Prologue Magazine

Harry Truman’s History Lessons

Spring 2009, vol. 41, no. 1

By Samuel W. Rushay, Jr.


"My debt to history is one which cannot be calculated. I know of no other motivation which so accounts for my awakening interest as a young lad in the principles of leadership and government."

–Memoirs by Harry S. Truman, vol. I (1955)



Throughout his long life, Harry S. Truman thought, wrote, and spoke about history. For Truman, history had a meaning that went beyond a casual interest. It provided him ethical and moral guidance and was a tool that he used to make decisions, most notably as President of the United States during his two terms of office, 1945­–1953. As a student of Truman has put it, Truman "internalized" history and looked to the past almost reflexively whenever a problem or issue arose.

Harry Truman’s interest in history is well documented. But what has not been examined comprehensively are the lessons that Truman learned from history: those he learned in school, those he learned in life, and those he drew upon to make decisions during his political career, especially as President.

The Education of Harry Truman

Harry Truman’s lifelong love of history began at an early age. As a boy, his poor eyesight limited his ability to play sports or enjoy many outdoor activities, so he spent much of his time reading.

A grade school and high school classmate of his at Independence High School, Henry Chiles, recalled seeing "Harry go home many a time with two or three books on weekends, and I guess by Monday he had them all read. The rest of us just read Jesse James, these little paperback books."

Truman, he said, "read more history than anybody. He was a great historian." On one occasion, Chiles recalled an argument among the children about the Dalton Gang: "Harry came in—we got the history mixed up ourselves—but Harry came in and straightened it out, just who were the Dalton brothers and how many got killed. Things like that the boys had a lot of respect for; they didn't call him sissy."

Truman himself made a similar point—he admitted that wearing glasses could give a boy an "inferiority complex," which made one lonely and necessitated being "intellectually above" the name-callers. But having proved oneself smarter than others, one had to "be careful not to lord it over those that you’ve defeated" in the classroom.

In 1894, at age 10, his mother presented him with a four-volume set of books by Charles F. Horne, Great Men and Famous Women, which contained biographies of people such as Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert E. Lee. He found that reading history was "solid instruction and wise teaching which I somehow felt that I wanted and needed." At about the same time, Truman’s mother gave him a "blackboard on the back of which was a column of about four or five paragraphs on every President up to that time, which included Grover Cleveland, and that’s where I got interested in the history of the country." A prolific reader as a youth, Truman later claimed to have read every volume—at least 2,000 books—in the Independence Library, including encyclopedias, by the age of 14.

Independence, MO, High School library, ca. 1904

Independence High School library, ca. 1904. Seated at the desk is school librarian Carrie Wallace, future First Lady Bess Wallace's first cousin. From 1898 to 1908, this facility also served as the Independence Public Library. Truman claims he read every book in this library by the time he was 14. (Truman Library)

In grade school and high school, Truman was a good student, but not an exceptional one. He received no awards or honors upon graduating from high school. Harry’s high school grades in history are not known; his report cards did not survive.

But one can gain a good idea of his rigorous and wide-ranging instruction in history from the names of his courses, which included ancient and Roman history (year one), medieval history and the Reformation era (year two), English history (year three), and American history and civics (year four). The American history segment itself heavily emphasized early American history: the colonial period, the development of the Constitution, the rise of political parties, sectionalism, and the "New Republic," or early republic period. One also gains a good idea of the kind of student Harry was from his Latin and math teacher, Mrs. W.L.C. Palmer, who recalled that "I knew Harry would amount to something . . . but I never thought he would be President and Bess the First Lady." By comparison, Truman’s classmate, Charles Ross, who would become Truman’s press secretary, was "brilliant," in Mrs. Palmer’s estimation.

Harry Truman had dreams of going to college, where he hoped to study law and finance. But his family’s financial difficulties forced him to go to work instead. His early jobs included working as a railroad timekeeper, in the mailroom of the Kansas City Star, and as a bank clerk in Kansas City.

For the next 20 years, young Harry acquired a variety of experiences, including being a farmer and a soldier. During World War I Captain Harry carried his sense of history with him overseas. A member of his unit was impressed by Truman’s knowledge of French history, and he recalled that while in the city of Orleans, Truman insisted that they look at the city’s cathedral and the bronze statue of Joan of Arc in the square.

After the war, Harry returned to Missouri and opened a men’s clothing store, a haberdashery, in Kansas City. Shortly after the store failed in 1922, Truman attended the Kansas City School of Law for two years, but he did not earn a degree.

Aside from formal schooling, Truman was surrounded by the history of his region, western Missouri. The Civil War, in particular, left an enduring residue in the border region between Missouri and Kansas, where a brutal border war had raged beginning in 1856, five years before the war began in the rest of the United States. Truman’s grandparents had been Confederate sympathizers. Truman recalled as a boy seeing Confederate veterans walking the streets of Independence. In his opinion, these men on both sides were only trying to protect their property during the Civil War.

Truman applied the lessons he learned from history in his 30 years of public service. The events of his momentous seven and a half years in office have been exhaustively documented. What is less appreciated is how often President Truman looked to history for guidance in reaching such wide-ranging decisions as the establishment of the United Nations, the ending of World War II, the economy, the renovation of the White House, civil rights, the recognition of Israel, the Korean War, and the seizure of the steel mills during the Korean War. In making those decisions and others, President Truman drew upon his reading and understanding of history. History was not the only factor involved in Harry Truman’s thought process, of course; other factors had greater or lesser influence upon him depending on the issue. But the role of history certainly was never far from President Truman’s mind in most instances.

In my analysis of Harry Truman’s tremendously rich documentary written and spoken record, I conclude that he learned the following lessons from history:

Lesson 1: Democracy is Fragile

Harry Truman’s reading of history demonstrated for him the fragile and temporal nature of democratic government. After he left the presidency in 1953, he envisioned a presidential library that would be "a center for the study of the Presidency." The Truman Library was to be an educational institution that would teach young people about the uniqueness of the American republic. In 1959 he wrote to Stanley Whiteway, a resident of Pennsylvania and a donor to the library, that if young people "do not understand and appreciate what they have it will go the way of the Judges of Isreal [sic], the city states of Greece, the great Roman Republic and the Dutch Republic."

The American form of government was not to be taken for granted, Truman wrote. It had been obtained, he reminded Mr. Whiteway, by "blood, sweat, and tears," including the Civil War years, when we spent "four bloody years whipping ourselves to make the Constitution work. And we are still at it, trying to make it work!"

Truman had an expansive view of presidential powers under the Constitution. In transcripts of recordings for an unpublished history of the United States, Truman reflected on other Presidents who had expanded presidential powers during an emergency. Lincoln "stretched the Constitution until it cracked. . . . We all had to stretch the Constitution when the time came to do it." Truman’s rather breath-taking assertion reflected his belief that all Presidents had been honorable men, whether one liked them or not. It did not occur to Truman that a President could be corrupt.

Truman was fascinated with the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers, whose own study of the history of Greece and other nations had led them to form a republican form of government that was able to avoid the fate of other republics in history: the turn toward dictatorship as a result of corrupt leadership. "How did [the Founders] ever come to do this?" he pondered. And the Constitution had only been amended 22 times, with two bad amendments—Prohibition and the two-term limitation of a President’s term.

Although the 22nd Amendment, which imposed a two-term limit upon the President, did not apply to Truman, he disliked it for constitutional reasons. He often referred to the Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to explain and defend the new Constitution. In Truman’s view, a President should be permitted to be elected to as many terms as the people wished. The source of his view was contained in Federalist Number 72, in which Hamilton defended reelections for reasons that included the need for experienced men during emergencies of the kind that faced the United States during the Great Depression and World War II, when the nation elected Franklin Roosevelt to four consecutive terms.

Lesson 2: Democratic government has a moral basis

Public service defined good leadership as well as good citizenship. Truman found in history the central lesson of good citizenship: service to others. Familiar with George Washington’s thoughts on the subject of public service, Truman told members of the Reserve Officers Association that "every man who lives under a government that is controlled by the people owes that government certain service. Not only does he owe that service in a military way, if it becomes necessary, but he owes service to his government as a civilian." Whether at the national, state or local level, one should "serve the United States Government in whatever capacity he is fitted to serve it."

Truman found in the Bible the moral core of the American system of government. In March 1952 he told the convention of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association that:

  • The fundamental basis of this Nation’s ideals was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The fundamental basis of the Bill of Rights of our Constitution comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus, St. Matthew, Isaiah, and St. Paul. The Sermon on the Mount gives us a way of life, and maybe some day men will understand it as the real way of life. The basis of all great moral codes is "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Treat others as you would like to be treated.

Some of you may think that such a philosophy as that has no place in politics and government. But it is the only philosophy on which you can base a lasting government. Governments built on that philosophy are built on a rock, and will not fail.

Truman’s early reading and Masonic studies made him well acquainted with the Bible. "I owe a great deal of my familiarity with the bible to my Masonic studies—and to the fact that I read it through twice before I was twelve years old." In 1911, Truman organized a Masonic Lodge in Grandview, Missouri, and he eventually became a 33rd degree Mason, the highest order attained by a President of the United States.

Lesson 3: Find leadership qualities to emulate and to avoid

Truman’s reading focused on biography, which provided for him keys to leadership. In a 1934 autobiographical manuscript written while he was presiding judge of Jackson County (an administrative, not a judicial post), Truman observed that great men’s first victories were won "over themselves and their carnal urges. Self-discipline with all of them came first." Among those leaders he admired were the Roman general Cincinnatus, the Carthaginian general Hannibal, the Persian leader Cyrus the Great, George Washington, and Robert E. Lee. He noted that "a lot of heroes were made by being in at death or defeat of one of the really great," an interesting comment given his own fate of succeeding a great man, Franklin Roosevelt, 11 years later.

He was not fond of men such as Alexander the Great or Napoleon. "I could never admire a man whose only interest is himself." Furthermore, leaders had to lead, not follow public whim. Leadership of the kind that Jesus, Moses, and Martin Luther offered was based on right and wrong, not on polls or opinion of the moment.

In his writings about U.S. and world history, Harry Truman revealed a deep suspicion of demagogues, many of whom were military leaders. In July 1953, he reflected on the popularity of ancient Greek and Roman rulers. In Greece, Alcibiades was a popular leader but was a "first class demagogue and rounder" whom the people loved "because he was no good!" By contrast, Athenians did not appreciate the "honorable" Aristides, whom they banished "because they were tired of hearing him called the just."

In Rome, Cincinnatus was a model leader for Truman. Cincinnatus, like George Washington centuries later, "knew when and how to lay down his great powers." Cato the Younger displayed another value of an ideal leader: he was an honest administrator of the Roman republic’s finances.

Truman distrusted military leaders as chief executives in a republic. The temperament and training of a military leader puts him in "blinders just as a horse does," meaning a viewpoint that is parochial and not national. The great leaders of the Roman republic were not generals. When the generals took over, the empire resulted.

Being a general, however, did not in itself disqualify one from being a great civilian leader. Marcus Aurelius was a great and "wise" leader, a philosopher, and a good administrator. He had the welfare of the people in mind. Truman saw in Gen. George Marshall the same quality of putting the nation’s interests first. "He was looking after the welfare of the country." Public service is what distinguished men such as Aristides, Cincinnatus, Cato, Marcus Aurelius, and Washington from men such as Alcibiades and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom Truman derisively referred to as "Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat . . . a play actor and bunco man."

Truman had Cincinnatus and Washington very much in mind when he wrote an April 16, 1950, memorandum stating that he would not run for a third term in 1952. "There is a lure in power," he observed, and when a leader in a republic does not step down voluntarily "we start down the road to dictatorship and ruin."

Throughout his long life, Truman emphasized the importance of learning history for young people who aspired to leadership. In the early 1960s, in one of a series of interviews that later formed the basis for author and novelist Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking (1973), Harry Truman told Miller that "[a]ny youngster who starts out for a career in the Senate or the House, who will spend a little time reading the history of what’s before, if he has an objective in view, can find out how to do it. And that’s history." Reading also provided for Truman insights into people: "The only reason you read books is to get a better sense into people that you’re talking to."

Lesson 4: Recognize internal and external threats to democracy

In addition to shaping Harry Truman’s views of democracy, citizenship, and leadership, history helped him understand the challenges to the democratic form of government. Truman was not sanguine about communism and the threat it posed to democracy. He was just as anticommunist as his Republican opponents. But his understanding of history provided him with a wider perspective on communism, whose assault on democracy was, in the words of historian Elizabeth L. Edwards (Spalding), the "current form of a timeless struggle on earth" between the forces of tyranny and freedom. Plutarch’s Lives gave him the insight that "It was the same with those old birds in Greece and Rome as it is now. . . . The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know."

Truman also was aware of the threat that demagogues and bigotry posed. Bigots and vocal minorities such as the Ku Klux Klan caused trouble because they wanted direct action and did not understand the representative nature of American government. But Truman had faith in the fundamental goodness of the American people, who knew what was right and what was wrong, and they wanted to do right. As Truman told Miller, "Common sense usually overcomes the whole thing and it’ll come around alright. . . . All demagogues get their come-uppance before they get through."

And despite the guidance he found in history, there were limits to his understanding. On occasion, Truman’s uses of history limited his perspective and negatively affected his policy making. Truman avoided the isolationism of the 1920s and the appeasement of the 1930s in his determination to contain Soviet expansionism and avoid a third world war. But in seeing almost every post­–World War II conflict in terms of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, he tended to overlook or minimize the importance of other factors leading to war and unrest, principally nationalism and anticolonialism, especially in Southeast Asia and Palestine, both areas whose problems would plague the United States for decades to come.

As for demagogues, Truman a bit too casually dismissed the damage done to innocent people before demagogues were put in their place. He also saw no need for institutional reforms to prevent the rise of future demagogues—the Constitution and the innate goodness of the American people were enough.

Lesson 5: Do not trust historians

Confident in his own knowledge of history, President Truman served as his own historian and evidently never sought the counsel of a professional historian. Truman had no "court historian" in his administration, unlike President John Kennedy, who had Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and President Lyndon Johnson, who had Eric Goldman. This was a curious attitude given his deep interest in history and his lack of a college education and professional training in the subject. It also was an exception to his willingness to solicit and accept advice in almost every other field in which he was not an expert.

Merle Miller with Benedict Zobrist and Milton Perry

Author Merle Miller (center) with Benedict Zobrist, Truman Library director (left), and Milton Perry, Truman Library curator, at the library on October 30, 1974. (Truman Library)

There were people in his administration with whom Truman discussed historical matters, chief among them press secretary Charles Ross and correspondence secretary William Hassett. Joseph Feeney, a legislative assistant and administrative assistant to the President, recalled his trips with the President to Key West or Shangri-La (later Camp David) or aboard the Williamsburg when invariably

  • a question or an argument in history would come up between Charlie Ross and Bill Hassett and [Truman]. . . . But the thing that amazed me was his very complete knowledge of history; he was an expert on military history. And I said to him one time, "How do you ever remember so many facts and details about military history?" He said, "Because I love it." So, one night, down at Key West, he talked for four hours about military history, and the argument between Mr. Hassett and Mr. Ross became quite strong and Mr. Truman proved his points by bringing out four sets of silverware and placing them on a table, and he and Mr. Ross went through the fourteen major battles of world history—starting at the time of Hannibal.

George Elsey, administrative assistant to the President, observed that Truman was "an omnivorous reader of American history." Elsey, who had been a graduate student in American history, recalled that when he and the President were first getting acquainted, Elsey would try to show off his knowledge of American history "only to be thoroughly put in my place to find that the President already knew it and knew more about it than I did." Truman "knew a whale of a lot about the Civil War and all of the problems of Andrew Johnson and the investigating committees on the conduct of the war and the trumped up charges against Johnson and other executive branch officials following the war." Elsey did not think his knowledge of European history was very deep, and he felt Truman’s knowledge of Latin American, African, or Asian affairs was that of a "general well-read individual, but it was not deep in the way that his American history and his ancient history was."

Truman’s view of historians went beyond indifference; it bordered on contempt. In 1950, he lectured a newspaperman, Edward Harris of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that "real history consists of the life and actions of great men. . . . Historians editorializing is in the same class as the modern irresponsible columnist."

Also in 1950, Truman wrote a letter to Elsey in which he denigrated the efforts of "so-called historians" who were trying to smear him and to do to him and Franklin Roosevelt what the Federalist historians had done to Thomas Jefferson. (The Federalists had made false accusations that Jefferson was an atheist and a Jacobin, a defender of the French Revolution.) Truman went so far as to assert that it was the role of politicians, not historians, to reconcile differences in historical matters: "No two smart men can agree on any subject . . . and somebody with authority has to make them understand that their viewpoint and the other viewpoint can be brought together and an agreement can be reached, and it takes a politician to do that, not a historian." Historians were tendentious, and their judgments were not to be trusted. To take the examples of William Quantrill and James Lane during the Civil War’s border wars, "Old Jim’s a hero in the history books and Quantrill’s a villain. It all depends on who writes the histories."

But despite Truman’s feelings about professional historians, he agreed to the National Archives’ hiring of one, Philip Brooks, to administer his presidential library, which opened in 1957. In addition, several historians, including Schlesinger, served on the Truman Library Institute staff during Truman’s lifetime. One might explain this apparent inconsistency in the fact that it was Truman himself who created the vision and mission for his library; historians working in the service of the library would be administrators carrying out that mission and not interpreters of his public record.

Truman’s reading of history was wide, but it was not deep. According to biographer Jonathan Daniels, "Truman imagined himself a great historian but actually Truman knew the kind of history that McGuffey would have put in his readers, and he liked the historical anecdote that expressed a moral." Schlesinger also called into question the accuracy of Truman’s views. Upon talking with Truman during a March 1959 meeting of the board of directors at the Truman Library, Schlesinger commented in his diary that the former President "as usual" talked a lot about American history, expressing facts and opinions, "a good many of them wrong." Schlesinger cited no specific examples of Truman’s errors, but he did suggest something of the connection that Truman felt with history when he observed that Truman conveyed a sense that "he regarded all past figures more or less as contemporaries."

But the depth of Truman’s education or understanding of history is not the point. What is important is how often Truman looked to history in shaping his views and influencing his policy making throughout his life and political career. Truman was a critical reader of history, and he had favorite books. His favorite biographies included Marquis James’s books on Andrew Jackson, Claude Bowers’s books on Thomas Jefferson, Carl Sandburg’s multivolume works on Abraham Lincoln, Douglas Freeman’s biography of Robert E. Lee, Robert McElroy’s Grover Cleveland, and Lloyd P. Stryker’s Andrew Johnson. Truman knew that the types of sources people used effected how people understood history. That is why he was determined that his presidential library would make his own papers accessible to historians and young people so that they would know the facts from the standpoint of the President and not from some other source.

Lesson 6: History is marked by continuity and progress

Intuitively and by disposition, Truman would have been characterized as being sympathetic with the counterprogressives, a group of post­World War II historians who emphasized social consensus and the defense of freedom as the threat that wove American history together. Like these historians, Truman saw continuity in American history; human nature had changed little over the centuries, and the genius of the American Constitution lay in its establishment of checks and balances that preserved the republican form of government against passions—cycles of hysteria—generated and exploited by demagogues.

Seeing continuity put his own problems in perspective and allowed him not to overreact. For example, when Truman reflected on press attacks on him, he recalled that Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson, among others, had suffered a similar fate. As he told his cousin, Ethel Noland, he "had it easy by comparison," even though he did get angry at the media’s treatment of him. Truman saw progress in history. "History is a story of improvement even if there are setbacks." His optimism was consistent with his faith in progress. "Of course, you’ve got to be an optimist if you are going to try to help the country go forward. There’s no pessimist that ever did anything for the welfare of the world, I don’t care who he was."

Lesson 7: Progress occurs in cycles

Historian Alonzo Hamby has observed that while Harry Truman saw history moving "generally in the direction of progress," he also viewed it as repeating itself. Truman saw cycles in American history. He repeatedly referred to this view in his lectures at Columbia University in 1959, in his interviews with Merle Miller in 1961–1962, and in his conversations with Schlesinger.

On December 29, 1952, less than one month before Truman left the presidency, Schlesinger came to pay his respects to the President. Schlesinger reported that Truman "was very cheerful, scrubbed and natty." But all was not well in the mind of the President, who was much concerned about the state of civil liberties in the country. He told Schlesinger that he had feared "hysteria" of the kind that always occurred after wars. Truman cited the Citizen Genêt episode after the Revolutionary War, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War, and the A. Mitchell Palmer raids after World War I. He hoped the country might avoid it this time, a reference to the ongoing Korean War. However, the concerns about McCarthyism that Truman expressed to Schlesinger were nowhere to be found in the President’s rather upbeat farewell address less than three weeks later.

Truman met with Schlesinger at least two more times during his post-presidential years. One of these conversations took place in Boston in March 1954, and Joseph McCarthy dominated their discussion. Truman told Schlesinger that he had completed a monograph on the subject of "periods of hysteria in American history." In Truman’s mind, these periods lasted for about 8 to 10 years.

The examples he used included were the times between the Alien and Sedition Acts to the Aaron Burr trial, Reconstruction through the 1876 election, and Palmer raids during World War I through the 1928 campaign.

Truman guessed, therefore, that McCarthyism would "burn itself out" by 1956 to 1960 (McCarthy’s influence waned in the wake of his controversial hearings conducted with the Army in 1954, and McCarthy himself died in 1957). Schlesinger was struck by Truman’s affirmation, expressed "both touchingly and impressively," of his faith in the decency of the American people and their ability to bounce back from spasm of fear and panic.

During his lectures at Columbia University on April 29, 1959, former President Truman placed McCarthyism within the broader cycles of "witch-hunting" and hysteria that he believed had beset the United States since its earliest history. Specific examples included the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, the Alien and Sedition Act of 1800, and the Anti-Masonic movement of the 1830s.

"There are periods," he told the students, "in which some demagogue can direct attention to something that’s absolutely good and harmless and make something out of it so he can stir people up for his own welfare and aggrandizement. We’ve just had that recently. We just got through this period of McCarthyism, which was one of the worst that this country ever suffered from." He warned students that they, too, would face future demagogues.

Lesson 8: Each generation must learn history’s lessons

Harry Truman was not Pollyannish about what history could teach. He told Merle Miller, "The next generation never learns anything from the previous one until it’s brought home with a hammer." He added, "I’ve wondered why the next generation can’t profit from the generation before but they never do until they get knocked in the head by experience." Handed-down wisdom was not accepted until a crisis proved its wisdom. This meant that each generation, in its hubris, had to learn this painful lesson because it did not think that the past had anything useful to teach it.

Lesson 9: Individuals matter

If Truman had a unifying theory of history, it could be found in his belief that men and women, not historical forces, drove history. From his reading of Great Men and Famous Women and Plutarch’s Lives, Truman concluded that "men made history." An exception to this general rule can be found in a letter to his mother on August 17, 1945 (shortly after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan), when he had expressed his feeling of being in a "dizzy whirl," subject to forces beyond human control. For Truman, the individuals who drove history were leaders; he read history from the "top-down." Although a man of the people, Truman likely would not have agreed with "popular history," a school of thought in which the people make history from the "bottom up."

A rather striking example of Truman’s reflections on the importance of individuals is found from his short tenure as Vice President. Perhaps thinking about Roosevelt’s failing health and his own possible succession to the presidency, Truman had listed on U.S. Senate stationery leaders in world and American history and the ages at which they had assumed power or were at the height of their power. At the top of one of the two lists was Alexander the Great, whose age was listed as "Between 25 and 30." Second on the list was Hannibal, 30; followed by Napoleon, 39; Stonewall Jackson, 38; and Genghis Khan, "between 44 & 54." The lists were revealing because of the prevalence on them of generals, kings, and non-Americans (only two of the 15 leaders listed were Americans—Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses Grant) with whom Truman, aged 60 when Vice President, may have been identifying.

In sum, one might use the metaphor of a bicycle to help explain the lessons that Harry Truman drew from American history. Imagine that the bicycle is the American republic and the rider is the individual—a leader, such as the President—who pedals the bike. The tires move around and around—the cycles of history. The bicycle encounters steep hills—periods of hysteria—which alternate with smoother ground, all the while moving forward. The bike is subject to wear and tear from external conditions (international threats to democracy) and internal ones (demagogues), and the rider must be wise enough to know which roads to take and which to avoid. He must have the confidence to chart his course according to his map (the Constitution) and not be swayed by the roadside pedestrians (historians) who lack the rider’s knowledge of the bicycle, the map, and the road. And every generation of riders eventually learns that to discover the road forward, they must first look back.

Truman may have held historians in low esteem where the historical record was concerned, but where his own standing in history was concerned, he was quite conscious of the power of historians. Truman was philosophical about his place in history and his treatment by historians. In the early 1960s, he said, "Nobody can tell what the historians will say about you after you’re gone." And one could not tell whether a leader had been right or wrong in his decisions "until he’s been dead about fifty years."

Abraham Lincoln had been misrepresented, Truman said, and it took 50 years for the truth about him to emerge. "So I don’t let these things bother me for the simple reason I know that I am trying to do the right thing and eventually the facts will come out. I’ll probably be holding a conference with Saint Peter when that happens."

Samuel W. Rushay, Jr., is supervisory archivist at the Truman Library and Museum, where he worked as an archivist from 1993 to 1997. From 1997 to 2007 he was an archivist and subject matter expert at the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. He holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Ohio University, where he wrote his dissertation, "The Farm Fair Dealer: Charles F. Brannan and American Liberalism" (2000), under the direction of Truman biographer Alonzo Hamby.

Note on Sources

Harry Truman wrote and spoke extensively about American history. His two-volume Memoirs by Harry S. Truman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc, 1955 and 1956) is essential reading to understand his historical outlook. Robert Ferrell, ed., Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York: Harper & Row, 1980) contains letters, memoranda, and diary entries in which President Truman made frequent historical references and allusions (Truman’s remarks about historical leaders come from this book, the Miller interviews, and the Longhand Notes File). Truman’s letters to Bess Wallace, whom he married in 1919, were filled with historical allusions. Ferrell published many of these 1,200 letters in Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910–­1959 (New York: Norton & Co., 1983). The quotation in this article about reading history as a young boy comes from Brian Burnes, Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times (Kansas City Star Books, Kansas City, MO: 2003), p. 18. Information about Truman’s school reports comes from Raymond H. Geselbracht, "A Boy Who Would be President: Harry Truman at School, 1892–1901," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration (Fall 2004). Mr. Geselbracht is the close student of Truman referred to in the opening paragraph of this article. Mrs. Palmer’s observation about her former students can be found in "Charles Ross Topped Trumans in Studies, Ex-Teacher Says," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 15, 1964.

During the last year of Truman’s presidency, two former Truman White House staff members, William Hillman and David Noyes published Mr. President (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1952), a book of photographs and text containing many of Truman’s observations about U.S. and world history drawn from the President’s own words and papers. Elizabeth L. Edwards’s Ph.D. dissertation, "Truman, Containment and Cold War" (University of Virginia, 1994) was helpful in the preparation of this article, as were Alonzo L. Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) and David McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

In the spring of 1959, Truman was a guest speaker at the William Radner Lecture at Columbia University. For three days, he conversed with students and faculty about the presidency, the Constitution, and periods of "witch-hunting and hysteria" in American history. These interviews were recorded by WKCR, Columbia University.

In 1961­–1962, Truman sat for a series of interviews conducted by author Merle Miller. Mr. Miller had been hired as a writer and "general organizer" for a series of television films on Truman’s life and presidency, which were to be produced by David Susskind’s company, Talent Associates. Miller spent hours talking with Truman, usually in the former President’s office at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, and usually in the company of Truman’s friends and literary associates, David Noyes and William Hillman. About seven hours and forty minutes of these conversations were recorded on audiotape, copies of which are located in the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum’s audiovisual collection.

When television networks displayed little interest in a series on Truman's life, Susskind abandoned the project, ending Miller's association with the former President. Subsequently, Screen Gems took over the television project and produced a 26-part documentary series, Decision: The Conflicts of Harry S. Truman (1964). Relying in part on the tape recordings of his conversations with Truman, Miller published Plain Speaking: An Oral biography of Harry S. Truman (Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1973).

The late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s Journals, 1952­–2000 (New York: Penguin, 2007) provided interesting new insights into Schlesinger’s association with Harry Truman, with whom he spoke about American history and McCarthyism.

The Truman Library’s rich collection of oral history interview transcripts are a valuable source for insights by Truman’s friends and associates—such as Henry Chiles, Joseph Feeney, Arthur Wilson, Jonathan Daniels, and George Elsey—into Harry Truman’s knowledge of history and the lessons he drew from history. The President’s Secretary’s Files in the library’s manuscript collection contain Truman’s Presidential diaries made in 1947, 1949, and 1951­–1953; as well as a Longhand Notes File containing handwritten notes and diary-like entries that include Truman’s candid observations on history, politics, and human nature. In President Truman’s Post-Presidential Papers are transcripts of recordings for an unpublished history of the American presidency, 1787–­1945. These recordings, which are located in the Truman Library’s audiovisual collection, were recorded from 1960 to 1961.


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