Truman Unafraid to Make the Toughest Decisions of his Day

Noted author and historian David McCullough said Missouri-born president Harry S. Truman exhibited many traits that helped make him a great leader.

Speaking at Friday’s luncheon, McCullough said Truman’s sister Mary Jane sent him letters in 1945, shortly after he became president, complaining about how difficult it was for her and their mother to get ready to visit him at the White House.

“He responds to her, ‘You both have done fine under this terrible blow,’” McCullough said. “That letter was written on May 7, the end of the war in Europe. That’s what else he had on his mind. I think that shows his understanding of who he is. He once said, ‘I tried never to forget who I am, where I came from and where I’ll go back to.’ He knew who he was.

“It also revealed his capacity for empathy. … He doesn’t look down on them for feeling that way. He would never look down on either of them no matter what.”

Because Truman was so sure of who he was, McCullough said, he never worried about sharing credit or sharing the stage with other great men. The Marshall Plan, which revitalized the economies of an ailing post-war Europe, should have been called the Truman plan, McCullough said. But Truman knew Marshall’s name would help it get through Congress.

“George Marshall, when he was first proposed as Truman’s secretary of state, there was a meeting of Truman’s staff,” McCullough said. “One of the members of staff … said, ‘Well Mr. President, you might want to think twice about appointing General Marshall to be secretary of state. … In two or three months, people will start saying he’d make a better president than you are. Truman said, ‘He would make a better president than me but I’m the president.’

“He also knew one of the lessons of leadership … is to have the capacity to surround yourself with good people. He said there was no end to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who got credit.”

Truman believed in education, McCullough said, which also is essential for good leaders.

“Truman is not just a failed haberdasher hick from west Missouri,” he said. “This man, despite never going to college, read Latin for pleasure. He read history over and over again. … He knew history was essential to understanding how people work and how you work for people.”

McCullough reminded legislators that even though Truman served during a particularly tumultuous time in our nation’s history, there never has been an idyllic past when things were simple and carefree. Truman made the tough decisions, like dropping the atomic bombs on Japan, the Berlin airlift and integrating the military.

Truman understood “the need for patience, the need for purpose, the need to surround yourself with the best people possible and the very crucial need of doing the tough things too, the decisions that are not going to be popular, the decisions that won’t look good but will stand the test of time,” McCullough said. “That’s what history is about, the test of time.”