where he….
“….dined at Maxim’s, went to the Folies Bergeres, saw Notre Dame, Napoleon’s Tomb, the Madeleine….I rode around in a taxi all afternoon from one end of the [Champs Elysees] to the other….”
He was never a man to waste an opportunity.
When his Presidency was over, he quite happily returned as best he could to being plain Mr. Truman in Independence, taking his daily walks, reading his five newspapers, and enjoying his family.
An ordinary man in extraordinary times.
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