As Truman began the final month of his presidency, he didn’t indulge in reflection, but, like regret, reflection had never been his métier. In interviews with several favored journalists, the closest he came to expressing self-doubt was when he talked about Korea — “the most terrible” decision he’d had to make, and a “much more important decision than the one to drop the atomic bomb.”
He didn’t personally deliver his final State of the Union message; rather it was read aloud by clerks in the House and Senate. Its 9,700 words included an aside to Stalin: “You claim belief in Lenin’s prophecy that one stage in the development of communist society would be war between your world and ours,” it said. “But Lenin was a pre-atomic man, who viewed society and history with pre-atomic eyes.” Referring to the recent test of a thermonuclear weapon, he warned that “the war of the future would be one in which man could extinguish millions of lives at one blow, demolish the great cities of the world, wipe out the cultural achievements of the past — and destroy the very structure of a civilization that has been slowly and painfully built up through hundreds of generations.”
A week later, Truman said farewell to the nation. Its personal touches would have sounded odd coming from anyone but this Midwesterner with the soft voice and a banker’s face, whose compressed words and hurried pace had become so familiar. “There are simply a few things in my heart that I want to say to you,” he said. He was modest — just an ordinary American: “When Franklin Roosevelt died, I felt there must be a million men better qualified than I, to take up the Presidential task.” He recalled that the surrender of Nazi Germany, the Potsdam conference with Churchill and Stalin, and the decision that “the atomic bomb had to be used” to end the war, happened in little more than four months. He was proud of the Marshall Plan, NATO, and urging aid for Greece and Turkey: “When history says that my term of office saw the beginning of the Cold War, it will also say that in those eight years we have set the course that can win it.”
A tender Herald Tribune editorial said that Truman, as he stepped down, had “the assurance of a warm place in the people’s hearts,” but it was columnist Walter Lippmann, a perpetual scold, who wrote what might be regarded as a template for the first wave of Truman appreciators, a column that began, “In the manner of his going Mr. Truman has been every inch the President, conscious of his great office and worthy of it.” One could become angry with Truman, he wrote, “but neither he nor his critics and opponents were able to keep on being angry. For when he lost his temper it was a good temper that he was losing.”
Truman held his final news conference on the day of his farewell address. Over nearly eight years, he’d greatly expanded the frequency of these sessions, and was in a mood to celebrate an institution that had often angered him: “This kind of news conference where reporters can ask any question they can dream up — directly to the President of the United States — illustrates how strong and how vital our democracy is,” he said. “There is no other country in the world where the chief of state submits to such unlimited questioning.”
Future presidents, he added, might improve the system, but “I hope they will never cut the direct line of communication between themselves and the people.”
It ended with the traditional “Mr. President — thank you!” But this time it was followed by affectionate applause for this child of rural Missouri — this self-educated striver, a man determined to overcome the prejudices, ethnic and religious, of that time and place — letting him know that he was, as Lippmann put it in his sentimental moment, someone who “has the good nature of a good man.” In mid-century America, it was hard to imagine a future when those qualities could be extinguished.
On January 20, 1953, which turned into a mild and muggy day, Truman got up, as usual, at 5:30, and on this morning set about saying goodbye to White House staff — to clerks, telephone operators, and “the Secret Service boys.” After these goodbyes, he met with cabinet members and their wives in the Red Room, one of the restored mansion’s most inviting reception parlors. There, he noted, pointedly, in his diary, “we have a most pleasant visit until the General and his entourage arrive.” After that, it went downhill, speedily.
The Trumans had invited the Eisenhowers to join them for coffee before the noon swearing-in ceremonies, but Eisenhower’s limousine, a black Lincoln, arrived at 11:30 — which left them just enough time to get to the Capitol. As the columnist Doris Fleeson described the scene, there was an “awkward moment while the staff waited to see if General Eisenhower would enter the White House to greet the man who was still President, still Commander in Chief of the Armed Services, in which the new President is still a five-star General.” She continued, “Mr. Eisenhower sat still. Only after Mr. and Mrs. Truman and Margaret emerged from the White House did Mr. Eisenhower get out of his car.” The CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid, another witness to this odd standoff, told the Truman biographer David McCullough that “it was a shocking moment.” It left Truman little choice but to join Eisenhower in the waiting Lincoln. The White House usher J.B. West “watched the two grim-faced men step into the special, high-roofed limousine,” and thought, “I was glad I wasn’t in that car.”
The two-mile drive proceeded in near silence as both passengers waved to spectators lined up along the route. “I ride with Ike in car No. 1 along with [former Speaker] Joe Martin & [Senator] Styles Bridges,” Truman recalled. “Bess & Margie ride with Mrs. Ike. Conversation is general — on the crowd, the pleasant day, the orderly turnover etc. Ike finally said that Kenneth Royall” — the army secretary during Truman’s first term — “tried to order him home in 1948 for the inaugural ceremony but he wouldn’t come because half the people cheering me at that time had told him they were for him. I said, ‘Ike I didn’t ask you to come — or you’d been here.’” Truman recalled that “Bridges gasped” and that Martin “changed the subject.”
That conversation — Bridges’s gasp and all — may have happened just as Truman recalled, but if so, they’d all gotten it wrong: Eisenhower, in 1948, had been in Washington, had taken part in the inaugural parade, and had exchanged friendly salutes with his commander in chief, who was watching from a reviewing stand.
For all the rancor between them, there’d been gestures of good intent, though even some of those were disputed. Truman wanted Major John Eisenhower to return from Korea to watch his father take the oath, and Eisenhower later wrote that when he’d asked Truman who’d ordered his son back, “I thanked him sincerely for his thoughtfulness. My son had been upset when he first received the order because, not knowing the reason, he was fearful that he might lose his assignment in his combat division.” But Truman’s military aide, Robert Dennison, remembered that, on the way to the Capitol, Eisenhower turned to Truman and said, “I wonder what s.o.b. ordered my son back, just to embarrass me,” and Truman replied, “I did.” No one, in any case, disputes that Eisenhower offered Truman the use of the presidential train, Ferdinand Magellan, to take him home to Missouri, and that Truman didn’t hesitate to accept.
Eisenhower became the 34th President of the United States at 12:32 p.m., and a moment after he’d taken the oath, Truman reached out to shake his hand. President Eisenhower began his inaugural address with a prayer that he’d written: “Give us now, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our works and actions to be governed thereby and by the laws of this land.” When he’d finished, he got another handshake from Truman. Bess Truman kissed Mamie Eisenhower, who had looked close to tears.
Truman’s plans for the remainder of that day included lunch with his cabinet at Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s house. Some Georgetown neighbors were standing along the block, eager to get a glimpse when he arrived with Bess and Margaret. When they spotted him, Truman got what was described as a “tumultuous ovation,” long and loud enough to persuade him to say that “this is the greatest demonstration that any man could have, because I’m just Mr. Truman, a citizen from Missouri, now.” The lunch was off-limits to reporters, but they could hear laughter whenever the front door opened. Only the invited guests heard Truman say, “The great thing about my low approval rating is that every year it’s going to be better.”
Some reporters left to file their stories but planned to return to Union Station in the early evening, where several thousand spectators had come to wave goodbye — “An immence [sic] crowd,” Truman noted. “Took four policeman & 3 secret service men to get me to the car. Never anything like it so it is said.”
At the train station, the crowd sang “Auld Lang Syne” as the former president stood on the last car’s rear platform, with Bess and Margaret beside him, like a postcard from his campaign in 1948. “This is the first time you’ve sent me home in a blaze of glory,” Truman said. “In all my career, and it has been a long one, I’ve never had anything like this happen. I will never forget this if I live to be a hundred, and that’s what I expect to do.” The Ferdinand Magellan left the station at 6:30 — “amid cheers & tears,” Truman wrote.
The following evening, the train arrived in Independence, and Truman once more attracted a crowd of several thousand. “Never was such a crowd or such a welcome in Independence. Mrs. T & I were overcome,” Truman wrote in his diary. “It was the pay-off for thirty years of hell and hard work.”
From The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953 by Jeffrey Frank. Copyright © 2022 by Jeffrey Frank. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Jeffrey Frank is the author of Ike and Dick and four novels, among them the Washington Trilogy — The Columnist, Bad Publicity, and Trudy Hopedale. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.
This article appears in the September/October 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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