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Listen to a 1992 interview with historian David McCullough about President Harry Truman

Writer and historian David McCullough appears at his Martha's Vineyard property in West Tisbury, Mass., on May 12, 2001. McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose lovingly crafted narratives on subjects ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge to Presidents John Adams and Harry Truman made him among the most popular and influential historians of his time, died Sunday in Hingham, Massachusetts. He was 89.
Steven Senne
Writer and historian David McCullough appears at his Martha's Vineyard property in West Tisbury, Mass., on May 12, 2001. McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose lovingly crafted narratives on subjects ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge to Presidents John Adams and Harry Truman made him among the most popular and influential historians of his time, died Sunday in Hingham, Massachusetts. He was 89.

David McCullough, a Pittsburgh native whose work as an author and historian, garnered him two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards, died Aug. 7 at age 89. He was also honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His books included biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman, as well as the building of the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge and the Johnstown Flood.

The Confluence host Kevin Gavin interviewed David McCullough several times through the years. Their first conversation was in 1992 on Gavin’s program Between the Lines on WDUQ. They discussed his just-published book, "Truman," which would garner him his first Pulitzer Prize.

Kevin Gavin: It's been 40 years since the end of the Truman administration. But in doing your research, how much of it was, in a sense, firsthand or first time known to the general public through your book? I mean, how much was hidden about Harry Truman?

David McCullough: Well, nothing large, nothing sensational emerged in the course of the 10 years I worked on the book... There's there's almost, there's hardly a page in the book where there isn't something new. Now, I had a very unique chance with this subject.

Truman wrote letters. He wrote long, personal letters. They number in the thousands and they’ve survived. And he wrote, he kept a diary, not consistently, but often enough that we can get below the surface with his life in a way that's very rarely possible with the public figure and almost never with the president.

Fortunately, for the sake of history, he didn't like using the telephone. He much preferred to write a letter. He wrote to his mother and to his sister and to his wife and daughter all through his life. And those letters are a goldmine for anyone trying to understand his presidency and to understand Truman, the man.

In 1982, after Mrs. Truman died and researchers from the Truman Library were going through the house, they found a huge collection of letters. So that, even while I was working on the book, a great deal of very new material came to light.

Then I worked hard at tracking down people who knew him, either as a neighbor or a friend in politics in Kansas City, or even in the Army. And most important of all, people who had been with him in his administration. By the end, I think I had interviewed well over 126 people, some of whom had never been interviewed before — his Secret Service guards, for example. My account of how the Puerto Rican nationalists tried to kill the president is drawn from interviews with people who were involved in that as Secret Service men who've never talked to anybody about it before.

There is a man named George Elsey who came from Pittsburgh, who was in Truman's administration from day one, from the day that Franklin Roosevelt died all the way through to the end. And I interviewed him not just once, but many times over the course of 10 years. And it's through that living contact with the vanished time of the Truman era that I feel I've bridged the distance in a way that's not been done before.

Gavin: The letters, you include portions of some of the letters. When you're putting together a man's life like this, how difficult was going through the letters? And what were some of the criteria you used in judging what letters to use or topics used, whether they were, the... whether it was a letter to his fiancée Bess at the time or whatever?

McCullough: Well, his courtship of Bess Wallace is a marvelous story in itself. And it's really his first campaign. And the letters that he wrote to her from the farm, (where he was living with his family out in Grandview, which is about 12 miles south of Independence, where Bess lived) those letters, if he had never amounted to anything, if he, if his career had been modest and if he had never become a household word, those letters alone would be something that a researcher on discovering them would know at once: I found an American classic.

They are so revealing of not just of the kind of person this young farmer named Harry Truman was, but of the whole way of life, of what constituted entertainment and the value systems that these two shared. The fact, for example, that even though he was a farmer in the Middle West, he was by no means a hick. They were reading the magazines that everybody else in the country was reading, that they went into Kansas City to see productions of Shakespeare, attended concerts by the great performers when they came through. The road companies of that day were active, extensive, highly professional.

Harry Truman at one point, and one of the letters, for example, reveals that he has just spent $25 for a set of Mark Twain books. And you have to keep in mind that $25 in 1910 was the equivalent of $350 today. So imagine a young fellow out of the farm today that was spending $350 for a set of books. That tells us quite a lot about him and about what was going on.

Later, anything in his personal correspondence that pertains to the decisions he was making or the people he was working with as president or as, or even before as senator is very, very valuable and revealing. Many politicians, in fact, I would say most public figures, don't like to pour themselves out on paper, don't like to reveal their innermost feelings and fears and ambitions and anger and all the rest. Franklin Roosevelt, for example. You'd be hard put to know ever what he really thought, because he doesn't leave that kind of a record.

But Truman did, and in many ways it was his means of ventilating, particularly when he was angry. And a lot of the letters that he wrote, well over 100 of them, are letters he never sent. Except for one, of course, which became quite well known, which is the letter about, to the music critic for The Washington Post, Paul Hume, after he wrote this extremely critical review of Margaret's concert in Washington.

But it was, it was a useful device for him because he could vent all that rage and feel much better afterward, put it in his bottom drawer and never send it. And that way, no one was hurt by it.

Gavin: I'm curious to get your thoughts on the importance of where Harry Truman came from. I believe it was the people who would eventually become his grandparents who moved from, I believe it was that generation, moved from Kentucky and settled in, at that time, the far west Missouri. It seems like if we know anything about Harry Truman, Independence, Missouri immediately comes to mind. And I'm just trying to think of other presidents, you know, does that happen very often? How important was the land, the setting to the man, Harry Truman?

McCullough: Well, it was it was immensely important to him. And I feel that you can't really understand this man unless you understand exactly the background that he came from.

It was important in reality in creating him, and it was important in his, to his identity and the way the country felt about him then and since. Now, he once said, reflecting on the time when he was president, ‘I tried never to forget who I was, where I came from, and where I would go back to.’ Now, that's an extremely important statement because it shows that he knows who he was and he intended to go back and of course, did go back. And that's part of his, part of his strength.

He's very proud of where he comes from. He's very proud of his people. And he has good cause to be proud. Now, if he had come just from, let's say, Minnesota or from Iowa, let's suppose he'd come from Meredith Wilson's, The River City, the Music Man Town, his, the complexity and the and the symbol that he represents, in my view, would not be as pertinent or as expressive of America as it is because he came from Independence. Because Independence was divided between north and south. Western Missouri was a border state. There were slaveholders there. There was slavery in Missouri and yet Missouri was loyal to the union.

Truman's own grandparents owned slaves. He grew up in in this sort of Norman Rockwell atmosphere of Independence. But in fact, Independence was a Jim Crow town. There is this shadow on the ideal of life of the small town, which is racism, which is slavery, which is segregation.

And the fact that he goes through a metamorphosis in his life and in his presidency and is the first president to send a civil rights message ever to Congress. He is the president who desegregated the armed services, first president to campaign in Harlem, first president to address an NAACP conference, makes the story all the more of a story. But it also says ‘This is what the country is going through.’

I feel very strongly that what I've written in the biography is not just a portrait of Harry Truman, but a portrait of America. It is the odyssey that America itself makes from an agrarian Jeffersonian, a small town country in, in the span of one man's life, to being the superpower of the world. Its power is based on the production of industry and its science and technology, which is hardly Jeffersonian.

The fact that this man who was born, raised, formed as a person in the 19th century, and remains at heart a 19th century man through the rest of his life, has to face these immensely complicated, momentous 20th century decisions, it is a very compelling part of the story quality that Truman represents.

I'm a narrative historian. I believe in the narrative form as both the way to hold the reader, to keep the attention of the of the audience, so to speak, but I also believe in the narrative form as being intellectually the most honest approach. Because always you have to keep in mind at every step along the way: What didn't they know? To look at it from the mountaintop, so to speak, as many historians do, and to take the grand view is to have a huge advantage of hindsight, which they never had, which we don't have right now.

So to fault a figure in public life or to condemn a whole generation because they failed to know what we know is really, to me, it's dishonest and unfair. So I try to always move the story with the time and to see the sort of the ecology, if you will, of all influences that are bearing on this person. And to convey the all-important feeling that things never had to go the way they went. The events of life, the course of history, is never on a track. It could have gone off in a very different direction at any point, any time.

Gavin: Let me use, as an example, he's on the farm, he’s called back to the family farm, the family on his mother's side. His father can't work it alone or work it alone with Harry's younger brother. And when he went up, what, 10 years on the farm there?

McCullough: Eleven years, and he only leaves it because the war comes along but...

Gavin: He didn't have to leave because he was sole support of the family and the importance of the farmer.

McCullough: And he was over age. He was well beyond the draft age. And his eyes were so bad that he was technically blind in one eye. He couldn't possibly have gotten by normally, but he memorized the eye chart and he was just determined he was going to go. And he did go.

And the experience of the war changed his whole life. It’s the forge of his life. First of all, he finds out that he has courage, really extraordinary courage, both physical and, I think moral courage.

Gavin: And he still had to prove that to himself, didn’t he?

McCullough: He certainly did. He thought he was a sissy here. He was a little guy with glasses who couldn't play rough and tumble sports, who read books, who never knew how to play any game that called for a moving ball. He played the piano when only girls, you know, took piano lessons. He was there taking piano lessons because it was what his mother wanted. He was kind of a mama's boy.

And so off he goes to war, looking anything like a warrior or anything like the conventional hero, and turns out to be both extremely tough and a very able leader, natural leader. He discovers he likes to be in command. He likes leading people. And he knows soon enough that he's not going to go back to the farm, which is representative of the country. You know, the popular song of the day after the war was ‘How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris?’ He's the model example of that very point.

Gavin: In one of his letters he writes Bess, who wanted to get married before he left. And now he's who pursued her all the years.

McCullough: Nobody ever wanted to get married more than Harry Truman. Nobody ever pursued a young woman's favor as he did. But when she finally sees him in his uniform and knows that he's going off to France to fight and says, ‘Yes, I will marry you.’ But he says, ‘No, not until I come back alive or all in one piece.’

His devotion to her is another very compelling story. I had heard all these stories. They almost have a mythological quality. And I kept wondering: Is it really true? You know, did he really fall in love with her when he first saw her in Kindergarten Sunday school? Was this lifelong a devotion to her? Absolutely. And in fact, it’s even more than had been implied.

He was a man of intense loyalties, and he was, in some instances, loyal to people to whom he should not have been quite so loyal. He kept people on at the White House who were third rate. He didn't reprimand or come down as hard on some people as he should have because he was loyal to them, he remembered what they'd done for him and so forth.

Now, his loyalty to Tom Pendergast, the infamous political boss of Kansas City, to some was appalling and shocking, but to others was quite appealing. The idea, for example, that he flew home to Kansas City to attend Pendergast’s funeral when he, Truman, was vice president of the United States, was the cause of a great many editorials disparaging his judgment, criticizing him as vice president, United States, for attending the funeral of a convicted felon.

But Truman said ‘He was my friend and I'm going home to his funeral.’ And at home, you know, back in Independence, as well as a great many places around the country, people liked him. And it showed that as a politician, he wasn't trying to hide his past. He wasn't ashamed of his past. He wasn't trying to be something that he wasn't, which is a very, very important aspect of Truman.

Gavin: Did he know, though, in a sense, that he didn't really have anything or much to hide with his political past when it comes to Pendergast? Because although he could not be called a hack, although Pendergast ran him for a county judge, which is the equivalent of, I guess, a county commissioner. And he ran him for U.S. Senate. He didn't, you know, bow to Pendergast when he wanted to some construction jobs for the roadway projects.

McCullough: That's right. He felt and said and stood by it for the rest of his life that Pendergast had never asked him to do anything corrupt, and he and he himself knew that he had not done anything corrupt. He was, he was really an honest man.

He was a principled man. He was a man of principle. And that's important to understand concerning his courage. It isn't just that these courageous or brave in a physical sense. He had the courage of his convictions so that when he faces a situation like the MacArthur crisis, his conviction is that this civilian control of the military must be upheld. The Constitution is very clear about that. So his courage is the courage to fire MacArthur, is the courage of his conviction.

And he later said when people get gave him credit for having great courage for doing what he did, he said ‘That didn't take, that didn't take great courage.’ He also knew that what really mattered was the judgment of history. He had a very keen, strong sense of history. He'd been reading history in biographies since he was a little boy when he talked about former presidents to members of his staff, presidents who've been long dead and gone. They used to say that it was as if he was talking about people he'd known and they were personal friends because he knew so much about them.

But if you know about the past, you also, then, are aware that you, too, are one day going to be part of the past and that history will be judging you. That, and that, and that can act as a kind of inner balance or gyroscope, because you can take the abuse of the moment like the angry editorials, the calls for your impeachment up on Capitol Hill, because you know that that will pass. That what really matters is what they say 25, 40 years from now. And of course, we now see that the firing of McCarthy was absolutely the right thing to have done. In fact, if you come over the whole pattern of what went on, you can't help but ask maybe he should have done it sooner than he did.

Gavin:. You mentioned that Truman said it wasn't a courageous thing to do. And I guess if you look back and see a pattern of such decisions and different issues, then this is just, this is followed suit is something he had been doing all along. He was true to himself.

McCullough: Yes, indeed. Well, for example, in 1948, he was considered to be a sure loser. And one of the things, of course, that any professional politician knew as a cannon rule was that you don't lose the South, you don't let the Southern Bloc walk out. And yet he stood by his civil rights program at risk of losing the Southerners. And they did indeed walk out and pick their own candidate, Strom Thurmond, to run as a so-called Dixiecrat.

As he wrote to a friend back in Kansas City, ‘If it cost me this election to hold to the position that I believe is right, then so be it.’ Now, that's a guy. That's a real man. He's not perfect. He has flaws, he is too hot tempered, he boasts a little too much. He's impetuous at times.

Gavin: Almost hurt his political career, almost joined the KKK.

McCullough: That's right.

Gavin: Well, very early.

McCullough: Absolutely. He, and he made mistakes. His loyalty program was a terrible mistake. And I think honest people can argue whether the use of the bomb was right or wrong. Personally, I feel after studying as closely as I could, that while of course, while this is a great moral issue, that he made the right decision for moral reasons. It stopped the killing, it stopped the war. In the long run, it stopped more destruction and death. They didn’t know how destructive it was going to be.

Oppenheimer told them that it might take 20,000 lives. Well, the fire raids, which were going out every day, practically, were killing that many or more. So you have to see things in proportions according to what they knew..

Gavin: Since we're on the subject of the war time: A fair amount has been written about the relationship between FDR and Churchill. But what about Truman and Churchill? There's a point in the Potsdam Conference where he's saying, I'm paraphrasing you, ‘He can deal with Stalin, but Churchill's another matter.’ He doesn't want to sit around listening to his long speeches all the time.

McCullough: Well, he saw, as many did, that Churchill seemed to be a different man than he had been during the war. He was tired, he was aging, his vitality seemed down. And Churchill talked an awful lot. And Truman lost patience with that in meetings.

They became extremely close as the presidency went on. At the end of Truman's presidency, on a memorable occasion, as they were going down the Potomac on the presidential yacht, having a conference with some of Churchill's staff and some of Truman's staff, Churchill by then was back in power as prime minister, back in office as Prime Minister. Churchill, when the luncheon dinner plates had been cleared away, put his hands on the table, and he looked across at Truman and he said, ‘The last time you and I addressed each other across the country, across the conference table, sir, I resented your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt. But I wanted to tell you now, sir, that you, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.’

And he really meant that because he thought Truman is the one who stood firm, who created NATO, who created the Marshall Plan, and that those two acts alone had, had saved Europe, had saved Western civilization at a point when the Red Army, with all of its massive power, was on the verge of moving west and from Eastern Europe.

I think he was in many ways exactly the kind of president the Founding Fathers had in mind in that he came from the people and he knew he would return to the people. He didn't want to be president, which is another irony of the story. He did all he could to keep from being nominated as vice president in 1944. And as I, as I've said, he knew he would go back from where he came.

He had been raised on the Cincinnatus idea. He was devoted to Roman history, and particularly to Cicero and Plutarch's lives. There was that whole side of him that he never revealed to the public of a much more thoughtful, learned, well-read, sensitive, emotional Harry Truman. I think it was a failing on his part that he was not willing to let the country know about that man.

But in any event, Cincinnatus, as you know, the mythical Roman farmer who when his country calls, goes to war, goes to battle, saves the country as a great leader, general. And then when the war was over, renounces power and returns to the farm. Now, this was the this was the theme of the Founding Fathers believed in with all their hearts. It is portrayed in the great painting by Trumbo in the rotunda of the Capitol, where Washington is seen returning his command of the Continental Army to the to the Congress. In other words, renouncing the power, the ultimate power that he had at the end of the Revolutionary War. The Cincinnatus symbols are all through that painting. It was intended to be read as Washington as Cincinnatus. Truman feels that, too.

I think he represents a lot that we miss in American life today and in American politics: The authenticity, the willingness to tell us the truth about real problems, the willingness to make decisions and to stand by them, the steadfastness of him, the genuine this of his, of his manner and the fact that he worked so hard. He was on the job all the time.

Now his popularity plunges at the end of his presidency, but it's a mistake to see that as necessarily representative, because what was really at issue was the Korean War. It wasn't that they didn't like Truman, they reelected him by a substantial popular margin in 1948 when he had everything going against him.

So he would say that was, that that was the only real poll that was ever taken during his presidency. And it's reasonable to say that he would have made a very strong candidate in 1952. He might have even won again in 1952 had he chosen to run, which he could have done. But he, too, felt it was time for him to renounce power. He didn't believe in three terms.