Sunday, June 9, 2013

My Missouri: Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum

The Presidential Library Act was passed in 1955, but the idea of presidential libraries was really a brainchild of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1939 FDR, with the belief that papers of the president should be accessible to the American public, donated his personal papers to the Federal Government and the National Archives, which was also created under FDR's administration. Before this time, the papers and records of the US presidents were usually split between different libraries, museums, and private collections, or lost to the ages.  

FDR's successor, Harry S. Truman, pushed for the Presidential Library Act, which was passed in 1955, and set up the pattern that presidential libraries still follow today: private and non-federal funds are used to build the physical library, and then when completed the building is turned over to the US government and the National Archives to operate. 

Up until the late 1970's  the papers of the presidents were still considered to be property of the president, and it was their choice to donate their papers or not. In 1978, the Presidential Records Act of 1978 which states, "the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the President are the property of the United States Government, "* was passed.  And to this day, when a US president leaves office, his papers (and "papers" includes all record types including electronic records, audio visual materials, photographs, memorabilia, etc) , are turned over to the National Archives and are set upon the road to being open to the public for research and study. This task is only always easy or smooth, but it, as well as the entire mission and scope of the National Archives, really is a bedrock of our democracy, the government's accountability to the American people, and the preservation of the American story. 

All this gets us to the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library located in Independence, MO. Opened to the public since 1957, this library is dedicated to one of our favorite local heroes. You cannot throw a stone in Jackson County, MO and not hit something named after our 33rd president. But you really shouldn't be throwing stones.

 The library is divided into 2 levels. The first level, in which visitors enter, is dedicated to Truman's presidency (1945-1953).  Right pass a large and colorful mural by the Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton and the famed "The Buck Stop Here" desk plaque, is a replica of Truman's presidential office. The office of the president in the White House has always been oval in shape, but calling it the Oval Office is a relatively new tradition (since the Nixon administration), and during Truman's time it was still called the President's Office. 

The tour, which visitors can do on their own, or with a free guided tour (allow yourself 1.5 to 2 hours), then continues with exhibits that document the years Truman was Commander and Chief. He was only vice-president for 88 days before he took the oath of office as president after the passing of FDR in 1945. The country was deeply involved in WWII and immediately Truman had to make some decisions that defined not his life, but also the country and the world, most notability, the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan. 

I think the library does a pretty fair job explaining why and how Truman made this decision, and others during his presidency, as well as show opinions of others that disagreed with the president. After passing a copy of the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" newspaper, visitors exit the main building to the courtyard, and can visit the eternal flame, the graves of President Truman, his wife Bess and the marker that rests above the ashes of their only child, Margaret Truman Daniel and her husband Clifton Daniel.  

Across the courtyard houses Truman's working office. From the time the library opened to his death in 1972, Truman had an office in the library where he worked on writing books, answered correspondence and at times, welcomed visitors and led tours himself. The office, viewed only from the other side of a glass window looks exactly how it was the day he died, December 26, 1972. 

And finally downstairs on the lower level of the museum is dedicated to the life of Harry. Exhibits tell the story of his farm upbringing, his extremely sweet courtship of his wife, their daughter Margaret, his military service during WWI, and his early career in local government.  Although the history of the upper level is interesting and important in understanding not only mid-century Truman, but also mid-century America, but it is really downstairs that you get to know Harry, the man. He was a farm boy, he was the only president of the 20th century to not have a college degree, but worked hard and read everything book that he could get his hands on, he loved music and played the piano, he wrote love letters to his wife, he loved his home state, and  he loved his country. 
The Library also houses Truman's presidential papers, his personal papers, as well as other collections that supplement and enrich the Truman papers. The archives are open to public for research (not tours).  

And in case you ever find yourself in a trivia challenge: the S. in Harry S. Truman, does not stand for anything, it's just an S. It is a nod to both his grandfathers: Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young. 

More information on visiting the Library
More information on the other 12 presidential libraries

*source: NARA

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