The elder statesman sets the record straight on JFK, LBJ, Stalin, the bomb, Charles de Gaulle, Douglas MacArthur—and, most of all, the American Presidency
I can still see Harry and Bess Truman coming toward us across the crowded terminal of the Kansas City airport on that night in 1970, their eighty-six-year-old faces pinched and almost grim with concern. Then they saw their daughter, Margaret, walking safely beside me, and their worries vanished. Their smiles transformed them.
Introductions were swiftly accomplished. The Trumans already knew who I was and why I was there—to help Margaret on the research for her father’s biography.
Within the hour we were ensconced in a small library in the broad-porched three-story white Victorian house on North Delaware Street in Independence where Mrs. Truman had spent much of her girlhood.
Truman insisted we had to christen Margaret’s literary venture with some bourbon and branch water, and I found myself with a rather dark brown glass in my hand. Truman gazed at me for a moment through his thick glasses and said: “Young man, there’s one more thing I need to know about you. Have you always been a Democrat?”
There was a twinkle in his eyes, but I sensed he was not entirely joking. Fortunately I was brought up in the bosom of the Democratic party, in a town famous for its ferocious politics—Jersey City. In our front hall, where many Irish-Americans displayed a print of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, my father hung a framed portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Mr. President,” I replied, “as far as I know, no one in the family has ever voted anything but a straight ticket.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear!” Truman said, and all but knocked the glass out of my hand with a resounding clink. So began eight of the most remarkable days of my life.
Margaret and I spent our mornings and afternoons at the presidential library, plowing through the Truman papers. We had lunch and dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Truman each day and usually spent an extra hour or two after dinner, chatting in their tiny library. Although Truman declined a formal interview—he said that at eighty-six his memory was no longer reliable—we wanted to get his crystallized opinions on such big topics as Stalin, Roosevelt, the decision to drop the atomic bomb, the break with the Russians, the firing of General MacArthur.
But the topic that absorbed him most—the one he discussed with a passion amazing for a man his age—was the Presidency. He believed the American Presidency was the greatest office ever created by thinking men, and the key to his judgment of every President was the condition in which he left it. Party was irrelevant here. For Truman, the great Presidents were Washington, Jefferson, Polk (with whom he had a distant kinship), Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, and HST’s sentimental favorite, Woodrow Wilson.
All these men shared a common trait. They had strengthened the office—Washington by his forthright assumption of the control of foreign policy and his stern separation of the powers of the Presidency from the tentacles of Congress; Jefferson by his purchase of the Louisiana Territory, according to “strict constructionists” an unconstitutional act; Polk for annexing Texas and defending the decision in a victorious war; Lincoln for making the office the pivot on which the future of the nation swung; Cleveland for resisting what Truman regarded as the worst thing that could happen to the United States, congressional government. He did not mention reading Woodrow Wilson’s book of that title, which brilliantly dissects this particular political disease; Truman seemed to have absorbed the idea by a kind of political osmosis.
Truman did not have a high collective opinion of senators and representatives. He recognized their constitutional role, of course, and he admired many individual congressmen, such as Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, but he deplored their tendency to encroach on the powers of the Presidency. His bête noire was William FuIbright of Arkansas, who suggested, when the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in the 1946 midterm elections, that Truman appoint Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (the Republican majority leader) Secretary of State and then resign so the Republican majority in Congress could also run the executive branch of the government. “Fulbright proved that you didn’t need brains to be a Rhodes scholar,” Truman said.
He recalled his first days in the U.S. Senate, when he regarded everyone around him with awe. Then one friendly solon told him: “Harry, for the first six months you’ll wonder how you got here. For the rest of your term you’ll wonder how the rest of them got here!” He was, Truman said with a grin, “one hundred percent right.”
Truman was particularly irked by the “professional liberal,” whom he distinguished from “real liberals” like himself. Professional liberals lived by slogans and saw American politics as an ideological war, which Truman considered alien to the genius of the Democratic party. In his lifetime the party was a sort of political melting pot in which conservative Southerners and moderate border-state men like Truman found common ground with Eastern liberals. “Professional liberals are too arrogant to compromise,” Truman said. “In my experience they were also very unpleasant people on a personal level. Behind their slogans about saving the world and sharing the wealth with the common man lurked a nasty hunger for power. They’d double-cross their own mothers to get it or keep it.”
Truman’s collective opinion of reporters was also not very high. Their favorite game was second-guessing the President, which is “awfully easy to do.” Adjusting his glasses firmly to let me know he was not speaking lightly, Truman said, “Any six-year-old’s hindsight is worth a President’s foresight, you know.”
Woodrow Wilson, the austere intellectual from Princeton, would seem to be an odd favorite President for a man of the people like Harry S. Truman. But it was Wilson who had fired young Harry Truman with a desire to participate in World War I—a decision that changed his life.
With deep admiration in his voice, Truman recalled the way Wilson had aroused America’s idealism. “I’ve always wished I had the ability to do that,” he said. Talking about Wilson led almost naturally to the hardest question I asked Truman that week—his opinion of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was silent for a full minute, gathering his thoughts. “He was the coldest man I ever met,” he finally said. “He didn’t give a damn personally for me or you or anyone else in the world as far as I could see. But he was a great President. He brought this country into the twentieth century.”
That last sentence prompted a scathing commentary on the naked capitalism that had ruled the country before FDR created Social Security, unemployment insurance, and myriad other New Deal programs to soften the impact of hard times on ordinary people. I could hear the populist rhetoric of Truman’s agrarian youth in his use of the term Wall Street as a synonym for greed and brutal selfinterest.
Having paid FDR this tribute, Truman admitted he found it hard to forgive his predecessor’s refusal to brief his Vice President on any of the great issues confronting the nation in the final months of Roosevelt’s life: the agreements struck at Yalta with Stalin, the creation of the United Nations- and the program to build the atomic bomb. Mrs. Truman was far more vehement about this; she made it clear she regarded Roosevelt’s isolation of Truman, and his concealment of his own precarious health, a serious dereliction of duty.
Truman said he had first realized how frail FDR was when he met the President for lunch at the White House during the 1944 campaign. “His skin was the color of old newspaper. His hand shook so badly he couldn’t get the sugar in his coffee. He talked like a phonograph record played at the wrong speed.”
I gradually became aware that Mrs. Truman’s animosity toward Roosevelt had even deeper roots. When her husband ran for re-election to the Senate in 1940, he was probably the most loyal New Deal Democrat in Congress. Yet the President declined to support him because of his association with Boss Tom Pendergast. Mrs. Truman was, in her quiet way, a ferocious partisan politician. She never forgot or forgave Roosevelt’s ingratitude.
Simultaneously I discovered that a man who could claim his whole family had always voted the straight ticket immediately rose to the status of the favorite son in Mrs. Truman’s eyes. On my second or third day in Independence, she asked me how I was getting from my motel to the library each morning. (Margaret, of course, slept in her girlhood bedroom.) I casually replied that the Secret Service sent a man to pick me up. “I don’t want you dependent on them ,” Mrs. Truman said. “From now on you can use my car.”
This evoked a cry of outrage from Margaret. “She won’t let me drive that car!”
For the rest of our stay, I drove Mrs. Truman’s aged automobile—I think it was a Dodge—around Independence. It made for some interesting moments at busy intersections. For the first few days, when traffic policemen saw me coming, they would stop cars in all directions and wave me through, then gaze in chagrin when they realized Bess Truman was not behind the wheel. Powerless to explain to them that I was being granted this privilege because of my ancestral Democratic credentials, I’d lower my head and keep going.
For the first few nights I hesitated to ask about the atomic bomb; even the question had the hint of accusation in it. But it finally had to be raised. To my relief Truman was completely unruffled. He said from the day he had made the decision, he had never lost five minutes’ sleep over it. He had saved the lives of a half-million American men who would have died invading Japan.
Truman was intrigued to discover he was talking to one of the potential casualties. I had been in the U.S. Navy when the bomb exploded, assigned to the amphibious corps and slated to begin training for the invasion in a few weeks. No one aboard the USS Topeka, which would have been what sailors called “kamikaze bait,” had any regrets about Truman’s decision.
I asked if there was anything to the rumors that the bomb had been dropped to intimidate the Russians. Truman dismissed the idea with a contemptuous wave of his hand and launched into a vigorous discussion of his attempts to “get along with Uncle Joe Stalin and his crowd.” Personally he had no problems with Stalin when they met at Potsdam. But he soon learned that the Communists were “simply liars.”
“They broke agreement after agreement,” Truman said. “We had to put a gun to their heads to get them out of northern Iran. Then came the stunt they tried to pull in Berlin, starving us out. That was when I realized we were dealing with enemies, not friends.
“That was when I decided we had to meet the situation. I put some of my best people to work on an assessment of what we were facing. They concluded we were engaged in a struggle that might last decades. It wasn’t easy to change course. There were still millions of Americans who couldn’t or wouldn’t stop believing the Russians were our friends. That’s the hardest part of a President’s job. Making a decision that angers or disappoints a lot of honest people.”
Truman was talking about the evolution of the policy of containment, and the historic programs and decisions that flowed from it—the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, and the revamping of the American government that created the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense.
Our discussion of Korea was inevitably shadowed by the war in Vietnam, which was on its way to being lost—or not won, depending on your point of view. Truman took us back to that precarious June of 1950, when North Korea’s Russian-equipped army smashed southward. “Reports poured in from our embassies in Europe telling us if we let Stalin get away with it, the game was as good as over,” Truman said. “We had to draw that line, much as I hated the idea of getting involved in my third war.”
That led us to Truman’s decision to set limits on the war—which produced his famous clash with General MacArthur, who “wanted to invade China and turn it into World War III.” Truman insisted that he had done everything in his power to avoid the climactic moment, when he relieved MacArthur for insubordination. “When General Marshall read the record, he told me I should have done it a year earlier.”
On another evening we had an interesting discussion of Truman’s successors. He was no longer angry at Ike for his deceptive behavior before he sought the White House (as General Eisenhower he concealed his political opinions and let Truman twice offer him the Democratic nomination), but during the 1952 campaign he failed to defend George Marshall against Sen. Joe McCarthy’s smear tactics, and Truman thought this abandonment of the man who had made Eisenhower the Supreme Commander in Europe was a low-water mark in American politics.
Before Ike’s death in 1969 the two former Presidents had achieved a somewhat precarious revival of their friendship, but Truman declined to rate Eisenhower as even a mediocre President: he had not tried to lead the country on such great issues as desegregation and McCarthyism. He seemed to prefer the role of dutiful servant of Congress—and that was anathema to Truman.
For John F. Kennedy, Truman had only regretful observations, though he could not restrain a dig at his father, Joe Kennedy. “I was never afraid of Jack as President. I was worried about his pa,” he said, explaining his reluctance to endorse Kennedy. As for JFK, Truman shook his head over the Bay of Pigs and Berlin Wall fiascos and said he had “learned fast.” But it was “hard on the country” to have put up with that kind of on-the-job training. After several visits to the White House, Truman had come to like JFK personally and deeply regretted his violent death. But when it came to passing judgment on his Presidency, it was clear Truman felt there was too much style and not enough substance.
Lyndon Johnson’s name sparked a very different emotion. “I’ve never been so disappointed with any politician in my life as I am with Lyndon,” Truman said. “I thought sure he was going to be one of the great ones. But in his five years in office he did more to weaken the Presidency than any man in this century.” It was Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War that provoked Truman’s bitterest comments- above all, his decision not to run for a second term in 1968.
“He should have done exactly what Lincoln did in 1864. The circumstances were almost identical. The country was sick of the Civil War. There were politicians and newspaper quacks like Horace Greeley calling for premature peace. Lincoln made his election a referendum on the war. When he won, the South folded up. I’m convinced North Vietnam would have done the same thing.”
Harry Truman clearly liked Johnson. He regretted being forced to pass such a judgment on him, even in private. But in the cold-eyed world of former Presidents, he had failed a crucial test. He had damaged the Presidency.
Truman had only one epitaph for his fellow Democrat: “No guts!”
Now we came to a really tough question. I asked Truman what he thought of President Nixon. His eyes flashed fire. “He called me a Communist, you know.”
I said I knew that. There was another long silence. Suddenly a sly grin crept across the lined face. Truman was no longer thinking of Richard Nixon, the Republican party’s hatchet man for almost two decades. He was thinking about the Nixon who had been in the White House more than two years. “Every so often the fellow hits a boomer,” he said. “And no one gives him any credit for it!”
Here, even more than in Lyndon Johnson’s case, was proof of the power of the presidential club. Within its select confines, even antipathy as deep as that which Harry Truman felt for Richard Nixon became irrelevant. What counted was performance.
Truman didn’t live to see the damage Nixon did the Presidency in the Watergate scandal. But he was already deeply concerned by the turmoil that was wracking the country, and one night, venting a pessimism he never voiced publicly, he said: “I’m glad I’m not my grandchildren. The problems they are going to face in this country are far worse than anything I saw at their age.”
On our fifth or sixth day in Independence, General de Gaulle died. When Margaret heard the news, she called me at my motel and suggested it might be best to skip the general as a topic at lunch the following day. “This means Dad’s the last of the World War II leaders, and Mother and I are a little worried about how that might affect him,” she said. I naturally agreed to say nothing.
The next day we arrived for lunch and sat down for an accustomed drink in the library. On a folding table in front of Truman’s chair lay the day’s papers, which had huge headlines about de Gaulle’s demise. The previous night Truman had spoken with animation about the foreign statesman he most admired, Winston Churchill. But today he seemed somewhat subdued; I began to think de Gaulle’s death was indeed troubling him.
Mrs. Truman finished her drink and went out to the kitchen to find out about lunch. Margaret followed her, asking if there was anything she could do to help. Truman and I were alone. His eyes immediately went to the headlines. As if he were continuing our conversation of the previous night, he said, “As for that son of a bitch, someone should have shot him twenty years ago!”
Like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, de Gaulle was guilty of what Truman called “grandstanding.” Again, the emotion was linked to the Presidency. Truman believed no political or military leader should identify himself with his office.
“Whenever I acted as President Truman,” he told me one night, “I expected to be treated with respect—not because Harry Truman deserved it but because the Presidency deserved it.”
When I saw Truman in 1970, he and his Presidency were in a sort of historical limbo. Little had been written about him in more than a decade, and in academe many were blaming him for starting the Cold War.
Today, with communism in collapse all over the world, it is far more evident that the policy of containment Truman initiated against the Soviet empire was the most potent political decision of the last fifty years. The thriving free economies of Europe and Asia are the products of his devotion to freedom and democracy.
On our last day together Truman summed up his Presidency. “When I was on the campaign trail in 1948, I saw a tombstone in Arizona that read: ‘Here lies Joe Doakes. He done his damnedest.’ That was the way I did the job. I’m going to let the historians decide how I came out.”