Dear Harry...: Truman's Mailroom, 1945-1953: The Truman Administration through Correspondence with Everday Americaby Stackpole Books, Kathryn Moore
"Taps into the Truman era in a way no other book has. It is a grand collection, lively, full of surprise, insight, humor, and humanity. In all, a very welcome event." --David McCullough
- Stackpole Books
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TRUMAN HIS STAFF "EVERYDAY AMERICANS"
The sun had already dipped well behind the tall poplars as the elderly man in a white fedora and crisp, gray, double-breasted suit strode across the avenue. Approaching the curb, he quickened his pace to clear the way for an ambulance rushing its charge to a hospital on New York Avenue, the white cane in his left hand barely touching the pavement every fourth step. From the corner it was just a few feet to his destination, and he pivoted on his right wingtip to reach for a briefcase carried by one of the three large gentlemen accompanying him.
The evening commute from his office across the street had been closely watched by a policeman. The officer smiled and waved as the pedestrian strode hurriedly past his station in one of two white guard booths flanking a four-story, brick residence. The old man acknowledged with a nod, and another policeman at the steps leading to the front door said, "Good evening, Mr. President."
"Good evening, son. A fine night, isn't it?"
The president moved purposefully up the steps to 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue, swinging his cane up under his right arm, which was pulled tight to his side by the weight of the overloaded briefcase. He reached for the screen door of Blair House, but head usher J. B. West beat him to it. Cheerful informal greetings were exchanged with West and butler Alonzo Fields, whom upon taking the heavy case, frowned and noted out loud that the president should try to relax more. The president, however, just offered a wide grinand the twinkle from behind his wire-rimmed glasses let Fields know that far from being angry at the butler's impertinence, the former Missouri dirt farmer appreciated the concern.
Contained in the briefcase was a large assortment of documents from thick, tabbed file the president kept on the left-hand side of his desk: agency reports, diplomatic mail, personnel recommendations, background papers, proposals for speeches and public appearances, messages from cabinet members, copies of pending legislation, and notes on ideas that needed further study. It also contained a sizable batch of letters forwarded to him by his trusted correspondence secretary, William D. Hassett, a quiet, scholarly Catholic and former newspaperman who had been dubbed "the Bishop" by his first presidential boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Twice every day, usually after the morning staff meeting and then upon President Truman's punctual return to the Oval Office at 3:00 P.M. from lunch and a nap, executive clerk Maurice Latta or his assistant, William J. Hopkins, would present Bill Hassett's "gleanings" in what was referred to as the reading folder, while items requiring immediate attention, such as executive orders, treaties, nominations, bills, and other such documents on which decisions had already been made were contained in a signature folder. Truman, who often stated that he had to sign his name more than 600 times a day, customarily attended to the signature folder's contents on the spot and immediately turned it back over to Latta or Hopkins.
While this may seem a simple way to do business today, it was a far cry from the often helter-skelter manner in which documents had traditionally been handled by previous chief executives. The president's work habits enabled his staff to easily keep track of important papers, decreased duplication of effort, and allowed the various departments and agencies to receive almost immediate answers to their queries. Once the signature folder was out of the way, Truman would quickly scan Hassett's folder, taking note of the more important or interesting items flagged by the correspondence secretary before he put it aside, returning to it whenever there were a few free moments in his busy daily schedule. Nearly always, these letters followed the president "home" to the Truman family's private quarters on the upper floors of the White House or to Blair House, where the family lived during the first weeks of his administration and again during the extensive renovation of the historic Executive Mansion between the West Wing and recently constructed East Wing.
The president's wife, Bess, would rather have had him leave the letters and paperwork behind at the office. She was painfully aware of her husband's propensity for overwork and had been against his joining the Democratic ticket as FDR's running mate in 1944. Even before the presidential campaign, it was clear to many in Washington that Roosevelt's health was deteriorating rapidly and that he was not likely to live to see the end of a fourth term in office. The Trumans' daughter, Margaret, later wrote of her mother's fears: "Everyone was talking about the toll the presidency had taken on FDR. She envisioned an equally deadly impact on Harry Truman.... If he pushed himself to the brink of a breakdown as a senator, what would he do as a president?"
Harry S. Truman was sworn in as the thirty-third President of the United States at 7:09 P.M. on April 12, 1945, before his family and a key group of governmental officials hastily summoned to the White House Cabinet Room. Almost an hour and a half earlier, Hassett had solemnly announced to stunned press pool reporters in Warm Springs, Georgia, that Roosevelt had died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage, as Mrs. Roosevelt, in Washington, told the vice president why he'd been called in secret to the White House. Even though Truman knew about FDR's grim condition, he had been momentarily speechless at hearing the news but then asked Mrs. Roosevelt if there was anything he could do for her. He recorded in his diary only that she replied, "What can we do for you?" and told Margaret that she continued on to say, "for you are the one in trouble now."
With the full weight of the U.S. government and all the questions of war and peace now squarely on his shoulders, Harry Truman buckled down to the enormous task ahead of him. He had apparently intended to try to pace himself (and keep Bess happy) by confining work to the office as soon as the initial crush had abated. It was not to be. Throughout his first week in office, he still entertained the idea that he might soon be able to just go home after the workday was done, but by Thursday, April 19, he finally had to face facts: "At the end of appointments for the day I turned to the accumulated papers that demanded my attention. There were many documents to sign, a bill to veto, reports and messages and diplomatic cables to read. When I was ready to make my way across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House, I again found it necessaryas I did from then onto take with me another accumulation of papers."
Although he soon developed his simple system for efficiently handling this material, imposing a high degree of order to the chief executive's office the actual volume of reading faced by the president each evening remained, by Truman's own choosing, essentially undiminished, for two reasons. First, as a voracious reader since childhood, his natural instinct was to go over virtually everything that came his way. For example, when the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averell Harriman, returned from Moscow on April 20 to brief the new president on the provisions of the Yalta Treaty, he later confessed to being rather surprised at their meeting: "I found that President Truman had already read the Yalta Agreements and all the post-Yalta telegrams. He was fully familiar with the details of our difficulties and with Stalin's failure to carry out his agreements. This was my first experience in understanding just how avid a reader President Truman was." Harriman also noted that on another occasion, he "had only read the summary and conclusions" of a report he wanted to discuss with the president but was embarrassed to find that Truman had read the entire report. "I never made that mistake again!" said Harriman.
President Truman had made a valiant effort to suppress this urge to read everything and granted an early concession to the sheer volume of material passing over his desk by simply signing "routine" paperwork. Unfortunately for his eyesight, however, he soon found this modest delegation of authority less than satisfactory and returned to examining virtually every document. In a June 1 diary entry, he wrote: "Have been going through some very hectic days. Eyes troubling somewhat. Too much reading 'fine print.' Nearly every memorandum has a catch in it and it has been necessary to read at least a thousand of 'em and as many reports. Most of it at night." A delegation of authority was absolutely essential if a job as "tremendous" as the presidency was to be tackled, and he later noted that he "succeeded in surrounding [him]self with assistants and associates who would not overstep the bounds of that delegated authority. They were," he said, "people I could trust." But though this eventually served to lessen his nocturnal reading, it by no means put an end to it.
The new president also found himself signing off on documents that had ostensibly been approved by Roosevelt without actually reading them closely. On one well-publicized occasion, this attempt to carry on FDR's policies backfired with embarrassing consequences. After the May 8 cabinet meeting, the foreign economic administrator, Leo Crowley, and acting secretary of state, Joseph C. Grew, brought to Truman's attention "an important order in connection with Lend-Lease which President Roosevelt had approved but not signed," which directed that the volume of aid sent to the Allies end once Germany had been defeated. "I reached for my pen," Truman recalled, "and, without reading the document, I signed it. The storm broke almost at once." Instead of a gradual lessening of aid, the two gentlemen ordered a literal interpretation of the order, and virtually all Lend-Lease operations were completely shut down, with ships at sea even being ordered to turn about in midocean. The president immediately rescinded the order, but the damage was already done. Said Truman: "Stalin at Potsdam would bring it up every chance he had, that we cut off Lend-Lease while he was still getting ready to go to war with Japan.... I think Crowley and Grew put it over on me that morning. That taught me a lesson early in the gamethat I should always know what was in those documents myself, personally, and I had to read all night some nights to do that."
The second reason that Truman worked so late into the night was that, according to Margaret, her father "was always a demon letter writer." Intensely interested in what "everyday Americans" were thinking and feeling, he often commented that a president must "listen to what people are saying." Said biographer David McCullough: "As President, he felt more than ever a need to see and make contact with what he called the everyday American. And he always felt better for it." Many Americans felt this way toward "Harry" as well and believed that in him they had a president they could level with. Consequently, the volume of mail that had risen more than ten-fold during the Roosevelt Administration to an average of roughly 6,500 letters per day didn't drop back off, but continued to climb steadily and would run into the tens of thousands when a subject like the firing of General Douglas MacArthur was running hot.
Throughout the young American nation's first century, the volume of mail to its presidents had never been so much that the man himself could not maintain it with the normal secretarial help. Thomas Jefferson was pleased that citizens in the republic knew they could write himsomething that a man or woman of common birth would certainly never dream of doing toward a European monarch. He found, however, that though this new thing called democracy had freed their hands to write, it left them in a quandary as to exactly how to address their president, whom they frequently called "your Excellency" in these letters. Jefferson read virtually all the letters that came across his desks at his home in Monticello and "the President's House" in Washington City, answering a good many of them himself.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the rapid growth of the country (and especially its politically conscious middle class) contributed to a steady increase in the amount of mail addressed to the president, until roughly 500 to 600 letters were arriving at the White House daily. A full time mail clerk, Ira Smith, was hired to relieve the pressure on President William McKinley's secretary by scanning the incoming mail and, depending on the nature of the request or comment, directing it to one of the various departments, such as Treasury or Agriculture, or to the president himself.
For thirty-six years, Smith and his small filing and messenger staff toiled in a first-floor room at the rear of the West Wing, their job remaining essentially unchanged through eight administrations. Meanwhile, upstairs in the Executive Mansion, the handling of the mail was performed in whatever manner its current occupant saw fit. In most cases, a president would dictate his own replies or they would be written by a secretary authorized to sign the chief executive's name, and it was not unusual for presidents to author personal replies. Woodrow Wilson, in particular, was well known for spending many trying hours before a typewriter composing his own letters. Over the years, the work habits of the chief executives had little effect on Smith, but profound changes in the country and the election of FDR in 1932 soon changed the clerk's staid routine for good.
The stock market crash of 1929 and Great Depression were national calamities that cast millions of people out of work and into poverty. Businesses failed by the thousands, savings of a lifetime were wiped out overnight, and the federal government seemed to have little interest in alleviating the suffering, believing, according to Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, that the slump would eventually "liquidate itself." The Great Depression was arguably less severe on Americans than the one of 1893-96, but a family threatened with the loss of its home received little comfort from the calm assertion of Mellon that once things bottomed out, "enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people," or the news from John D. Rockefeller that he and his son were "accumulating shares" sold at rockbottom prices because "fundamental conditions of the country are sound."
The downward slide seemed without end, and with a generally more literate public than existed in the nineteenth century, coupled with the advent of radio, the suffering was brought into virtually every household. Herbert Hoover made a genuine effort to end the depression but seemed out of ideas and, in any event, was constrained by his own political philosophy, which viewed calls for increased government interventionand the powerful executive branch such actions would ultimately lead toas potentially more dangerous than the plummeting economy. Consequently, the few tentative forays that were made to counter the depression seemed cruelly misguided to the average American. Said Will Rogers, "The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes it would trickle down to the needy."
Roosevelt, then governor of New York, had a different view of how government should operate. Skillfully using radio to his advantage, FDR electrified an increasingly frustrated and angry electorate, who saw in him perhaps the last chance to save America's faltering institutions. Calling for a "New Deal" for "the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid," FDR was viewed with distaste even by many at the top of his own Democratic Party, who feared he was a demogogue. As unemployment climbed toward 25 percent of the workforce, though, a record turnout on election day handily swept the Republican candidate, Hoover, out of the White House. The Democrats landed both a president and a solid majority in both houses of Congress (and the next off-year elections would find a freshman senator from Missouri named Truman joining their ranks on Capitol Hill). "The little fellow," said Will Rogers, "felt that he never had a chance and he didn't till November the Eighth. And did he grab it!"
Even before the new president took the oath of office on Saturday, March 4, 1933, it was apparent to the bespectacled mail clerk that there was a new spirit alive in the land. Where Ira Smith and his small staff had previously dealt with hundreds of letters per week, they were suddenly having to cope with a flood of mail. Moreover, instead of trailing off after a postelection surge, the daily volume leveled out at approximately 6,500, which meant that what had been roughly two weeks' worth of mail was now arriving every day. Presidential Secretary Louis McHenry Howe was as amazed as anyone at the "appalling number" of letters arriving, and taking pen to paper, he computed that if half a minute was allowed for each item, "a trained eye might skim 2,880 in a twenty-four-hour period, without time for anything else." Once it became clear that the storm would not soon abate, monies were appropriated to permanently increase the size of the mailroom staff to twenty-five men employed full-time at sorting, digesting, and distributing the mass of correspondence under the direction of Smith, who now had the exalted title of chief mail clerk.
Not all letters, of course, went to the president. As before, much could be shuffled off to appropriate departments and agencies, and indeed, fully three-quarters of the mail was handled in this manner. And although the daily average was already remarkably high when measured by previous standards, the volume could suddenly balloon to nearly unmanageable proportionsespecially after one of FDR's "fireside" radio addresses. For example, when he spoke of the effort to stave off foreclosures of private homes through the use of Home Loan banks, more than 70,000 letters arrived almost immediately appealing for help.
Many correspondents wrote seeking employment; others offered a pat on the back for a job well done or criticized some aspect of FDR's New Deal policies. Almost every letter routed to the president's office received some form of acknowledgment. For subjects of wide public interest, a form response was usually made available. A note might also be sent from Howe or one of his assistant secretaries, Stephen T. Early or Marvin H. McIntyre, stating that a letter had been forwarded to a certain agency. An answer might even come from FDR, who always liked to look at a cross section of the incoming mail. These presidential responses were signed by the president himself but, after 1935, were authored almost exclusively by Bill Hassett, whose witty, ghostwritten replies seemed totally out of place coming from a man of such solemn demeanor but fit perfectly with Roosevelt's public image. Hassett would dictate anywhere from sixty to a hundred brief letters per day, six days a week, for nearly ten years and was ultimately responsible for producing approximately a quarter million letters under his own name or FDR's.
When Harry Truman assumed the presidency, he initially asked Roosevelt's staff and cabinet to stay on, yet ended up having to replace nearly all of them with his own people within six months. Bill Hassett, however, was not only kept on board but elevated to a senior staff position after the president personally prevailed upon him not to retire. The title correspondence secretary was created for Hassett, and his West Wing office was considered to be "the nicest one in the White House, next to the President's," which brought Hassett much gentle ribbing from the other senior staffers.
To junior members of the president's staff and outside observers interested in exactly who exercised what degree of influence over the president's time, the other presidential secretaries were certainly of more obvious importance than the unassuming Bill Hassett. It was "the Bishop" that Harry Truman called "indispensable," however, much to the befuddlement of later historians, who had a great deal of trouble understanding why Hassett's duties rated a newly created, top-level post for a job that ostensibly could have been handled by a good administrative assistant. Somewhat condescendingly, one young special assistant later summed up Hassett's job in these terms: "Unquestionably, these correspondence duties were vital to presidential operations. They had to be done and done well. But it was largely by accidents of history and personalities that throughout the Truman administration, these duties rated one of the top five White House staff posts.... [The job] was of a considerably less critical nature than the work performed by [John R.] Steelman, [Charles S.] Murphy, and the other two secretaries."
If Harry Truman had heard this, he would have screwed up his face and uttered his own succinct view of such comments: "Hogwash!" or, perhaps, one of the more colorful phrases that so often got him into trouble. Truman, as noted earlier, had an unquenchable thirst for what his "everyday Americans" were thinking yet greatly distrusted both poll results and poll takers. For him, the daily stack of troubles and dreams that he pored over late at nightfrom places like Skull Bone, Kentucky; New York City; Boise, Idaho; and Conway, Floridawas the next best poll to the one made by Americans in the voting booth, and it was to Hassett that he entrusted the job of overseeing what correspondence reached his eyes.
The former Vermont newspaperman, who toward the end of Roosevelt's life found himself becoming a combination secretary, aide, and de facto press secretary, had never actually chosen which letters were seen by FDR but did not disappoint his new boss. Hassett also scoured newspapers from across the country, kept Truman abreast of public opinion, and would funnel select clippings of items he thought the president should see, sometimes marching a news story into the Oval Office if he believed that it shouldn't wait for the reading folder. Hassett served as correspondence secretary until the final days of Truman's second term, when he was succeeded by Beth Campbell Short, an experienced newspaperwoman and wife of Truman's last press secretary.
Virtually every night, the president would go over the letters from across the nation and mounds of other accumulated paperwork. "At nine o'clock," recalled Chief Usher J. B. West, "Mr. Truman picked up his briefcase, took Mrs. Truman by the arm, went into his study, and closed the door. They worked together to eleven o'clock almost every night, editing his speeches, discussing his policies." On those evenings when the workload was heaviest, Harry would keep at it long after Bess retired. If Bess was on one of her extended stays back home in Independence, Missouri, and there were no visitors, poker game, or state function demanding his attention, the president would get to work immediately after the 7:00 dinner hour, pausing now and then to check in on Margaret and her girlfriends, who, West noted approvingly, tended to make whatever portion of the residence they appropriated "look like a college dormitory, with record players, bridge games, pincurls, corsages," and other sundry items scattered about.
The president's nocturnal routine rarely varied, even when he was out of Washington, and Truman's diary and memoirs are replete with references like this one from the Potsdam Conference in Germany: "I worked late that evening on a big batch of mail that had arrived from Washington." During his whistle-stop campaign across America during the 1948 elections, a daily mail pouch would be waiting when his train pulled in for one of the trackside rallies, and the mail followed him down to Key West, too, when he vacationed at the Little White House. Even a cruise on the presidential yacht couldn't keep Truman from wading into his self-imposed "daily press of paper work.... If I went out on the Williamsburg, for instance, a [sea]plane would bring mail and newspapers every morning, usually around nine or nine-thirty."
The president's stamina was a marvel to everyone who knew him. Still, he was not a young man, his health was not perfect, and the frequent eighteen-hour days sometimes caught up with him. "He had a tendency," said Margaret, "to ignore his illnesses until they either went away or they floored him." General Omar Bradley noted that "he was President at practically all hours ... Saturdays, Sundays, weekdays, and I almost always found him at a desk with a bunch of papers in front of him." The general remembered one instance, though, when he was pleased to see that Truman was apparently taking a little relaxation. "I did find him one time not behind a desk. This was about eleven o'clock at night when I took a message over to get clearance on it. I found him in his dressing room, reading a book. Before I left, I commented that I was glad to find him not working but reading a book. And he held up the book for me to see. The subject of it was the economics of government. So I still didn't catch him dead-beating it."
The president would rise at 5:30 each morning, except some Sundays, and be out the door for his 120-pace-per-minute walk by 6:00. An exercise regimen followed at the pool and gym in the connecting link between the Executive Mansion and West Wing, where he would hit the exercise machines, do twenty-five sit-ups, and swim with his thick glasses on, using an odd, choppy sidestroke to keep his head above water. At 8:00, Harry sat down with Bess and Margaret to a hearty, low-calorie, high-protein breakfast, and by 8:30 he was at work with his private secretary, Rose Conway, dictating responses to the previous night's readings. The president's replies were generally brief, commonly three paragraphs of one or two sentences each. Every once in a while, a letter from a perfect stranger would hit a nerve, and a lengthy answer would flow out, like this one to the publisher of a small newspaper in Childress, Texas, who offered his support at a time when Truman's popularity was plummeting and every day brought new attacks in the press.
My dear Mr. Higley:
I read your note of the fourteenth with considerable interest, as I did your telegram of the twenty-first of November 1946.
People never know all the facts in connection with decisions that have to be made here. They have a perfect right, however, to go up or down on their feelings and appreciation as they choose. The man who sits in the President's chair has no time for consideration of impulsive feelings. The American people are almost as volatile as our Spanish friends are to the South.
You no doubt have been to a ball game when the short stop would make a home run in an early inning and fail to catch one out in the field later. He is a hero the first time and they throw pop bottles at him the second time. He needs sympathy in both cases but seldom gets it, so I never pay any attention to bricks that are thrown my way. Neither of them means anything in the final analysis when a job is to be done. All the President can do is get the best alignment of facts that he can and make the best decision of which he is capable in the public interest and let the river take its course and that is what I do.
People think apparently that the President is made out of cast iron and that he can work eighteen hours a day for three hundred and sixty-six days a year. If he decides to get away from it for a few days rest, then there is a chance to throw more bricks. That makes no difference either to me.
HARRY S. TRUMAN
Margaret Truman recalled that "among the minor pleasures of Dad's off hours was reading letters from crackpotswhat we all called nut mail" and remembered how he once commented that "there is an immense number of nuts in the USA." Correspondence petitioning for Truman's attention on countless matters often surpassed the nut mail's ability to put a smile on the president's face, and there was undoubtedly a certain amount of overlap between the two. In one whimsical letter to his cousin Nellie Noland in August 1951, the president wrote: "Bill Hassett and myself have decided to start a new religious sect when we're done saving the country.... [Bill] furnishes me with acceptances to resignations, handles religious and sectarian correspondence, writes 100-year-old congratulations to old ladies and old gentlemen whose relatives think the President of the United States should take notice of such contributions to the public welfare. He also takes notice of the annual meetings of the D.A.R.'s, Colonial Dames, U.D.C., Sons of the Revolution, Knights of Columbus, Elks, Eagles, Shriners, B'nai B'rith, Jewish Welfare Society, etc. etc. ad lib. We always discuss whether we'll pull out all the stops, ring the bells and give 'em the full treatment or whether we'll just be coldly formal. It's quite a game. We also have to decide on the days and weeks to celebratesuch as Foot Happiness Week."
With Hassett now spending a considerable amount of his day monitoring and managing the incoming mail, he obviously had less time to personally write responses. The very considerable amount of correspondence never seen by the president but worthy of acknowledgment was jobbed out to the other senior secretaries and presidential assistants, who in turn shuffled much of it to their own assistants but answered a remarkable number of letters themselves. None of them, however, could match the dogged fortitude of Truman's energetic personal physician, a young army surgeon at Walter Reed Hospital named Wallace Graham, who had recently been promoted to the rank of brigadier general. The good doctor earnestly tried to answer every letter inquiring about the president's health, such as this one addressed to the secretary of the president from a concerned "private citizen" who lived but a short distance from the White House.
23 July 49
Has the President a psychiatrist to keep a watch over his mental health as he has a physician to keep him in overall physical condition?
Without in the least intending to imply any physical or mental health trouble in the President, nor to underestimate the ability of his physician, it appears only good sense, in the light of present medical knowledge, for the Chief Executive to have the most complete medical attention, and if he does not have adequate or definite attention given his mental health, the addition of a psychiatrist to his present staff seems eminently worthy of serious consideration.
Everett B. Anderson
July 26, 1949
Dear Mr. Anderson,
Thank you for your letter of July twenty-third. You may be assured that your interest in the President's welfare is greatly appreciated.
I am happy to inform you that the President has available to him the services of all types of specialists, to keep him in the best of condition, physically and mentally. We are ever aware of the strenuous demands of his position, and his well-being is our constant concern, not only for his own good but for the good of the people of this country.
With appreciation for your thoughtfulness and all good wishes.
WALLACE H. GRAHAM
Personal Physician to the President
The doctor was regularly kidded by other members of the White House staff for answering "nut mail" and took the ribbing in good humor. The president himself even got into the act with the young Dr. Graham, who happened to be the son of the physician taking care of his mother, Martha Ellen Truman, back in Independence. In a letter to his mother in the summer of 1946, Truman related that during a weekend cruise on the Williamsburg, "I asked him to let me see some of [the letters]. He brought me about two dozen and I gave them one tear across the middle and threw them in the ocean. He almost wept because he thought I'd lose some prospective votes by not answering these letters." A few years later the chief executive apparently repeated the stunt when he noticed Graham on the yacht's fantail dictating replies to a lapful of letters into a recording machine. Picking up the papers from the startled doctor, Truman laughed and flung them over the side, saying, "You constantly tell me to relax. Now you relax."
As for Hassett, in spite of having to devote more time to screening letters, he was always able to write plenty of what FDR had called "Hassett Valentines." Margaret said that Hassett's "delightful sense of humor and an unlimited vocabulary, as well as a fund of good jokes and stories" allowed him to "write the friendliest letter with the most words saying absolutely nothing [while] turning down a request or soothing an irate voter." A typical Hassett Valentine was sent to an Ohio eye doctor who made an unabashed effort to meet the president. (Underlined type represents portions of the text highlighted by one of Hassett's two dozen or so assistants who did the initial marking of key ideas and assigning of correspondence.)
August 30, 1945
My Dear Mr. President:
In a recent news item by the Scripps-Howard columnist, Earl Wilson, I learned that nearsightedness interferes with your swimming activities to such an extent that you are compelled to wear ordinary spectacles during the time you are in the White House pool.
There is a perfect answer for this problem, and it is the wearing of invisible, unbreakable plastic contact lenses. As you probably know, more than 50,000 persons in the United States are already wearing these lenses, and many others at the rate of more than 5,000 a year are being fitted for them.
They are easy to apply and to remove. In your case you would have the added advantage of being able to see normally and to open your eyes under water, because the plastic lens acts as a protection to the cornea and moves right with the eyeball. It would be a matter of a minute or two each time you go into the pool to insert your contact lenses, enjoy your swim with clear vision, and then remove them immediately afterward if you so desire.
In the hope that I may be of some service to you, and through you to the country, and for the more general promotion of the use of this type of lens among Americans of all ages who can use them to good advantage, I take this opportunity of offering to go to Washington and stay as long as necessary in order to fit you with contact lenses so that you may be able to enjoy your swimming more than you have in the past.
I shall be glad to do this at my own expense, including the furnishing of the contact lenses.
I am, Mr. President,
Stanley H. Golden, O.D.
That this letter was included in the reading folder probably had more to do with the fact that it was interesting or informational rather than Hassett actually thinking that the president would want to fly the man out to Washington. It went back to Hassett via Maurice Latta, who received a handwritten note from Rose Conway "to tell party he appreciates the interest but he can't do it," and adding "Letter not for President's signature." The Hassett Valentine followed on September 12.
My dear Mr. Golden,
Thank you in the President's behalf for your letter of August thirtieth. While he cannot avail himself of your kind offer, I do want to assure you of his sincere appreciation of your friendly thought in writing to him.
Very sincerely yours,
WILLLIAM D. HASSETT
Secretary to the President
Obviously, many letters were asking for something, and most writers' attempts to meet the president were more thinly veiled than Golden's. But to Hassett and his staff, who handled dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar requests daily, such attempts were much more apparent than their authors realized. Often there was little that could be done in response except to send another Valentine, like this one posted from the U.S. Naval Station at Key West, Florida, when Hassett accompanied Truman on one of his working vacations.
11 February 1952
My dear Mr. President:
We here in Corvallis [Oregon] for the past few years have been seriously in need of a larger hospital. By several sustained drives we are aproaching our goal.
Our firm is enlisting your support in this community project.
We are sponsoring a mince-meat pie baking contest which closes on 11 March 52 which is open to all persons, male or female, in this community. At the end of the contest the pies will be judged and a public auction will be held. All funds received from this auction will be donated to the Good Samaritan Hospital.
To stimulate interest in the contest, and also in the bidding at the auction, we are enclosing a pledge which we hope you will see fit to use. We will bid in a pie for you at your pledge price and will send the pastry to you Air Mail Special Delivery.
Mr. President, with your valued assistance we are positive we can make this Mince Pie Baking Contest a huge success.
Rex E. Smith
Star Trading Center
(Enclosure of contest ad)
My dear Mr. Smith,
Your recent letter to the President, with enclosures, has been received and I am indeed sorry we are unable to grant your request. So many similar ones are received daily that it is not possible to comply with them.
I am sure you will understand that failure to meet your wishes does not indicate any lack of interest on the part of the President in the many worthwhile undertakings which are brought to his attention.
Very sincerely yours,
WILLIAM D. HASSETT
Secretary to the President
Letters not making any requests, but simply supporting Truman and his policies, were often answered by someone on his staff, but an individual with a degree of stature or political influence, such as a county judge or city alderman, was much more likely to receive a brief personal message from the president than an average citizen writing on the same subject. Letters critical of Truman and his policies were almost invariably unanswered. Unlike FDR, who sometimes had Hassett try to change the minds of letter writers who disagreed with him, Truman viewed such efforts as a waste of timetime infinitely better spent on swaying the uncommitted or bucking up his supporters. On the rare occasions when Truman did respond, his answers were usually short and tart, as in this letter to an Oklahoma City doctor who protested the president's health-care proposals:
Dear Dr. Moorman,
I read your letter of July seventh with some surprise.
It is perfectly apparent that you are not familiar with the Public Health Program advocated by this Administration.
I am sorry you haven't taken the trouble to enlighten yourself on the subject.
HARRY S. TRUMAN
Truman was also rather unappreciative of the efforts of organized pressure groups who tried to influence his actions by sending him mounds of preprinted cards or letters on some bill or project they opposed. Less apparent were formula-type letters that, at first glance, appeared to be regular correspondence but were still easy to spot because of the similarity of wording. As early as his Senate days in 1935, he had been known to ceremoniously burn such offerings. The preferred method for handling this material, however, was developed early in the Roosevelt Administration. FDR's secretary, Howe, wrote that "they are virtually the only letters coming to the White House which are not really read. If we are really interested in the matter they discuss, we pile them up and estimate, from the size of the stacks, the extent of the sentiment for or against." Only on very rare occasions would Hassett include such an item in the night's reading folderusually as a jokeand he also had his staff or the mailroom staff count them. All would be tossed out when the pile reached an inconvenient size, and the total number received would be written on a single representative sample retained for the archives.
During or immediately after the president's morning dictation, he transferred the balance of the reading folder's material to his thick desk file tabbed with the names of the dozen or so people attending the daily staff meetingan affair that originally convened at 9:00 but was soon moved back to 9:30, and eventually to 10:00, in an effort to give everyone ample time to prepare.
"There was always time for some humor in these meetings," remembered Charles Murphy, who served as special counsel to the president. "And notwithstanding the fact that we all felt that we were living in the eye of a hurricane, these staff meetings were usually relaxed. In fact, as I look back, I think they may have been the most relaxed periods that most of us enjoyed during the day." Truman's executive clerk, William Hopkins, said that "the material in the President's reading folder customarily reappeared" at this time, "and ... he would pass out to them documents in their area of responsibility, or on which he wished their advice or recommendations."
Often Bill Hassett had already routed items from the previous day's mail to some of these same staffers, but now, along with memoranda on various queries or matters the president wanted raised with a certain agency or department, would come additional correspondence he wanted answered. He also expected letters to be answered promptly, and each person would sign his or her own name since, according to Beth Short, "Mr. Truman did not permit the use of an auto-pen," which would allow facsimile signatures of the president. "When you saw a document leaving the White House signed Harry S. Truman," stated Hopkins, "it was the president's act, not the act of some staff member using his name." Truman frequently asked that a response be prepared for him, and the routine would start a new cycle with a finished letter appearing within a day or two in the signature file or as a draft in the reading file.
Unless it was an item following a strict formula, such as a "thank you" note, Truman made it a point to quickly read everything he was to sign, and on occasion, the president found that he had to kick a draft response back to its author. The following letter is from a soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the proposed answer was written by Major General Harry H. Vaughan. The general was a long-time friend of Truman who was now serving as one of his mlitary aides, and like another old friend, Press Secretary Charlie Ross, Vaughan had a knack for writing in Trumanesque style when the situation called for it.
Dear Mr. Truman,
Our camp newspaper had the enclosed clipping about your desire to make a parachute jump.
We of the 11th Airborne Division Quartermaster Parachute Maintenance Company feel a tinge of pride in our work; as we have yet to have a man fall out of a parachute harness we adjust. If you wish to fulfill your ambition to make a jump, please accept our offer to fit you to a parachute.
As a qualified "rigger" here in charge of adjusting harnesses on all our parachutes, I also have 154 jumps to my credit. The enclosed extract speaks more eloquently as to my qualifications than I could.
... We are quite sure that you must have a parachute for emergency purposes in your private plane, "The Independence."
I am at your disposal to go to Washington for a special fitting.
Willie F. Brown
Dear Sgt. Brown,
I read with interest your letter of recent date as well as the commendation of 19 September 1945.
Permit me to congratulate you on your very excellent record and the good work you are still doing.
I have had a desire for many years to make a jump but I doubt the Secret Service, my Aides and other people who boss me around will ever permit it. Also it is just possible that I have waited too long to make my first jump and am not supple [enough] to land gracefully.
Truman, however, realized the inherent problems of such a response and returned the draft with a line crossed through it and a handwritten note at the bottom.
Harry: I doubt the advisability of this. There will be 40 or more divisions before we are through and this would set a precedent for numerous stunts. I don't think the President should be a stunt man. We can plead press of business which is absolutely true.
As appointments secretary, Matthew J. Connelly was on the receiving end of the multitude of requests for Truman to appear at various functions, inquiries for personal audiences, and innumerable off-the-wall requests. Connelly routinely responded in the most courteous manner possible, in letters that were often composed by his assistant, Joseph Feeney, but some requests inevitably slipped through the cracks and went unanswered.
March 4, 1946
My dear Mr. President:
On January 24, 1946, I wrote a letter requesting you to send me a suit of clothes for the purpose of using in my wax display entitled "Truman in Wax," along with all the Presidents which was on display at Woodward & Lothrop, in their F Street windows, in your city.
I regret I could not have one of your suits to adorn the Truman figure, and not having a reply from you, I used a suit which was not so effective, where you were concerned.
While in Washington, many of your friends and acquaintances who viewed the display, and the notices concerning the same, expressed regret, that a suit which you had worn could not also be displayed.
One person inquired as to why it could not be arranged for a suit of your clothes to be used in this display, in view of the fact a suit of clothes had been given by you to Madam Tussaud's Wax Museum of London.
In response to this inquiry, I exhibited a copy of my letter to you, together with the registered return receipt card. This person claimed he knew one of the writers on one of the Republican papers, wanted to take me to this writer saying that this paper would give a very unfavorable story and this of course I would not adhere to.
Another person suggested that if I would display the wax figure in a suit of under clothes, shirt, collar and tie, socks and shoes, less the suit of clothes with a sign reading "Waiting for a suit of clothes from the President," to which I did not fully subscribe.
As far as the suit of clothes is concerned, I am dismissing it from my mind entirely but I do feel hurt to know that I have not had any acknowledgment or any interest manifested.
Haywood B. Maxey
March 8, 1946
My dear Mr. Maxey:
Your letter of March fourth has been received. I am glad to assure you that your request of January twenty-fourth to the President received most careful consideration, and I regret exceedingly to learn that through inadvertence no word in acknowledgment of that letter was sent to you.
Recently the President has received so many requests of a personal nature that in fairness to all it has been necessary to adopt a policy of declining them. I am sure that, upon reflection, you will understand why the President cannot do the many things which, as a private citizen, he would be glad to do.
Very sincerely yours,
MATTHEW J. CONNELLY
Secretary to the President
Rebuffs, like the following to a Cliffside Park, New Jersey, pharmacist, were always made in the gentlest possible manner, with attention paid to making it clear that the sender's letter had indeed been read. It was written by the executive clerk, Hopkins, for Connelly's signature.
Sept. 4th 51
My Dear Mr. President:
Thru the years of public contact, I realize more forcefully than ever a crying need for medical control. The white collar worker is so mistreated almost to the point of charlatanism. If you can spare me a few minutes interview I have a sure fire health plan that can answer the middle income workers health problem.
Thanking you to give this very important matter your considered opinion.
Arthur P. Grosman
Grosman's Prescription Pharmacy
September 11, 1951
My dear Mr. Grosman:
Your letter of September fourth to the President has been received and I want to assure you that the spirit of helpfulness which prompted your request is appreciated. Unfortunately, it is impossible to arrange an interview with you just now, as there is no immediate prospect of a relaxation of the official duties facing the President now that he has returned from his trip to San Francisco where he opened the Treaty Sessions.
Should you wish to send a memorandum to the President, in my care, concerning the plan you have in mind, I assure you it will be given careful attention.
Very sincerely yours,
MATTHEW J. CONNELLY
Secretary to the President
Mr. Grosman never did send a memorandum outlining his planand no one probably expected him to. If he had, it actually would have been channeled to someone in the administration with expertise in that subject, because Truman and his senior staffers believed that the kernel of a good idea could well come from a completely unexpected source. But unlike the New Jersey pharmacist, who decided not to pursue the matter even after receiving a degree of official encouragement, other correspondents, such as a doctor from Brookline, Massachusetts, identifying himself as the president of the American Institute of Master Sciences, Inc., in Miami, Florida, wouldn't take no for an answer.
May 7, 1945
Can you tell me the hour of day your birth occurred [on] May 8, 1884?
In Scientific Appreciation, I thank You
Dr. Adrian M. Ziegler
This letter arrived during the momentous period at the beginning of Truman's presidency, one of the busiestand certainly the most hecticof his time in office. At least a full month passed between the time Dr. Ziegler posted his letter in Massachusetts and his receipt of an initial White House response. It was written on June 4 but mailed to the printed return address on the doctor's envelope, his business address in Florida.
My dear Dr. Ziegler:
In the absence of Mrs. Truman who is now in Missouri, I am writing to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of June 1st.
I am bringing your inquiry about the President to the attention of the Executive Office.
Very sincerely yours,
Secretary to Mrs. Truman
Eventually the query ended up in Bill Hassett's hands, and a Valentine (not one of his more soothing efforts) was sent to the doctor's home address on June 13.
My dear Mr. Ziegler:
Your letter of May seventh has been received and, in reply, I am exceedingly sorry that just now, when it is so very important to conserve the President's time for urgent official duties, it is impossible to bring queries of this nature to his attention. You will understand, I feel sure.
Very sincerely yours,
WILLIAM D. HASSETT
Secretary to the President
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