Harry Truman made enduring friendships and formed valuable political connections as a result of his military service in World War I. For example, Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman formed a military store at Camp Doniphan, became a trusted business partner after the war and a passionate advocate of Israel during Truman’s presidency.
Truman was held in high regard by almost all of his fellow officers and by the 194 men he commanded in Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, Second Battalion, 35th Division, in the U.S. Army.
One of Truman’s more interesting and complex service-related relationships was with Spencer Salisbury. Salisbury’s family owned a large farm on what is now Salisbury Road in Independence. When they were young, Harry Truman and Bess Wallace enjoyed frequent social gatherings at the Salisbury farm, and Spencer’s sister, Agnes, was Bess’s very good friend.
Spencer Salisbury was a colorful figure. In “Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman,” historian Alonzo Hamby describes him as a “tall, imposing, devil-may-care” roguish fellow. Despite the differences in their personalities and backgrounds (Truman did not come from a wealthy family), he and Harry became good friends. In his oral history interview, which is available on the Truman Library’s website at https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/oral-histories/danielsj#9, author Jonathan Daniels recalled that Salisbury was a “very dashing young man who rode with a black coat on a motorcycle….”
He and Truman were “unquestionably very close” in their future banking association, which would, however, eventually sever their friendship.
Salisbury served as a captain in Battery E of the 129th Field Artillery. Captain Truman commanded Battery D. Salisbury was a practical joker who once served goat meat, presented as pot roast, to officers. Following the war, both men received Army Reserve appointments and associated with each other at summer training camps. Salisbury supported Truman’s successful campaign to become judge of eastern Jackson County in 1922. From 1919 to 1926, Salisbury worked for the U.S. Bureau of Internal Revenue.
The two men eventually went into the banking business together. After his defeat for re-election as a county judge, Truman sold memberships for the Automobile Club of Kansas City. It was at that time, in 1925, that Truman formed a management company and partnered with Salisbury and another man in a bank, Community Savings and Loan of Independence, which made money by selling stock, or deposits. While also keeping an eye on his business interests, Truman’s attention turned back to politics, and he was elected presiding judge of Jackson County in 1926.
In the 1930s, Truman and Salisbury’s business relationship soured because of losses and claims of mismanagement, which resulted in a financial audit. Salisbury eventually pleaded guilty to bank fraud and spent a year in jail. For his part, Salisbury felt that Truman had not contributed money to the partnership and had not provided him with a rewarding patronage job when Truman was in Jackson County government. As for Truman, he wrote that Salisbury “robbed me ...”
Salisbury opposed Truman during the latter’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1934 and in all of Truman’s subsequent campaigns. In his oral history interview, which is available on the Truman Library’s website at https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/oral-histories/mckimed1#48, Eddie McKim recalled that it was Salisbury who “had given out the report that Harry S. Truman had belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.” Salisbury’s claim, which was false, was intended to hurt Truman politically during the 1944 campaign, in which Truman ran as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice presidential running mate.
McKim had a low opinion of Salisbury, whom he called “an eighteen carat crook.” Salisbury went on to become a bar owner and bail bondsman. As president, Truman refused to pardon Salisbury for his bank fraud felony conviction.
Harry Truman’s fractured friendship with Spencer Salisbury was an exception to the mostly long-lasting and positive relationships that he enjoyed with the men with whom he served in World War I. In one of the last known photographs of Truman, the former president was flanked by Eddie Meisburger and Eugene Donnelly, who had served with him during the Great War. The photo was taken in Truman’s home in March 1972, about nine months before his death and 53 years after the end of the war.
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.