Editor’s note: This column first appeared in 2009.
All of us can remember a much anticipated holiday season that didn’t turn out to be as warm and joyous as we had hoped.
Harry Truman was not immune to the holiday blues. In fact, the record tells us that he had a most unhappy Christmas in his first year as president.
In December 1945, Harry Truman had served as president of the United States for an eventful eight months. During this time he had presided over the successful conclusion of the greatest war in the history of the world, met with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to draft plans for a new world order, began the transition of the nation’s war-time economy into one of domestic growth and prosperity, and led the United States into the United Nations.
Then, in November, he watched with grief and consternation as the Republican Party took control of the 80th Congress. The president needed a break and was anxious to leave Washington and spend a pleasant Christmas with his wife Bess back home in Independence.
In spite of severe winter storms which grounded most commercial aircraft, President Truman made a hazardous flight to Missouri on the well-worn presidential aircraft, The Sacred Cow. He landed in Kansas City just in time for Christmas, exhausted but thankful that he had arrived home safely.
We don’t know for sure what happened that Christmas at the stately, white Victorian home on Delaware Street. Perhaps Bess was busy with Christmas preparations or preoccupied with the care of her aging mother, Madge Wallace, or the Truman’s daughter Margaret – who at times required a lot of attention. All we know for sure is that Harry wasn’t happy about his homecoming.
Back in Washington, a few days after Christmas, the president put pen to paper and expressed his feeling of disappointment about his unhappy Christmas in no uncertain terms.
In a letter to Bess dated Dec. 28, the president wrote, “Well here I am in the White House, the great white sepulcher of ambitions and reputations.”
He continued, “When you told me I might as well have stayed in Washington so far as you’re concerned I gave up. . You can never appreciate what it means to come home as I did the other evening after doing at least 100 things I didn’t want to do and have the only person in the world whose approval and good opinion I value look at me like something the cat dragged in …” Ouch!
Harry Truman was not a whiner. An eternal optimist, he never allowed himself to dwell on disappointments. Upon reflection, the president decided to keep his feelings of frustration to himself, and he never mailed the angry letter to Bess.
The un-posted missive was discovered in the White House files at the Truman Library a quarter century later, following the President’s death in 1972.
Of course, the Trumans enjoyed many happy holidays together, both at their Independence home and in Washington, D.C.
To learn more about programs and museum exhibits at the Truman Library, visit TrumanLibrary.org.
Michael J. Devine is director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.