By Harry Truman
February 16, 1981 12:00 PM

With the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt 36 years ago, Harry Truman suddenly found himself thrust into office as the 33rd President of the United States. In some ways, he discovered, no one can ever be fully prepared for the job. He wrote of his frustrations in his diaries and memos and in letters home to relatives in Independence, Mo. The following excerpts from Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, newly published by Harper & Row, indicate the timeless nature of the problems that faced him, and which now confront his successor, Ronald Reagan.

June 1, 1945

Saw Herbert Hoover and had a pleasant and constructive conversation on the general troubles of U.S. Presidents—two in particular. We discussed our prima donnas and wondered what makes ’em. Some of my boys who came in with me are having trouble with their dignity and prerogatives. It’s hell when a man gets in close association with the President. Something happens to him. Some Senators and Congressmen come in and pass the time of day and then go out and help me save the world in the press. That publicity complex is hell and few can escape it here. When a good man comes along who hasn’t the bug I try to grab him.

The family left for Missouri last evening. Went to the train with them and rode to Silver Spring [Md.]….I’m always so lonesome when the family leaves. I have no one to raise a fuss over my neckties and my haircuts, my shoes and my clothes generally. I usually put on a terrible tie just to get a loud protest from Bess & Margie [Margaret]. When they are gone I have to put on the right ones and it’s no fun.

Went to church this morning and beat the publicity boys. Walked across Jackson Park with no advance detail and slipped into a rear pew of St. John’s Church without attracting any notice whatever. Don’t think over six people recognized me. Several soldiers & sailors stood and saluted as I walked across the park but there were no curiosity seekers around and I enjoyed the lack of ’em.

June 4

[House Speaker Sam] Rayburn spent weekend in Maryland at the fishing resort of Jim Barnes—a grand old lobbyist who charges Congressional Week Enders $10 for the privilege of fishing in his lake. No business is discussed—only fishing lies and jacks or better. They took me fishing before I became V.P. and accidentally spilled me in the creek while I was changing seats in the row boat….

It was claimed to have been an accident—I’m not sure it wasn’t. But they still discuss it and I wish I could go again and have as much fun. But can you imagine me taking 16 Secret Service men, telephone and telegraph connections, representatives of three press associations, radio, photographers, special writers etc. on a personal excursion of that sort? It would all be off the record of course but these people would be along so if I got drowned or some nut got by the Secret Service and shot or stabbed me, the news service would be intact. I’ll stay in the White House backyard and let ’em stare through the back fence at the “two headed calf.”

June 7

You know Americans are funny birds. They are always sticking their noses into somebody’s business which isn’t any of theirs…The United States was created by the boys and girls who couldn’t get along at home. So-called Puritans who weren’t by any manner of means pure came to Massachusetts to try out their own witch burning theories. Roger Williams couldn’t stand ’em any better than they could stand England under the Stuarts.

Most every colony on the East Coast was founded for about the same reason by folks who couldn’t get along at home. But by amalgamation we’ve made a very good country and a great nation with a reasonably good government. I want to maintain it and shall do all I can in spite of the hyphenates and crackpots.

I’ve no more use for Polish-Americans, Irish-Americans, Swedish-Americans or any other sort of hyphenate than I have for Communist-Americans. They all have some other loyalty than the one they should have. Maybe the old melting pot will take care of it. I hope so.

July 16, Potsdam Conference in Germany

Mr. Churchill [phoned] last night and said he’d like to call—for me to set the hour. I did—for 11 a.m. this morning. He was on time to the dot. His daughter told [my aide] Gen. Vaughan he hadn’t been up so early in 10 years! I’d been up for 4½ hours.

We had a most pleasant conversation. He is a most charming and a very clever person—meaning clever in the English not the Kentucky sense. He gave me a lot of hooey about how great my country is and how he loved Roosevelt and how he intended to love me etc. etc. Well I gave him as cordial a reception as I could—being naturally (I hope) a polite and agreeable person.

I am sure we can get along if he doesn’t try to give me too much soft soap. You know soft soap is made of ash hopper lye and it burns to beat hell when it gets into the eyes. It’s fine for chigger bites but not so good for rose complexions. But I haven’t a rose complexion.

September 20

[Returned from Missouri] via Paducah, Ky., where Sen. Alben Barkley and Cong. [Noble Jones] Gregory were taken aboard the Sacred Cow [President Roosevelt’s old plane]….There were several thousand people at the airport in Paducah, all of whom wanted to see Jumbo, the Cardiff Giant, the President of the United States. It is a most amazing spectacle, this worship of high office. Barkley told me on Friday, when we landed in the rain at his home town (Paducah), that I shouldn’t be puffed up—the people always met him that way.

December 28

(Mrs. Truman was in Independence. The President had dashed out to spend one day-Christmas—with her. She was not in her mellowest mood. The following letter was found still in his desk at his death 37 years later. He never sent it.)

Dear Bess:

Well I’m here in the White House, the great white sepulcher of ambitions and reputations. I feel like a last year’s bird’s nest which is on its second year….

You can never appreciate what it means to come home as I did the other evening, after doing at least 100 things I didn’t want to do, and have the only person in the world whose approval and good opinion I value look at me like I’m something the cat dragged in and tell me I’ve come in at last because I couldn’t find any reason to stay away. I wonder why we are made so that what we really think and feel we cover up?

There ought to have been more brain [in this head of mine] and a larger bump of ego or something to give me an idea that there can be a No. 1 man in the world. I didn’t want to be. But, in spite of opinions to the contrary, LIFE & TIME say I am….

Kiss my baby and I love you in season and out.

Harry

September 26, 1946

Time only will tell. The human animal and his emotions change not much from age to age. He must change now or he faces absolute and complete destruction and maybe the insect age or an atmosphereless planet will succeed him.

October

Draft Speech (undelivered)

You’ve deserted your President for a mess of pottage, a piece of beef—a side of bacon. My fellow citizens, you are the government. This is a government of, by and for the people. If you the people insist on following Mammon instead of Almighty God—your President can’t stop you all by himself. He can only lead you to peace and happiness with your consent and your willing cooperation.

January 1, 1947

Spent New Year’s Eve on the yacht Williamsburg with the White House Staff and ex staff—18 of them. Gave each of them a gold seal White House card wishing a “very happy new year,” signed. We had a very happy evening together.

Went to bed at 1:30 after the ship’s Chief Pharmacist’s Mate gave me a good pounding with alcohol. Came back to the White House at 8:45 a.m. New Year’s Day. Read the morning papers as usual. Some gave me hell and some did not. It makes no difference what the papers say if you are right.

Called the “Boss” (Mrs. T.) at 10 a.m. and had a talk with her and the daughter. Never was so lonesome in my life. So I decided to call the Cabinet and ex Cabinet officers.

February 19

To his mother, Martha Ellen, and sister, Mary Jane Truman

Dear Mamma & Mary:

I was glad to get your note of Monday. It was written on Margie’s birthday. She’s one nice girl and I’m so glad she hasn’t turned out like Alice Roosevelt and a couple of the Wilson daughters.

Last night was our last reception thank goodness. It was the Congressional. There were 760 paws to shake, which was fewer than usual. Most of the Senators and Congressmen I was glad to see, but there were half [a] dozen I’d rather have punched in the nose. I told Bess if she’d trip [Ohio Senator John] Bricker up so he’d sprawl on the floor in front of us I’d give her the big diamond out of the scimitar the Crown Prince of Arabia gave me. It is about five carats. But she didn’t have the nerve to do it.

Take care of yourselves and love to you both.

Harry

November 14

To Mary Jane Truman

Dear Mary:

A man in his right mind would never want to be President if he knew what it entails. Aside from the impossible administrative burden, he has to take all sorts of abuse from liars and demagogues like Hearsts, Pattersons, McCormicks, Tafts, Mrs. Tafts, and [some] incompetent Congressional committees….

The people can never understand why the President does not use his supposedly great power to make ’em behave. Well all the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.

Love to you.

Harry

April 4, 1948

Took a walk at 10 a.m. Went to the Mellon Gallery and succeeded in getting the watchman on duty to let me in. Looked at the old Masters found in salt mine in Germany. Some very well-known paintings by Holbein, Franz Hals, Rubens, Rembrandt and others. It is a pleasure to look at perfection and then think of the lazy, nutty moderns. It is like comparing Christ with Lenin. May there be another awakening. We need an Isaiah, John the Baptist, Martin Luther—may he come soon.

June 28

Bess and I are eating supper on the south porch of the White House at 7 p.m. It is a lovely evening. [In my mind’s eye] I can see the old Chesapeake and Potomac Canal going across the Washington Monument grounds, barges anchoring west of the Monument. I can see old J.Q. Adams going swimming in it and getting his clothes stolen by an angry woman who wanted a job. The old guy did not have my guards or it wouldn’t have happened.

September 14

Another hell of a day. I’m sitting for an old Polish painter, and I don’t like to pose—but it’s also a part of the trial of being President. He’s painted a nice stuffed shirt picture. This is about No. 7 or No. 8. Hope it’s the last.

November 1, 1949

Had dinner by myself tonight. Worked in the Lee House office until dinner time. A butler came in very formally and said, “Mr. President, dinner is served.” I walk into the dining room in the Blair House, Barnett in tails and white tie pulls out my chair, pushes me up to the table. John in tails and white tie brings me a fruit cup. Barnett takes away the empty cup. John brings me a plate, Barnett brings me a tenderloin, John brings me asparagus, Barnett brings me carrots and beets. I have to eat alone and in silence in candle lit room. I ring—Barnett takes the plate and butter plates. John comes in with a napkin and silver crumb tray—there are no crumbs but John has to brush them off the table anyway. Barnett brings me a plate with a finger bowl and doily on it—I remove finger bowl and doily and John puts a glass saucer and a little bowl on the plate. Barnett brings me some chocolate custard. John brings me a demitasse (at home a little cup of coffee—about two good gulps) and my dinner is over. I take a hand bath in the finger bowl and go back to work.

What a life!

March 11, 1950

To his cousin Nellie Noland

Dear Nellie:

Every Senator and every member of the House who has an ax to grind must see me personally come hell or highwater. More’s the pity, I have to see all of them I can. So I couldn’t comply with your request. I would much rather have seen your school superintendent than many I did see. One old Congressman who rides in a wheeled chair and who is a chairman of a key committee talked to me for 40 long, nerve wracking minutes about his favorite candidate for postmaster in a town of a million people where there are two other Congressmen with a favorite. Seven people stood on first one foot and then another outside my door. That’s one example….

Sincerely.

Harry

September 24

To his cousin Ethel Noland

Dear Ethel:

…I have a valet, four ushers, five butlers, seven or eight secretaries, a dozen or so executive assistants, an assistant president—three of ’em in fact—and I can’t open a door, get my hat, pull out my chair at the table, hang up my coat or do anything else for myself—even take a bath! I won’t be worth a damn when I come out of here—if I ever do.

Write when you can to your nutty old cousin.

Sincerely.

Harry

November 5

Because two crackpots or crazy men tried to shoot me a few days ago my good and efficient guards are nervous. So I’m trying to be as helpful as I can. Would like very much to take a walk this morning but the S.S. say that there are more crackpots around and the “Boss” and Margie are worried about me—so I won’t take my usual walk.

February 20, 1952

Since the assault on the police and the Secret Service, I ride across the street in a car the roof of which will turn a grenade, the windows and sides burn a bullet and the floor will stop a land mine! Behind me in an open car ride six or seven men with automatics and machineguns. The uniformed police stop traffic in every direction—and I cross the street in state and wonder why anyone would want to live like that. When I take my morning walk at 7 a.m. a guard walks beside me and he’s always a fine man and a congenial conversationalist. Behind me are three more good men, athletes and good shots, across the street is another good man and a half block behind me is a car with maybe five or six well equipped guards. It is a hell of a way to live.

The date of this memorandum is uncertain. It may have been written in 1954.

I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he’d taken a poll in Israel? Where would the Reformation have gone if Martin Luther had taken a poll? It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It is right and wrong and leadership—men with fortitude, honesty and a belief in the right that makes epochs in the history of the world.

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