Harry Truman's living legacy

The Examiner

Harry Truman’s legacy is all around us, in ways that are easy to take for granted. 

We don’t mean statues and historic sites in Independence, important as those are. Those things serve as reminders as this community continues to reflect on the Man from Independence and on how the country and the world need what Truman brought to the American presidency three-quarters of a century ago: optimism, competence, open-mindedness and a dogged commitment that we as a people can and must build a better world. 

Much of his legacy is in the reordering of international structures after World War II, breaking Europe’s cycle across centuries of militarism and war. Twice that spilled into world war, costing millions of lives, including those of Americans. 

Who in 1945 thought Europe and much else of the world could recover and rebuild, let alone live largely in peace and prosperity for generations? President Harry S. Truman was among those who believed that possible and crucial – that the mistakes of the past, particularly the grievous mistakes after World War I, need not be repeated. The path was not flat, clear or well lit, but he and that generation of leaders got it done. 

That said, it’s entirely fitting to take a moment today – Truman’s birthday, May 8 – to think of the man who Independence molded into one of America’s great leaders. He was decisive, he dealt straight, and he had courage. It was here that he learned the value of hard work, got a good education and became a lifelong learner, learned how to work with people, learned the rough and tumble of politics – a thousand life lessons. It’s the place that kept him rooted, the place where he and Bess came home after the presidency and the place where he built a presidential library. 

We eagerly await the reopening of the Truman Library, now that it’s been renovated and expanded to more fully tell the story of the challenges Truman faced. That renovation also is a project that’s generational in scope. Truman wanted a presidential library not as a shrine but as a place where people – the young in particular – would learn about the presidency, democracy, self-government and America’s role in the world. 

Truman knew as well as any president America has ever had that a working knowledge of history – and humility in the face of its lessons – is critical for a self-governing people. We still need to remember what Truman knew so deeply. Tell his story, tell of the promise of America for generations to come. 

It pays to be leery whenever anyone declares what Harry Truman would have thought or said were he alive today. But we’ll venture this much: It’s safe to say he’d be pleased to see the Truman Library adapting to the times – still with less of focus on him than on the work at hand.