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Two weeks with Harry Truman
A research visit to the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, presidential archives have been in the news of late. Recently I had the chance to spend a couple of weeks examining presidential records of another sort—the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. Truman led the United States in a critical period at the conclusion of World War II and the turbulent years that followed. After his presidency Truman chose his hometown of Independence to serve as the location of the presidential library and museum which now bear his name and, in a curious choice, surround his tomb.
A couple of years ago, I received a grant from the Truman Library Institute to conduct research at the library, on the topic of the Marshall Plan in Greece. As I got the grant in 2020, I wasn’t able to make the visit until now, after the library had reopened. This research formed one more essential component for my long-running biography project on the life and global impact of Greek architect and city planner Constantinos A. Doxiadis (1913–1975), who had a key role in the administration of the Marshall Plan in Greece before becoming a planning consultant of global scope, working in places including Baghdad, Islamabad, and Detroit.
If you know me well, you’ve probably heard about C.A. Doxiadis, and my research about him. In the coming months, I aim to share more aspects of this research on the blog through another upcoming newsletter series, The World Planner, named after the working title of the book-in-progress.
The Marshall Plan in Greece
Even before President Truman announced the “Truman Doctrine” in a March 1947 speech declaring his intention to financially assist Greece and Turkey (as well as to thwart a Communist uprising in Greece), the U.S. was planning to support the reconstruction of Greece, one of the allied countries which suffered the most under Axis occupation.
As time went on, the assistance program to Greece and Turkey was expanded into aid for most Western European countries under the umbrella of the European Recovery Program, better known as the “Marshall Plan” named after General Marshall, Truman’s first Secretary of State. The U.S. eventually spent $2 billion in relief efforts in Greece, about $21 billion today.
Of course, that aid wasn’t just to support Greek recovery, but its independence from the Soviet sphere of influence—and to keep Greece in the American orbit. In his “Truman Doctrine” speech, Truman said “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
Controversial at home and abroad, as well as a plank in the Cold War policy of “containment,” the Marshall Plan in Greece was an extraordinary effort that, in the end, transformed and modernized the Greek nation. It also amplified social wounds in the country that would play out again during the dictatorship of the Colonels (1967– 1974) and the Cyprus crisis that followed. Taken all together, it’s difficult to read about the period of the Greek Civil War (1944–1949) and not think about how world events repeat themselves (albeit in very different forms and contexts) given the present-day proxy conflict in Ukraine.
I am grateful for the opportunity from the Truman Library Institute to immerse myself in a presidential collection with so many interesting threads and lens into diplomatic and foreign policy history. It is a testament to the foresight of the architects of the presidential library system. These archives craft a critical public record of American government for all its citizens to parse. In this way, we can decide for ourselves the actual shape of events, to read beyond the headlines and textbooks, to uncover the truth with the benefit of hindsight. The fact that some presidential records had been illegally removed by the last occupant of the White House is truly disheartening and a grave threat to the democratic institutions of the United States.
In short, for me history is about finding universal themes hidden in the minutiae of the day-to-day chatter. For two weeks, I got to do that a lot.
Truman’s modern parallels
The Truman Museum, recently renovated for the first time since its opening in 1957, is an excellent overview of Truman’s consequential presidency, with thoughtful exhibits and a lot of interactive components that make history come alive for both high school students and adults who may need a refresher.
For example, the museum has a section on the Red Scare and McCarthyism, complete with a group video game where participants are asked to evaluate the careers of civil servants amidst allegations of their Communist tendencies. Even if you as the player are inclined to give the civil servant a free pass for their private political beliefs, your tune may change when the game’s virtual interlocutor starts bullying you, threatening that you may be accused of political subversion next, and that you may lose their job if you don’t agree to blacklist the alleged Communist.
Through this kind of simulation, a visitor might be able to appreciate how events happened the way they did, and put themselves in the shoes of the time period. The past was a different world, but there are many elements from our past that remain frightfully relevant.
One of the most compelling exhibits is the one which tries to contextualize and walk through Truman’s controversial decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ultimately, the visitor is left with more questions than answers, though the museum appears to argue that Truman’s military advisers seemed to have misled him on the true nature of the bomb. Equally damning is a fact that a letter from leading scientists who begged that the bomb not be dropped on civilians was withheld from Truman’s view until it was too late. The exhibit also takes pains to demonstrate how disastrous and tragic the bomb’s use was for the Japanese who lost their lives, as well as the Japanese who survived and were forever scarred and affected by the event.
Another interesting revelation—Truman only had two meetings with President Franklin Roosevelt before FDR died. FDR didn’t keep Truman in the loop at all. As a result, when Truman ascended to the presidency, pundits made comments to the effect of—“Who is this Truman? Is he up to the task?” In our current political climate, one cannot help but remark how similar questions are today leveed against Biden’s ability in office. (Granted, Truman was way younger than the current commander-in-chief.) In another familiar wrinkle, Truman defied the polls—and inaccurate newspaper projections—and defeated his rival Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election.
But it’s Truman’s aphorisms which probably have the most longevity in the popular consciousness. It’s hard to get more iconic than “the buck stops here.”
A glimpse at Independence, Missouri
As for where “the buck started”? That would be Independence, Missouri, a small town that in some places retains the intense “classic Americana” imagery of a Norman Rockwell painting.
If St. Louis, on the other side of the state, was the gateway to the West, Independence was the gateway’s main terminus, forming the jumping-off point for the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe Trails that fueled the country’s westward expansion. A generation before that, Independence was a center for the Mormon church, until the Mormons were run out of town, though some LDS denominations eventually returned to the area.
Independence began losing its prominence after the railroad came through nearby Kansas City, which was also the main port on the Missouri River.
Truman’s unlikely ascendancy to the presidency put Independence back on the map. Today, many statues of Truman can be found all over town, as well as historical markers and references to his boyhood home, his actual home, and his church. One gift shop downtown goes by the name, “All About Harry.” Modern Independence is certainly all about Truman.
My experience in quiet Independence was a very interesting way to decompress after a frenetic year in Cyprus. I appreciated the visit, and now look to the future. As Truman said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” On a more humorous note, he also said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
ICYMI: Check out my recent triple-book review essay “On Privacy, Paranoia, & Genre,” in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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