In many ways, the period from mid-November through mid-December 1950 was Harry S. Truman’s darkest month as president of the United States.
During that time, the war in Korea took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse, as hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops intervened on behalf of their ally, North Korea. In response, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and others called for military action against China. Just a few weeks before, MacArthur had assured President Truman that the war, which began in June 1950, would be over by Christmas.
At a press conference on Nov. 30, Truman made comments concerning the “active consideration” of the use of the atomic bomb to meet the deteriorating military situation in Korea. His statements, which the White House hastened to clarify, resulted in a hurried visit to Washington by a worried British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Despondent, Truman confided to his diary on Dec. 9: “I've worked for peace for five years and six months and it looks like World War III is here.”
On Dec. 15, Truman declared a national emergency, telling the American people that “our homes, our Nation, all the things we believe in are in great danger” from the Soviet Union, which he saw as the force behind the communist aggression in Korea and elsewhere. He noted that wage and price controls, and higher taxes, were necessary to control inflation caused by the higher military spending that the war required. These politically unpopular measures would contribute to Truman’s public approval rating of only 36 percent in January 1951, according to a Gallup poll.
There was more bad news. On Dec. 5, Truman’s press secretary and former high school classmate, Charles Ross, died of a heart attack. That evening, a Washington Post music critic panned Margaret Truman’s singing performance at a concert at Constitution Hall. In response, Mr. Truman, behaving as an offended father, sent the critic an angry and threatening letter, which was promptly published. On the domestic front, Truman’s Democratic Party was reeling from setbacks in the recent 1950 elections. In a rare bit of good news, a several months-long railroad strike was finally settled in late December.
Seeking to get away from Washington, Mr. Truman spent several days – Dec. 22-26 – in the Independence area, where he knew he could find refuge from the tremendous pressures of the presidency. Seeking to boost his spirits, Nellie Noland, Truman’s first-cousin, informed Harry that she and her sister, Ethel, were planning a Christmas dinner, which would include cranberries with sugar, evidently a favorite of his. The Noland sisters lived across the street from Harry and Bess Truman’s home.
A lifelong Mason, President Truman attended a dinner of the Knights of the Red Cross of Constantine at the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City on Dec. 22. The next day, he went to Grandview, where he made brief remarks at a meeting of the Order of the Eastern Star, another Masonic organization in which his sister, Mary Jane, was a very active member. On Christmas Eve, the President spoke at dedication ceremonies for the Grandview Baptist Church and then went to his home in Independence. Later that afternoon, in a radio address, Truman conveyed to the nation a message of faith and hope, while reminding listeners of the “thousands of our boys … on the cold and dreary battlefield of Korea.”
Bess and Margaret Truman, who felt the pressures that Harry Truman was under, took moments to enjoy life in Independence that December. In her diary, Margaret, then 26 years old, noted that she and her mother went “uptown and got a soda.” They also decorated the family’s Christmas tree, shopped and had lunch with Mary Shaw “Shawsie” Branton, Margaret’s first cousin, at a restaurant called Putsch’s. They also attended Blevins Davis’ Christmas party, a major annual social affair in Independence. Margaret surely was pleased to be away from Washington, where, just weeks before, she recorded having been “awakened by Mother saying I’d better dress as unidentified planes were spotted over Maine. Brother – everyone is trigger happy here. It was a false alarm.”
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.