Harry Truman was not a “green” president. His presidency, from 1945 to 1953, pre-dated the modern environmental movement in the United States.
For Truman, nature and the environment primarily served America’s expanding energy needs following World War II. His energy policy was based in large part on building dams on rivers to generate electricity. These dams altered the natural landscape and led to habitat loss, among other negative impacts.
He was a proponent of large public power projects along the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation established in 1933 to create electricity and control floods. And although he was unable to get congressional approval for a similar project, the Columbia Valley Authority, he could point to several public power accomplishments. In May 1949, at the White House, he threw a switch to activate a generator at the Grand Coulee Dam, on the Columbia River in Washington State. For Truman it was a historic event, because the additional generator made the Grand Coulee Dam the nation’s “biggest producer of hydroelectric power.”
In July 1952, Truman dedicated Bull Shoals and Norfork Dams, on the White River and North Fork River in Arkansas. There he talked about opponents of the dam, private power companies who said it was “socialism” for the federal government to be involved in the building of dams. Truman simply felt that power companies wanted farmers and consumers to pay more for electricity. He mentioned the environment with respect to people enjoying fishing, camping and other recreational benefits of a tamed White River.
President Truman was also present during the dedication of the Hungry Horse Dam in Montana in October 1952. He again threw a switch to activate the dam’s power plant. Truman used the occasion to attack the Republican nominee for president, Dwight Eisenhower, and “monopolists.”
He didn’t apologize for providing cheap electricity for consumers and he mentioned the benefits of river development: land “reclamation, flood control, power generation, transportation, recreation.” He said nothing about the adverse environmental effects of big dams such as Hungry Horse.
The wisdom of building dams was clear to President Truman when he toured by air flood-ravaged areas in Kansas City and elsewhere in Missouri and Kansas on July 17, 1951.
Of course, public power wasn’t President Truman’s only environment-related interest. His dedication of Everglades National Park in 1947 was a very significant action. He saw the park’s value as enriching the “human spirit” and the national park system as an expression of the American people’s “idealism.” Everglades would be part of the nation’s effort to conserve its natural resources. However, even the Everglades was not entirely preserved. The Central and South Florida Flood Control Project, established by Congress in 1948, drained half of the original Everglades to promote economic development.
For Truman, a responsible conservation program included prevention of waste of natural resources; development of dams, natural gas, coal and oil; soil conservation; forest management; and preservation through national parks such as Everglades and other natural and historic sites.
Renewable energy through wind and solar power, the environmental hazards of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), and global warning wouldn’t be discussed until decades later.
In Karl Brooks (ed.), “The Environmental Legacy of Harry S. Truman,” Truman adviser Ken Hechler was blunt. In his view, President Truman “did not exert personal leadership” on environmental issues. The urban sprawl (and the resulting air pollution) between Kansas City and Independence “never bothered Truman,” and the effects of radioactive fallout were not a concern until Adlai Stevenson made them an issue during the 1956 presidential campaign. Brooks himself concluded, “The threat of nuclear destruction…surely constitutes Harry Truman’s most consequential legacy for the Earth and all life that inhabits it.”
Of course, there is a danger in judging historical figures by the standards of our own time. As Brooks observed in “Harry’s Farewell: Interpreting and Teaching the Truman Presidency,” Truman’s overriding interest was in providing both economic prosperity following the Great Depression and World War II and national security in the face of Soviet aggression. The environment took a back seat to these two major priorities.
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.