Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman

Larry Holzwarth - October 28, 2017

Harry S Truman – the S does not correspond to any name – became the 33rd President of the United States when the nation stood at a crossroads of history. America was about to supplant the British Empire as the world’s peacekeeper. World War II in Europe was winding down, and the Soviet Union was emerging as the most powerful nation in the Eurasian world. America – unknown to Truman when he took the oath of office – was about to detonate the first atomic bomb. The United States Navy was the largest and most powerful the world had ever seen. The Great Depression had been finally quelled by US war production.

Truman faced challenges that no other American President had ever had to consider; the rebuilding of postwar Europe; the final defeat of Japan; the demobilization of the largest military the US would ever produce; the retooling of American industry; the postwar economy; and the clamor of nations across the globe demanding autonomy. The American people were sick of depression, sick of shortages, tired of sacrifice, and weary of war.

After twelve years of the autocratic and lordly Franklin Roosevelt Americans weren’t sure what to expect from the plain-spoken and humble Truman. It was the general consensus that he wasn’t up to the job, not in experience, education, or even stature. He was an unknown former senator from Missouri, owned by the political machine of Tom Pendergast. More than seventy years later he is frequently cited as one of America’s great presidents. Here are some reasons Americans finally warmed to Harry Truman.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
The Official Presidential Portrait of the 33rd President, Harry S Truman. Truman Library

He was the last president not to attain a college degree.

Truman never completed a college degree although he did attend college for a short time, taking shorthand, typing, and business classes at Spalding’s Commercial College in Kansas City, Missouri after completing high school. Much later, in 1923-25 he attended law classes at the Kansas City Law School but he completed neither his degree nor his law license. He continued his education on his own as a life-long reader and through the depth of his experiences.

He worked for a period as a timekeeper for a railroad, living in what were then known as hobo camps, usually located near the railways. Later he worked as a clerk/teller for the National Bank of Commerce in Kansas City. He roomed in a local boarding house; one of his fellow boarders was Arthur Eisenhower, the eldest brother of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would loom large later in Truman’s life.

By the time Truman occupied the White House it was common for the president to be college-educated, and the fact that he did not become a factor among his political opponents and enemies in the press. As President, Truman at one time sought to acquire a law license, perhaps with an eye at practicing law after leaving Washington. By the time his staff had figured out the details of applying he had changed his mind.

Despite lacking a college education Truman’s voracious reading and astute observations of personalities made him well informed on world events and politics. As President, he remained well-read and was always fully informed on all of the details on any issue placed in front of him, although he could not refrain from sometimes speaking disparagingly of those with degrees from prestigious Eastern schools such as Yale and Princeton.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
The President and staff playing poker aboard the Presidential Yacht USS Williamsburg, July 4th, 1949. Truman Library

He was an inveterate poker player

Truman was a poker player long before entering the White House and he enjoyed the game so much that as President he had a set of chips made embossed with the Presidential Seal. The famous phrase associated with Truman – The Buck Stops Here – was a reference to poker, derived from the use of a buckhorn knife being used to designate the button, for the position of the dealer. Truman by most admissions played the game well and preferred to play stud poker, with no wild cards.

Winston Churchill enjoyed poker too, although by most admissions he did not play particularly well, and his fondness for brandy helped his play deteriorate as a game went on. In one game played in the President’s private rail car, the Ferdinand Magellan, both Churchill and Truman played, with several other notables and members of the press alternating in the other seats.

While Churchill was on a break from the game, Truman warned his fellow players to allow the statesman to start winning. Whether it was out of sympathy or the President had diplomatic reasons for instructing the others to go easy on Churchill has never been revealed; Truman said no more about the matter.

After leaving the presidency Truman continued to enjoy the game, playing in a weekly poker group comprised of local businessmen (mostly Republicans) in the 822 Club in Kansas City, Missouri. Truman tried to avoid being photographed while playing during his presidency, a whim he discarded during his retirement. (Note: In the photo above he is watching, not playing) His successor, Dwight Eisenhower, decided that poker presented a poor image for a world leader, and frequently played contract bridge instead.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
President Jimmy Carter revived Truman’s favorite sign for a time, despite considerable ridicule. C-Span

His famous desk sign came from a prison

Harry Truman’s desk featured for a time (but not, as commonly believed, for his entire Presidency) a sign which on the side facing outward from his desk read, “The Buck Stops Here.” The sign is an icon of his administration and was given to him by a friend who knew that Truman would appreciate the sentiment and its relationship to the game of poker. The friend was Fred Canfil, an associate of Truman’s since the latter’s days as a Missouri judge.

Canfil saw the sign on the Warden’s desk at the Reno, Oklahoma Federal Reformatory. When Canfil asked about the sign’s origin he was told that it had been made by an inmate in the prison’s workshops. Canfil asked if a similar sign could be made for the President and the Warden relayed the request to the workshops.

By the fall of 1945, the sign was on its way to the President in the Oval Office. Truman referred to the sign frequently during his presidency, musing on the meaning of its message.

The sign contained another message on the back – the side facing Truman as he sat at his desk. There the message read “I’m from Missouri.” Truman was thus reminded on a continuing basis of his roots, and his background which led him to the desk at which he sat, as well as the rules of poker.

It should be noted that in the game of poker the buck signifies the position of dealer, a player not wanting the responsibility of dealing – and thus supervising – the game passes the buck to another player.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
A retired President Truman takes the keys to a 1960 Dodge Polara. Throughout his life Truman preferred Chrysler products. Amazon

Harry Truman Loved Automobiles and Driving

Harry Truman’s first automobile was a 1911 Stafford. Before Truman entered the army in 1917 that company was already defunct. His century was the century of the automobile and cross-country car trips, and Truman participated in them wholeheartedly. Truman simply loved to drive.

When he left the presidency in 1953 he almost immediately purchased a 1953 Chrysler Windsor. That car was soon replaced by a 1955 New Yorker, which he would shortly drive across the country to New York. At the time of his death in 1972, Truman owned a 1972 Chrysler Newport, purchased only a few months earlier. His widow Bess used the car for another ten years.

Truman’s lifelong love of driving fostered a thorough knowledge of roads and the necessity of building better ones to connect the nation. Most of his driving predated Interstate highways, fast food stops, and roadside hotels. When Truman planned his road trips he did so using free gas station supplied maps, estimates of daily mileage based on road conditions, and town directories to locate lodgings. As president, he chafed at being driven, with at least one notable exception.

In July 1947 President Truman left an engagement in Charlottesville Virginia to motorcade back to Washington. Despite Secret Service protests, Truman insisted on taking the wheel of the Presidential limousine (it was a road he knew well from his days as a senator) and driving home. Reporters in the following car clocked the president at speeds exceeding 65 mph, well over the state speed limit of 50. When the Presidential transgression was reported in a Richmond newspaper. Truman wrote an angry and defensive letter in reply, pointing out the motorcade had a Virginia State Police escort and Truman could not have exceeded their speed. Any violation was therefore theirs, not his. He never sent the letter. It was found in his papers at the Truman Library.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
The President’s personal Scotch and Bourbon crystal set saw steady use. Truman kept Scotch on hand for guests, he preferred Bourbon as his beverage.

He was fond of bourbon

Harry Truman enjoyed the relatively simple diet of his native Missouri. Upon entering the White House he and his wife Bess were dismayed at the quality of the food service as practiced under the Roosevelt administration. Bess immediately took steps to bring the White House kitchens up to her standards, while Harry continued to enjoy the simple, straightforward meals which had always sustained him.

He continued another habit which had long sustained him as well – he enjoyed a morning bracer of a stiff shot of bourbon. It was consumed after his daily two-mile walk, always completed at a brisk marching pace, outdoors in any weather. Today such a habit is looked at with near shock, but Truman wasn’t the first President to imbibe a morning bracer, nor likely the last.

It was not unusual among other world leaders either, Churchill started his day with brandy and the newspapers in bed, deGaulle was known to enjoy champagne and orange juice in the morning. Truman did not allow his fondness for bourbon to cloud his judgment. For example, in 1947 he declared a sixty-day moratorium on shipping grain to all distilleries in order to increase supplies available for shipping to starving Europe.

Still, he and Bess had definite ideas of how they liked their bourbon served, although they both referred to their evening libation as an Old Fashioned. When they first came to the White House they made this preference known to the long-serving house barman, who promptly served them properly with muddled fruit, sugar and bourbon. They were just as promptly rejected.

After several exasperating attempts to create an Old Fashioned to meet their pleasure without success, the barman asked the Truman’s for specific directions on the preparation of their drinks. Both Harry and Bess wanted straight bourbon, over ice, served in an Old Fashioned glass. And that is how they had them.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Former President Harry Truman at the groundbreaking ceremonies for his Presidential Library in 1955. Senator Stuart Symington stands to Truman’s right. Truman Library

He was one of the first Presidents to build a Presidential Library

As a reader and lover of history throughout his long life, Harry Truman was acutely aware of the value of his papers to posterity. He believed that consolidating all of the records of his life in a single setting would provide a valuable tool to future historians, giving them insights into the events of a lifetime as measured against the trials and activities of both the President and the many who advised and counseled him.

His papers to be preserved included personal letters and diaries, notes, books read with the corresponding marginal notations of the reader, personal preferences, official documents and records, and all of the minutiae of his existence.

To create this archive, Truman actively participated in the raising of funds and the selection of a suitable site for his Presidential Library. One of the first steps was the writing and publication of his memoirs. When Truman left the presidency there was no financial provision for a pension, a staff, Secret Service protection for the ex-president or his family, or even the means to get home. President Eisenhower graciously lent the former President the private railcar Ferdinand Magellan to convey the President home. Truman did not drive home, despite a longstanding myth that he did.

To build his library, Truman solicited donations, made paid public appearances, wrote articles and op-eds for newspapers and magazines, and did whatever else he could to generate sufficient capital. His success and the ongoing dedication of others built the Truman Library, located in Independence Missouri.

The first to be built under the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act, which encouraged but did not fund such endeavors, it is now operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. Truman spent the last years of his life actively working at the library, training staff, giving lectures, and meeting with visiting students of all ages.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Because of White House renovations, Truman resided in the Blair House during a 1950 attempt on his life. White House Museum

He survived two assassination attempts while President

Twice attempts were made on Truman’s life while he was President, although only the second is well known. In the first attempt in 1947, Zionist terrorists known as the Stern Gang tried to kill the President (as well as British officials including Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden) through the use of letter bombs. These attempts failed when the letter bombs were diverted by first British police, who then alerted the US Secret Service.

At the time US recognition of a Jewish state of Israel was still much in doubt, one of the reasons being Truman’s concern over such Zionist terror activities in Palestine. Truman later led US recognition of Israel.

The second and more well-known, although myth-laden, occurred during the White House renovation project when Truman and his family were living in the Blair House. Puerto Rican Nationalists wanting an independent state for the island targeted the Blair House in an attempt to kill the President on November 1, 1950.

The attack was near suicidal in nature, and the two attackers engaged in a shootout with White House Police and Secret Service Officers. One attacker and one officer were killed and three others wounded including the second attacker, Oscar Collazo, who recovered. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, later commuted to time served in 1979.

Truman had been napping upstairs in Blair House when the attack began and glanced briefly out of the window towards the gunfight which was occurring about thirty feet away. He was immediately hustled aside by Secret Service officers. This led to the apocryphal story that Truman, awakened from his nap, had shouted out the window demanding to know what was going on.

In reality, Truman was visibly shaken by the attempt and the loss of an officer and mulled over both in his diary for some time after. The myth of his belligerence under fire has only grown with the passage of time.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Truman spent 175 days at Key West’s Little White House during his Presidency, both working vacations and relaxation time. US Navy

He loved Key West Florida’s Little White House

In 1942 President Roosevelt had taken a federal government camp built by the WPA and jokingly renamed it Shangri La (now Camp David) for use as a Presidential retreat and vacation ground. Truman used it rarely, finding the rustic nature of the camp not to his taste.

He preferred to vacation instead of at what became known as the Little White House, a former residence of the Commandant of the Naval Base at Key West Florida. Truman made it his winter White House beginning in 1946. Eventually, he spent 11 vacations there for a total of 175 days during his nearly eight years in office.

His vacations were usually working vacations and the activities at Key West reflect that. The meetings creating the Department of Defense were conducted there and the result codified as the Key West Accord. Truman announced what became known as the Truman Doctrine – a promise to resist Soviet expansionism – just before leaving for a working vacation at Key West; dealing with the repercussions and remonstrations of world leaders and the press was handled from there. Much of what became the Marshall Plan was hammered out there.

The Navy expanded communication and transportation capabilities to the point that the President at the Little White House enjoyed the same access to information that he had in Washington. But it wasn’t all work there. While in residence Truman enjoyed deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and occasional cruises on the Presidential yacht, although Army man to the bone he was never an appreciative sailor.

Truman freely enjoyed the small-town atmosphere of Key West itself, and he was never without cronies for a game of poker or conversation over bourbon in the evenings. After he left the Presidency he returned no less than five times, staying at the private residence of friends. The Little White House is now owned by the State of Florida and operated as a museum, remodeled to match its appearance when Truman used it to recharge his batteries.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Margaret Truman (reflected in mirror) and her voice coach just prior to her performance at Constitution Hall. Critic Paul Hume was less than impressed. Truman Library

He once threatened a critic of his daughter’s singing

Harry Truman was a student of the piano and a lifelong lover of music. This passion was reflected in his daughter Margaret, who desired a singing career. In 1950 Margaret performed a recital at Washington’s venerable Constitution Hall, which was reviewed the following morning in the Washington Post. The reviewer, a gentleman by the name of Paul Hume, was not impressed and said so in his review.

He described her voice as being “…of little size…” and commented that her singing “…has not improved in the years we have heard her…cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.” Truman the President chose to respond as Truman the incensed father in a letter to the Post dated December 6th.

Truman called it a “…lousy review…” and informed the critic that he was an “…eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.” Truman informed the writer, “Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose…” It is an indication of the character of both men that years later they exchanged somewhat more cordial letters and between them the incident was forgotten, although as President Truman was the recipient of much criticism over the letter.

Truman’s love of music also got him in trouble with his wife Bess on at least one occasion. Truman, then Vice President, was at the National Press Club on a Saturday in February 1945. During the war, the Club was open to servicemen on Saturday nights. Actress Lauren Bacall, not yet a big star, was there too. Truman was attracted to a piano in the ballroom and sat down to play, to amuse both the troops and himself.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry: 9 Amazing Facts about President Harry Truman
Bess Truman was none-too-pleased with this and other photos of her husband and Lauren Bacall which ran in several newspapers. Truman Library

Enterprising photographers in the room convinced Bacall to sit on the top of the piano as Truman played, which she did, lounging across the top of the piano and smiling down at the grinning Vice President, both obviously enjoying themselves. The photos ran in papers across the country the next day and Bess was livid by all accounts. Bess informed the soon-to-be President that on no condition should he ever play the piano in public again. Although he did play in public again, albeit it rarely, his piano was always thereafter unadorned.