A New Presidency: The First 100 Days

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | April 29, 2017

April 29, 2017
Add to History Board Share Print

Implicit in the modern American presidency (until, perhaps, this year) is a period of benign public acquiescence dubbed “the presidential honeymoon.” For an administration’s first 100 days, traditionally, critics are quiet, hope is extended, and the phrase “Give him a chance” is heard as if on a loop. Even long-standing complaints, during these pleasant intervals, are usually muted. Such was the case when, in 1960, a new president, unlike any before him, came into office, and Harry Truman had a bone to pick with him…

Experience, it seemed to Truman, wasn’t what it used to be. John F. Kennedy, the youngest person elected president, was to Truman, untested and, perhaps, too hopeful. Now, our 45th president, conversely at 70 the oldest person ever to be sworn in as president, is untested too, and the only one to have no military or governmental experience whatsoever. Whether that will prove to be another story altogether, remains to be seen – but for now, we take a salutary backward glance at Truman’s concerns about JFK’s “immaturity…”

Former President Truman Assesses New President Kennedy: “Let’s Hope the Hopeful Works”

Ever since the Founding Fathers named experience the quality most necessary in a president, those contending to steer the ship of state have been expected to have been, metaphorically at least, to sea. This has been true right up until the present revolutionary moment when, as of January 20th, 2017, a new president who has not, for a single day, in any capacity hitherto served, now leads a government. It goes to show how far standards have fallen, then, that Kennedy’s 1960 election, vivid still to baby boomers, was controversial because the winning candidate, at only 43, despite having been a war hero, congressman, senator, and Pulitzer prize-winning historian, was nonetheless deemed insufficiently experienced to be president. Doing the deeming, albeit in private, were two of the leading lights of President Kennedy’s own party: the heralded Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and Harry Truman, the sole Democratic former president then living. Here is what they said to one another…

Residents of West Berlin showing their children to the grandparents who reside on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall, May 9, 1961
Residents of West Berlin showing their children to the grandparents who reside on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall, May 9, 1961. RareHistoricalPhotos.com.

On September 21, 1961, Acheson wrote a “somber…. highly confidential” letter to warn his old boss to beware of saying anything supporting the new president on Berlin – a situation he was sure would prove a debacle. “Count one hundred before you comment” on JFK’s foreign policy there, he cautioned. “The First Amendment protects silence as well as speech.” The problem was that Russia’s  Nikita Khrushchev had, the month before, illegally erected a wall between West and East Berlin, locking in the latter’s Communist-dominated population (which had been pouring west through the city’s open borders at the rate of about 100,000 a year.) Kennedy initially called up 75,000 troops in response, shipped 40,000 mostly to Germany, and again, on September 19th, called up 73,000 more reservists. Acheson, his recommendations to the White House unheeded, feared that by autumn “we are in for a most humiliating defeat over Berlin.” JFK’s administration was weak and vacillating, he insisted; America’s allies were in full retreat. Nothing would be done; half of Berlin would be lost to Soviet domination – but, and here is what Acheson did not see, the crucial point to Kennedy was better a wall than a war. What looked like appeasement to Acheson, read as time on the clock to JFK. And Truman, perhaps surprisingly, backed up the president in his response, though he remained mindful of JFK’s faults:

September 25, 1961.

Your somber note gave me the most depressing viewpoint I’ve had since Jan 20th 1953. [General Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom Truman despised, succeeded him as president on that day.]

I can’t agree with you.  We saved Berlin once.  We will have to do it again.  The Russian Dictator [Khrushchev] is one of those who can’t face issues when they are met head on.

You must remember that our head of state is young, inexperienced and hopeful.  Let’s hope the hopeful works.

Truman’s support of Kennedy, however, had not come naturally. In the 1960 primaries, he had supported Missouri’s Senator Stuart Symington – and in so doing, publicly attacked JFK as immature and inexperienced.  Kennedy’s July victory at the 1960 Democratic Convention left Truman “blue as indigo,” he confessed, writing here to Acheson in August, and he still felt “stuck with taking the lesser or the most of two evils – or none at all.”

John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman
On his first full day in office, President John F. Kennedy confers with Former President Harry Truman. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

I have been as blue as indigo since the California meeting in L.A. It was a travesty on the Convention System….  You and I are stuck with taking the lesser or the most of two evils – or none at all…. So, I am taking the immature Democrat as the best of what’s before us. Nixon is impossible. There we are. I hoped my stand before the Convention might help – but it didn’t… Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that the devil has a hand in most things – and he certainly ran the L.A. Convention. When we look at the history of this great country we wonder how the hell we arrived at the top notch of things where we are. I am sure that’s what the oldsters thought in 1828, 1840 and 1852 and sure enough in 1860. Well we came out on top in all those dates. Let’s hope to God we’ll do it again. It is going to take Him to do it!

But if the “boy” was too young, too inexperienced, even too Catholic – what he was, most objectionably, was Joe Kennedy’s son, and the isolationist, pro-McCarthy Joe Kennedy was someone Truman loathed. “It’s not the Pope I’m afraid of,” he once famously cracked, “it’s the pop.” But Jack Kennedy called and courted, and ultimately Truman, at the age of 76, campaigned for him in nine states.  The day after Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, Truman was welcomed back into the Oval Office for the first time in eight years.

Like Kennedy, our current president has endured criticism from members of his own party almost from the moment of taking office. But Trump, instead of enjoying the traditional presidential honeymoon, has a job approval rating, 100 days in office, at a record low — 40%. Counting down from Eisenhower, he ranks dead last. In this he trails the second lowest, Bill Clinton, by a staggering 15 points. Who was the highest? JFK, at 83%.

HARRY S TRUMAN. 1884 – 1972. The 33rd President of the United States.

DEAN ACHESON. 1893 – 1971. Harry Truman’s Secretary of State and cherished friend.

Autograph Letter Signed (“Harry”), 1 page, octavo, on his personal letterhead, no place [Independence, Mo.], September 25, 1961. To his ex-Secretary of State Dean Acheson. In response to Acheson’s letter to Truman dated September 21, 1961.

Autograph Letter Signed (“Harry”), 2 pages, quarto, on his personal letterhead, Independence, Missouri, August 26, 1960. To Dean Acheson.

JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY. 1917 – 1963. The 35th President of the United States.

Manuscripts Related To This Article