South America always held a personal interest for Harry S. Truman. As a boy, he read an essay about Simon Bolivar, one of the founders of Venezuela, Bolivia and other South American nations, in Charles Horne’s (ed.), “Great Men and Famous Women,” a multi-volume set of books he received as a gift from his mother.
As a United States Senator, Truman helped the people of Bolivar, Missouri, obtain a statue of Simon Bolivar. As President, Truman and Venezuelan President Romulo Gallegos dedicated the statue in sweltering heat (“104 in the shade” as Truman put it) in Bolivar on July 5, 1948. Truman thought so highly of Bolivar that he had a painting of him displayed in the Oval Office alongside portraits of George Washington and General Jose de San Martin, the hero of Peruvian and Chilean independence. All three men were liberators of the Americas. They also were Masons, as was President Truman, and they retired at the peak of their power, as did another one of Truman’s heroes, the Roman general Cincinnatus. All three portraits are on display in the Oval Office replica exhibit at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
Seventy years ago, in September 1947, President Truman visited Brazil. There, on Sept. 2, 21 nations, including the United States, signed the Treaty of Rio de Janeiro, which resulted from the Inter-American Conference. The treaty provided that “an armed attack by any State against an American State shall be considered as an attack against all the American States,” who could respond collectively through Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
Three days later, President Truman spoke to a joint session of the Brazilian Congress. He recalled the long friendship between the U.S. and Brazil and expressed his support for the United Nations. Although he did not mention the Soviet Union, the Cold War surely was not far from his mind.
Truman took time to relax in Brazil. Margaret Truman related that he and his physician, Wallace Graham, eluded the Secret Service and climbed a mountainside in search of orchids.
Bess and Margaret accompanied President Truman on his trip to Brazil, which they made by airplane. They returned to the United States aboard the USS Missouri. Upon crossing the equator, the Truman family and their entourage were treated to an elaborate and strange ceremony that sailors had practiced for centuries to initiate “pollywogs,” those who had never before crossed the equator. The rituals featured sailors dressed like King Neptune and Davy Jones. Jones, who was actually a chief petty officer, flubbed his lines when he came face to face with President Truman. Having passed their “initiation,” Margaret and Bess were presented with “shellback” certificates, which are in the Truman Library’s museum collection. Although her father thoroughly enjoyed the festivities, Margaret Truman, then 23 years old, was not amused. In her diary, she confided, “I have never seen anything like it since I was in junior high school and even then we weren’t so silly.”
Brazil’s president, Eurico Gaspar Dutra, reciprocated President Truman’s warm feelings toward his country by giving him several sets of books by Brazilian authors. These books, which are in the Truman Library’s book collection, are in Portuguese. They include a 256-volume set of Brazilian literature, a picture book showing architecture and art of Brazilian cities, and histories by Ruy Barbosa. In his speech to the Brazilian Congress, Truman noted that Barbosa had said that all nations constituted a “single society.”
Truman also saw the economic potential of South America. In 1949, he observed that southern Brazil possessed a region whose development capacity, which was comparable to the Tennessee Valley, could be tapped if it received technical aid through the president’s Point IV program for developing nations.
In 1955, former President Truman met with Brazilian cadets visiting Kansas City as guests of the Missouri Wing Civil Air Patrol. Truman took time to sign mementos, a gesture that the cadets surely appreciated.
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.