Thursday, July 18, 2013

The new guy at the helm - Truman reaches out to Hoover over the objections of his staff

When a company suddenly has a new leader, the new person is usually surrounded by a staff that was appointed by the old leader.

This is often the case with a President of the United States who comes into office after the death of his predecessor. Even after Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale upgraded the workings of the office of the Vice President, there has been tension between the Vice President and the President's direct staff - tension that does not disappear when the President suddenly dies, and the Vice President suddenly has the old President's staff trying to tell him what to do.

Attempts by the Roosevelt staff to control Harry Truman didn't work with Truman.

Of all of the accessions to office due to the death of a President, the accession of Truman certainly had the possibility for the most chaos. Truman had only been Vice President for about three months, whereas Roosevelt (and many of his people) had been in office for over twelve years. Garner, Wallace - what's the name of the new Vice President again? The fact that Truman became President while the country was embroiled in a multi-continental war didn't help things, even though Truman's claim to fame at that point had been his work as a Senator to cut down on wartime fraud and waste.

As I mentioned previously, Carter and Mondale significantly upgraded the office of the Vice President, ensuring that the Vice President was kept in the loop on all Presidential decisions and critical events. That was clearly not the case in 1945, when Truman didn't learn about the Manhattan Project until after he became President. (Senator Truman almost learned about the project in 1943, when he became suspicious about a plant in Minneapolis; however, Secretary of War Stimson told the Senator to butt out.)

By May, Truman was beginning to turn his attention to postwar Europe. It was an important topic, since the activities after World War I pretty much led to World War II. Truman didn't want to blow it again, and one of his concerns was the need to feed people across war-torn Europe. Truman determined that he, as President, needed to consult with an expert on this topic.

Unfortunately for Truman, that expert happened to be a gentleman named Herbert Hoover - someone so disliked by Roosevelt and his staffers that he had effectively been blackballed from the White House since 1933. (Contrast this with today, when President Obama has appeared with two Presidents Bush over the last several weeks.)

Since Truman didn't necessarily trust his staff, he wrote Hoover himself, in a handwritten letter:

The White House
May 24 '45

/s/My dear Mr. President: --

If you should be in Washington, I would be most happy to talk over the European food situation with you.

Also it would be a pleasure to me to become acquainted with you.

Most sincerely

Truman aide Eben Ayers described what happened next:

The president said he was going to tell us of something he had done last night on his own -- and we might all throw bricks at him. He said he was in the House, studying the food situation the European food situation -- and he decided to write a note to Herbert Hoover. So he said he wrote one out himself, in longhand, signed it, and mailed it, suggesting he would be glad to see and talk to him sometime.

Steve Early seemed a little upset. He went on to say that during the Roosevelt term Hoover never came to the White House to pay his respects, that he came into and left Washington without ever doing it. He said he, himself, had passed word to Hoover suggesting he come in but he never had done it. None of the others commented on the president's action. Early suggested that perhaps the president might do the same with Landon, defeated Republican candidate in 1936, and Governor Dewey, last year's defeated candidate. The president indicated he might.

Early resigned a few days later (although he would work for Truman in the future). Truman himself reaped the benefit of Hoover's advice and experience on food relief, and many other topics besides. And Boulder Dam's name was changed back to Hoover Dam - while the "do-nothing Congress" initiated the action, Truman signed the resulting bill.
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