During his nearly eight-year presidency, Harry S. Truman had thousands of meetings at the White House and elsewhere. Their purpose ranged widely.
Some meetings were short social calls. Truman also met with congressional and military leaders, his Cabinet members, veterans, and civil rights, labor, civic and business groups, among others.
He held daily morning staff meetings (even on Saturdays) for 20 to 40 minutes with about a half-dozen of his closest aides and secretaries. Despite the high frequency and productivity of Truman’s meetings with his staff, historian Alonzo Hamby, in “Man of the People,” argued that Truman’s staff was “too small for the responsibilities of the presidency.”
Truman occasionally met with people who gave him gifts. For example, jazz musician Duke Ellington presented the president with the original manuscript of his composition for Toscanini’s “Portrait of New York Suite.” Truman and Ellington shared a common interest – they were both piano players. Truman loved music – classical music – but certainly not jazz. There is a photograph but no written record of their 15-minute discussion in the Oval Office on Sept. 29, 1950.
One of President Truman’s most poignant meetings was his presentation of the Medal of Honor to Corporal Desmond Doss on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 12, 1945. Cpl. Doss was a conscientious objector who served on Okinawa as a combat medic during World War II. During the ceremony, Truman asked him how he was able to go onto the battlefield given his convictions. Doss replied that he could serve the Lord and save lives there as well as anywhere else in the world.
Of Doss, who was not large in stature and frame, Truman later wrote, “I shall never forget him.” Decades later, in 2016, Doss was the subject of the Hollywood movie “Hacksaw Ridge.”
Truman’s meetings sometimes did not go as planned. During an Oval Office meeting with scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and Secretary of War Robert Patterson on Oct. 25, 1945, Oppenheimer exclaimed that he had “blood on his hands” as a result of his work on developing the atomic bomb. Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war against Japan.
As David McCullough noted in “Truman,” it was a “dreadful moment” for Truman, who replied, “The blood is on my hands. Let me worry about that.” Truman found Oppenheimer’s “cry-baby” attitude repugnant.
One of Truman’s most important meetings was with General Douglas MacArthur at Wake Island, in the Pacific Ocean, in October 1950, months after the beginning of the Korean War. During their conference, MacArthur, then supreme commander of United Nations forces in Korea, assured Truman that China would very likely not intervene militarily on behalf of their North Korean allies and that American troops would be returning from the war shortly after the beginning of 1951. Both assurances proved to be wrong. The following April, Truman fired MacArthur from his command.
Truman did not shrink from giving bad news face to face, when necessary. In September 1950, he met with Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson to inform him that he must accept his resignation. However, Johnson did not go gracefully. A few days later, Truman wrote of the meeting, “I’ve never felt quite so uncomfortable.” Johnson “begged me not to fire him.” Truman held firm and insisted that Johnson sign his resignation letter. According to Truman, Johnson was the biggest “ego maniac” he had ever seen – and he’d seen “a lot” of them. He said Johnson didn’t actually think Truman would follow through on his dismissal of him.
Despite the stresses of his hectic schedule, Harry Truman genuinely enjoyed people and their company. His daily appointments calendar is located on the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum’s website at https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/calendar.
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.