Harry Truman Seeks to Protect His Legacy

July 6, 1962

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Harry Truman Seeks to Protect His Legacy
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  • Rutherford B. Hayes

    Background

    “My debt to history is one which cannot be calculated. I know of no other motivation which so accounts for my awakening interest as a young lad in the principles of leadership and government.” Memoirs by Harry S. Truman, vol. I (1955)

    Harry Truman loved history. He was known to be an expert in military history, and a fountain of knowledge about American history, particularly the presidency, as well as ancient history. But Truman had little love or trust for historians. He believed them to be too willing to sully the image of past leaders in order to sell books and make a name for themselves. While president, Truman once told Edward Harris, a journalist for the St. Louis Dispatch, that “real history consists of the life and actions of great men. . . . Historians editorializing is in the same class as the modern irresponsible columnist.” In a letter from 1950, Truman derided “so-called historians” for trying to smear him and Franklin Roosevelt. 

    Truman saw himself as a victim of dubious portrayals of his presidency. In this July 6, 1962 letter to Dean Acheson, his old friend and secretary of state, Truman puts himself in the company of academically persecuted presidents. He writes, “Andrew Johnson, James Monroe, James Madison, Rutherford Hayes, Grover Cleveland and even Calvin Coolidge have been placed in a most embassing [embarrassing] position by people who want to make them appear as ridiculas [ridiculous] characters. Maybe I am one. But I am anxious that my good friends help me to prevent that from happening.”

    Two recent books had gotten under Truman’s skin. Herbert Feis, whose 1957 book about Truman and the Potsdam Conference won a Pulitzer Prize, released Japan Subdued in 1961. [Link to Truman/Potsdam 12 years later] In the book, Feis questions the necessity of the atomic bomb and suggests that Truman’s advisors, as much as the president himself, made the controversial decision. This bothered Truman. He firmly believed that his decision to use atomic weaponry had saved American lives, and he wanted people to know that he lived by his motto – the buck stops here. According to Truman, he did not rely on any “smart boy” or brain trust. Obviously annoyed, Truman drafted but never sent a letter to Feis in April 1962, in which he called the prominent academic, “the usual egghead.” 

    In early 1962, The Man from Missouri also ruffled Truman’s feathers. The book, by journalist and biographer Alfred Steinberg, apparently misrepresented certain aspects of Truman’s presidency. Truman owned a copy of the book, and in the margins he wrote unflattering commentary: “Never happened.” “Another big lie!” “Another lie.” “Lie.” “Another lie.” 

    In addition to academics, Truman also fought back against charges by the Soviet Union that he ordered the use of atomic bombs to intimidate Moscow. In June 1962, Truman appeared on a New York radio show to denounce what he called, “The Big Lie.” In the years to follow, much to Truman’s chagrin, revisionist historians perpetuated a similar interpretation.

    The letter shows a vulnerable side to Truman. He clearly worried about his legacy and feared that historians would paint an unflattering picture of his presidency, similar to the above-mentioned presidents. Truman asks his “good friends,” and in this case, Acheson, to push back against historians and communists about what really happened in the Truman White House. Put in Truman-esque language, he wanted his friends to “give ‘em hell.”




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    HARRY S. TRUMAN
    INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI

    July 6, 1962


    Dear Dean:-

    Well it came about at last, my historical outfit insisted that I call you.  I did, and you answered as I knew you would.

    But, Dean, if there is anything in the world I dislike to do, it is to put my good friends on the "spot."  Under no circumstances would I have called you, but because I am most interested in having the facts properly stated for the future.

    Andrew Johnson, James Monroe, James Madison, Rutherford Hayes, Grover Cleveland and even Calvin Coolidge have been placed in a most

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    embassing [sic] position by people who want to make them appear as ridiculas [sic] characters.

    Maybe I am one.  But I am anxious that my good friends help me to prevent that from happening.  You know, better than anyone, how hard I worked to meet the decisions it was necessary to make.

    Now, articles are comming [sic] out, along with books, showing I could never make a decision unless some smart boy told me how to make it.  That may have happened - but I didn't know it.

    Dean, my best to you and Alice,

    Sincerely

    HARRY.