Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Honoring Harry

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, is a major tourist attraction in the Kansas City metropolitan area. This article was spawned partly because of June’s and my visit there on Monday, May 8.
Harry S. Truman was born on May 8 (in 1884), and that date is now celebrated as Truman Day, a state holiday. On Monday morning that special Missouri holiday was celebrated with ceremonies in the courtyard of the Truman Library where both Harry and his wife Bess are buried.
Truman Library Institute photo taken on 5/8/17 (June and I are next to the last people on the right.)
Harry was born in Lamar, Mo., and although he lived there for less than a year, the house in which he was born is still maintained as the Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site. It is a modest house, indicative of the middle-class roots of the man who became the 33rd POTUS.
The small town of Lamar is a little over 100 miles due south of Grandview (on the south side of Kansas City), the town nearest to where the Truman family moved in 1887 and where Harry lived from 1906 to 1917.
Harry was baptized in the Little Blue River in Kansas City in 1902 and in 1916 he joined the Grandview Baptist Church (as it was known then) and remained a member there the rest of his life—although for most of his life he attended very infrequently.
Truman helped finance a new building for the Grandview church, and he spoke at its dedication service in 1950. One Sunday morning many years ago, coincidentally on Pearl Harbor Day, I had the privilege of preaching in that church. Truman’s Bible, which he regularly read in the Oval Office, was on display in the foyer.
While I can understand the pressure Truman felt to use the atomic bombs he first learned about only after he became President in April 1945, and while I realize it is much easier to second-guess hard decisions in retrospect than to make those decisions looking forward, still I have serious doubts about the morality of his authorizing the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. The bombing of Nagasaki only three days after Hiroshima was bombed on August 6 is especially problematic.
Still, Truman is to be commended for firing General MacArthur and for refusing to escalate the Korean conflict even to the use of atomic weapons there. Truman did threaten to use atomic bombs in Korea, but he didn’t use them as MacArthur possibly would have.
Of many other things that might be said about Truman’s presidency, two are worthy of special note.
In November 1945, Truman proposed a national health insurance plan. Although it was never enacted, it did lead to Medicare. When President Johnson signed the Medicare bill into law at the Truman Library in July 1965, he said that it “all started really with the man from Independence.”
Truman also significantly furthered greater racial equality in the U.S. by issuing an executive order in July 1948 that desegregated the armed forces.
There is an enormous difference between Harry Truman and the current POTUS. While the latter campaigned as a populist candidate, it was Truman who was truly a “man of the people,” to use the title of the lengthy 1995 tome on Truman by Alonzo L. Hamby.
And after watching the HBO movie “Truman” (1995) on Sunday evening, I was also struck by the marked contrast between the honesty and integrity of the man from Missouri compared to the current POTUS.
It was an honor to be among the people who gathered on Monday to honor Harry on Truman Day.


  1. Alonzo L. Hamby (b. 1940) was June’s underclassman at Humansville High School in Polk Co., Mo., where they both graduated. He completed his Ph.D. in 1965 at the University of Missouri and started teaching that year at Ohio University, where he was a professor of history until his retirement.

    “Truman,” the multi-award winning HBO movie, is based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Truman" (1992)—which is over 1,100 pages, much longer than Hamby’s 750-page book. We checked the DVD out of our local library and found it a most informative, and enjoyable, movie.

    Some of you may also be interested to know that McCullough was “writer-in-residence” at William Jewell College when he was working on his Truman book, staying in a college-owned house across the street from the main campus and commuting to Independence to do his research there.

  2. The first comment received this morning was from a local Thinking Friend:

    "A fitting tribute, and an honest one to a president that, in the main, understood the idea of the presidency and the place of America in a wider world."

  3. Another local Thinking Friend, Don Pepper of Weston (a few miles north of Kansas City) wrote,

    "Good points, Leroy.

    "BTW, some scenes in the movie were filmed in Weston.That made quite a local stir.

    "Thanks for your present moment insights."

  4. Each President (indeed all of us) had/has pros and cons to their names, which will be remembered by history. There is so much history to cover in high school and college that most is left out, and only a biographical summary from a given perspective is given. That is unfortunate. Valid lessons cannot be learned if only one perspective is given. Given that, I highly recommend Oliver Stone's series on the Presidents (not glowing on any of them) "The Untold History of the United States". While the series has its own issues, enough is opened up to give a fresh and needed perspective.

    Original Medicare is still making a difference in the lives of millions of Americans, although the program is being stressed by some political factors and population demographics.
    LBJ flew out to Kansas City to give Harry and Bess the first Medicare cards after he signed it into law. What would you guess their card numbers were? (Yep, most guess 1 & 2.) If you have a Red, White, and Blue card take it out and look, then guess again.

    1. According to the Truman Library website, "In honor of his continued advocacy for national health insurance, Johnson presented Truman and his wife Bess with Medicare cards number one and two in 1966."

    2. The card numbers were actually their SS #'s - just like everyone else. But they were the first to cards. I believe that comes from CMS. I'll check.

  5. Leroy,
    This piece is one of my favorites because it's written about one of my favorite presidents! It was highly informative, and I share your "mixed feelings" about Mr. Truman's record. And certainly Harry does contrast with the current occupant of the office.

    Here is a 2011 video of the 1975 Chicago song "Harry Truman":

    Michael Newheart

  6. Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas sent the following comments by email to be posted here (in its entirety) :

    "Once again, thank you for bringing another excellent piece. Having served as a navy nuclear operator, during the height of the Cold War, aboard the USS Nathan Hale (SSBN-623), a fleet ballistic missile submarine, I have given much thought to the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, I actually became a conscientious objector and was discharged as such from the navy, with an honorable discharge requiring the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), because of the obstruction of Baptist navy chaplains.

    "It might seem contradictory to some, but my conscientious objection is selective. In a nuclear war there are no winners. No hope for good, however conceived, can come from it. I remember being harangued by Baptist navy chaplains, all arranged by my executive officer, in his effort to thwart my exercise of conscience. This required me to solicit the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which quickly got my command's attention. This vouchsafed and expedited the process, including multiple hearings, psychological evaluations, etc.

    "I prominently remember saying to myself, 'You seriously think I might be crazy when it is you all (the navy and by extension civilization at large) that find MAD (mutual assured destruction) acceptable?'

    "Perhaps unimaginable to some, in spite of this particular (selective) conscientious objection, I had no problem teaching at the Japanese Self Defense Academy ('Boudai') when a missionary to Japan and even today continue to serve as a Blue and Gold Officer for the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.

    "When one of my candidates I've recommended receives an appointment (a $425,000 scholarship), as my two sons did, it is extremely rewarding, to say the least. To this day, in my thinking, war should be the absolute last resort and only after herculean preventative efforts (the robust exercise of “soft” power in the form of diplomacy, the UN, humanitarian relief, etc.) and must always serve the cause of human justice and overall peace.

    "The ethical distinction for me is that nuclear war leads to the annihilation of humanity and conventional just war seeks human betterment and the establishment of justice and overall peace. I could say much more but it would be beyond the bounds of this site.

    "Like you, I have long questioned the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, but especially the second bomb just 3 days later. As if it weren't bad enough, the second was like spiking the football, an act of hubris, and at the senseless expense of so many lives. As I have related before, this was definitely the lowest our country has sunk, and the lowest moment of human experience. Perhaps because of this Truman wisely chose against using the bomb against North Korea.

    "It is a stark fact to this day that America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, the modern day purported defender of democracy, the world's advocate for liberty and justice for all, is the only country to use the atomic bomb in a hostile act against another. In effect, to be objective about all this, this has served to undermine American credibility in the eyes of the rest of the world. The most powerful enemy of America has been/is/will be American hubris. DJT is the example of this, representing populace America.

    "Again, much more could be said. Just to put matters in perspective, the USS Nathan Hale carried 16 Polaris missiles. Each missile carried 5 warheads (atomic bombs). Doing the math, that’s 80 nuclear bombs on one submarine. Each of those bombs were/is 14 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Add to this the 49 other fleet ballistic missile submarines. Add to this the entire American nuclear arsenal, and the Russian, and the British, and the French, and so on. Mutual assured destruction (MAD) is certainly an apt description.

    [to be continued]

    1. [continued from above]

      "Unfortunately, the Baptist chaplains that were 'turned loose on me' couldn't see the distinction between defending one's home and family against a home intruder, defending the cause of human justice, and the nuclear annihilation of the human race. Something of a sad commentary in my thinking.

      "I must say that one of my Baptist professors, Dr. Thomas Guerry, Professor of Religion at Charleston Southern University in Charleston, SC, wrote on my behalf a powerful letter describing 'conscientious objection' as well within 'the finest of Baptist tradition,' an extension of the doctrine of the priesthood of believers and thus the exercise of free conscience. This carried significant weight in my hearings.

      "On the other hand, the chaplains charged me 'inconsistent' and sought to obstruct my exercise of conscience, hence my need to seek the help of the ACLU, an organization I have supported ever since. As a young twenty-something (against significant, even belligerent, religious denominational resistance I might add) I felt I had a better handle on this significant theological and ethical issue. This sentiment has not changed since.

      “Dr. Simmons and the late Dr. Stassen at Southern Seminary, at the apex of its height of excellence, were a soothing balm to me after this 'fight.'

      “Thank you, again, as always, for this stirring piece.

    2. I was born during the presidency of Truman, in a hospital on Truman Road, in Independence, Missouri. I attended Palmer Junior High on Truman Road, immediately behind Truman's house. His presence permeated my experience of growing up, even though I remember nothing of his presidency. I even briefly attended Truman High School, before moving to Virginia. What I remember is the latter part of the presidency of Eisenhower, from a ways down the road in Abilene, Kansas. He was the hero of WW II, and was building the new interstate highway system that would someday go right through the field where my Cub Scout softball team played our home games. I remember wondering about the highway that would someday thunder through that field, even as today I think of that field as I thunder down I-70 between Crysler and Noland.

      Somewhere life got so complicated. Truman dropped the atomic bomb, twice. Eisenhower turns out to be the chief architect of the Vietnam War, the defining catastrophe of my youth. (He not only cancelled the 1956 election in Vietnam concerning reunification [which the Communists would probably have won], it later was revealed that he was a major military consultant for both Kennedy and Johnson, neither of whom had anything like his experience in military matters.) Our American Republic was largely modeled on the Roman Republic, and like Rome, America is descending in a military empire.

      I am posting this as a reply to Tom Nowlin because I agree with him. Playing brinksmanship with MAD is insanity. In an 1880 speech, General William T. Sherman explained the rest of war, "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell." Most American wars have been imperialist adventures, only a few have been genuine defense. I am not a pacifist, because I allow those defenses. I must add, however, that many of those defensive wars would not have been necessary without prior imperialistic adventures.

      Naomi Klein, in her book "The Shock Doctrine," illustrated an imperialist adventure that was not itself a war, but certainly unsettled the world ever since. When the Soviet Union fell, Gorbachev wanted to convert the fallen union into a social democracy modeled on northern Europe. He wanted to be Norway. American government and financial leaders made sure this did not happen, threatening to use their full financial power to bankrupt Russia if it tried. Soon Yeltsin was the leader, and wholesale divestiture began (although American plutocrats were upset when the realized he was privatizing to Russian oligarchs instead of to Americans). As Yeltsin's Russia disintegrated, the stage was set for Putin's rise, and now here we are. Russia is stuck with Putin, and we are stuck with Trump.

  7. Esteemed Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson shares these brief, pertinent comments:

    "You’ve honored Harry, even with your criticism, Leroy. I have the same mixed feelings you have. What we need to do is honor him by expanding Medicare to all citizens of this nation."

  8. Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona just emailed me the following comments:

    "I enjoyed the blog about Harry Truman. I too question the morality of the atom bomb use but I have to remember that it probably saved a lot of American lives. The Japanese would have died to the last man before surrendering. They would not be easy to defeat without some form of dramatic offensive and the bomb was that.

    "I admired Mr. Truman for many reasons, but probably the most because of his simplicity and frugality. He did not take advantage of the many benefits and accruements available to the President of the United States. Bess helped him with his language and he needed a lot of help with that, but he was a simple, humble man in many ways. He never seemed impressed with himself as many presidents do. Wish we had more people in politics like him. He was truly 'a man of the people.'"

  9. Before your next post comes out, I'll put in my two cents worth. Although sharing his birth date may affect my prejudice a bit, I still see Truman as one of the best presidents of the 20th century. He is to be honored for the desegregation of the military which may well have had a tremendous impact on most other areas of American society including education and sports. In my eyes his greatest act was firing MacArther. I don't like to think it had to happen, but if he hadn't our country may well have gone the way of others whose civilian governments continue to be dominated by the military.

    As to dropping the atomic bombs, I guess better people than I can make a distinction between them and the fire bombings we did on other Japanese cities and in Germany. Of course tons of TNT don't leave the residual radiation that nuclear warfare will. A member of one of my churches had a father on the troop ships on the way to Japan for the invasion when the bombs were dropped. They were called back when news came Japan had surrendered. That was one family glad to see the bombs fall. My father's youngest brother went as part of the occupation troops. The odds are he would have been part of the later waves needed to subdue a very proud people.

    Like shared above, it would be nice to think we would never consider war until EVERY other avenue to stop aggression had been considered. We can always work to try and make our dreams come true.

  10. Here are pertinent comments from local Thinking Friend Joe Barbour. (I am sorry I didn't get this posted sooner.)

    "Thanks for you blog on Harry Truman.

    "I think that Harry Truman was one of the best presidents we have ever had.

    "I had two uncles who fought in the battles of the Pacific and the stories they tell of the atrocities of the Japanese army were terrible. When folk said that 'War is hell,' they believed it was the most terrible thing they had ever experienced. And as they shared with us of an evening they wept because of the terrible treatment they had seen of the Japanese soldiers of the captives.

    "I dislike war but we live in a world where anything goes it seems. So as I think of the loss of life that those bombings of the the Japanese at home experienced, they saved far more lives than were lost. It had to be a hard decision but he made it and ended a terrible war.

    "During his presidency Truman made decisions not popular with most but turned out to be far better than the direction things were going. He made no excuses for what he did.

    "So I stick by my thinking that he was one of he best presidents the USA has ever had."