October 18, 1963

Harry Truman Tells How He Learned He Became the President: FDR’s Death, He Says, Was a Complete Surprise

Typed Letter Signed
2 pages
SMC 684
In this understated account, Truman relates how he came to be the 7th Vice President to suddenly, and so surprisingly, ascend to the presidency:

…I was on my way to see Sam Rayburn, where I was instructed to go to the White House. When I arrived at the White House I was informed of the President's death, and was sworn in as President of the United States about 7:00 p.m. At the time I saw you I didn't know President Roosevelt was dead anymore than you did. It was just as much of a surprise to me as it was to anyone else.

Truman, apparently, had bumped into his correspondent, Louis Reed – an Administrative Assistant to West Virginia Senator Chapman Revercomb – on his way to join Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn for an end-of-the-day “libation” in the Speaker’s private Capitol hideaway. It was there, a few minutes later, drink in hand, that Truman received word to call the White House. He rang up, spoke briefly, turned pale; he said “Jesus Christ and General Jackson,” put down the phone, told those present  to say nothing, and left the room alone. Then he started to run.

When Truman arrived at the White House, he was led upstairs to the private quarters, where Eleanor Roosevelt met him in the hall. “Harry,” she said, putting her arm on Truman’s shoulder, “the President is dead.” 

He felt, he recalled, like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had just fallen on him. He had only accepted the vice-presidency reluctantly; had never wanted anything other than to be a Senator; now, he was the 33rd President of the United States – and so out of the loop, it had come as a complete surprise to him that Roosevelt, the President, had been dying for months.
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