A visitor’s guide to Harry S Truman Presidential Library and Museum

Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States and he returned to his hometown of Independence, Missouri to live out his retirement. He believed his presidential papers and archives belonged to the people and conceived a library to house them for the public. The Harry S. Truman Library & Museum opened in 1957, and was the second in the Presidential library system following FDR’s.

For those unfamiliar or vague concerning Truman, he became President during a crucial time in American history. Truman had served as Vice-President for only a few months when sworn in as President upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He oversaw the conclusion of World War II and beginning of the Korean War, made the decision to drop the atomic bomb and the cold war started on his watch. The museum is an outstanding facility to learn about the man and where he came from and visitors can decide if they agree or not with his major policy decisions.

The building itself possesses that important monument facade and visitors are immediately greeted by the Thomas Hart Benton mural “Independence and the Opening of the West.” The artwork has nothing to do with Truman but the President commissioned the noted Kansas City artist. The tour should begin with the 45-minute documentary “Harry Truman: 1884-1972” in the auditorium then step into the White House gallery to see the original and legendary “The Buck Stops Here” sign. The Oval Office is recreated circa 1950, and the objects belonged to Truman. While looking at this, visitors are welcomed to the library by the President himself via recording.

The remainder of the upper level is devoted to his presidency so it is best to begin on the lower level as it focuses on his beginnings and family history. The Truman family must have been pack rats because an enormous amount of personal possessions are displayed. Over 1,300 letters Truman wrote to wife Bess survive and the first from 1910 is shown. His boyhood farm years and long courtship with Bess are detailed. Her family was well heeled and disapproved of Truman who was a failure until enlisting at 33 for World War I. In 1913 he had worked as a county road overseer and you see an original signed monthly tally report.

His Masonic membership items are displayed. Talk about saving stuff. There is his WWI gas mask. A really neat item is a pair of trench art vases he bought in France. They are impressive works of art fashioned from empty German shell casings. Following the war, Harry finally married Bess in 1919 and there is her wedding dress and shoes and his wedding coat and vest. Their only child was daughter Margaret and exhibited are her baby clothes, medical bottles (she was a sickly child), toys and favorite bicycle.

The final debacle of Truman’s business endeavors was a failed haberdashery and his business card is displayed. The museum does an excellent job of detailing his life without having to read a thick biography. It is quite interesting learning how the humble man from Independence started on the road to the Presidency. During the war, he became friends with the nephew of Tom Pendergast who was the political boss of Kansas City. Under Pendergast’s patronage, Truman began in county politics as a judge and eventually was elected U.S. Senator in 1934. So Harry S. Truman was originally sponsored by a dubious political machine.

By his own admission, Truman becoming President was an accident. The Democratic Party did not like Vice-President Henry Wallace and the threat of this wild card upsetting the cart if anything happened to FDR. So they replaced Wallace with the “safe” Truman for FDR’s fourth term. Eighty-two days after being sworn in as Vice-President, Truman stepped into the giant shoes of FDR and most Americans did not really know him.

All the usual campaign and presidential information and memorabilia is on hand like a White House dinner service. Remember the famous “Dewey defeats Truman” headlines. Truman must have been a Chrysler man. Displayed are his 1941 dove gray Chrysler Royal Club Coupe and 1941 Chrysler sedan. Most visitors would be ignorant that an assassination attempt was made upon the President in 1950. The assailants never got remotely close to Truman but the incident resulted in two deaths. All the details and photos are provided as well as the actual deadly handguns. His post-presidential years and close relationship with Margaret are chronicled.

The upper gallery deals specifically with his Presidency and he did make many difficult decisions such as dropping the atomic bomb on Japan to end World War II. The President implemented the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and Berlin airlifts in the rebuilding of Western Europe. Truman was the first head of state to recognize Israel. He denounced McCarthyism. The downfall to his tenure included the cold war crisis, Korean war in which he fired very popular General Douglas MacArthur and cloud of corruption in his administration. He left office a very unpopular President. All this presentation is rather dry as political stuff often is but is meticulously arranged for comprehension.

Outside in the courtyard gardens is a life size statue of Truman and the graves of Truman, Bess, Margaret and her husband. There is one more stop with President Truman’s office where he conducted much of his business from 1957 on and appears as he left it. Visitors peer through glass from a gallery. Imagine visiting the library when Truman was alive and the President was personally giving tours, providing a talk in the auditorium or just greeting visitors. That really happened on some days.

The Harry S. Truman Library & Museum is a fine educational experience primarily appealing to older generations recalling Truman and closer to the events and era he governed over. Much will be lost on schoolkids bused in on field trips but hopefully something will be absorbed. This is the best attraction in the Kansas City area and not to be missed. A good idea is to visit Truman’s nearby home before the library.