“No one will ever study or write about the time of Truman again without a bow of gratitude to Merle Miller. Never has a president of the United States, or any head of state for that matter, been so totally revealed, so completely documented." (Robert A. Arthur)
Plain Speaking is a book based on conversations between Merle Miller and the thirty-third President of the United States, Harry S. Truman. From these interviews, as well as others who knew him over the years, Miller transcribes Truman's feisty takes on everything from his personal life, military service, and political career to the challenges he faced in taking the office during the final days of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. Using a series of taped discussions from 1962 that never aired on television, Plain Speaking takes an opportunity to deliver exactly how Mr. Truman felt about the presidency, and his thoughts in his later years on his accomplishments and the legacy he left behind.
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THE HAPPIEST CHILDHOOD
ONE WEEK in Independence I didn't talk to anyone who was less than seventy-five years old, and it was one of the pleasantest weeks of my life. People live a long time in and around Independence, and they have long memories. What's more they seem to have, all of them I talked to anyway, something in common with Mr. Truman. They have character.
I guess my favorite among them was Miss Ethel Noland, who was then seventy-nine years old, two years older than the President. She had lived her entire life in a house across the street from 219 North Delaware. Miss Noland, the Truman family historian, was a retired teacher, and if her sentences seem to have a certain sweep and grandeur to them that is perhaps because she not only read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with frequency, but also read, for pleasure, mind you, The Iliad and The Odyssey in the original Greek.
The only uneasy time I had with Miss Noland was when I had to tell her that it would be necessary for me to reach inside her bodice to hook up a throat microphone that she was to wear during one filming session.
I mentioned the matter to her with suitable diffidence, and after a moment she smiled and said, "Oh, that's quite all right. I do have a male doctor, after all, and this is almost the same thing, isn't it?"
I asked Miss Noland how she managed to keep busy since her retirement. That was not really a problem, she said. There was, first of all, her diary. She had been keeping it daily for more than sixty years. I said that that would surely be a valuable historical document, but Miss Noland said, "Oh, no, I have no intention of allowing it to be published, even should someone wish to do so. I kept it for my own satisfaction only, and that is the way it will remain. We are all very private people around here."
In addition to keeping the diary, Miss Noland went on, there were the meetings of the Historical Society, the Browning Society, the Tennyson Club, the group that discusses current events, and the Bertha K. Paxton Society. That's for ladies who find themselves going stale."
In addition, she was taking a course in modern drama taught by a young professor from the University of Kansas City. She mentioned having read the plays of Beckett, Arthur Miller, John Osborne, and Ionesco. She liked both Miller and Beckett. Of Osborne she said only, "Are things really that bad in England?" Of Ionesco, "I'm very much afraid that he escaped me completely."
I asked if her class had yet read any of Tennessee Williams.
"No," said Miss Noland, with a saintly smile, "that we still have to look forward to."
One day I asked Miss Noland, Do you think Harry Truman had a happy childhood?
"Well, of course, happiness, that is not easy to say about anyone really, is it? It is so close to being an indefinable word, and one is never quite sure — is one? — whether one is really quite happy. But Mr. Truman and I are first cousins, and I have known him, have observed him all his life, and I should say that, yes, I believe he had a happy childhood and one that was secure. Secure in the love of those, his family first, of course, but all of those who knew him. His family were all of them loving people.
"It should, I believe, be pointed out that his early environment was not nearly as poverty-stricken as many of the biographers have for some reason felt it necessary to portray. I think he has suffered a little bit from the image that has been put before the public. The fact that he did not come from a very rich family has, I think, been exaggerated.
"What has not been pointed out is that they were always very comfortable, very free of financial anxiety.
"And, of course, the picture of Mr. Truman's mother that people have been given is simply not true at all. She has been portrayed as, I believe you could say, a country bumpkin, and that is simply not the case.
"Mr. Truman's mother studied art and music at the Baptist Female College down in Lexington, Missouri. She played the piano, and she had a most remarkable idea of the proper values in life. One of them was music. Another was books. If she thought that money should be spent for a piano or for music lessons, she spent it that way.
"She never deviated from her idea of what was right, and she didn't let her children do that either. She had just about the finest set of values I have ever known. She was the type of mother that you would think would furnish a President for the United States. Her principles were so sound. Her discipline was so fine that greatness seemed to grow out of it.
"These days more and more people are beginning to act like Jimmy Hoffa, and it sometimes seems to me that a great many people are beginning to look like him, too.
"There are many things about this modern time that are desirable and good and amazing. But there are things that are fine and substantial and eternal about the nineteenth century that we will do well to hold on to. And Harry Truman is very much a man of the nineteenth century. His mother I think represented the best of those values.
"She was a most unusual woman."
Mary Jane Truman: "I suppose all of us think that we have ... a most unusual mother, but I think it truly can be said that our mother was a very fine woman. I don't believe that she had an enemy in the world, and even after my brother Harry got to be President, she couldn't resist inviting everybody in. If anybody came to our door, why, they were always welcome. Mamma would go to the door, and regardless of who they might be, she would ask them in. And sometimes we had a little difficulty because people who came were sometimes not what they should have been mentally. So we decided it was time to put up a fence and have the gate locked.
"Sometimes it wasn't really very convenient. But it was really the best thing that could have been done under the circumstances because my mother was in her nineties, and we just had to protect her from everybody seeing her, although she didn't like it at all. She just wanted to be friendly with everybody in the entire world.
"When my mother and I went to Washington not long after Harry got to be President, my brother went to the plane to take her out, and when she saw all those people, she said, 'My goodness, Harry, if I'd known this was going to happen, I wouldn't have come.' Of course, everybody quoted that, and we all laughed at her, and everybody thought she was serious. But I saw that she had a twinkle in her eye, and she had a fine sense of humor just generally, and a lot of the time when people took her seriously, she was making a joke. I don't know why people couldn't see that."
Harry Truman: "When my mother and sister came to Washington at the time I was ... in the White House, my brother had told my mother that the one bed that was not occupied was the one in the Lincoln Room, and she said, 'You tell Harry if he tries to put me in Lincoln's bed, I'll sleep on the floor,' and she would have. But I had reserved the Rose Room, which is where the queens and princesses and everybody stay, and I took her back there when she arrived, and my sister was with her. And I said, 'Mommy, here's your room.' And there was a great four-poster bed that takes a stepladder to get into — it's that high above the floor — and she looked at me and said, 'Harry, do you expect me to sleep in that thing? Is that the only bed you've got in this big house?' I said, 'No, there's several more.'
"She went around and looked in the adjoining room where the maid to the queens and princesses and that sort of thing stayed, and there was a nice little single bed in there. She said, 'That's where I'll stay,' and she did.
"She was always a woman who did the right thing, and she taught us, my brother and sister and I, that, too. We were taught that punishment always followed transgression, and where she was concerned, it always did. I was punished, and it hurt, and I tried never to do whatever it was again. They say that isn't the way to do it now, and they may be right. I don't know. All I know is that's the way I was brought up."
Judge Albert A. Ridge of the U.S. District Court in Kansas City and a veteran of Battery D: "Harry Truman grew up in a society in which a man's word was his bond. If a man's word could be trusted there was no place he couldn't go. Nobody around here ever doubted Harry Truman's word.
"When Harry was a boy, it seems to me there was more a sense of moral values than there is now, more a sense of community life. Harry Truman was brought up in that kind of life — as almost all of us were, even though we lived here in Kansas City instead of in Independence. What I'm getting at, when someone on the block got sick, my mother would go and take care of them. And if she would get sick, the neighbors would come and take care of her.
"And we weren't too proud to go next door and borrow a cup of sugar. And if we had anything that the people next door needed, why, they were welcome to it. That was the sort of era I'm talking about. Mr. Truman grew up to be a man who's devoid, I think — as men generally were in those days — of an ability to hide their faults and pretensions under that cloak of public attitude that so many public men take refuge in. Harry Truman never learned to put on a public face, and he never had a public manner. He just never learned how to be anybody except himself."
Mr. President, Judge Ridge says that in this part of the country a man's word was very important when you were a boy. A man had to stand by his word, and that's the way you were brought up.
"That's true. Unless you were a man who stood by what he said, you were not well thought of around here and you never got very far, never got anywhere at all in this part of the country.
"And you never had to sign a piece of paper when you made a bargain. If you made a trade with a man, if you said you'd take so much for so many head of cattle, why, that was what you agreed on, and if the fella you'd made the bargain with came along later, it never did matter how much time had passed or if the price might have changed in the meantime, you just lived up to what you had agreed on at that earlier time. That's what your word meant.
"In those days, in the time I was growing up and when I was a young man, people thought more of an honest man than any one thing, and if a man wasn't honest, he wouldn't stay long in the neighborhood. They would run him out.
"And I have never changed my mind since. You have to stick by your word. Trust is ... why, it has always seemed to me that unless you can trust a man and he can trust you, why, everything breaks down."
You seem to be saying that trust is like a cement that holds everything together, holds society together.
"That's a very good way to put it, yes, trust is absolutely fundamental in every possible kind of relationship, and in government. ... If the people can't trust their government, the people in their government, the whole works will fall apart."
Edgar Hinde, the former postmaster of Independence and a veteran of Battery D: "Around here if a man gives his word, we expect him to keep it, and Harry Truman always kept his word. I never heard of him breaking his word to anybody. When he told you something, you could go home and sleep on it. That was it."
Harry Truman: "I had just the happiest childhood that could ever be imagined. My brother, Vivian, and I and two or three of the neighborhood boys used to have a great time playing in the pasture south of the house out at Grandview. There was forty acres in bluegrass, and it had a little draw that ran through it, and there was a spring right in the middle. And we used to catch tadpoles and have a big time over that.
"It was a wonderful place for small boys to enjoy themselves. There wasn't any place they could go that they'd get lost, although once in a while one of them would wander over in the cornfield and get lost. I did myself. I had a dog, a little black and tan dog named Tandy, and I also had a big Maltese cat named Bob. The reason he was called Bob is that he was sleeping in front of the fireplace in the old house one time, and a coal popped out and burned off his tail.
"Bob and Tandy always followed me everywhere I went, so when I got lost over in the cornfield, my folks could watch this dog and cat working in and out among the cornstalks, catching field mice. I must have been three and a half or four years old, and I suppose I got a good spanking for running away. I don't remember the spanking, but I do remember the trip through the cornfield.
"Those were most pleasant periods of time. We had a great big swing out in the backyard in one of the big old elm trees that was there. It's gone now. And we had a hammock made out of barrel staves that hung on the north porch. And even after we moved to Independence and began to go to school, in the summertime we would go out to Grandview and spend some happy times during the vacation, my brother and I together and sometimes each one of us by himself.
"Then the rest of the kinfolk, cousins who were about our size, usually would come out there, and we would have a real time when that happened, celebrating the Fourth of July or Christmas or whatever it happened to be.
"I once read some place that a happy childhood is a very, very rare thing, and I'm sure that that is true, but I can honestly say I had one. ... Of course, we didn't have all the places to go and things to do that kids do now, and a lot of them don't see how they can get along if they don't have them. But I guess if you don't know what you're missing, you don't miss it, and so, of course, when I was a boy, we didn't have cars and movies and television and radio, none of that. We played. My mother played, and my sister and I played the piano, and we always had a houseful of books, and we read.
"And of course, we all had our chores to do, and we went to bed early and got up early and were always busy."
Were you ever bored?
"Oh, my, no. We didn't know the meaning of the word, and I'll tell you another thing. I can't remember being bored, not once in my whole life. How in the world can you be bored if you have things to think about, which I must say I always have?"
Mr. President, do you think those were better times, when you were a boy?
"Oh, I don't know about that. Comparisons like that. They're so easy to make, but I'm not sure they're ever right."
He thought for a moment, and then he said, "The only thing I'm sure of: People weren't so nervous then. All these things people have now that are supposed to entertain them and all. They just seem to end up by making everybody nervous."
Mary Jane Truman: "I don't think I could have had two nicer brothers than my brother Vivian and my brother Harry. And I suspect that maybe I took advantage of it just a little. I think they used to think I was kind of hard to live with once in a while. But my brother Harry always saw to it that I could go where I wanted to go. If there wasn't anyone else to take me, he would take me. I sometimes think that's why I never did get married. I just never met anybody who was as nice to me as Harry.
"When I was a baby, Harry used to sit on a rocking chair and sing me to sleep, and he braided my hair, and when I was outdoors, he wouldn't let me out of his sight. He was so afraid I'd hurt myself.
"He just couldn't have been nicer — and Vivian, too, of course.
"We played almost all of the games that children played in those days, and we all three had a horse to ride and did quite a bit of horseback riding. I remember one horse in particular — we called him Old Bill — and he wouldn't let the boys catch him. But I could go out and catch him in the pasture or anywhere else because I usually carried a biscuit or a piece of cake or something for him. He'd eat anything.
"He was the old buggy horse, and we drove him for years. We still had him when my brother Harry went to the First World War, and I drove him all during that time and then bought a car in the spring of 1919, shortly after my brother came home. But Old Bill was still there. We kept him as long as he lived."
One sunny summer afternoon Miss Mary Jane and I were standing on the tiny plot of land that was all that was left of the Truman home place at Grandview.
Most of the land had been turned into a neon-lighted shopping center that, naturally, is called Truman Corners. It was dominated by a large electric cat over a drugstore. The cat had malevolent brown eyes that lighted up at night, and it revolved endlessly behind the old barn in which Mary Jane, Vivian, and Harry used to play.
As Miss Truman and I stood in the field near the barn, the cat eyed us menacingly. An old C-47 groaned overhead, and there were the sounds and smells of trucks on their way to the grime and smog of downtown Kansas City. A voice on a loudspeaker shouted out a then-popular rock-and-roll song, and there was the competing noise of a disc jockey from the radio in a TV appliance store.
Miss Mary Jane listened for a moment.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Plain Speaking"
Copyright © 1974 Merle Miller.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Happiest Childhood,
2 Some Ancestors,
3 John Anderson Truman,
4 Independence and the War Between the States,
5 Banking Days and Farming,
6 On Battery D,
7 Harry Truman, Madge Gates Wallace, and the Haberdashery,
8 The Haberdashery,
9 Early Politics,
10 The Only Defeat — and Then Victory,
11 The First Race for the Senate,
12 The 1940 Campaign,
13 The Truman Committee,
14 The Convention and the Campaign of 1944,
15 The End and the Beginning,
17 On Herbert Hoover,
18 Los Ninos Heroes,
19 My Biggest Mistake,
20 The Bomb,
21 General Marshall and the Marshall Plan,
22 The 1948 Victory,
23 The Korean Decision,
24 Firing the General,
25 God Bless America,
26 On Generals in General,
27 A Few Further Observations on "Ike",
28 Five Weak Presidents,
29 What Ruins a Man,
30 Of Painting and B. Berenson,
31 On Evangelists,
32 An Attempted Assassination,
33 The Dean Resigns,
34 On J. Edgar Hoover,
35 The CIA,
36 Some Friends and Neighbors, Too,
37 The Library Tour,
38 The Cause and Cure of Hysteria,