Before April 12, 1945, many young Americans only associated the presidency with Franklin Roosevelt.
“More than that,” says Kurt Graham, executive director of the Harry Truman Museum & Library in Independence, “he really pioneered the use of radio as a medium to get to the people – the idea of having a warm, familiar voice.”
Roosevelt died that day in Warm Springs, Georgia, at age 63 – a shock to most U.S. citizens though not to FDR's closest friends and Democratic Party leaders. Truman, the former farmer from Independence, vice president for just 82 days and a reluctant one at that, had been whisked away from a Senate session at the Capitol and was now president.
“For Truman to take over in that environment, he was intimidated to say the least,” Graham said. “I don't think you can overstate the trepidation, the fear, to think about following someone like Franklin Roosevelt.”
Sunday is the 75th anniversary of FDR's death and Truman taking the oath of office. With the ongoing renovation project at the Truman Library, there was no chance of any indoor reception to mark such a noteworthy date, and the National Archives and Records Administration discouraged even small outdoor events during the pandemic.
“What we were planning to do, before the pandemic, we wanted to underscore the significance of this day,” Graham said of what he started to prepare months ago. “It was a big day for Truman, a big day for the United States and a big day for the world, and we wanted to acknowledge Franklin Roosevelt's death, even though it was not necessarily a surprise to those around him.”
“We wanted to set a scene of the world that Harry Truman inherited.”
Besides Harry Truman, the moment had to have been fearful for Bess Truman, following someone as well-known as first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“You've got this woman that writes a regular newspaper column, travels the world and is kind of the eyes and ears of her husband,” Graham said. “They were following two of the most powerful people in the world.”
Truman likely knew when he accepted the vice presidential nomination at the 1944 convention that it meant, if elected, becoming president with the next term, given Roosevelt's failing health. Graham says Truman possibly thought Roosevelt might fade like Woodrow Wilson had in his second term, and that he surely would have more than 82 days to get up to speed.
“He wrote at the time that he really came kicking and screaming into the vice presidency,” Graham said. “He went to the convention having pledged to a friend (Senator Jimmy Byrnes) that he would nominate him. He did not want to come into the presidency in the back door. History had shown that wasn't a good experience.
“Truman loved the Senate and had no reason to want to be vice president, and certainly not president. But the party didn't want (then-Vice President) Henry Wallace to be president, and Truman was kind of a compromise.”
The first four months alone of Truman's presidency created quite a legacy, with V-E Day, the Potsdam conference, the atomic bomb decisions and V-J Day. But Graham said that when preparing for this anniversary, the human element of even that first week struck him.
Most people recall Truman's famous line to reporters that with FDR's death, “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.” But right before, for analogy's sake, the former farmer had said, “I don't know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you…”
“What about those first four days, that first week,” Graham said. “This is the week he learned about the Manhattan Project. Is he going to keep all of Roosevelt's cabinet in place? All these Missourians swarm around wondering about a spot in the administration.”
“Truman was a student of history, and he knew he was on the stage of history perhaps more than most.”
What that sequence of events boils down to, Graham says, is that the country and the world are a different place today because a farmer from Missouri, an underdog type that people often root for, became president.
“We will never have another Harry Truman,” Graham said. “Not that we won't have a great leader, but the idea of a self-made, bootstraps, self-educated, hard-scrabble kind of guy that made his way, and the fact that he did it with such aplomb.”
“He's known as a great decision maker, and that's part of what makes this such remarkable story.”