David McCullough Describes Harry S. Truman

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NBC Today Show
Katie Couric
Event Date:
1945 - 1953
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Video News Report
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
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The author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of President Truman talks about what he has learned about Truman in the course of writing his book.



"David McCullough Describes Harry S. Truman." Katie Couric, correspondent. NBC Today Show. NBCUniversal Media. 10 June 1992. NBC Learn. Web. 11 January 2020.


Couric, K. (Reporter). (1992, June 10). David McCullough Describes Harry S. Truman. [Television series episode]. NBC Today Show. Retrieved from https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=33517


"David McCullough Describes Harry S. Truman" NBC Today Show, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 06/10/1992. Accessed Sat Jan 11 2020 from NBC Learn: https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=33517


David McCullough Describes Harry S. Truman

KATHERINE COURIC, co-host: It's curious what people think of first when you ask them about Harry Truman. Maybe an expression like `Give 'em hell, Harry!' or `The buck stops here.' Historian David McCullough has been asking people about Truman for years, and he says the 33rd president is most often recalled as the man who dropped the A bomb, had a wife named Bess, and wrote a furious letter to a music critic who didn't like his daughter's singing.

Fine, as far as it goes, but David McCullough, good morning. What are they leaving out?

Mr. DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Well, the fact that he started the Marshall Plan. He's the president who upset all the predictions in 1948 and won. He's the president, of course, who took us into Korea, the president who fired MacArthur, the president who recognized the state of Israel for the first time, and the president who sent the first civil rights message ever up to Congress.

COURIC: So they're leaving out...

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Among other things.

COURIC: They're leaving out plenty.

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: A very great deal.

COURIC: "Truman" is the Trumanesquely, no-nonsense title of Mr. McCullough's new book, a major biography of the man who was president after FDR and before Eisenhower, and who died in 1972 at the age of 88. Let's talk about Harry Truman's early life. He was quoted as saying, `I never forgot who I was, where I came from or where I'd go back to.' What was it about his childhood in Missouri that so shaped the man he became?

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Well, he grew up in a small town, in Independence, at the time when most of America was small-town life, and he then went to work on a farm for 11 years at that time when America was experiencing the great age of agriculture in this country, and then he went to war in France in 1918.

COURIC: In fact, you--you say, Mr. McCullough, that his military service was a major turning point.

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Oh, it changed his life.


Mr. MCCULLOUGH: It absolutely changed...

COURIC: How so?

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Well, he found out that he liked to lead people, that he was a good leader, a very courageous soldier, and it took him off the farm, as it did for many of that whole generation.

COURIC: I read that he wanted to distinguish a heretofore fairly undistinguished life by serving in the military. Is that fair?

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Well, I think that's probably true of many people at that time. It was a very patriotic fervor that swept the country in 1917, and they all went off to make the world safe for democracy, and Truman could have avoided going. He was over age. He was virtually blind in one eye. He was a farmer, and farmers were meant to stay on the--on the farm, and he was the sole supporter of his mother and his sister. But he really felt that it was his duty. He was a very profound patriot in the old sense and believed that citizens had to do certain things, including take part in government.

COURIC: How was he thrust into politics? Was it the Pendergast machine?

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Yes. He came back from the war, and he had a following because in those days you went to war with the people from your own town, and he brought them all home safe and sound after being through the horrendous Battle of the Argon, one of the greatest, most awful battles of all time. And he was a natural for politics. So the Pendergast machine, which really ran Western Missouri, Jackson County, took him up as a good, good, honest fellow with a--with a war record and a following and made him county judge, which in--in Jackson County is really the equivalent of a county commissioner. And then he went to the Senate, and the Pendergast Organization was very powerful, notorious you might say, run by T.J. “Tom” Pendergast, and so Truman is a product of the boss era. He is literally a fellow who comes from the smoke-filled room.

COURIC: But was not corrupt himself?

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: No. As near as I can tell and as near as everyone who's examined this record can tell, he really was everything he said he was. And--and the people who knew him best--this includes people that I've interviewed from Independence and people who were with--with him in Washington in government--all speak of his fundamental decency and integrity as his--as being his most salient qualities.

COURIC: What led FDR to select Truman as his running mate? It was called the Missouri Compromise. Was it because they didn't think he would hurt FDR? Not because they thought he would help them, was it?

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Well, he had made a terrific record as the head of the Truman committee during the Second World War rooting out corruption in the--in the war effort, and his opponents were either too liberal or too conservative, and he seemed a happy medium, and he came from a central part of the country, and he had no--he had no enemies. He never made any real enemies in the Senate and had many, many admirers. And Franklin Roosevelt honestly didn't know him very well. And he was really the choice of the political bosses, once again. The boss system was not all bad.

COURIC: How tough was it? I think maybe the--the thing, as we mentioned, he is most known for is the decision to drop the A-bomb. How much did that haunt him? Or did it?

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: It haunted him far more than he let on. And in private letters and in the diaries of others that were close to him, we now know that he was terribly troubled by this, and that it kept on his mind, was with him his whole presidency, and it's the main reason why he refused ever to consider--seriously consider, the use of atomic weapons in Korea, which I think was one of the major decisions of his presidency.

COURIC: One of his greatest political challenges was when he ran for re-election in 1948 and all the polls and pundits said...

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Everybody.

COURIC: ...it couldn't be done.

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Cannot win.

COURIC: This was the first time a convention was televised. Here's Truman accepting the nomination.

President HARRY S. TRUMAN: Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it. Don't you forget that.

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: It was an electrifying moment when he came out and...

COURIC: Give 'em hell, Harry.

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: ...said that.

COURIC: Why was that such an important...

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Well, it was the first time anybody said that he was going to win. Nobody had used the word win. Everybody assumed that he was--as Claire Booth Luce said, `the gone goose.' All the experts, all the pundits, all the people in what we would call the media and all the professional politicians, nobody thought he would win except Harry


COURIC: What about his whistle-stop campaign? He--he went on a--on the train and campaigned--what, 22,000 miles?


COURIC: Why is that so quintessential Truman?

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Well, because as he said, `I want to see the people.'

And there was a wonderful moment where they were all riding along in his car, his private car, and the speech writers and his advisers were all gathered around the table, and they were telling him what--what maybe they should say at the next stop or the next city and the next major speech, and he turned and said, `Why don't we just say what we mean?' And that was him. That was the way he worked.

And his speeches--most of the speeches were extemporaneous, and they're wonderful. They're very direct, very clear. He spoke in complete sentences, and I think his Latin teachers would have been very proud of him. And here was this fellow who, as Sam Rayburn said, wasn't smiling at them; he was smiling with them. He wasn't talking at them; he was talking with them. He believed in the participation of the American citizenry in their government. And he wanted people to come out and vote. And he--he would tell them again and again, `Don't vote for me; vote for yourselves. Vote for what you think the country needs. Vote for the man that you think is going to work hardest,' and he was a very hard worker. I don't think we've ever had a president who worked quite so hard.

COURIC: David McCullough, the book is "Truman." It's quite an impressive and heavy book. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Mr. MCCULLOUGH: Thanks very much. I’m delighted to be here.

COURIC: Well, thank you.