When we planned our trip to Kansas City, we found ourselves with a hotel reservation in Independence and the opportunity to visit the world of Harry S Truman. Even though the primary focus of our trip was Kansas City style barbecue, we were looking forward to the opportunity to take in the Truman home, as well as the Truman Presidential Library and Decision Center. Having been fascinated by this President ever since reading David McCullough‘s Truman biography, I was eager for this part of our visit.
Truman observed that “Jackson County has been the hub of the west since trail days . . . and as far as I am concerned, it is the hub of the world.” From very humble beginnings, and with a leg up from a the Pendergast political machine, Harry S Truman nevertheless managed a political career on the premise of getting things done, and then when they were, came home from the White House to Independence to live the life of a very ordinary American.
Truman’s life in Independence was hyper-local and fairly ordinary. Indeed, during our tour of the Truman home, which also served as the summer White House, our guide informed us that many townspeople in Independence still remember encountering the President on the street during his daily stroll. He’d be nattily turned out with camel topcoat, fedora and walking stick. Most poignant was standing under the main stairwell by the side door next to the coat hook where the very coat, hat and cane lay waiting as if their owner would step out in them today.
Our tour of the Truman home reinforced the impression that Harry S Truman was everyman, thrust into the White House under enormous circumstances. The Truman Administration faced the closing days of World War II, global reconstruction and changes in foreign policy, as well as the growing Cold War threat. The Truman Presidential Library is unique in that Harry S Truman was present not only during its planning and preparation, but also on basically a daily basis by virtue of proximity to the Truman home.
It was mind-boggling to think of having to make the decisions asked of Harry S Truman, particularly the biggest and most controversial one – to drop the atomic bomb. He confided by letter to his beloved Bess that he knew people would armchair quarterback everything about the foreign policy of the Truman Administration. But it was also significant to learn that he made this enormous decision as he did most – quickly and without looking back. You have to have a backbone of moral certainty from which to do this. But also, the Truman developed his ability to balance instinct and urgency as a commanding officer in the first World War. Truman’s backbone was formed in the values and priorities of life in Independence, and then strengthened in combat.
The Truman Presidential Library and Museum has a unique experiential opportunity called The White House Decision Center, in which students and adult groups can role-play the big decisions faced by the Truman Administration. There is also decision-making course work, with modules based on the Berlin Blockade, the desegregation of the armed forces, ending the war against Japan, and invading South Korea.
The Truman sites in Independence will bring forth a sense of familiarity with many Americans – a small-town experience, modest ambitions, humble beginnings, and old-fashioned values. An unexpected benefit is to realize the capability that is the result of these.
While in Independence, check out the Court House Exchange. In business for over a century, its current location is in a vintage basement below a storefront on the town square. Great for lunch or Happy Hour with picturesque local Independence flavor!