Over the years, certain myths have arisen about Harry S. Truman’s presidency. These myths concern a wide variety of subjects – the Pope, Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) and the origins of the term “political correctness.”
They began, and have endured, for different reasons. Their persistence demonstrates their strength and people’s willingness to believe their truthfulness even if evidence, or lack thereof, suggests they are false. Social media and the internet have circulated and perpetuated them, ensuring that they will not disappear.
One myth concerns alleged correspondence between President Truman and Pope Pius XII. In a letter that he supposedly addressed to “Mr. Pacelli,” the Pope’s given name, Truman reprimanded the Pontiff for his support of the Nazis during World War II and referred to the United States as a Protestant nation. In truth, Truman didn’t write this letter. It was published in the November 1947 issue of The Converted Catholic Magazine. The author wrote the letter because he felt it was what President Truman should have written to the Pope instead of the “diplomatic verbiage” of the president’s actual letter to him. The fake letter has been considered real by critics of the Catholic Church.
A second myth involves the crash of some kind of aircraft, allegedly a UFO, near Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947. According to documents, whose veracity has never been proven, President Truman issued a classified executive order establishing a group of top administration officials tasked with carrying out an “intelligence operation” to look into the UFO crash and its alien occupants. Dubbed “Majestic-12,” this 12-man board was responsible only to the President. Some have even suggested that one of the board members, James Forrestal (who committed suicide in 1949), was killed because of fears that he would reveal his knowledge of Majestic-12’s activities.
The event at Roswell continues to have popular-culture appeal and for some, it’s “proof” that people share the universe with other beings. Scholars’ inability to find the actual documents at the Harry S. Truman Library, at the National Archives or elsewhere has encouraged conspiracy theorists to believe in a cover-up by the federal government.
The first two myths have been around for decades. A third myth has arisen in the past decade. It surrounds an apparently apocryphal series of telegrams between President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur just prior to the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II. In response to MacArthur’s reference to the Japanese as “yellow bellied bastards,” Truman asked the General to tone down his remarks because they were not “politically correct.” He explained that the term “politically correct” was a doctrine “fostered by a delusional, illogical minority and promoted by a sick mainstream media.”
To some, these telegrams prove that no less an authority than Harry Truman is the author of the contemporary terms “political correctness” and “mainstream media.” There are several reasons to believe these telegrams are a hoax. In one of them, Chester Nimitz's middle initial is incorrect; his middle initial was W, not H. The telegrams also contain language that military officers, and Mr. Truman himself, very likely would not have used in official communications. The informal tone of the telegrams also suggests a close, personal relationship which President Truman and General MacArthur did not have.
The Harry S. Truman Library has been repeatedly asked if it can verify these three myths. In the case of the “Mr. Pacelli” letter, it is clear that President Truman did not write it. As for the Majestic-12 documents and the Truman-MacArthur telegrams about political correctness, the Library has never found these materials in its archives, so it cannot confirm their authenticity. That said, the Library welcomes researchers to visit and explore its collections to seek evidence concerning these myths, which at least for now have not been validated.
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.