I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.

While writing another post, I was searching for a quote from President Harry S. Truman. I found several quotations that illustrate how he put the country before his prejudices and his political party.[1] Truman, who made civil rights a federal priority for the first time since Reconstruction, was a bigoted man who expressed strong racist sentiments before, during, and after his presidency.


National Archives and Records Administration. Office of Presidential Libraries. Harry S. Truman Library.

In 1911, Truman wrote to his future wife, Bess: ″I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a n—r[2] or a Chinaman (Chinese). Uncle Will (Truman’s uncle) says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a n—r from mud, then He threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman (Chinese).″

″(Uncle Will) does hate Chinese and Japs (Japanese),″ Truman continued. ″So do I. It is race prejudice, I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.″

In 1937, Senator Truman wrote a letter to his daughter describing waiters at The White House as ″an army of coons.″ In a letter to his wife in 1939, he described an event (possibly a Juneteenth celebration) as ″ n—r picnic day.″

Truman’s attitudes toward race were formed as a boy in Missouri. His grandparents owned slaves and his mother was imprisoned by Union troops during the Civil War and she remained ″violently unreconstructed″ for the rest of her life. Truman formed ″an abiding belief in white supremacy,″ Although Truman decreased his racist expressions after entering the White House, he continued to use racial slurs in private conversation for the rest of his life.

However, instead of governing under these principles, he acted in the “best interests” of the country. ″Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as president I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this.″

The president appointed a committee to study civil rights abuses and later supported the panel’s call for anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation. He also ordered the desegregation of the armed forces and became the first president to campaign in Harlem. As a result, he was denounced by his old Southern Democratic allies.

Some of Truman’s racist attitudes surfaced after he left the White House. He continued to use racial insults and opposed the 1960s sit-ins and said they might be Communist-inspired. He called Northerners who went on Freedom Rides meddlers and The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. a troublemaker.

A 1947 report by the Truman administration titled To Secure These Rights presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. In February 1948, the president submitted a civil rights program to Congress that proposed creating several federal offices dedicated to issues such as voting rights and fair employment practices. This caused a storm of criticism from southern Democrats in the runup to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying: “My forebears were Confederates… but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.”

Tales of the abuse, violence, and persecution suffered by many African American veterans upon their return from World War II infuriated Truman. These abuses were a major factor in his decision to issue Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 that required equal opportunity in the armed forces.In the early 1950s after several years of planning, recommendations, and revisions between Truman, the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity, and the various branches of the military, the services became racially integrated.

″Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as president I know this is bad,″ he said, ″I shall fight to end evils like this.″- President Harry Truman

Executive Order 9980 in 1948, made it illegal to discriminate against persons applying for civil service positions based on race. A third order issued in 1951, established the Committee on Government Contract Compliance (CGCC). This committee guaranteed defense contractors did not discriminate because of race.

When Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, he declared “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” That same day, he also signed an executive order to desegregate the federal workforce.

“The main difficulty with the South is they are living eighty years behind the times and the sooner they come out of it the better it will be for the country and themselves. I am not asking for social equality, because no such thing exists, but I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings, and, as long as I stay here, I am going to continue that fight.” – August 18, 1948

“As Americans, we believe that every man should be free to live his life as he wishes. He should be limited only by his responsibility to his fellow countrymen. If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American’s achievement should be his ability, his industry, and his character.” In the speech, Truman emphasized: “When I say all Americans, I mean all Americans.”[3]


Truman’s comments on various matters illustrated his understanding of government, politics, and society. They also made great newspaper headlines and quotes.

On equality…

“When even one American – who has done nothing wrong – is forced by fear to shut his mind and close his mouth – then all Americans are in peril.”

“You know that being an American is more than a matter of where your parents came from. It is a belief that all men are created free and equal and that everyone deserves an even break.”

“I have no desire to crow over anybody or to see anybody eating crow, figuratively or otherwise. We should all get together and make a country in which everybody can eat turkey whenever he pleases.”

“The human-animal cannot be trusted for anything good except en masse. The combined thought and action of the whole people of any race, creed or nationality, will always point in the right direction.”

On politics…

“Republicans approve of the American farmer, but they are willing to help him go broke. They stand four-square for the American home—but not for housing. They are strong for labor—but they are stronger for restricting labor’s rights. They favor minimum wage—the smaller the minimum wage the better. They endorse educational opportunity for all—but they won’t spend money for teachers or for schools. They think modern medical care and hospitals are fine—for people who can afford them … They think American standard of living is a fine thing—so long as it doesn’t spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.” –  October 13, 1948

“Whenever a fellow tells me he’s bipartisan, I know he’s going to vote against me.”

“Carry the battle to them. Don’t let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive and don’t ever apologize for anything.”

On history…

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

“Study men, not historians.”

“In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves… self-discipline with all of them came first.”

“Most of the problems a President has to face have their roots in the past.”

On the Presidency…

“The buck stops here!”

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

“Those who want the Government to regulate matters of the mind and spirit are like men who are so afraid of being murdered that they commit suicide to avoid assassination.”

“When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honors, the twenty-one-gun salutes, all those things. You have to remember it isn’t for you. It’s for the Presidency.”

“A President needs political understanding to run the government, but he may be elected without it.”

“A president either is constantly on top of events or, if he hesitates, events will soon be on top of him. I never felt that I could let up for a moment.”

“If I hadn’t been President of the United States, I probably would have ended up a piano player in a bawdy house.”

On America…

“America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination, and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”

“It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.”

“It is understanding that gives us an ability to have peace. When we understand the other fellow’s viewpoint, and he understands ours, then we can sit down and work out our differences.”

“I do not believe there is a problem in this country or the world today which could not be settled if approached through the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.”


[1] https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/harry-s-truman-quotes

[2] I have modified the quote to retain the use of this racist word.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_S._Truman

About Allen Mesch

Allen is an author, educator, and historian. He has written six books: The Analyst; Teacher of Civil War Generals; Your Affectionate Father, Charles F. Smith; Charles A. Marvin - "One Year. Six Months, and Eleven Days", and Preparing for Disunion. Allen's latest book, Ebenezer Allen - Statesman, Entrepreneur, and Spy is scheduled for release in August 2020. He teaches classes on the American Civil War at Collin College. He has visited more than 130 Civil War sites and given presentations at Civil War Roundtables.
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2 Responses to I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.

  1. Carolyn Geary says:

    Thanks for sharing these quotes from President Harry Truman. Quite an eyeopener. The very last quote about the Sermon on the Mount really spoke volumes to me.

    Like

  2. Allen Mesch says:

    Interesting man. He defies characterization.

    Like

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