David McCullough


VTR Date: June 11, 1992

Guest: McCullough, David


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David McCullough
Title: “Give ‘em Hell, Harry”
VTR: 6/11/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

Many years ago, as a young American historian, I first ventured into broadcasting with a special half-hour radio program produced largely in the filed that began with the question put to citizens from many different parts of our nation: “Where were you on April 12, 1945…what were your feelings?”

That day when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, his Vice President thrust into the Presidency of a nation at war, one great American, David Lilenthal, then head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, later of the Atomic Energy Commission, summed up his feelings quite succinctly: “Complete disbelief. That was first. Then a sick, hapless feeling. Then consternation at the thought of that throttlebottom, Truman”.

Well, many of us, perhaps most of us, felt the same way that fateful day nearly half a century ago. I know I did. “That throttlebottom”, indeed! Right to the essence of our nation’s fix on the new leader of the free world. Yet not four years later I so proudly cast my very first vote for President of the United States for Harry S. Truman…and I only wish I could do so again, today.

Of course, historian David McCullough has done just that in his wonderfully evocative and, indeed, quite magisterial biography of the President, entitled simply – in keeping with the essence of this great but simple American – “Truman”, published now by Simon and Schuster.

Winner of the National Book Award (twice) also the Francis Parkman Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, Mr. McCullough may be most widely known as host of the PBS television series “The American Experience” and as narrator of such highly acclaimed documentaries as “LBJ” and “The Civil War”. And I hope he won’t feel here on my program today that I’m stepping on his lines if I read from the concluding pages of his “Truman”. But what he wrote is at once so compelling and inspiring that I can’t resist: “Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition. Never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any President since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines…work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear. Yet he was not and had not ever been a simple, ordinary man. The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of this friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good m an. And a great American President”.

And, Mr. McCullough, envying you the ability to write as you have about Truman, your choice of subject, I just wonder what light this man and his experiences throw for you upon our present situation. After all, historians are all always “present” minded.

McCullough: I’m very glad you began with David Lilenthal because David Lilenthal not only saw Harry Truman as “throttlebottom” and was grief-stricken both over the death of Franklin Roosevelt and what he saw as the fate of the American people in the midst of a war, still of course. But later became on of Truman’s greatest admirers, and in my view, one of the ablest people that Truman had in his administration. Ad if there’s a lesson in that I suppose it’s…we should not leap to conclusions. And in the case of Harry Truman there was always there…more there than met the eye. He, he was not the simple, ordinary fellow he seemed, but he was a fellow who, no matter what seemed to happen to him would rise to the occasion, including the Presidency at the most difficult time imaginable. He faced the most momentous, unprecedented decisions in his first several moths in office of any President in our history, including Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. And he was also in a formal sense, as poorly prepared as al most anybody has ever been taking the office. I came to the conclusion as I was working on the book that this, this man wasn’t, wasn’t ill-equipped for the Presidency. He was superbly equipped for the Presidency. And I thought maybe this would be a wonderful new revelation to spring upon my reader in the midst of the story. And then I was reading through Samuel Elliot Morrison’s great one volume history of the United States and he says exactly that. That though Truman had no formal education beyond high school, and though he seemed to have this very sort of pedestrian background, small town life, back…back woods party politics…all the rest…that he, in fact, had been through, in his own life, so many of the major experiences of the century and through so much that ordinary, everyday American…the American people had been through that he was superbly prepared because he knew, he knew from his own life what that was about…somebody didn’t have to explain it to him or tell it to him…tell him about it. We, we don’t read history, I don’t feel, in order to, to learn lessons. I’ve always felt that history is an enlargement of life. And that history and the people of history are part of the experience of being alive. And Truman, I think, felt that way, too. History wasn’t something in books, it was, it was real…these were real people, this was, this was a real time. But if one were to draw a lesson from the Truman story, it is essentially a very…he is essentially a very affirmative symbol because he reminds us of the vitality, the common sense, and the strength of American democracy…a participatory government. And he reminds us that, that we are always capable of rising to the occasion in a way we don’t often expect, and that in fact the unexpected…doing the unexpected, achieving the mark that’s higher that we seem to be able to reach has been the story of our people, of this nation since its beginning. I say in the…I don’t pass judgment much on Truman in the course of writing the book, as you may have noticed. I try to let the story be its own lesson. Let the story make the point by showing rather than telling. But when I get to the end, I feel obliged to tell the reader…say, “Well, this is what I think”.

Heffner: Now, you…do you think for a moment that anyone is surprised by your summary?

McCullough: My conclusion?

Heffner: Yeah.

McCullough: No, I hope not. But what I feel at the end, what I feel in, in, in this man’s story is, is that this is us, this is America. This is a book about America. This is a book about America in his time, but of also implicitly it’s reflecting on the present. By being so much that is no…not with us anymore, or seems to have vanished. He is exactly, as I say at the end, I feel, exactly the kind of man, person, citizen that the Founding Fathers had in mind for the President. He’s exactly the kind of President they had in mind. He comes from the people. He takes his turn as President and he returns to the people. Now, when Jefferson rode his own horse up to the Capitol and tied it up himself and walked over and was inaugurated, he was making the point, eve though he was an aristocrat. Truman, Truman is the man who lived by the very old, fundamental American beliefs, which now seem at times trite, or, or very corny. You keep your word. You don’t get too big for your britches. You honor your father and mother. You’re loyal to your friends. You do your part. You work hard. Any job worth doing is wroth doing well, they used to say. And you perform as a citizen…you vote. You fill out the census. You put a dime in the parking meter. You cross when the light is green. All of these things. And, and in addition to that he has this incredible, wonderful vitality. There are many things about Harry Truman that people don’t understand in my view as well as they might, or should…That I didn’t understand when I began the book. And one of them is he’s very tough, physically. He could take a lot of punishment, physically and emotionally. There’s a great moment at Potsdam where Admiral King…this brand new President, first time on stage with the likes of Stalin and Churchill, and old Admiral King who’s a tough judge of people leans over to Lord Moran, Churchill’s friend and he says, “Watch the President. He’s more of an American than Franklin Roosevelt, and he can take it, and he’s going to do a good job. And that expression, “He can take it”…he could take the punishment of the sheer workload of the Presidency, and he could take the punishment of adversity, and, and abuse, criticism…the firestorm of angry…outrage over the firing of MacArthur, or his civil rights program. And he could take it because he had some kind of an inner balance there. He once said, “I tried to forget…I tried never to forget who I was, where I came from and where I would go back to”. And in the way there you have the essence of the man. He knows who he is, he knows where he comes from, knows where he’s going to go back to, and he likes who he is. Now any man that can surround himself, any man who’s had no college education, who comes from a small town in Missouri, who is ridiculed at times when he was in the Senate because of his twang or the fact that he’d been part of the infamous Pendergast machine, can surround himself as President with the likes of George Marshall, and David Lilienthal, and Clark Clifford, and Averill Harriman, and Robert Lovett and Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley…as fine a group of people as we have ever had in government, from the beginning, and feeling no way intimidated by the fact that they are taller or better looking or have advantages of education and background, he knows who he is. And he doesn’t ever have anybody tell him that, and when it gets tough, when he’s in the storm, that’s when he’s at his best. And there are innumerable, wonderful examples. And often they take place off stage, behind the scenes. April 12th, 1945, the day you begin with, Truman is told to come right over to the White House. And he goes up in that old elevator that used to be there, the creaking slow thing that Teddy Roosevelt had installed, and he gets off of the elevator on the second floor, the family quarters, and Mrs. Roosevelt steps forward and puts her hand on his shoulder and says, “Harry, the President is dead”. Now what does he say? Think of what he could have said. Well, first of all he doesn’t say anything. He’s…he can’t speak. And then he says, “Is there anything that I can do for you?” That…that’s very revealing.

Heffner: And her reply, too.

McCullough: And she says, “No, is there anything we can do for you because you’re the one that’s in trouble now”. There’s an old adage, as I’m sure you know, for writers of fiction and drama, to keep your hero in trouble. (Laughter) And…

Heffner: And you do. (Laughter)

McCullough: …as you k now from the book, Mr. Truman was in trouble all the time. And, of course, this was the biggest trouble he ever…he was ever in, when suddenly he knows he’s the President of the United States. Not just that he’s President of the United States in the midst of a war which has not ended yet, but that he’s President of the United States after Franklin Roosevelt. He’s coming on stage after “The Great One”. “The Champion” has been removed. Very, very hard position to be in. And he very nearly wasn’t the Vice President, and he didn’t want to be Vice President, for that very reason. ’44 convention he had two…there were two other people who were desperate to be named Vice President…Jimmy Burns and Henry Wallace, who’d been the Vice President. Truman didn’t want it for the very reason he knew that Roosevelt…they all knew Roosevelt was going to die, that was…that’s one of the …that was one of the surprises of my work on the book.

Heffner: Tell me about that. I, I was surprised that you were surprised.

McCullough: Well, I don’t know. I somehow thought that, that the idea that all these politicians who convened in Chicago that summer to nominate the Vice President, that Roosevelt were going to run for a fourth term, unprecedented, that they…maybe I’d find in some private diary or letter that back behind the scenes they were, in fact, talking about Roosevelt’s health, that he wasn’t going to survive this term. After all, the war was on, and it was very important that our, our allies, let alone our enemies, not get the idea that our Commander in Chief was a sick and dying man. That would have been terrible. But they were all talking about it…that Roosevelt’s days were numbered.

Heffner: Then why did Roosevelt choose Truman?

McCullough: Because the Bosses wanted him and the man who made Harry Truman President was Ed Flynn, the Boss of the…

Heffner: The Bronx.

McCullough: …Bronx. A very interesting, exceptional man. Nothing like the stereotype picture of a big city boss. The, the objection to Wallace was that he was too Left Wing and that he was “strange”. He, he wasn’t able to talk to the, to the “pros”, to the professional politicians, see. He would lock himself in the Vice President’s office and study Spanish, you know, instead of out doing what politicians are supposed to do. The objection to Jimmy Burns, who was Roosevelt’s Assistant President, so-called, was that he was a Southerner, an avowed Segregationist, and very conservative. So, the Bosses, who were not, by any stretch of the imagination ignorant or, or incapable of picking good people, didn’t want either one of them. And Ed Flynn particularly didn’t want Burns because he was afraid that if Burns were the nominee, he might lose in New York…the Democrats would lose in New York because of the Black vote. So even then, in 1944, before the War is over, the importance of the Black vote is felt in a, in a clear and a very significant way. Truman had no enemies in the Senate. He had distinguished himself as the head of the famous “Truman Committee” which was set up to root out corruption in the war effort, and he was from a border state. Everybody liked him. And he was perfectly agreeable to Roosevelt…the only, the only stigma, the only objection was that he had been a protégée of the Pendergast machine. Well, that would never have bothered Roosevelt because Roosevelt accepted the support of the Bosses left and right…that’s that was part of his…major part of his power. And Ed Flynn got…arrived in Chicago…but meantime Roosevelt, who’s an extraordinary man…I must say my feelings bout Roosevelt were greatly altered once I got into understanding how these things really went on. Because he would…he would tell each man “You’re my…you’re my pick…you’re my guy, you know. You know I want you, and you go out there to Chicago and it’s going to happen. You’ll be the…you’ll be my running mate, and I couldn’t ask for more than that”. Told Burns that, in effect, and told Wallace that, in effect. So Hannigan, who was the…Bob Hannigan, who was the head of the Democratic Party, then goes to Chicago and it looks like it’s going to be Burns. Ed Flynn arrives in Chicago and the boys meet in the back-room, the smoke-filled room, literally, an apartment over in the…in Chicago…Ed Kelly’s apartment, and they say, “Well, it’s been decided it’s going to be Burns”. And Ed Flynn says, “Nothing doing. The hell it is. It’s going to be Harry Truman”. And so he fought for it, and Truman was picked by the Bosses, and of course, the ultimate Boss, Franklin Roosevelt finally said, “Fine. Fine. Let’s go ahead”. Roosevelt took no interest in Truman. He saw him, I think, a total of eight times after Truman became Vice President, never was a meeting of any consequence. Everybody knows that he told Truman nothing about the atomic bomb. It wasn’t just he didn’t tell him anything about the atomic bomb, he didn’t tell him anything about anything. So that when the President died, Truman really was standing there all alone. And he had no, he had none of the coterie that one develops when you’re running for the office. You know you have your foreign policy adviser, you have your…the person who’s going to advise you on matters concerning the Attorney-General’s office, and the State Department and all the rest. Truman had none of that. So he had to take in with the office, all the people that went with the office, Leahy, Marshall, Forrestal, the rest…extremely able people…some of whom resented his being there, and of course, Henry Wallace and Jimmy Burns were none too pleased because they each felt that they should have been in his shoes. So what does he do…the day that Roosevelt’s funeral train arrives in Washington, he calls Wallace, he calls Burns and he said, “I want, please, for you both to come with me down to the station to meet the train”. And he’s photographed there with these tow men beside him, and it was a great gesture…exactly the right thing to do.

Heffner: Your admiration for him…you’re quite correct, surfaces in the telling of the story just as, as now. One of the things I wanted to ask you, as such a close student of this matter…what…how do you account for the relationship in particular between the President and Acheson, which surfaces in your book as most extraordinary?

McCullough: Well, Truman is…I do admire him enormously. I think he’s…I think we were…God was watching over us when we wound up with Harry Truman in those critical years after, after the War. But he’s not without flaws…he, he has plenty of warts and I think I’ve painted him, warts and all. That’s not the point. It isn’t whether he’s flawless or perfect. The point is…was he responsible? Was he principled? Did he stand up for his principles when the going got tough? Was he willing to stand by his principles at the risk of his own political hide? Did he have any sense of the Presidency as a position of moral leadership? And, was he trying to get to some place that mattered?

Heffner: Now, your…

McCullough: Did he know where he wanted to take the country?

Heffner: Your answer to all the questions, I’m sure, is “Yes”.

McCullough: Yes.

Heffner: …and they surface in the book.

McCullough: The answer is “Yes”.

Heffner: Then…

McCullough: And then, and then he has this innate capacity, this wonderful capacity of having virtually no snobbery. Now you can…the common conception of snobbery is, is people in high position looking down on those of lower position. But he…there’s a reverse snobbery where you dislike someone because they are wealthy or well-dressed or went to fine schools, and that sort of thing. And, of course, Dean Acheson was the essence of that. He looked like a British actor done up to play the part of the Secretary of State. He had had everything that Truman had not had. Groton education…Yale, he was a cultivated, elegant Eastern gentleman. And they became extremely close friends, and Truman saw right away that he had, without much question, the strongest Secretary of State of the century. And that this was going to be vital to his second term. After he leaves the office, Truman…to go back to Independence…back where he came from as he said he would…like Cincinnatus returning…he and Acheson begin to correspond, and when I came across those letter, I thought this…there’s the firing of MacArthur at the end of his Presidency, which is very dramatic and very important and a great, great human story. Indeed, I could have written a whole book on that alone. But think if you’re writing a biography you can’t just end because you…the drama is over in his Presidency…he lives for 20 more years. And I wondered at the time, “Am I ever going to be able to sustain the, the tempo and the, the texture of this book in these retirement years” and there were those, those letters between Truman and Acheson…that wonderful, wonderful letter that Acheson writes to him about the Kennedy Administration and, of course, Truman was not being invited to participate much in any meaningful way in the new Kennedy Administration and Truman had objected to Kennedy becoming the nominee.

Heffner: And he made it well known.

McCullough: And he made it well known, and made it known…well known why. He didn’t like the President John Kennedy’s father, old Joe. And somebody asked him in a famous open discussion down in…when he gage a speech in Richmond, Virginia, “Well, aren’t you, aren’t you worried about the candidate, Mr. Kennedy being Catholic?” And he said, “No, it’s not…It’s not the Pope that worries me…it’s the Pop”. And, so when Kennedy became President and Truman wasn’t really asked to do anything of any substance he felt hurt. Acheson, by contrast, was brought in at, at several points…crisis points in the Kennedy Administration and really was considered a major…a major voice around the white House. And Acheson writes to Truman and says, there’s something going on here that…” In effect what he says is “that dismays me”. “They talk a lot about something called ‘image’”. And he said, “It seems to me that that’s a little like a short-stop trying to field a hot line drive saying to himself ’I wonder who I look while I do this’.” And as Acheson says, that‘s a great way to miss the ball. Truman didn’t like that. He didn’t like the fact that the Democratic Party was…in those Kennedy years, was staging thousand dollar a plate dinners. He wrote back to Acheson “there goes democracy”, with a lower case “d”. And ”To hell with all millionaires”, he wrote. Truman didn’t like television. He said it’s going to…it’s going to bring more counterfeits into politics, he said.

Heffner: And how right he was.

McCullough: And he didn’t like a lot that was happening to the country. And part of that, of course, was the natural grouchiness that people experience in old age. But, he…he saw an America coming and an America vanishing…his America vanishing and it made him feel distressed.

Heffner: I’m distressed by the fact that I’m getting a signal that you recognize very well. Our time is up.

McCullough: Oh…

Heffner: But you’ve agreed to do another program. So stay a bit. Thank you so much for joining me today, David McCullough.

McCullough: Oh, thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program, about my “Truman for President button, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.