Former PresidentHarry Truman on President John F. Kennedy's Handling of Racial Violence and the Cuban Missile Crisis

October 12, 1962

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Former PresidentHarry Truman on President John F. Kennedy's Handling of Racial Violence and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Autograph Letter Signed
3 pages | SMC 1426

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      Harry Truman was a student of American history and of the presidency. He often used historical examples to analyze contemporary politics and measure presidential successes and failures. In this letter to his former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, Truman relies on his understanding of history to gauge political events unfolding around him. In the process, he reveals his appreciation for past presidents who took decisive action – Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and Grover Cleveland – and his skepticism of John Kennedy, whom he regarded as a weak and inexperienced leader.

      Truman penned this letter only days after mob violence had enveloped the University of Mississippi over the issue of desegregation on the evening of September 30, 1962, as James Meredith, a black veteran, planned to enroll at the all-white school. On top of racial violence, Soviet brinksmanship brought the specter of nuclear war to America’s doorstep: Cuban leader Fidel Castro sought Soviet assistance after the Kennedy administration’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, which led to a massive buildup of Soviet weaponry off the coast of Florida. 

      Truman suggests that the explosive situations in Mississippi and Cuba could have been avoided with appropriate, decisive presidential action from Kennedy, whom he refers to here not by name but only as "the man in charge," and "the man in the White House," similar to how Lincoln dealt with South Carolina’s secession in 1860, and Cleveland’s handling of Venezuela’s boundary dispute with Great Britain in 1895. Never a fan of Dwight Eisenhower, either, Truman’s reference to Arkansas likely alludes to federal-state conflict over the desegregation of a high school in Little Rock in 1957. 

      Only days after Truman’s letter to Acheson, President Kennedy received confirmation that the Soviet Union had quietly installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The resulting thirteen harrowing days in October became the Cuban Missile Crisis, and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Perhaps Truman would have gone easier on Kennedy in this letter  had he known that the President would soon display sure-handedness with the Russians in Cuba. 

      Truman likens himself to the presidents that he held in high regard. He reminds Acheson of how he preempted Soviet inroads into Greece and Turkey with the Truman Doctrine, and how he outwitted Stalin with a prolonged airlift of supplies to the besieged city of Berlin. In many correspondences, Truman often displayed a modest, self-effacing character. In this case, conscious of his boasting, he cites his own egotism. 

      Truman closes the letter with a note of admiration for Acheson and George Marshall, two men who served as his invaluable secretaries of state. It is possible to read this as a swipe against Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy’s Attorney General and trusted advisor, who had the president’s ear during the crisis in Mississippi and the two crises in Cuba. Truman had few compliments for either Kennedy, and he despised their father, Joe Kennedy, but he was still a loyal fellow Democrat, who supported the Party, and even campaigned for Kennedy. 

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      Oct. 12, 1962

      Dear Dean:-  My being fed up with you is an impossibility.  I have been from Philadelphia to San Francisco, Los Angeles to Boise, Idaho and back again to Youngstown, Ohio - to Clarksburg West Va and Evansville, Indiana.  All, I hope in the interest of the Democratic Party.  That's the reason you haven't heard from me.

      You tell Dr. Noble  to come to see me and he'll get what he wants.  These archives boys are trying to obtain what Dr. Noble wants to see before I'm ready to turn them over.  Dr [sic] Noble will have no trouble - but tell him to come to see me -  

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      not the Archivists!
      I'm glad you are going on a vacation - wish I could.

      Arkansas and Mississippi are bad examples of what can happen when the man in charge (in Washington) is not sure of his powers.  You remember what old Andy did to So. Carolina and what Old Abe had to do in '61.

      As to Cuba, the man in the White House when it started should have stopped it at the beginning.  Grover Cleveland acted in Venezuela and without.  I hope your [sic] thinking I'm haywire and an egotist, Berlin, Greece and Turkey were in the same category.

      Damn it, Dean, you are one man who can say to me what you please 

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      any time anywhere on any subject.

      You and George Marshall had the keenest minds I ever came in contact with.  What a hell of a fix I'd have been in without the two of you.

       Most sincerely


      "Aint [sic] a man a darn fool to do what I'm doing when he don't have to"

       That's a quotation from Sen. Holman of Oregon when I gave him permission to fly over  Attu in World War II with Mon Walgren [sic].  I stayed in Seatle [sic] and they went on a jaunt which they wished they had nit [sic] taken.  At least Holman though [sic] that way.


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      Air Mail

      Honorable Dean Acheson,
      Union Trust Bldg.,
      Washington D.C.