Social Education
Volume 62 Number 1
January 1998

This article from "Teaching with Documents" refers to archival documents which were reproduced in the print version of Social Education. Copies of these documents are available from the National Archives. Contact information is at the end of this page.

President Harry S. Truman’s Diary

Stacey Bredhoff and Wynell Schamel

At 7:09 p.m. on April 12, 1945—two and one-half hours after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt—Harry S. Truman was sworn in as President of the United States. Elected president four times, Roosevelt had dominated the American political landscape for 13 crucial years, guiding the nation through the national traumas of the Great Depression and World War II. To an entire generation of Americans, Roosevelt was the only president they had ever known, and his larger-than-life, charismatic personality defined the presidency. As the nation grieved over his loss, his vice president of just three months, Harry S. Truman, stepped up to the helm of power.
Many Americans underestimated Truman. Plain-spoken, forthright, and unaffected in his manner, Truman’s bluntness, Missouri twang, and lack of pretense led many Americans to believe that he was a “simple” and “ordinary” man. But this public persona belied his keen analytical mind, extraordinary intellect, command of history, and courageous decisiveness. Truman became president in the final days of World War II—at the precise moment when the United States emerged from the bloodiest conflict in history as the greatest power on earth. During the course of his administration, he ordered the world’s first atomic bomb attack and subsequently presided over the end of World War II, the conversion of the U.S. economy from wartime to peacetime, the beginning of the Cold War, and the emergence of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. He also formally recognized the State of Israel and ordered the desegregation of the U.S. military. As president from 1945 to 1953, Harry Truman made decisions that drove American domestic and foreign policy for the next half-century. Ordinary he was not.
Harry Truman kept a diary during his years as president. He is one of the few modern American presidents to have done so. Tending to the overwhelming demands of the office, he did not write in his diary every day. However, the diaries record many of the momentous events of his presidency, filtered through his own unique perspective. The end of World War II, the 1948 Presidential campaign, and the formulation of major foreign policy decisions are all documented in the diaries, along with his uncensored impressions of national and international figures. His accounts add another dimension to what we know of milestone events. But the diaries also record the smaller, everyday occurrences of President Truman’s life—events that would otherwise have gone unrecorded. The document featured here, for example, gives a complete account of an evening when Harry Truman, President of the United States of America, dined alone.
On November 1, 1949, President Truman’s wife and daughter were both away from Washington. Mrs. Truman (Bess) was in their home town of Independence, Missouri, caring for her mother, while their daughter (Margaret), a professional singer, was in New York. Since the White House was undergoing a major renovation, the official residence of the First Family at the time was Blair House, located directly across the street from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Following a prickly passage that reveals the President’s frustration with Congress, the diary entry for that day describes his solitary meal: how he was formally summoned to the dining room and seated; how Barnett and John, two servants dressed in formal attire, brought him a series of courses, including fruit salad, meat and vegetables, and dessert and coffee; and how they brushed imaginary bread crumbs off the immaculate white linen between courses. The detailed, deadpan description of the pomp and ceremony of the service—along with the precise inventory of the food served—provide a rare, behind-the-scenes view into the everyday life of the president. Truman’s vivid descriptions do all but put us there at the table with him.
As much as this diary tells us about the presidency, it tells us even more about the man who occupied the office. Here is a man who revered the office of the president, but didn’t personally care for its trappings. The product of a rural Missouri upbringing, Harry S. Truman saw the absurdity of the white-tie-and-tails formality of his dinner service. At the same time, he had sufficient respect for the office of the president to accept it graciously. He was well aware that the ceremonial aspects of the office were for the institution of the presidency, not for himself, and remained unseduced by its trappings.
In preparing a profile of President Truman, writer John Hersey spent a few days with him and made the following observations:

President Truman seemed to think of himself sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third—the latter when he had in mind a personage he still seemed to regard, after nearly four years in office, as an astonishing tenant in his own body: the President of the United States. Toward himself, first-personally, he was at times mischievous and disrespectful, but he revered this other man, his tenant, as a noble, history-defined figure.1

Truman often wrote of his loneliness when his family was away. The president was first and foremost a family man. The love of his life was Bess Wallace Truman, whom he met at the age of 6 and married 29 years later. He said the greatest joy of his life “was when my sweetheart from 6 years old on consented to become Mrs. Truman. . . . When my daughter came that topped it.”2
His marriage was at the center of Truman’s life, and he endured the separations demanded by his job with difficulty. There is melancholy behind the words of the November 1, 1949, diary entry: “I have to eat alone and in silence in candle lit room.” Beneath all the pomp and splendor of the setting, beneath the elegance of the service is the simple, inescapable fact of Truman’s humanity. He ate his dinner in solitude, and he was lonely for the people he loved.
At the same time, he maintained his sense of humor, describing the swirl of activity around him with detached amusement:

John in tails and white tie brings me a fruit cup. Barnett takes away the empty cup. John brings me a plate, Barnett brings me a tenderloin, John brings me asparagus, Barnett brings me carrots and beats [sic].

This treatment was totally appropriate for the “President of the Greatest Most Powerful Nation on Earth,” as Truman once described the job, but totally ridiculous for Harry S. Truman, farm boy from rural Missouri. He never seemed to lose sight of the fact that the silver, the butler, and the constant deference shown to him were nothing but the accouterments of office, just as the cup of demitasse served to him at the end of the meal was nothing but “a little cup of coffee—about 2 good gulps.” This clarity of vision, this clear sense of himself, allowed Truman to take the job of the presidency in his stride—to accept the trappings of the office and to perform the job with both humor and grace.
The diary of President Harry S. Truman is located in the Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.

Teaching Activities
Note to the teacher: The teaching suggestions that follow are designed to coordinate social studies with language arts, particularly reading, writing, and research skills.
1. Ask students to find descriptions of Truman in at least three sources and to make a list of his character traits. Divide students into small groups, and ask them to combine their individual lists of traits. Using the composite list, each group should write a character sketch of Truman. Ask several volunteers to read their descriptions aloud in class.
2. Distribute copies of the featured document, and ask students to read it carefully to locate evidences of Truman’s character. Ask them to suggest words that describe his mood while recording this diary entry.
3. Define and give examples of a paradox. Ask students to read the document again to identify the paradoxical elements in it. Discuss with students the contradiction between Truman the “simple” and “ordinary” man and Truman the analytical and decisive leader.
4. Ask students to write a diary entry describing a meal, a trip to school, an event in class, or any mundane daily event. Pair students to read and analyze each other’s work in order to explain any message they find written “between the lines.” Tell the students that many famous and not so famous individuals keep a diary or journal, and that the Constitution requires Congress to keep a journal of its proceedings. Lead a class discussion on the advantages of keeping a personal or official journal. Ask students why they think Truman kept a journal. Direct students who do not already do so to keep a personal or class journal for a month and to report any new insights they have into the advantages of keeping such a record.
5. Ask several students to dramatize, draw, or rewrite as a poem the event described by Truman in the document. Schedule a time for these students to share their work with the class.
6. Assign students to research and write a report describing the events, the issues, and the decision-making process related to one of Truman’s most significant decisions. Topics might include the following: ordering the world’s first atomic bomb attack, requesting aid to Greece and Turkey to prevent the spread of communism, transferring the Atomic Energy Commission from the Department of War to a civilian agency, vetoing the Taft-Hartley Act, unifying the armed forces, firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur, requesting extensive aid for European postwar recovery, issuing the Loyalty Order in 1947, limiting U.S. military participation in Korea, recognizing the State of Israel, and desegregating the U.S. military. For online resources, direct students to visit Project WhistleStop, developed by the Harry S. Truman Library, at

1. Quoted in Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman—A Life (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1994), 179-180.
2. Letter to Edward F. McFaddin, September 29, 1958, quoted in Robert H. Ferrell, ed., Off the Record—the Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 369.

The American Heritage Pictorial History of the Presidents of the United States, Vol. 2. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1968.
Ferrell, Robert H. Truman—A Centenary Remembrance. New York: The Viking Press, 1984.
McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Miller, Merle. Plain Speaking—An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1984.

Wynell Schamel is an education specialist with the Education Staff of the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., and serves as editor for this regular department of Social Education. Stacey Bredhoff is a National Archives exhibits specialist.

For more information on teaching materials, workshops, or other training programs, contact the Education Staff of the National Archives, Washington, DC 20408; phone (202) 501-6729 or 6172; or e-mail at

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.