WASHINGTON — A newly discovered diary of Harry Truman's unveils the prejudices of a man whose biases I got a glimpse of back in the mid-1950s. I had traveled to Independence, Mo., for an interview with the former president in his library.
Afterward, as we stood outside, a few passersby greeted him. He responded warmly to one couple and then said quietly to me, "I've known those [he used the N-word] since they were kids."
I was shocked to hear this famous American president - known for his lack of prejudice in integrating the armed forces as well as for recognizing the state of Israel - speaking in this way.
In the Truman diary, recently discovered on the shelves of the Truman Library and released by the National Archives, is another surprising remark. Truman apparently had become miffed by an appeal from Henry Morgenthau, the former Treasury secretary, who was Jewish. Morgenthau had sought Truman's help for displaced Jews who were on a ship on its way to Palestine.
"The Jews I find very, very selfish," President Truman wrote in 1947. "They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced]Persons as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political, neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog. Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist, he goes haywire. I've found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes."
Historians in recent years have moved Truman up into the "near-great" category. And some who have been contacted by the press are expressing shock over the diary's disclosure but excusing it as an outburst that is completely out of character with the real Harry Truman.
Sara Bloomfield, director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, says this to a Washington Post writer about the Truman comments: "(They) are typical of a sort of cultural anti-Semitism that was common at that time in all parts of American society. That was an acceptable way to talk." Similarly back in the '50s, the N-word was still being used by a lot of Truman-generation Americans.
The historian David McCullough writes in "Truman" that Truman, senator at the time, spoke in April of 1943 at a huge rally organized to urge help for the doomed Jews of Europe. Truman told a packed Chicago Stadium that through an edict of a "mad Hitler," Jews were being "herded like animals" into concentration camps. He said it was time to do something about it.
Mr. McCullough describes a Truman who was highly sensitive to the Jewish problem in Germany when President Roosevelt wasn't showing such sensitivity.Yetin private, as McCullough writes, "Truman was a man who still, out of old habits of the mouth, could use a word like 'kike,' or in a letter to his wife, dismiss Miami as nothing but 'hotels, filling stations, Hebrews, and cabins.' "
But not all who have read the new Truman diary are as forgiving. William Safire, New York Times columnist and former Nixon speechwriter, has this to say: "For decades I have refused to make such excuses to defend President Nixon for his slurs about Jews on his tapes. This [the Truman tirade about Jews] is more dismaying."
I like the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen's summation of this subject: "What he [Truman] wrote in his diary was surely anti-Semitic, but it's hard to know what to call the man himself. In Truman's case, he gets the benefit of the doubt. His actions speak louder than those words."
When I met with Truman for another interview in the '50s, I asked him if there was a racial problem in his state. He said "no," there was no "serious" problem. "And racial relations are improving all the time - through education," he said. Then he added, "I believe in economic equality. I select people I associate with socially, but that doesn't mean I need to oppress anyone economically."
I thought at the time, and still do today, that here was a man who had come some distance - but far from all the way - in his acceptance of black Americans as fully equal.
But - again - I think President Truman should be judged by his actions. He did order the end of discrimination in the armed forces.