The President offers his views on the presidency, education, government, history, child-rearing, personal values, politics, polls, women and more.
COMPILED BY RAYMOND H. GESELBRACHT
Truman on America’s Greatest Presidents
I'll name the ones that I consider made the greatest contribution to the maintenance of the republic. Washington, of course, that's established; Jefferson, who turned the government over to the people; and Jackson, who continued that policy; then James K. Polk, who expanded the country to the Pacific and gave us space as a continental power and a chance to grow into one of the greatest republics. Show more
James K. Polk paid the same price for that part of the country that Thomas Jefferson paid for Louisiana. Don’t forget that. Then Abraham Lincoln, of course, who saved the Union; he kept the Union from breaking apart. There might have been four or five countries, just like in Central America if that war had been successful…. Then, the next of the great ones was Grover Cleveland; he restored the Presidency to its proper place in the set-up of the government. he refused to be browbeaten by the Congress.
And after Grover Cleveland came Theodore Roosevelt, who started the program of taking the government out of the hands of the great exploiters and putting it back into the hands of the people. Woodrow Wilson then came along in 1912 and followed through on that. If it hadn’t been for World War One, he would have been very successful in obtaining what he set out to do in his first message. Then, when he finally worked on the peace treaty, he tried his level best to arrange world affairs so that we could not enter into another debacle like the First World War.
He was not successful on account of…[the] isolationists…. They helped to bring on the Second World War. Then along came Franklin Roosevelt, who set the Presidency along the same lines as the ones I’ve named. He set the Presidency where it belonged and got the situation developed so that when the Second World War was over, we were able to establish the United Nations.
Some of the Presidents were great and some of them weren’t. I can say that, because I wasn’t one of the great Presidents, but I had a good time trying to be one, I can tell you that.
Truman on His Most Difficult Decision
The reason for that was the fact that the policies of our allies and the members of the United Nations were at stake at the same time as ours. We were in the position where we had to enforce the situation; a great many of those friends of ours in the United Nations came in and helped. But that decision on Korea had to be made on the basis or world requirements; it was not entirely a decision of the United States, and every one of the allies approved it. So did the Congress, until they got it into politics.
Truman on the Role of the President
The President of the United States has six jobs....The first great job that the President of the United States has is set out in the Constitution of the United States. In the second article you'll find that he's the Chief Executive, with orders to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. Show more
The President is the representative of the whole nation and he’s the only lobbyist that all the 160 million people in this country have…. Now as to the President’s next job in the Constitution: he’s Commander in Chief of the armed forces of the United States when they’re in Federal service. He’s the absolute commander of the armed forces of the United States in time of war.
He’s the commander of the armed forces when they’re called out for any purpose, if he wants to take control of them. Nobody else can do it. It’s his business to outline policy for the military…. It’s his privilege to appoint generals–and sometimes to fire them when it’s necessary…. The President is also the maker of foreign policy of the United States.
The President is absolutely responsible for our relations with other countries. he appoints ambassadors, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to represent him in these other countries. The President directs the foreign policy of the United States all the time. No one else can do it…. Then, he’s one of the top legislators in the whole government. It’s his business to inform the Congress, at least once a year, on the state of the Union, and to make such recommendations as he thinks are proper for the welfare of the country and for the peace of the world….
The President of the United States makes a lot of recommendations which he thinks are for the good of the country. Congress…usually tells him where to go–half the time. But he’s still got to make the thing work. When Congress passes legislation, nobody can enforce that legislation but the President…. He’s head of his political party. He sets the policy for the party that’s responsible for the operation of the government; he must understand the workings of this approach to the operation of the government; and he must be sure that there is party responsibility for the policies which he makes….
Here’s another job that is just as interesting as it can be…. As the head of the state, the President entertains all the visiting heads of state. He entertains kings and queens and princes and prime ministers. And usually, he gives a state dinner in honor of the visiting person…. Every time one of those great dinners comes up, you can only seat ninety-nine people in the State Dining Room in the White House, and you know what a time it is to get those ninety-nine places filled without making some of the great old social leaders feel pretty bad because they’re not on the list. But sometimes it does them good to be left off; they behave a little better after that.
Truman on the Constitution
The longer I live, the more I am impressed with the significance of our American Constitution. I want you to read it and think about it. It's a plan, but not a strait jacket, flexible and short. Read it one hundred times, and you'll always find something new. Show more
In many countries men swear to be loyal to the king, or to a nation, or to a flag, or to something else. We swear to uphold and defend a document, a document that sets up our living government. That’s the reason why it is such a sacred document.
Truman on Becoming President
I was very much shocked. I am not easily shocked but was certainly shocked when I was told of the President's death and the weight of the Government had fallen on my shoulders. Show more
I did not know what reaction the country would have to the death of a man whom they all practically worshiped. I was worried about the reaction of the Armed Forces. I did not know what effect the situation would have on the war effort, price control, war production and everything that entered into the emergency that then existed. I knew the President had a great many meetings with Churchill and Stalin.
I was not familiar with any of these things and it was really something to think about but I decided the best thing to do was to go home and get as much rest as possible and face the music. My wife and daughter and mother-in-law were at the apartment of our next door neighbor [at 4701 Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC]…. They had had a turkey dinner and they gave us something to eat. I had not had anything to eat since noon. [I] went to bed, went to sleep, and did not worry any more.
Truman on Women
I've always thought that the best man in the world is hardly good enough for any woman. I'm a damn fool I guess because I could never get excited or worked up about gals or women. I only had one sweetheart from the time I was six. Show more
I saw her in Sunday School at the Presbyterian Church in Independence when my mother took me there at that age and afterwards in the 5th grade at the Ott School in Independence when her Aunt Nannie was our teacher and she sat behind me. She sat behind me in the sixth, seventh and High School grades and I thought she was the most beautiful and sweetest person on earth–and I’m still of that opinion after…[many] years of being married to her. I’m old fashioned, I guess.
Truman on Education
My definition of an education is the lighting of that spark which is called a “thirst for information or knowledge.” A college graduate with the right sort of instruction should find at his graduation that he is only at the door of knowledge. Show more
He should have learned in going through his schooling where to find the information on the subjects that make for scholarship. If he hasn’t learned that, the time spent in school has been wasted for no good purpose.
If, when he comes out of school, that thirst for learning has been brought out he never ceases to find fields for study that open up endlessly before him. For our day, and our children’s day, education must become a continuing adventure in human understanding, shared by all. I think we need to spend more time and money to make good teachers, both men and women.
No one has more influence on the young mind except his mother. Readers of good books, particularly books of biography and history, are preparing themselves for leadership. Not all readers become leaders. But all leaders must be readers. Many readers become historians and teachers. They are retiring, timid when publicity is involved, and are among the greatest assets to this republic.
Truman on Prayer
[This] prayer...has been said by me – by Harry S. Truman – from high school days...as a bank clerk, as a farmer riding a gang plow behind four horses and Show more mules, as a fraternity official learning to say nothing at all if good could not be said of a man, as a public official judging the weaknesses and shortcomings of constituents, and as President of the U.S.A Show more
…Oh! Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of Heaven, Earth and the Universe: Help me to be, to think, to act what is right, because it is right; make me truthful, honest and honorable in all things; make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor and without thought of reward to me.
Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving and patient with my fellow men–help me to understand their motives and their shortcomings–even as Thou understandest mine!
Truman on Becoming a Politician
If a young man chooses politics as a profession he'll find it to his advantage to study the lives of all the great leaders throughout history starting with Greece and the great leaders of the city republics and...the Roman Republic.... Show more
He should carefully study the lives of the leaders of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and he should know the lives and motives of every President of the United States. Congressional leaders in every Presidential Administration should be carefully studies along with their ethics and their motives. Then he should know his State History from its colonial or territorial beginnings as well as his county history.
If he lives in a town or city he should know his city government and its workings…. It takes a lifetime of the hardest kind of work and study to become a successful politician…. A great politician is known for the service he renders. He doesn’t have to become President or Governor or the head of his city or county to be a great politician. There are mayors of villages, county attorneys, county commissioners or supervisors who render just as great service locally as do the heads of the government.
No young man should go into politics if he wants to get rich or if he expects an adequate reward for his services. An honest public servant can’t become rich in politics. he can only attain greatness and satisfaction by service…. I would much rather be an honorable public servant and known as such than to be the richest man in the world.
Truman on Polls
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. 16. What are some of your favorite books?
Truman on Books
Here are a few of the books I studied which helped to lend me confidence on many occasions. There were the Marquis James books on Andrew Jackson, Claude Bowers' books on Jefferson, particularly his Jefferson and Hamilton, and a collection of Jefferson's letters called A Jefferson Profile, edited by a man named Padover. Show more
I think very highly of this last book. There were all of Carl Sandburg’s works on Abe Lincoln, the memoirs of Thomas H. Benton and those of our former Congressman and Speaker from Missouri, Champ Clark; the memoirs of General Grant, which Mark Twain helped him write; the memoirs of John Sherman and of William T. Sherman. Also valuable is Sol Bloom’s accumulation of George Washington’s papers, which were published by the government.
When I was young, I read the Bible through many times. I read Plutarch’s Lives and, before that, a four-volume set entitled Great Men and Famous Women and Abbot’s Makers of History. Later on, I came across and read Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, I read everything I could get my hands on about men who made history.
The simplest conclusion I reached was that the lazy men caused all the trouble and those who worked had the job of rectifying their mistakes. It has been a life-time program [of reading] for me, and if you start out on even this incomplete list, you will find it a lengthy study but well worthwhile. It will keep you out of mischief too.
Truman on Success
Success seems to me to be merely a point of view.... Some men have an idea that if they corner all the loose change they are self-made successful men. Makes no difference to them if they do eat beans off a knife or not know whether Napoleon was a man or a piece of silver. Show more
Some others have a notion that if they can get high offices and hold up themselves as models of virtue to a gaping public in long-winded, high-sounding speeches they have reached the highest pinnacle of success. It seems to me that an ability to hand out self-praise makes most men successes in their own minds anyway.
Some of the world’s greatest failures are really greater men than some of the other kind. To succeed financially a man can’t have any heart. To succeed politically he must be an egotist or a fool or a ward boss tool. To my notion, an ideal condition would be to have to work just enough so if you stopped you’d not go busted at once–but still you’d know if you didn’t work you couldn’t live. And then have you home and friends and pleasures regulated to your income…. I am sure I’d be satisfied then to let vile ambition, political or monetary, starve at the gate.
Truman on People
I’ve seen so much difficulty caused by sheer unthoughtfulness that I’ve tried all my life to be thoughtful and to make every person I come in contact with happier for having seen me…. I’ve never paid any attention to what people…said about me and very little to what they say to me, because most people only mean about half they say.
Truman on Decision-making
I am not one who believes it does any good to cry over past mistakes. You have got to keep looking ahead and going straight ahead all the time, making decisions and correcting the situation as you go along. This calls for a fundamental policy, a basic outlook, for the making of major foreign and domestic decisions.... Show more
A President who hesitates or temporizes usually is not certain of what he wants, and he is greatly handicapped when he has to act without a clear-cut policy. A President ought not to worry whether a decision he knows he has to make will prove to be popular. The question is not whether his actions are going to be popular at the time but whether what he does is right. And if it is right in the long run it will come out all right.
The man who keeps his ear to the ground to find out what is popular will be in trouble. I usually say that a man whose heart is in the right place and who is informed is not likely to go very far wrong when he has to act. [When I was President,] once I made up my mind, I acted. And I did not worry about the action I took. If you are going to walk the floor and worry yourself to death every time you have to make a decision, or if you fail to make up your mind, then you are not suited for the job.
Truman on a Third Term
My reason for not running again [was] based on the fact that I don't think that any man – I don't care how good he is – is indispensable in any job. Show more
The Presidency itself is a continuing office, the greatest office in the history of the world, and that office ought to be continuing as far as individuals are concerned. And another thing…. When a man has been [President] for 8 years…he has-or should have by that time-made all the contribution that he possibly can to the welfare of the Nation…. I tried my best to give the Nation everything I had in me.
There are a great many people – I expect a million in the country – who could have done the job better than I did it. But, I had the job, and I had to do it. And I always quote one epitaph which is on a tombstone in the cemetery at Tombstone, Arizona. It says, “Here lies Jack Williams, he done his damndest.” I think that is the greatest epitaph that a man can have. When he gives everything that is in him to the job that he has before him, that’s all you can ask of him. And that’s what I have tried to do.
Truman on His Post-Presidency
I always thought that when a fellow who had started on a farm and had gone through all the political setup that there is, from precinct to President, came to that point where it was time to quit, he ought to quit, then go back and see if he couldn't give people information on what causes the greatest government in the history of the world to run. Show more
I’m a nut on the subject, I guess. I don’t know of anything better in the world that a man can do that’s more helpful to the welfare of the nation than to get the youngsters to understand what they have and what they have to do to keep it, but I try to impress upon them that they didn’t get this form of government for nothing.
It was gotten through sweat, blood, and tears, the shedding of a lot of blood. In fact, we had to spend four years [in the Civil War] whipping ourselves before we made up our minds that we wanted this form of government. We’ve still got it. It’s still the best government in the history of the world, and it always will be if the youngsters want to keep it up on the basis on which it was founded.
Truman on Child-Rearing
I think we've been too lazy in bringing them up. You know, it takes a mother and a father who are interested in raising a family to make a family. Show more
The greatest institution in the world is the raising of a family in the right way. In order to do that, they must be taught respect and discipline at home. It can’t be done anywhere else, and when that fails…then trouble begins.
It takes mother and father to raise a family, and they’ve both got to be interested in seeing that that family grows up to be good citizens. And they can make them that if they want to. But it takes hard work. I know, because I’ve tried it.