Truman Well Aware that Presidency was a Most Terribly Responsible Job

A Harry Truman signed and inscribed photograph, dated Jan. 17, 1953, sold for nearly $3,885 at a February 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The news broke shortly before 6 p.m. on April 12, 1945. President Franklin Roosevelt had died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Ga. Within minutes, the bulletin had reached every part of the country. It was almost midnight in London, but in Berlin, it was already the next day, where it was (ominously) Friday the 13th. However, Joseph Goebbels interpreted it as a lucky turning point when he telephoned Adolf Hitler. He was already devising ways to turn this to Germany’s advantage, even as enemy troops closed in on the Third Reich.

By 7 p.m., Harry Truman, his Cabinet and Bess and Margaret were assembled in the Cabinet Room along with Chief Justice Harlan Stone to administer the oath of office. Within hours of Roosevelt’s death, the country had a new president.

Then the family and the Cabinet were dismissed. Secretary of War Henry Stimson lingered to brief the new president on a matter of extreme urgency. He explained that a new weapon of almost inconceivable power had been developed, but offered no details. Truman had just learned about the existence of the atomic bomb. He canceled a date to play poker and went to bed. It had been a long day.

It was also a long day for America’s top generals: Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton and Omar Bradley. The shock of losing their trusted commander-in-chief was compounded by genuine concern over Truman’s lack of experience. To make matters worse, they had just seen their first Nazi death camp. All were depressed, but Patton was especially emphatic about his concerns for the future.

The next morning, President Truman arrived at the White House promptly at 9 a.m. It was now April 13, 1945 – 27 years to the day since he had landed at Brest, France (Brittany), as a lowly 1st Lieutenant in the Allied Expeditionary Forces in WWI. Now he was the United States’ commander in chief in the century’s second world war. Everything in the Oval Office was eerily just as FDR had left it. He sat in the chair behind the desk and quietly pondered the challenges he had inherited. Downstairs, the White House staff was frantically coping with the press, the jangle of telephones, and wondering what to do next.

After a routine update on the status of the war, Truman surprised everyone by announcing he was going to the Capitol to “have lunch with some of the boys” … 17 congressmen to be exact. After a few drinks and lunch, he told the group he felt overwhelmed and emphasized he would need their help. Then he stepped out to meet the assembled press and made his now famous remarks: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Less than four months later, in August 1945, the man from Independence, Mo., now confident and in control, dropped his own bombshell when he broadcast to the nation:

“Sixteen hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima,” the president said, adding, “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive and enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy Japan’s power to make war. … If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

The buck DID stop here, just as the little sign on his desk promised.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Life, History Have Not Been Fair to Pat Nixon

As the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, Pat Nixon, above at her husband’s 1973 inauguration, was trained at the knee of Mamie Eisenhower, the quintessential 1950s political wife.

By Jim O’Neal

As the nation seems transfixed again on the White House and there is a special counsel investigating “everything,” it is nostalgic to see old faces popping up on CNN as the “I” word is faintly heard.

John Dean has returned with his colorful Richard Nixon anecdotes and even Richard Ben-Veniste is back. Ben-Veniste was a special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal and chief counsel for the Democrats in the less-famous, but much longer and tedious Senate Whitewater Committee, which was investigating the Clintons (especially the first lady) over their curious relationships before they left Arkansas.

Rarely does anyone mention earlier first lady Pat Nixon. She grew up on a small truck farm in Artesia, Calif., about 20 miles from my high school (Compton). She lost her mother to cancer when she was 12 and was forced to take over the family household chores, including the laborious task of doing the laundry, which involved building a fire in an outdoor brick fireplace and lifting the clothes with long sticks from cauldrons of boiling water into cold water and then hanging them out to dry.

She also took care of two older brothers and her father for five years until he died from silicosis (miner’s disease). She was an orphan at 17 and determined to get a college degree. She worked her way through the University of Southern California, graduating cum laude in 1937. She met Richard Nixon when they were auditioning for parts in a local production of the mystery drama The Dark Tower. She was teaching shorthand and typing at a high school and he was a young lawyer from Duke University Law School. (He had been accepted into the FBI, but never received the notice.)

They married in June 1940, and then he was off to the Navy for several years. He ran for Congress with Pat as his office manager. She basically devoted the rest of her life supporting his political ambitions. She was crushed when he lost the 1960 presidential race to John F. Kennedy and never understood why reporters never investigated the speculation that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had stolen Illinois’ 27 electoral votes or why her husband had not demanded a recount.

Nixon promised Pat that he was finished with politics after he lost his 1962 comeback campaign for governor of California, famously blasting the deeply hated press with his parting message, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Pat was relieved and her happiest days were after that defeat, when the family moved to New York and Nixon retreated to private life as a lawyer.

By the time they did get to the White House in January 1969, the Vietnam War was raging and the feminist movement was in full swing. As the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, Pat was trained at the knee of Mamie Eisenhower, the quintessential 1950s political wife.

Although she never publicly crumbled, Watergate took a terrible toll on Pat Nixon’s health. She lost sleep, lost weight and rumors of her drinking started.

Her loyal aides fought back, saying she enjoyed an occasional highball and a cigarette at the end of a long day. However, Pat told her daughter Julie, “Watergate is the only crisis that got me down. It is just constant and I know I will never live to see the vindication.”

She was right about that. Life and history have not been fair to Pat Nixon … period.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Eisenhower Crucial to ‘Greatest Engineering Project in World History’

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A photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1953 – autographed by Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover – realized $8,365 at an October 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

As federal war-game planners considered their objectives in mobilizing a West Coast battle response, railroads were quickly ruled out because they could not carry the amount of equipment involved and some of the weapons, especially tanks, were too heavy for trains and tracks.

Since the Army already had plenty of wheeled and tracked vehicles, dispatching a test expedition by road and having a Motor Transport Corps drive the convoy could prove, once and for all, the superiority of wheels over hoofs or railways. Inexplicably, they failed to include any assumptions about the condition of the roads en route.

At the appointed time in 1919, the convoy gathered at a monument by the South Lawn of the White House. The column was three miles long and consisted of 79 vehicles, including 34 heavy trucks, oil and water pumpers, a mobile blacksmith shop, a tractor, staff observation cars, searchlight carriers, a mobile hospital and other wheeled necessities to support the actual war machines.

Nine vehicles were wrecked en route and 21 men injured – leaving 237 soldiers, 24 officers and 15 observers – including then-Brevet Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower (who kept a concise daily diary). When they arrived in Lincoln Park in San Francisco 62 days later, it was undisputed that the conditions of the roads – essentially non-existent west of the Missouri River – would preclude any timely defense of the West Coast and that any Asian enemy would have been victorious in any battles along the way.

The journey left an indelible impression on the young officer from West Point, who would later be Commander-in-Chief of the nation. The Army and Eisenhower had indisputably proved what many in the capital had suspected. The American West had few, if any, roads that were even remotely usable for military or civilian use.

Only when they reached California and beyond the state capital of Sacramento did the roads become great – with macadamized surfaces, proper drainage, road rules, gas stations and tire-repair depots … all in sufficient quantity to service existing needs.

But this did not appease Eisenhower in the slightest. This great convoy, called into action to deal with a hypothetical threat to the country’s vital West Coast, had crossed 3,251 miles of the country at an average speed of 5.6 mph, making any potential response virtually useless. The vehicles were in fine shape and the men brave and intelligent, but the roads were deplorable. If nothing else, Eisenhower wrote, the experience of this expedition should spur the building – as a national effort – of a fast, safe and properly designed system of transcontinental highways.

This led to the creation of America’s Interstate Highway System – the greatest engineering project in world history … an intrinsic network of high-speed roads built with the sole purpose of uniting the corners, edges and center of this vast nation.

Fittingly, “The Dwight D. Eisenhower National Interstate and Defense Highways Act” was authorized by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 during the second term of the 34th president of the United States. “I LIKE IKE!”

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Americans’ Love of Travel Ran Into Dreadful Road System

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This Union Pacific poster, circa 1925, promotes travel by train to New Mexico and Arizona – “Land of History and Mystery.” It sold for $2,031 at a November 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1919, America, now rapidly becoming mechanized, seemed to be filled with people inclined to travel. There was an abundance of money, and new transportation technologies were eager to provide alternatives to existing modes of travel. World War I was over and soldiers had returned home flush with cash and eager to join the social changes under way. A Model T Ford or Chevrolet 490 cost less than $400 … little more than three months’ pay.

Four million cars were already in use and Ford was selling 600,000 more each year. One in eight Americans owned a car and this would increase to one in six in the 1920s. Farmers were buying small trucks – 250,000 in use by 1916 – to haul produce to market and fertilizer back to their farms.

The stagecoach had all but vanished, but there were still 20 million horses conveying people or goods. Bus services were popping up to serve the less affluent. The joy ride was a hot, new leisure concept and the invention of the taximeter enabled motorcar taxi service in most cities. The roar of the Roaring Twenties was a combination of the internal combustion engine combined with the jazz bands on dance-hall floors and the din from speakeasies.

Amidst all this frenetic energy was a national disgrace: America’s roads.

There were plenty of them – some 3 million miles in total, but only 369,000 in 1919 were paved with any kind of durable, lasting surface. The rest were mostly dirt roads that were too often simply chassis-deep mud. They were plagued with hundreds of broken bridges or faint trails of blowing desert sands that quietly vanished, leaving travelers utterly lost.

Bad roads were a perpetual hindrance to trade, an abiding nuisance to agriculture and a profound inconvenience to the traveling public. One congressional report noted it cost more to move a peach from a Georgia orchard 20 miles to Atlanta by road than 3,000 miles by rail from California to New York.

Lobbying groups of drivers and car manufacturers were proliferating in Washington, D.C., primarily to get the federal government to assume national responsibility and eliminate the pervasive cronyism and corruption that existed in state legislatures. Most of this was ineffective since lobbyists hadn’t perfected their skills ($$$). However, help arrived from a totally unexpected source.

The War Department was developing plans to protect the West Coast from attacks from unspecified Asian enemies, a thinly veiled euphemism for Japan. Specifically, the war-gamers needed to know how quickly fully equipped soldiers could travel from the big Army bases on the East Coast to a hypothetical battlefield in the West.

A top-level decision was made to perform a real-life test to verify the time and feasibility involved. Fortunately, a quiet major volunteered to accompany the expedition strictly as an observer. His name was Dwight David Eisenhower.

Tomorrow: The creation of America’s Interstate Highway System – the greatest engineering project in world history.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].