Remarks at a White House Luncheon Commemorating the Centennial of the Birth of Harry S. Truman

May 8, 1984

Well, ladies and gentlemen and honored guests, thank you for joining us today. And may I say to Margaret Truman Daniel that it's good to have you back in this house in which you lived, and we thank you and your husband, Clifton Daniel, and your sons for adding to this occasion by your presence.

We have some other honored guests here today, some old friends who served on the staff of the Truman White House. We even have some current members of the White House staff who served under President Truman. And I think they all deserve a round of applause. [Applause]

We are here today to honor Harry S. Truman. A long century has passed since he was born a hundred years ago today, but he's still a vital presence. He lives on in the American consciousness. He is a shared memory. Harry Truman in the pearl-grey Stetson and the light-grey suit and the round-rimmed glasses and the walking stick. Harry Truman on his morning stroll, the brisk cadence of his walk matched by the blunt rhythm of his speech. Plain-spoken, plain-talking, no-nonsense Harry.

``Little Harry,'' some people called him when he first took Roosevelt's place. ``Little man,'' they called him the day F.D.R. died. Funny that ``Little Harry'' looms so large in our memories. He was in many ways the quintessential American. He was a patriot. He loved his country. He was an unpretentious man who esteemed common sense and common wisdom. And he was most American in this: Imbedded in his heart, like a piece of gold, was a faith that said that the ideals that shape this country are enduring, that they are continually reborn as we live our lives every day.

Once at a White House luncheon very much like this one, a big lunch with the leaders of his party in attendance, Harry Truman was criticized for one of the many good but controversial things that he'd done. He had recently put forward a 10-point plan to outlaw racial segregation. And a Democratic committeewoman from Alabama stood up and said, ``Mr. President, I want to take a message back to the South. Can I tell them you're not ramming miscegenation down our throats?''

Harry Truman looked at her, and then he recited the Bill of Rights. And when he was done he said, ``I'm everybody's President. I take back nothing of what I propose, and I make no excuse for it.'' A White House waiter became so excited listening to the argument that he accidentally knocked a cup of coffee out of the President's hands. [Laughter]

He was born in the center of the continent. Lamar, Missouri, was farm country, and as a young man, Harry worked the family farm. It was a hard life, up at the first light working the fields. But there must have been a part of Harry Truman that even then was working on silent dreams. In the summer of 1912, he kept stopping his plow and walking into town to go to the telegraph office to keep up with what was happening at the Democratic Convention. He had great hopes for Woodrow Wilson.

He left the farm to fight in the First World War. About a month after he landed in France they made him a captain and put him in charge of a battery that had already broken four commanders. Captain Truman called the sergeants and corporals together and said, ``It's not my job to get along with you. It's your job to get along with me. And let me know if you don't think you can, so I can bust you back right now.'' [Laughter] They knew they had a leader. They adored Captain Harry for the rest of their lives. And many of them were still writing to him when he lived in this house.

When he returned to the States, he made what I suspect he would call the most important decision of his life. He married his beloved Bess. She was, in the deepest sense, his soul mate, as Margaret was his joy.

He opened a haberdashery in Kansas City, did well for a while, and then lost everything. He refused to declare bankruptcy and spent the next 15 years working off his debts. Harry Truman's life found its true purpose when he went into politics. History records his first political job. He was appointed Postmaster of Grand View, Missouri. But he passed the job on to a widow, who needed the money.

On the day he became President, he said, ``I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.'' And in a way they had. History handed him the toughest of all tasks -- to explain to his troubled countrymen that all their efforts in 4 years of war had not assured the victory of freedom, that the struggle against totalitarianism would have to continue, and that the victories would not be as clear cut as those of World War II and the battlelines would keep moving.

He led the fight to save Greece, which was threatened by a vicious Communist takeover attempt. He saved Berlin, which Stalin threatened to starve, encircle, and squeeze to death. He saved South Korea when it was threatened by Communist expansionism. He tried to protect the West. He protected it wherever he had to.

He was often criticized for his decisions, and he was sometimes alone. Later, after listening to attacks on what was called ``Trumanism,'' he took to his diary and wrote, ``Let us define Trumanism. We have built up our Armed Forces. We prevented Tito from taking Trieste. We forced Stalin out of Iran. We saved Greece and Turkey. We stayed in Berlin. We knocked the socks off the Communists in Korea. We gave the Philippines free government. And we gave Puerto Rico home rule. If that's Trumanism, I confess I'm proud to have my name attached to it.''

He could have added that he showed the world the depth of America's commitment to freedom when he started NATO. He could have added that when the war was over, he and General Marshall considered the burned-out rubble of Europe and put together a plan to put our former allies and our former enemies back on their feet. And the Marshall plan saved Europe. It was in its way the most stunning act of American idealism since Lincoln declared his policy of ``malice toward none; and charity for all.'' And you have to go back to Grant telling Lee to keep his sword to find another such moment of American grace.

None of his decisions were made without cost. By 1948 the joke of the day was, ``To err is Truman.'' Tom Dewey was picking his Cabinet. At the Democratic Convention, they carried signs that said, ``We're just mild about Harry.'' Even the symbolism was against him. When he walked into the Convention Hall, they released 50 doves that had been hidden under a liberty bell as a symbol of peace. The doves were weak from the heat and the long confinement. The first one one fell dead to the floor. Another circled frantically looking for a landing place, a safe place -- finally spotted a smooth and shiny perch, and it was Sam Rayburn's head. [Laughter] Truman recounted the scene for years and couldn't control his laughter. [Laughter]

Harry Truman won the nomination and went to the people on a whistlestop tour, going from point to point throughout the country and bringing his message, explaining what he was doing and why and how the Congress was thwarting his efforts. Everyone knew he'd lose. The commentators said so, and the polls and the politicians. But a funny thing happened. Everywhere his train went, the people went, thronging the platforms and spilling onto the grass and the sidewalks. They cheered him on. ``Give 'em hell, Harry,'' they'd say. ``Pour it on.'' And Truman said, ``I never give 'em hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell.'' [Laughter]

I have, if you'll permit me, a personal recollection. It was in California, and I was just a Hollywood character at the time. And he came to Hollywood to speak at an outdoor rally at one of those dirt tracks for the midget automobile races that were so popular at the time. And Georgie Jessel -- whom, I believe, if my memory is correct, it was Harry Truman had named him as the ``Toastmaster General of the United States'' -- and I rode in the open car to that meeting, in the back seat with President Truman. Open car. Those were a different time than they are today. [Laughter]

But I remember on the way over, he and Jessel had known each other for quite some time, and George was asking him -- because this was when all the talk was going on how he was conducting a lost cause -- and George asked him about the election. And I shall never forget -- that not as a kind of a campaign declaration or anything else, just very quietly, Harry Truman said, ``George, I'm going to win.'' He just said, ``I've been out and across the country,'' and he said, ``believe me, I'm going to win reelection.'' And -- had occasion to remember that a few months later. [Laughter]

Election night, the returns came in, and when it was over, Harry Truman had won by 2 million votes. He held aloft a newspaper headline, smiled his great smile, and gave us a picture we'll never forget, because there just aren't that many photographs of greatness triumphant.

Well, that's the way a lot of us remember him. And that's where I'll end my remarks. But I ask you to join me in a toast to his memory.

One hundred years ago today was born Harry S Truman, first child and eldest son of John and Martha Truman of Independence, Missouri. He was a great man, a patriot, an idealist, and he understood the world. May the heartland of this country ever yield his kind.

Now, may I say one more thing from my heart. I have lauded Harry Truman for his profound resolve to stop Communist expansionism and for trying to protect the freedom of the West. May I say that in this effort, he received the essential support of a Congress that understood that freedom is not negotiable. And the only response to expansionism is bipartisan agreement to stop it. And in those days, Democrats and Republicans alike were united in their opposition to tyranny. And seeing this unity, the Soviet Union was forced to back down.

The bipartisan spirit is still desperately needed in our times to face challenges to freedom ever closer to home, and I pray that it is still awake and will prevail.

Thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:07 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House.