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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Life and Presidency of Harry S. Truman

The 2018 Official White House Christmas Ornament Historical Essay

The White House Historical Association’s 2018 White House Christmas Ornament honors Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third president of the United States. This ornament is designed to illustrate three significant changes made by President Truman during his administration, one to the Presidential Seal, and two to the White House itself. One side of the ornament features his celebrated Truman Balcony, added in 1947–48 to the South Portico, and the other side features his renovated Blue Room, which, like all the rooms of the house, was dismantled and rebuilt during the renovation of 1948–52. These two images represent Truman’s White House alterations and restorations, the most extensive work on the house since President George Washington built it in the nation’s dawning and Presidents James Madison and James Monroe restored it after the fire in the War of 1812.

The Presidential Seal featured at the top of the ornament reflects the design as changed by Truman. Originally the American eagle looked toward its left talons, which hold a cluster of spears, weapons of war. Truman, in the autumn after he took office, had the seal redesigned, turning the eagle’s head away from the spears to its right talons, which hold the olive branches of peace.

This oil on canvas portrait of President Harry Truman was painted by Martha Greta Kempton. As vice president during President Franklin Roosevelt's fourth term, he became president when Roosevelt died in office in 1945. He was elected president in his own right during the 1948 election, serving until January 20, 1953. During his second term, Truman was the target of an assassination attempt while living in Blair House during a major White House renovation. He served in the Senate prior to his years in the White House.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Harry S. Truman (1884–1972)

President Harry S. Truman was close to his friends and associates, had a grin for strangers, but could be less than tolerant of some critics. The famous sign placed on his desk in the Oval Office, “The Buck Stops Here,” made it clear that as president he was responsible for all that happened on his watch. He came to the presidency in the shadow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but emerged on his own with a stature that has grown monumentally in the sixty-five years since his retirement.

Truman came from the farmlands of the Midwest. Missouri-born, May 8, 1884, and except for his years of government service in Washington, D.C., he remained a resident in his home state, most of that time in the fine Victorian house of his in-laws in the city of Independence. An old town east of Kansas City, Independence, was the legendary gateway to the West by virtue of being the starting point for the Santa Fe Trail. Truman’s rise to fame held disappointments that likely would have ruined a man of lesser integrity. Born of modest farmers, he was not able to complete college but went to work after his basic schooling; he later attended law school but was by then too involved with public duties to complete the full program.

Young Truman was a hard worker, a trait integral to his character. He was not afraid to take chances. Kansas City in his young manhood was a city afire with progress and entrepreneurship. The spirit ran in Truman’s blood. Efforts to support himself took many forms—farming, bank clerking, timekeeping for a railroad, ushering in a theater on Saturday afternoons—all with little success, until he invested in an oil venture on a lease in Kansas. Yet his ambitions did not override his strong patriotic sensibility.

Harry S. Truman served as captain of Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery Regiment in World War I. He and his regiment, attached to the 35th Division, served in the Vosges mountains and the Meuse-Argonne campaign in 1918.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

He joined the new Missouri Army National Guard in 1905, returning to active duty when World War I broke out in 1917 as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He served with distinction throughout the war, almost entirely in France. Indeed, he sailed to France aboard the George Washington, a confiscated German liner that was converted to a troop transport ship; it later carried President Woodrow Wilson to Paris for the Versailles Peace Conference when the war was over.

Truman’s taste for politics developed early, when he was 22, as a clerk serving under his father, an election judge. Kansas City politics were controlled at that time by the Pendergast “machine,” a solidly Democrat and locally very powerful organization that took care of its valuable supporters with public jobs. Truman had several of these political jobs before his service in World War I. When Captain (shortly Major) Truman came home from the war, he married his longtime sweetheart Elizabeth (“Bess”) Wallace and launched a clothing business. The business failed, and, turning to politics, Truman was elected county judge of the eastern district of Jackson County. In 1934 he was elected to the U.S. Senate by a vast majority, and was reelected in 1940.

Through effective committee work and favorable news coverage of some of his more sensational endeavors in Congress, notably unmasking fraud in government wartime spending, Truman advanced his reputation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved him as his running mate for the presidential election of 1944, doubtless understanding that Truman would be his successor before the term was over. As vice president, Truman met with Roosevelt only twice. Five months after the election, on April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died in Georgia. Truman was summoned from the Capitol to the White House to be sworn in as president.

President Harry S. Truman announces the formal surrender of Japan, August 15, 1945.

National Park Service; Harry S. Truman Library Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The Truman Presidency (1945–53)

Few presidents coming into office have had to face the challenges awaiting President Truman. The most extensive and destructive war in world history was about to end in Europe but still raged in the Pacific. After the German surrender, Truman approved the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. It was the president’s authority and his alone to give such an order.

The horror of the atom bomb did end the war with Japan. Truman then began a unique program for rebuilding the defeated Axis powers. General Douglas MacArthur led the effort in Japan, while in Europe General George C. Marshall headed the program named for him. Such extensive plans for rebuilding war-torn former enemies had never been carried out before in history. Only the Soviet Union and its European satellite declined to participate, a harbinger of tensions in U.S.-Soviet relations that came to be called the Cold War.

Truman proved an able negotiator in international affairs in the difficult postwar years. His presidency oversaw the founding of the United Nations. He recognized the State of Israel immediately upon its independence in 1948. Without his efforts it is unlikely that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would have been approved by Congress in the spring of 1949, drawing together twelve nations in a mutual defense pact against the threatened spread of communism. In 1950 Truman sent U.S. troops to South Korea in support of a UN effort to stop communist North Korea’s aggression.

President Harry S. Truman speaks to reporters during a press conference in the garden of the "Little White House" in Key West, Florida.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Truman’s domestic efforts were less successful. He tried to convince Congress to pass laws perpetuating Roosevelt’s New Deal, while the national economy struggled to readjust to peacetime. Not until he won a surprise reelection in 1948 did Congress pay attention. Eventually some elements of his Fair Deal passed: public housing legislation, an increase in the minimum wage, and an expansion of Social Security. Truman was a strong advocate for civil rights, and by executive order he desegregated the military and guaranteed fair employment in the civil service.

As president, Truman was a genial host and kept a daily diary of his activities. The immense pressures of work were not lessened by Bess Truman’s frequent absences in Independence with her mother. An avid reader of history all his life, Truman took time as president to continue with his volumes. His membership in the Masonic Order was important to him. During a meeting at the lodge in Alexandria, Virginia, he said, “I am ‘Harry’ here, not ‘Mr. President.’” He took daily walks with Secret Service accompaniment; he called them “constitutionals.” In his second year in office he vacationed at the deactivated navy base in Key West, Florida, referring to it thereafter as his “Little White House.” At a State Dinner during the Potsdam Conference, he entertained Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin by playing the piano. He loved music and enjoyed the singing career of his daughter Margaret. The private Truman never really changed during the storms of his presidency.

A view of the south facade of the White House, May 10, 1950.

Harry S. Truman Library Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

President Truman’s Changes to the White House

On the semicircular colonnade on the garden front of the White House, Truman’s new, shelf-like balcony gave the first family outdoor access from their upstairs living quarters and a panoramic view of the city. Architects denounced it as an ugly scar on the original design of the house. Politicians accused the president of building it out of spite, to get even with Congress for denying promised funding for a greatly enlarged West Wing. There may have been a mite of truth in this last objection: for his balcony, Truman asked Congress for no funding and no approval, but took the $16,050.74 it ultimately cost from the existing household budget. Seventy years later, the Truman Balcony remains a favorite retreat for first families and their guests.

Reconstruction of the house inside the old original walls was a more complicated matter, and less controversial than the balcony. For some years the structural security of the old house had been under question. The Secret Service and engineers from the Office of Civilian Defense had presented a report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt soon after World War II began, declaring the White House with its wooden interior structure unsafe and a firetrap. Roosevelt essentially dismissed the report, but when it was placed before Truman early in his administration, the new president took serious note.

The White House’s structural problems had revealed themselves once the Roosevelts extracted thirteen army truckloads of personal possessions from the family quarters. Faced with sinking floors, swaying chandeliers, and cracked plaster, Truman revisited the engineering report. When a leg of his daughter Margaret’s grand piano broke through the floor, the president and his family moved across the street to Blair House, where they celebrated Thanksgiving 1948 and remained until the spring of 1952. Designated by President Roosevelt in 1942 as the President’s Guest House, Blair House became Truman’s surrogate “White House” during the three and a half years it took to make the White House safe again. It was at Blair House, around the dining room table, that Truman met with Marshall and William Clayton to develop the Marshall Plan. And it was at Blair House where two Puerto Rican nationalists made an attempt on the life of the president in 1950. The would-be assassins were stopped before gaining entry to the house and Truman, who was upstairs, was not harmed.

Window openings provide bursts of light into the cavernous interior of the White House, supported by temporary steel bracing. Concrete underpinnings for the walls allow earth-moving equipment to dig a new basement, May 17, 1950.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The president had studied the possibilities for a renovated White House before he made his decision on how the reconstruction would be carried out. It was obvious to most surrounding him that the solution was to demolish the entire house and build a copy. Truman hesitated. A student of history and a believer in the power of symbols of great times and great men, he could not let the home of the presidents go. At last he agreed to a plan of preserving the historic stone walls, built in the 1790s, and reconstruction of the interior. With a $5,400,000 budget from Congress in hand in the winter of 1949, Truman held fast to his decision. On a tour of inspection when the work was well along, he came upon workmen about to expand an original doorway opening to accommodate the entry of a bulldozer and dump truck through the walls, to dig deeper cellars inside the gutted shell. He stopped them on the spot. Both vehicles were dismantled and taken inside the old walls piece by piece, then reassembled to commence work.

President Truman moved back into the White House on March 27, 1952. The once creaky old house was renewed. It looked the same, the rooms arranged as always, but now with every imaginable modern convenience. The eighteenth-century stone exterior was intact, but the steel and concrete interior was rock solid. Walls covered with plaster and wood were skillfully devised to suggest that no change had taken place whatsoever in the historic White House of the American presidency.

President Harry S. Truman and his family enjoy a Christmas dinner at the White House on December 25, 1947.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Christmas in the Truman White House

The Trumans spent only four Christmas seasons in the White House, for when the renovations began, it was impossible for them to live there. But most years the president lit the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, an oval park south of the White House Grounds. It was a tradition begun by Calvin Coolidge in 1923. On Christmas Eve 1945, his first in the White House, Truman stood on a bandstand on the South Lawn to light the tree. His speech was broadcast by radio: “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years. With peace come joy and gladness. The gloom of the war years fades as once more we light the National Community Christmas Tree. We meet in the spirit of the first Christmas, when the midnight choir sang the hymn of joy: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

The presentation also included carols sung by local choirs. Thousands of spectators massed over Pennsylvania Avenue, and others, by permit, entered the South Lawn. Afterward, the Trumans had dinner with family and friends in the Family Dining Room on the State Floor in the White House. A great cedar tree dripping in silver tinsel “icicles” cast its forest smell over the formal parlors.

Truman declined to run for another term in 1952, and following the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Trumans spent their last Christmas in the White House that year. The celebration was more ambitious than the first had been. The president, acutely aware of advances in communication, delivered his address to the nation over both radio and television. From the South Lawn he pushed the button lighting the National Christmas Tree and wished “for all of you a Christmas filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit, and . . . the peace of God reigning upon this earth.”

President Harry S. Truman and his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower smile and wave as their car leaves the White House en route to the Capitol on inauguration day, January 20, 1953.

Library of Congress

After the Presidency

On Inauguration Day the transfer of power went smoothly. Relations between Truman and Eisenhower had cooled, but the president surprised his old friend by ordering Eisenhower’s son John home from military duty in Korea for the occasion. Still, the outgoing and the incoming presidents said little to each other on the ride to the Capitol. After the ceremony, former President and Mrs. Truman were driven by the Secret Service to Union Station. A small crowd was there to bid them farewell. No official security was provided, but a Secret Service agent took annual leave to ride the train with the Trumans home to Missouri.

During his nearly twenty years of retirement, Truman remained an outspoken figure, supporting his liberal views. He rejoiced in the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and the return of the Democrats. Back in Independence he and Bess Truman occupied her mother’s house, a place hardly changed since they moved there in 1919. President Truman spent many days at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence managing the interpretation and exhibits, and setting the historians and curators straight when he believed it necessary.

Harry S. Truman died in Kansas City’s Research Hospital at the age of 88, on the day after Christmas 1972. Bess lived nearly another ten years before her death in 1982 at the age of 97. They are buried in the courtyard of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.