By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
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In 1961, former president Harry S. Truman sat for a lengthy interview with TV journalist David Susskind. He had been out of the office for a little more than eight years, working hard to establish his presidential library in Independence, Missouri. The 77-year-old Truman gave a thoughtful, genial interview, offering commentary on then-current politics and political figures. This interview makes up the bulk of Give ’em Hell Harry, and while he can hardly be accused of giving anyone too much hell during the chat, he does offer some interesting observations.
When asked if he regrets any of his presidential decisions, his response is an emphatic No. “Any wrong decision can be corrected by another decision,” he notes. People should make up their minds and act, he believes. He cites the Cold War neutrality of Indian Prime Minister Nehru as a dangerous example of inaction. (One might wonder how the bombing of Hiroshima could be undone by a subsequent decision, but Susskind doesn’t press.)
President Truman expresses great faith in the youth, saying repeatedly that they are eager to learn about and participate in American democracy. What he made of the youth movements that swept the country half a decade later is an open question, but he was right to note that the young wanted to be part of the discussion.
While Susskind’s interview is of value largely as a time capsule, the second portion of the film–a 1974 interview with Truman biographer Merle Miller and producer Robert Alan Aurthur–is deeply fascinating. Miller, Aurthur, and Susskind had filmed material for a television series about the former president around the time of the initial interview. Here, two years after Truman’s death, they share personal stories about the man as they knew him.
Their Truman is far more blunt than the interview lets on. He calls President Eisenhower a “dumb son of a bitch,” complains about his wife’s cooking, and agrees to go to Hiroshima but “won’t kiss [the Japanese’s] ass.” Miller and Susskind share an obvious affection for the man, but Aurthur is less glowing, describing Truman as “a bully.”
Harry Truman, whatever you think of his policies (or the fact that he seems to have disliked dogs), was unquestionably a consequential President. He ended World War II, helped rebuild Europe, and integrated the military. In his post-political career, he maintained his integrity, refusing to cash in on the office he had served. Give ‘me Hell, Harry is a fine testament to that period of his life, and is of great value to presidential historians.