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Harry Truman’s Christmas Story (Bah Humbug)

President’s 1945 Christmas Matched Mood of Stressed Nation

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Above image credit: On the day after Christmas in 1945, President Harry Truman emerged from his Independence home bearing gifts for his cousins across the street. His smile suggested little of the tension inside the Truman home during the holiday. (Courtesy | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

He was the leader of the free world and he would be home for Christmas.

That’s what Harry Truman, alone in Washington, decided. In the earliest days of presidential air travel, he authorized a dicey flight through winter storms to Independence on Dec. 25, 1945. 

A photograph of Truman taken the following day just outside his family’s front door – cradling an armful of presents with a wide smile – presented the personification of the bountiful life put on hold during the world war that had ended only months before.

Behind that door, however, the mood was more bah humbug. Upon returning from Washington, the president had found a scornful spouse, not impressed with his efforts to ring in the holiday right. 

“So you’ve finally arrived,” Bess Truman told her husband. “I guess you couldn’t think of any more reasons to stay away.

“As far as I’m concerned, you might have well stayed in Washington.”

From the perspective of 2020, Truman’s 1945 holiday looks like the white Christmas no one was dreaming of – a post-World War II case of contemporary holiday stress.

It started with unrealistic expectations of yuletide bliss bumping up against the pressures of presidential imperatives, leading to a marital spat, complicated by concerns over health and workaholic fatigue, all ending in reconciliation when the holiday finally was over.

Harry’s Hectic Holiday

“Home for the Holidays with the Trumans,” a virtual program presented by the Truman Library Institute, will be offered Thursday, Dec. 17.

Doug Richardson, interpretation chief of the Truman Home in Independence, will detail how President Harry Truman observed the holidays throughout his administration. To register for the 6 p.m. presentation, visit trumanlibraryinstitute.org.

Truman’s holiday angst occurred at the end of a year defined by months of death, dread and exhaustion, as well as hopes for a return to normalcy that wouldn’t arrive soon enough.

Sound familiar?

On Thursday, Dec. 17, the Truman Library Institute will present a virtual program detailing the 33rd president’s holiday observances, including that of 1945, hosted by Doug Richardson, interpretation chief at the Truman Home in Independence.

“It has been such an unfortunate 2020 for a lot of people,” Richardson said.

“Maybe by reaching into the past we can at least allow people to forget a little bit about 2020 and talk about what the holidays were like in that post-World War II era.”

Richardson also hopes to play archival audio of some of the former president’s holiday radio messages.

“I hope that people have the same sort of feeling that I do when I hear Harry Truman’s voice,” said Richardson. “My systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings both go down about ten points.”

‘Peace is Hell’

To the country, in 1945, President Truman had tried to say the right thing.

“This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years,” Truman said in his first presidential holiday address, broadcast on Christmas Eve.

“In love, which is the very essence of the message of the Prince of Peace, the world would find a solution for all its ills,” he added.

Still, the national Christmas mood in 1945 was surly.

All had celebrated upon the surrender of Germany in May and Japan in August. Yet the awkward conversion from a wartime to peacetime economy had included strikes by auto, coal and oil workers. 

There also was a housing shortage, as the first veterans to return from their various fronts found few apartments to rent. On Christmas day in Colorado, more than 100 homeless veterans and their families had picketed Denver City Hall carrying signs that read “We Can’t Live In Foxholes Here.”

All that circling anger needed a place to land, and the new president served nicely. That December Truman told a dinner audience in Washington that the most famous remark attributed to Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman was in error.

“I’m telling you I find peace is hell,” Truman said.

Making it worse was the president’s personal isolation. 

After becoming president following Franklin Roosevelt’s April 1945 death, Truman often had found himself alone in the White House, as wife Bess Truman and daughter Margaret routinely returned to Independence.

“I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports and work on speeches – all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallways and even right in here in the study,” Truman wrote Bess that June.

Available records confirm the president was not exaggerating the workload, Richardson said.

“The presidential daily schedule for December 1945 was just incredible, with him going non-stop for many days, from early morning until dinnertime,” he said.

For Christmas 1945, Bess and Margaret had returned to Independence from Washington on Dec. 19. As detailed in “Bess W. Truman,” a 1986 biography of her mother by Margaret Truman Daniel, the president planned to stay in the White House to monitor a Moscow conference of foreign ministers.

This would allow his wife and daughter to enjoy almost a week in Independence without the crush of press and security the president would bring with him when he returned on Christmas.

Harry Truman had always observed the holiday.

“Bessie, if my dear men friends who invited themselves to dinner here Christmas go home on the afternoon train, I am going to try and see you Christmas evening if you are home,” Truman wrote his future wife, Elizabeth Wallace of Independence, on Dec. 21, 1911, from the Truman farm in Grandview.

They married in 1919, and Margaret was born in 1924. The only family Christmas celebrations Truman apparently missed were those of 1917 and 1918, while he was serving in the U.S. Army during World War I.

Harry Truman's military ID
Harry Truman had always celebrated Christmas with his family, except for the years 1917 and 1918, when he was serving in the U.S. Army during World War I. (Courtesy | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

But Truman awoke Dec. 25, 1945 to a sleet storm. After a four-hour delay at Washington’s National Airport, Truman’s plane took off anyway.

“He just wanted to be around the people he loved most,” Richardson said.

But the president came home to find an angry wife. One likely reason for Bess’s exasperation was her constant worry about her husband’s health, especially when dealing with work-related stress.

Headaches and Upset Stomachs

The Trumans’ 1945 Christmas quarrel should be considered in context of his grandmother’s constant concern about the president’s health and how overwork sometimes had affected him, said Clifton Truman Daniel, the former president’s eldest grandson.

Beginning in the 1920s, while serving as Jackson County presiding judge, Truman had begun to suffer headaches. In part to seek relief from those, Truman began attending summer camp for U.S. Army reserve officers, often at Fort Riley, Kan.

“Have the headaches quit?” Bess wrote her husband in 1926 while he was away.

“I surely hope so.”

The stress of his job likely contributed to his grandfather’s discomfort, Daniel said.

“Once he had to lay off a number of county workers which made him sick to his stomach.

“He also was part of the (Tom) Pendergast machine and had to deal with all the corruption, and so the summer Army camps were always a great rest for him, allowing him to spend a couple of weeks riding horses and eating decent food.”

Truman served as presiding judge from 1927 through 1935, and beyond the regular demands of the position was the misery the Great Depression visited upon his constituents who, in desperation, often reached out to the county’s chief administrator. In February 1931, Truman scheduled a personal escape to Little Rock, Arkansas, missing the birthdays of both his wife and daughter.

I don’t know whether you entirely appreciate or not the tremendous amount of strain on me since November,” Truman wrote Bess, referencing his 1930 re-election as presiding judge.

“My head hasn’t ached and I’ve slept like a baby because I know the phone’s not going to ring and that no one’s going to stop me with a tale of woe when I walk down the street.”

Work was Harry Truman’s default mode, Daniel said.

“Someone once asked Grandpa how he relaxed and he smiled and said ‘Work.’ ’’

Once elected to the U.S. Senate, Truman maintained the same habit of working 14-hour days, accompanied by the occasional spells of headaches and fatigue.

In 1937, during a bitter debate over the proposed expansion of the Supreme Court, U.S. Sen. Joseph Robinson of Arkansas, Senate Majority Leader and a principal advocate of President Roosevelt’s high court plan, had been found dead in his Washington apartment from an apparent heart attack. 

That prompted Bess to ask her husband to visit a Washington area naval hospital and then, later that year, an Army clinic in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

She sometimes would grow exasperated, however, when she wondered whether she was getting the full medical reports.

I’m afraid you have been holding out on me,” she wrote her husband that year.

This dynamic continued. In 1940, while attending the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Truman suddenly lost his strength and had to grip an auditorium railing for 15 minutes before somebody noticed he needed help.

He only admitted to this episode some 18 months later, according to Margaret Truman Daniel.

But he continued to follow the same crushing work schedule while running in 1944 as Roosevelt’s vice presidential running mate, and after becoming president following Roosevelt’s death the following April.

Transitioning to the demands of being chief executive proved hard on the Truman family. That summer Truman left for Potsdam, Germany, to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin regarding the postwar reorganization of Europe.

A pre-departure phone call with Bess apparently didn’t go well.

I am blue as indigo about going,” Truman wrote on July 6, 1945

“You didn’t seem at all happy when we talked. I’m sorry if I’ve done something to make you unhappy. All I’ve ever tried to do is make you pleased with me and the world. I’m very much afraid I’ve failed miserably.”

Truman’s commitment to his responsibilities, however, wasn’t the only problem.

Aboard the Sacred Cow

Harry Truman would become the first president to fly on a regular basis.

His interest in the U.S. Army’s aviation efforts had begun in the 1920s, to the dismay of his wife.

Please promise me you won’t go up with any of those aviators…” she once wrote to him while he was away at summer reserve camp.

“My grandmother never liked airplanes,” Daniel said. “My grandfather had no such fear.”

Traveling by air during the 1930s could be uncomfortable and expensive, and comparatively few members of the public did so. Meanwhile, Kansas City area residents grew familiar with commercial air travel tragedies.

The 1931 death of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, flying in an aircraft out of Kansas City that crashed in the Flint Hills of Chase County, Kansas, had prompted a federal review of commercial aviation. In 1935, U.S. Sen. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico died when his flight to Washington crashed in a heavy fog in Macon County, in north central Missouri

Truman flew often as a senator.

As president, he enjoyed access to the “Sacred Cow,” a four-propeller engine plane built by Douglas Aircraft in 1944, outfitted with bullet-proof glass and a 12-foot stateroom that seated seven. 

The aircraft awaited Truman on Christmas morning of 1945. But a sleet storm had canceled commercial flights out of Washington’s National Airport. Truman’s crew spent close to four hours waiting for a break in the weather that never came. 

President Harry Truman's aircraft, known as the Sacred Cow
A sleet storm forced the crew of the “Sacred Cow,” the presidential aircraft scheduled to fly President Harry Truman to Independence on Christmas Day, to wait for about four hours before departing Washington’s National Airport. (Photo by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service | Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.)

At about noon Washington time, the Sacred Cow “boomed down the runway in a driving sleet storm with slush above the rims of the plane’s landing gear,” according to the New York Times.

Occasionally, throughout the six-hour flight, “de-icing equipment threw large hunks of ice from the ship’s propellers back against the fuselage,” the Times added

The plane landed at Kansas City’s Municipal Airport just before 5 p.m.

The flight, the Times insisted, represented “one of the most hazardous ‘sentimental journeys’ ever undertaken by an American chief of state.”

Eighteen journalists, with about a dozen Secret Service personnel – all pressed into Christmas duty – had followed Truman in a separate plane that arrived several hours after the president’s.

So it wasn’t just the New York Times that was grumpy.

“The example he set was a bad one, insofar as safe flying is concerned,” said the Washington Star.

But Truman would make it up to at least some of those reporters.

Presidential Order: ‘Burn it’

On the morning after Christmas, James “Bud” Porter, then serving in the Kansas City Star’s Independence bureau, waited outside the Truman Home, just in case there was a sudden Truman sighting. 

“I was out there, being a local guy, but the guys from Washington had kind of slept in,” Porter said in a 1975 Truman Library oral history.

During the Truman years the Kansas City Star-Times had placed a telephone in a residential porch across from the Truman Home, and near the house shared by Nellie and Ethel Noland, Truman cousins.

Porter, accompanied by a Star photographer, was watching the Truman Home when he saw the front door open.

“About 9 or 9:30 in the morning, here (Truman) came out with a whole armload of Christmas packages, walking across the street towards the Nolands, all by himself, no Secret Service men, nobody,” Porter said.

The photographer got a picture and headed downtown to the Star. The photo soon appeared on the front page of the afternoon paper.

Then members of Truman’s traveling press pool started to hear from their editors, who wanted their own photograph of Truman and his Christmas gifts.

“So it caused quite a furor and some of the guys got some real hard times over that,” Porter said.

Word of this got back to Truman. At about 3 p.m. the president reappeared holding another bundle of presents.

“Now I know dang well that Truman didn’t have any idea of coming out in the afternoon with another armload of packages,” Porter said.

“But he just did it so the guys could get a picture.”

Truman family Christmas tree
In 1926, almost two years after the birth of Margaret Truman, her parents installed this Christmas tree in their Independence home. Presents included a baby carriage, a doll, a toy truck and a pedal car. (Courtesy | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

Truman soon returned to the White House, where he wrote an apparently ill-tempered letter to his wife and sent it special delivery, a postal service that then promised swifter mail service than usual.

Truman reconsidered the next day and telephoned Margaret in Independence with instructions to go to the Independence post office and ask Edgar Hinde, a longtime Truman friend who served as postmaster, to hand the letter over before it was delivered to Bess.

“It’s a very angry letter and I’ve decided I don’t want her to see it,” Truman told his daughter.

“Burn it.”

Margaret did as directed, placing the letter in a backyard incinerator.

Truman then wrote what Margaret described as one of her father’s “most important letters” to Bess Truman.

Well I’m here in the White House, the great white sepulcher of ambitions and reputations,” he wrote on Dec. 28.

When you told me I might as well have stayed in Washington so far as you were concerned, I gave up…

He later added:

You can never appreciate what it means to come home as I did the other evening after doing at least 100 things I didn’t want to do and have the only person in the world whose approval and good opinion I value look at me like I’m something the cat dragged in and tell me I’ve come in at last because I couldn’t find any reason to stay away.”

He went on to plead for her patience and support, as fate had rendered him the president.

If that is the case you, Margie and everyone else who may have any influence on my actions must give me help and assistance; because no one ever needed help and assistance as I do now.”

Truman didn’t mail this letter. Truman Library archivists recovered it 27 years later in his office desk, upon the former president’s 1972 death.

It was, Margaret Truman Daniel wrote, the only one of the approximately 1,600 surviving letters that he wrote to Bess that he had kept there.

“It’s a wonderfully human story that shows them as a married couple,” Richardson said.

Maintaining harmony on the home front was a Harry Truman priority, added Daniel.

“Grandpa always said that he could not do the job if not for the stable and supportive home life he had to come back to.”

Truman’s last Christmas was in 1972.

He had suffered various ailments that year, and doctors admitted him to Kansas City’s Research Medical Center on Dec. 5. As Christmas approached, bulletins described Truman as suffering from lung congestion, heart irregularity, kidney blockages and a failing digestive system. 

He grew weaker on Christmas Eve and was reported in a deep coma on Christmas day.

He died at 7:50 a.m. on Dec. 26, at age 88.

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.

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