Monday, March 24, 2014

Truman Library and Museum

GOING BACK TO DAY TWENTY-THREE: I'm going to go back and fill in some gaps in my narrative of our travel. I mentioned a while back that we visited the Harry S Truman birthplace, and posted some pictures, but I passed over pretty quickly the fact that when we left Columbia, MO after Katie's opera, we went through Independence, MO, which is a suburb of Kansas City, and stopped to visit the Truman Library and Museum.

The Harry S Truman Library and Museum
 Before telling about that visit, let me go way back to the point in my life when Truman became President. I mentioned earlier that my niece, Becky, gave me another batch of "treasures" from my brother, Stewart's house in Elgin, IL. One of those treasures was a letter that I wrote to Stewart on April 15, 1945. I was 12 years old. He was in the service - actually in the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program, which was for 17-year-olds - and was in Lincoln, NE taking college courses and waiting for his 18th birthday, at which time he would go into basic training.

Here is the envelope, which I think is interesting, and the letter:

Envelope: note that under the stamps I have carefully printed, "Any extra postage charge to receiver."

My letter to my brother, Stewart, dated April 15, 1945
After telling my brother that spring is coming, that the tulips are blooming, that I had started piano lessons, that my mother and I had both eaten out and had supper with friends, that painters were painting the windows at Marshall (Stewart's high school, and where I was in Junior High), and that I was sending him a "Judge" (the name of the student newspaper at Marshall High - so-called because it was named after John Marshall, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), I somewhat casually state, "Pres. Roosevelt died." He had indeed died on April 12th, and I remember the day well, because all the usual radio programs (such as my favorite after-school serials, Jack Armstrong, Tom Mix and Captain Midnight), had all been replaced by non-stop classical music in Roosevelt's honor. Sort of amazing when you think about it.

Thus began my life under the administration of Harry S Truman, who was President through my junior high years, high school years, and until I was a sophomore in college. Formative years. So, this visit to the Truman Library was a revisiting of the historical context of my teen-age years. It was not disappointing. One floor was devoted to a presentation of Truman's life, chronologically ordered, but another floor was devoted to the era in which he was President, and to the incredible number of crises he had to deal with. It is mind-boggling when you think of it: dropping the atomic bomb to end WWII, the Potsdam Conference with Churchill and Stalin to arrange for the post-war era; the post-war era itself with the return of hundreds of thousands of veterans, resultant unemployment, housing shortages,  and the shift to a civilian economy; the racial integration of the military; the beginning of the Cold War; the Berlin airlift; the invasion of South Korea by the Communist North Korean state, the Korean War itself and the firing of General MacArthur who wanted to bomb China and who was insubordinate to the President, the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe, the formation of NATO - on it goes. When Truman took office in 1945, many saw him as a party hack who had been a toady to Boss Pendergast in Kansas City and not up to the job. Today he is widely regarded as having been a very good President, maybe one of the best. A steady hand on the tiller of the ship of state, unflappable, cautious but also decisive. Famous for saying, "The buck stops here:" and "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Not popular in his time - 30% approval ratings -  but well regarded decades later. So it goes for Presidents.

Harry S Truman
I can't begin to represent here the fullness of the displays. They were well-organized and fascinating. We could have spent many hours there trying to assimilate what was presented. (There was, by the way, a 45-minute movie on Truman's life which was very interesting in itself and had a lot of archival newsreel footage which brought back memories).  One of the most controversial issues of his presidency was, of course, the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The curators had decided to present this as a decision that has had a long afterlife. There was a wall devoted to quotations from a wide spectrum of historians and commentators of various kinds, supporting, questioning, criticizing and condemning the decision to drop the bomb. In the center was a book with blank pages where you could write your opinion, if you chose to.

The Atomic Bomb Debate

 I also found it quite fascinating that in 1949, Truman introduced to the Congress a National Health Plan, which was shot down by the Republicans and brought this response from the AMA - deja vu all over again:

AMA diatribe against Truman's National Health Plan - branded as "Socialized medicine."

There were of course lighter things that were still fascinating, like the reconstruction of the Oval Office, in its exact proportions and furnishings in Truman's time, which was really neat to stand in:

The President's desk in the Oval Office
Truman often posed with guests by this globe

And more trivial still but still appealing, the dinner service at the White House introduced by Harry and Bess Truman in 1951 . . .

White House table service

. . . and since I'm a sucker for old cars, I loved the Truman's Chrysler which reminded me of the Plymouth I drove the summer of 1949 when I worked as a chauffeur for Dan Umbenhauer, a glove salesman for the Grinnell Glove Company and member of my father's church in Anamosa. Now there was a job for a sixteen-year-old!!

The Truman's car
Probably the most striking thing at the Library is the Thomas Hart Benton Mural which greets you as you enter the lobby, called The Opening of the West. Benton was an admirer of Truman and Truman reciprocated the admiration. Truman chose Benton as the artist for this monumental mural, and on one occasion even mounted the scaffolding and helped paint some sky. The mural depicts the founding of Independence, MO, Truman's home, and it's importance as the gateway to the settlement of the west, it's role as a major trading town for the Oregon Trail, etc. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the depiction captures all the myths, the stereotypes, the deplorable racism and white hegemony, the real and imagined heroism, which characterizes the story Americans tell themselves about the settlement of the west. It stirs quite a mixture of emotions. 

The Opening of the West by Thomas Hart Benton
Truman's home, where he lived before becoming President and after he retired, was not open on Sunday, but we got a glimpse of it from the street.

Truman Home
All in all, it was a memorable visit!

No comments:

Post a Comment