Monday, June 15, 2009

Wild About Harry in Independence, Missouri (mile 1760)

June 14—Flag Day

Isn't it an interesting coincidence that we should be appreciating Harry Truman on Flag Day, since he made it a national holiday in 1949?

We are pretty sure we earned the distinction of being the tourists who spent the longest time at Harry Truman venues today. We began at the National Park Service Historic Site Visitor Center a little after 10:30, caught the 10:45 film about Truman's life in Independence, did a half-hour self-guided walking tour from the Visitor Center to Truman's home (appropriate, since Truman did a brisk 120 paces per minutes walk about his neighborhood just about every day), did the Truman house tour, walked back to the car, then drove to the Truman Presidential Library and Museum, where we arrived shortly after it opened at noon, and left two minutes before they locked the doors at 5 pm.

The Harry and Bess in Independence Story

Harry, who came from a poor family and didn't have much luck in his own business ventures, memorized the eye chart to cheat his way into the Army which would have rejected him because of his bad eyesight, and he came back from the first World War a hero, which finally made him worthy to wed his childhood sweetheart from a prominent Independence family, Bess Wallace. The newlyweds promptly moved into Bess's family homestead, where they lived with her parents and grandmother. Her two brothers had little bungalows in the backyard, and were frequently around the family dinner table, as well.

They left their Independence house for the White House, but there was never a question that they would return to it when their time in Washington was over. Harry and Bess lived in that house until they died, and the National Park Service has maintained the house just the way they found it after Bess willed it to them.

There was nothing presidential about the house we toured. We walked through the back porch door into the kitchen, and were greeted by a red Formica table with chrome trim, a calendar tacked to the wall above it with the page turned to October 1982, the month Bess died. The kitchen cabinets were painted a green shade a few tones darker than pistachio ice cream, and they seemed to be randomly placed on the walls with big gaps between them not filled by appliances. The wall paper was worn down to rough surfaces around pull cords and light switches. This place had not been remodeled since sometime before the White House years. No one was putting on any airs—there wasn't a clue that a former President lived here.

But, the house was full of signs of love. A beautiful life size painting of Margaret dominated the front hall—clearly the focus in this house was on family, not fame. Both Bess and Harry loved to read together at night—their reading chairs sit side-by-side in the library, separated only by a little table with a reading light. On a coat rack by the side door we saw Bess's coat, and Harry's coat and hat, which she had kept hanging there for ten years after he died.

And, when we visited the Truman Library we learned about another sign of their love and devotion—there are 1300 letters Harry sent Bess over the years archived in the library's collections.

The Truman Library

Harry Truman was the first president to develop a Presidential Library. He felt that all the gifts he received and the papers he accumulated during his presidency rightly belonged to the American people, and that it would be wrong of him to keep them or to sell them for personal gain. The development and construction of his presidential library became his life's work when he returned to Independence at the end of his presidency.

So, unlike the Lincoln library and museum that we saw in Springfield four days ago, this library is autobiographical, telling the stories Truman wanted to be told, often documented in his own handwriting. Of course, exhibits have been added and updated in the years since Truman died, but the Board and curators of the Library have stayed true to Truman's vision of the purpose of his museum/library. The highlights of his life were presented in a 45 minute introductory film, and the major aspects of his character and the challenges he faced as president were expanded on, and reinforced, in the museum exhibits.

The museum's message was that Truman was President during a most challenging time in our history, and he was faced with decisions that were bound to make him unpopular with many at home and abroad, but he had a strong moral compass and worked tirelessly for peace and prosperity for all.

His legacy includes:

· ending the Second World War by dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a wrenching decision that has been second-guessed by historians ever since. (There is a log book in the exhibit area that offers visitors the opportunity to write what they think he should have done—we couldn't find one visitor opinion that was critical of his decision, which surprised us.)

· restoring a peacetime economy in the US.

stabilizing and rebuilding a war-torn Europe through $13 billion in aid offered under the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO to defend Europe from Soviet attack.

· decommissioning General McArthur, despite his popularity as a war hero, when his actions ran counter to orders from the Commander in Chief and threatened to precipitate a war with China. (The film and exhibit display McArthur in a most unfavorable light, as a spoiled prima donna—they made me wonder whether Truman felt a special animosity toward him.)

· being the first country to recognize Israel.

· being the first president since the Civil war to show a commitment to advancing civil rights. Although the Republican Congress refused to pass most of the civil rights legislation he proposed, he signed executive orders ending racial discrimination in federal employment and ordering the desegregation of the armed forces. He appointed two supreme court justices who believed in civil rights, and his inaugural ball was the first one to be integrated.

Other issues Truman dealt with that made for fascinating exhibits included the advent of the Cold War and civil defense preparations for a nuclear attack, the Korean War, anti-communist investigations (Joseph McCarthy hearings), and Truman's unsuccessful attempt to create a national health care plan.

We came away impressed with Truman's strength of character, the multitude of challenges he faced decisively, and how well his leadership looks now, with over 50 years of hindsight.

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