Authors: Margaret Truman
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography/Presidents & Heads of State
WE WERE IN the sitting room of the presidential car, the
racing across Kansas by night. The date was September 19, 1948, and my father, Harry S. Truman, was seated opposite me, reading a speech that he would make the following day in Denver. My mother sat beside me, reading a murder mystery.
It was a typical Truman family evening, unchanged by the unique circumstances surrounding it. We were hurtling into the climax of the wildest presidential campaign of the century. My father was fighting for his political life, and for something even more important - his political self-respect as a man and President. Yet the atmosphere in the
was calm, tranquil to the point of serenity.
We had left Independence, Missouri, earlier in the day, and made a whistle-stop visit to Junction City, Kansas, at 11:05 p.m. As we roared across the immense prairie of western Kansas toward the Rockies, the engineer let the throttle out all the way. Dad was scheduled to speak at noon the following day in Denver, and it was to be broadcast over a national radio hookup. Maybe someone had told the engineer to take no chances on arriving late. At any rate, from the sound of the spinning metal wheels alone, I could tell that we were traveling at an unusual speed.
Then I noticed that Dad’s eyes rose from the page he was reading, and he stared for a moment at the wall just above my head. This was very unusual. One of the most remarkable things about my father is his power of concentration. He has always been able to read a book or a memorandum with the radio or the phonograph playing, while my mother and I conducted a first-class family argument. I am convinced that the world could be coming to an end, but he would not look up until he got to the bottom of the page he was reading.
My mother went into the dining room to discuss the menus with Mitchell, the steward who ran the car. Dad let his speech fall into his lap and stared almost grimly at the wall above my head. “Take a look at that thing,” he said.
I twisted my neck, remembering that there was a speedometer up there to tell us how fast the train was going. At first I could not believe what I saw. We were hitting 105 miles an hour.
Like most twenty-four-year-olds, I considered myself indestructible, so this discovery only excited me. “Wow,” I said, and rushed to the window to stare out at the black blur of landscape whizzing by.
I glanced back at my father and saw something very close to disgust on his face. I had obviously missed his point. “Do you know what would happen if that engineer had to make a sudden stop?”
Only then did I remember that the
weighed 285,000 pounds - as much as the biggest engine on the line. It had been built for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, and its base was solid concrete, reinforced by a section of steel track embedded in it. It also carried three inches of armor plate, and the windows were bulletproof. The goal was the safety of the President of the United States. But it made for problems on the right of way.
“If he had to stop suddenly,” Dad said in the same calm, matter-of-fact voice, “we would mash those sixteen cars between us and the engine into junk.”
He heard the car door opening and quickly added, “Don’t say a word to your mother. I don’t want her to get upset.”
The person coming through turned out to be not Mother but Charlie Ross, the White House press secretary. He wanted to find out what the President thought of the latest draft of tomorrow’s major speech. The President said he thought it was fine. Then, almost casually, he said, “Charlie, send someone to tell that engineer there’s no need to get us to Denver at this rate of speed. Eighty miles an hour is good enough for me.”
This calm, quiet, but authoritative way of dealing with a situation that would have agitated an average person was typical of the man I am writing about in this book, the man who was both my father and President of the United States. In our home, he rarely raised his voice, never used profane or even harsh language, and made a point of avoiding arguments. My mother and I love to argue, and one of the great frustrations of our life as a family has been my father’s constant refusal to join us in our favorite sport. I am not, of course, claiming that Dad
lost his temper, or
used salty language when talking man to man. When the circumstances warranted it, he could match his sparks against the greatest temper-losers in White House history, including his hero, Andrew Jackson. But it was very, very seldom that he thought circumstances warranted it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, he preferred to play the calm peacemaker’s role.
Charlie Ross, who had gone through school with him from the third grade to the last year of high school, often marveled at the modesty that characterized Dad’s style in the day-to-day operations of the White House. He hated to use the buzzers on his desk to summon a man peremptorily; he preferred to go to the aide’s office. When he did summon a man, he would usually greet him at the door of the Oval Room office. More often than not, the purpose of the call was to get his opinion on one of the many problems confronting the nation. This constant consideration for others, the total lack of egotism with which Dad conducted the affairs of the White House was the real source of the enormous loyalty he generated in those around him.
To understand Harry S. Truman, it is necessary to realize the importance of humility in his thinking. To him, humility meant never blowing his own horn, never claiming credit in public for what he did or said, above all never claiming that he was better, smarter, or tougher than other people. But this
of humility never meant that Dad downgraded his worth or accomplishments in his own mind.
Let me give an example of what I mean. When Dad visited Bermuda in 1946, he was shown a Masonic Register which George Washington had purportedly signed. Some enterprising tourist had ripped out the page and made off with the autograph. The Bermudians asked Dad to sign the register, and he was happy to oblige. “I don’t suppose anyone will ever want that signature,” he wrote to his mother.
That was his humility speaking. But when the 1948 campaign was beginning, he wrote to his sister and told her that he deserved to be re-elected because most of the decisions he had made were “right.” This was the other side of his mind - that calm objectivity which included an amazing ability to stand back and look at himself, even talk about himself as if he were another person. But only in private, in the intimacy of the family circle. He would never dream of making such a statement in public.
“I only wish I could get the public to appreciate the Harry Truman I know,” Charlie Ross used to say.
In the fall of 1948, those words had special poignancy. Harry S. Truman was conducting a campaign for the presidency, which most of the nation’s political experts considered a waste of time. The Republican nominee, Thomas E. Dewey, seemed to be so far ahead that one of the nation’s leading pollsters, Elmo Roper, announced in September that further polling was a waste of time and money. Political leaders ranging from James Roosevelt in California to William O’Dwyer in New York had publicly urged the President not to run. On the left, Henry Wallace was leading the Progressive party on a platform that would hand much of the world over to Joseph Stalin & Company. On the right, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina had led the Dixiecrats out of the Democratic Party, in the hope that the South would forget who had surrendered to whom at Appomattox. The Republican candidate was so confident of victory that he barely bothered to mention my father’s name in his lofty paeans to unity. “President Truman,” said Connecticut’s Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce, “is a gone goose.”
Everyone in the world seemed to believe it except Harry S. Truman, my mother, me, a loyal little band of White House aides - and the people who came to meet our campaign train. Of that group, only Mother and I needed no convincing in advance. We had seen Harry S. Truman win too many elections after the opposition had counted him out. But in 1948, my father had to convince first his White House staff, then the Democratic Party, and finally the American people that he was going to win this election.
In many ways, the victory injection he gave the White House staff was most important. It came late in July, when they began discussing the details of the coming campaign. Dad sensed a mood of discouragement, not to say defeat, in the comments that were made. Someone even intimated that there was no chance of winning, and the best they could do was go down fighting. Dad instantly disagreed with this attitude. “We
going to win,” he said. “I expect to travel all over the country and talk at every whistle-stop. We are going to be on the road most of the time from Labor Day to the end of the campaign. It’s going to be tough on everybody, but that’s the way it’s got to be. I know I can take it. I’m only afraid that I’ll kill some of my staff - and I like you all very much, and I don’t want to do that.”
Charlie Ross, who was famous in Washington as a man who never “gilded a fact,” was fond of saying that, as far as he was concerned, the election was won that day in the Oval Room. Charlie knew that wasn’t true, of course; he was only trying to emphasize how totally the campaign of 1948 was Harry S. Truman’s personal creation.
As to where my father found this confidence in victory, part of the answer is in this letter which he wrote to his sister Mary earlier in 1948:
Dear Mary: - Just three years ago tonight at 7:09 p.m. eastern standard time I was sworn in as President. It seems an age and it has been. Two wars were in progress - one in Europe and one in Asia. We were supporting both of them with men, munitions, planes and ships. Just 26 days after that day Germany surrendered. On August 14 Japan gave up and signed the surrender document on board the Battleship Missouri on September 2, 1945.
In the meantime between the two surrenders I went to Berlin to meet Stalin and Churchill. On that trip coming home I ordered the Atomic Bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a terrible decision. But I made it. And I’d made it to save 250,000 boys from the United States and I’d make it again under similar circumstances. It stopped the Jap War.
Many decisions have had to be made - most of them of worldwide significance - many of them affecting only home affairs. They’ve almost all been right and when history is written without prejudice it will say just that. I’ve still a long way to go whether it is to Jan. 20, 1949 or to Jan. 20, 1953. And it will be a rough road. It can’t be any worse than the trail behind. So don’t worry about it.
Equally important, perhaps, my father believed he
to win. He was running because he believed the future of the United States of America literally was at stake. In a letter to his sister earlier in the year, he made this clear:
I’m rather fed up on all the fol-de-rol it takes to be President. If it were not for the world situation and my lack of confidence in the presidential candidates I’d throw the whole works out the window and go home and stay there. But I can’t run from responsibility as you know. So I have to face the music.
Europe, China, Palestine, terrible Russia and the special privilege boys here at home.
For me, personally, my father’s struggle to revivify the Democratic Party was the most moving part of the campaign. The Trumans identify profoundly with the word Democrat so it was painful for him to face the grim fact that major sections of the party, possibly a majority of the leaders, did not think he was worthy of support, after three and a half years in the White House. Yet this was precisely what seemed to be happening.
Over the July Fourth weekend, James Roosevelt, who was serving as the chairman of the California delegation to the Democratic Convention, persuaded eighteen other prominent party leaders to send a telegram to each of the 1,592 delegates to the convention, urging them to come to Philadelphia two days early for a special caucus to select “the ablest and strongest man available” as the party’s presidential candidate.
Roosevelt’s telegram did not come as a surprise. Earlier in the year, when J. Howard McGrath, the Democratic national chairman, addressed a political dinner in Los Angeles, Roosevelt carefully arranged for his followers to pack the affair and boo angrily when McGrath praised Harry Truman. Then Jimmy, to a storm of predictable applause, seized the podium and made a rousing speech on behalf of Dwight Eisenhower as the best Democratic candidate. At the same time, Jimmy’s brother Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., was working equally hard in New York to persuade the Democrats to draft Ike.
My father had reacted forcefully in response to this earlier threat. When General Eisenhower left the army in 1947, Dad had asked him bluntly if he intended to enter politics. Eisenhower had firmly and categorically said no. Dad had praised the wisdom of this decision. He pointed out how General Ulysses S. Grant had tarnished his great reputation by blundering into politics. The moment the Eisenhower boom began in 1948, Dad ordered Defense Secretary James Forrestal to call the General and advise him to make a statement that he was not available. At Forrestal’s request, Ike had called FDR Jr. and told him he was not in the running.