MAXWELL:  Harry Truman’s wise words

7/22/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Given that we have a new, untested administration in Washington and a president struggling to find his bearings, we may find inspiration in the words of one president who had uncommon common sense.

So, I pay homage to our 33rd president, Harry S. Truman _ for his deep sense of right and wrong, his candor and, yes, his native intelligence.

In a series of taped interviews in 1960 and 1961, Truman discussed his views of the U.S.government, weighing in on the nation’s history, the Constitution, our presidents and our core principles. He had planned to write a history based on the interviews, which were transcribed and became part of his presidential papers.

Truman’s views _ delivered spontaneously _ are worth noting. I shall let him speak for himself because the depth of his wisdom would be lost in paraphrase.

He was said to have possessed “the common touch.”

His description of “the common touch”: “I think that what you’re aiming at is a man who understands people and the people’s idea of what things should be done and should not be done. And the proper thing to do is to treat the people so that the majority of them have a right representation with the government and are treated on a right basis.

“Now, there is no way in the world for a man to cultivate that. He’s got to know it to begin with, and he has to go through the experiences that the ordinary person has to go through in order to raise a family, own a little property, and be a citizen of the republic. It just has to come naturally.”

Many Americans do not realize that Truman, not considered a man of letters, was one of our best-read presidents. His grasp of history has not been matched by many other men in the Oval Office:

“I have been studying history ever since I was 10 years old. . . . I read everything I could get my hands on. There were some documents that put men in the events in a particularly interesting way, and when I’d run across one of them, why, it was better than reading any kind of story … because they were events that actually happened, and they were told by someone who had taken a hand in it. It wasn’t the imagination of some novelist.”

For Truman, history was not a mere intellectual discipline. The past had practical application:

“The leadership in a republic like ours must be familiar with what has gone before. No matter what they say that history repeats itself, it doesn’t. Conditions come about that are analogous to certain conditions that have taken place before, and if the historical situation is understood by the people who have to do the job, it is much easier to meet a situation that is likely to come along.”

I am convinced that Truman would detest how today’s short-sighted, fat-cat leaders on the Beltway have turned their backs on the working poor and the lower-middle class. You can bet that lobbyists would be in his sights:

“Whenever government ceases to serve the people for the welfare and benefit of all of them, it ceases to be the right sort of government, and that has been the fight since we have had continually to meet ever since Jefferson became president. . . . If there isn’t any economic freedom, there isn’t any political freedom.

“When the control of all of the resources of the country is in the hands of one set of people or one set of families, then you have a monarchy, no matter whether it is called that or not. Any man who does things for the welfare of the most people is always called a radical. He doesn’t necessarily have to be one.

“I was always interested in the people who had no pull. I’ve seen time and again that all the great organizations _ labor, capital, and everything else _ are able to support organizations at the seat of the government for their own welfare and benefit. But there are more than 150-million, 160-million people who have no one to do that for them except the president of the United States, and when he doesn’t do it, then they are in a bad fix.”

Truman detested the arrogance of organized religion and the clergy (I wager that he would denounce attempts to use tax dollars to subsidize faith-based groups):

“The theologists, you know, are like the rest of the crackpot high-hats. They have a certain approach to things, but all you have to do is to read the Sermon on the Mount and to read the Ten Commandments and the laws of Leviticus and to read Deuteronomy and you’ll find out: It’s the heart of man himself that makes things great. The Sermon on the Mount is the greatest document for a lesson on how to get along that I know of, and it’s tolerance that counts.”

I would fail to recognize Truman’s greatness properly if I did not share some of his views on civil and human rights:

“What was decided by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments hasn’t been settled yet, and it’s one of the blots on our international setup because I’d say that 65 or 70 percent of the people in the world are colored _ either yellow, black or red. And there are only between about 750- and 800-million white people in the world, and the other people have a perfect right to better conditions in the world for their welfare and benefit.

“We have got to stop this colored business if we expect to be the leaders of the free world.”

My many relatives who served in the military under Truman during World War II and the Korean conflict saw him as a god for desegregating the branches. Why did he take such bold action?

“I made the order to stop segregation in the military services and in other places with the intention of implementing the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments,” he said. “When the court came to the decision that those amendments were part of the Constitution and that they had been in effect all the time, then it was necessary to enforce that decision all over the country. . . .

“Such things have got to be put into effect by leadership, and the leadership has to make it perfectly apparent that what he is trying to do is right and convince the majority of the people of the United States that the leadership is on the right track.”

Why did he decide to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? He never got around to detailing his reasons for public consumption.

Unfortunately, Harry S. Truman _ whose mettle was severely tested during two majors wars _ died before writing his history of America. I am certain that it would have been one of the best ever. For sure, it would have been one of the most quotable.