Levy Lecture: Harry Truman a common man, uncommon leader

On July 27 the author, professor and distinguished historian, Robert Watson, Ph.D., made a spellbinding presentation about the life and presidency of Harry Truman to a crowd of nearly 300 Levy Lecture Series attendees. For over an hour, Watson regaled listeners with numerous personal, funny and humanizing stories about the 33rd president of the United States.

Watson is a presidential scholar with an expertise—one of several—on Truman. Watson has spent hundreds of hours reading and researching original sources at the Truman Presidential Library. Watson co-founded the annual Truman Legacy Symposium and served on the board of the Harry S. Truman Foundation. He has interviewed dozens of the late president’s former aides and relatives. He shared first-person accounts of anecdotes told by former aides and stories culled from letters sent to the Truman Presidential Library from ordinary people.


Watson paints a portrait of a president with many admirable character traits: scrupulously honest; keenly intelligent and motivated to learn throughout his life; self-confident without being cocky. Truman had an unwavering moral compass and was willing to make difficult decisions even if he or his reputation (i.e., public opinion poll numbers, the amount of hate mail or unhappy phone calls received by the White House) suffered as a result. He welcomed intellectual debate from opposing points of view, was compassionate, genuine and humble. Truman was thoughtful and reflective, but not one to second-guess himself once a tough decision was made.


In addition to Truman’s admirable character traits, he had other qualities that buoyed him. He was blessed with good health overall and a photographic memory, which helped compensate for his notoriously poor eyesight. He loved to read and read voraciously throughout his entire life. A childhood friendship from the age of 5 with Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace led to love, and they married in 1919. She was the only girl he had ever kissed. Truman would be steadfastly devoted to Bess his entire life, a love he documented in daily letters and affectionate conversations.


Truman was personable and got along with almost everyone, a skill that proved to be essential while serving as a Senator from Missouri. Legislative compromise suited him. He was not a snob. He was a devoted friend who stood by his companions in spite of external pressure to not associate with one or two with questionable backgrounds. He had a wicked sense of humor, loved a good dirty joke and could curse like a foul-mouthed pirate when the situation warranted. The soldiers he was responsible for and heroically led during WWI were fiercely devoted to him.


In Watson’s view, every president has faced one or two truly ‘major’ decisions while in office. Many botch the decision, although this point was not expounded upon during the lecture. Truman is a rarity: he faced multiple major decisions during his presidency, and Watson believes he hit the mark on each one. He elaborated on several.


Examples of major presidential decisions made by Truman that turned out to be in the United States’ best interest include: dropping the atomic bombs on Japan, which ended the United States’ involvement in WWII and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives, both Japanese and American; supporting the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after the war; advancing the Truman Doctrine, which advocated a policy of Soviet containment and the commitment to defend allies who might face a risk of Soviet expansion; firing the insubordinate General MacArthur, despite his public popularity; integrating the U.S. military; recognizing the new nation of Israel and providing it with a $100 million loan guarantee so it could defend itself from the Arab countries who immediately attacked it; and organizing the Berlin Airlift, which saved that worn torn city.


Truman left office with the lowest approval rating of any president—only 22%. He was not concerned. He trusted the American people and felt confident in his decisions. Decades later, he is regarded by historians as one of our country’s best presidents and clearly within the top ten, if not the top five best presidents. Watson is certain Truman or a candidate like him would never be elected today—too many special interest groups, too much money needed to run a campaign, too many compromises required. He was the right man at the right time, and served the country well after 12 years of Franklin Roosevelt.


Prof. Watson’s lecture is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.


By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.