Harry S. Truman: Life After the Presidency

Harry S. Truman: Life After the Presidency

Harry Truman lived for nineteen years after leaving the White House in 1953. He and his wife Bess returned to Truman's hometown of Independence, Missouri, where Truman spent his post-presidential years guarding and constructing his legacy and place in history. He also continued to comment on political events of the day.

Truman selected Independence as the site for his presidential library and oversaw its construction. Upon its completion, Truman spent a good deal of time at his office there, until health concerns in the mid-1960s limited his mobility and forced him to remain at home. At the library, Truman relished receiving important guests, meeting scholars who were studying his presidency, and speaking to groups of visiting school children. His trademark feistiness remained intact; he told one young history professor that he had better go home and read his books before trying to interview him again.

In 1955, Truman published the first volume of his memoirs; the second volume followed in 1956. Unfortunately, he hired ghostwriters and research assistants of questionable ability to help him through the process. As a result, the volumes were poorly organized, marred by leaden writing, and offered neither a comprehensive account of the Truman presidency nor many insights. Nonetheless, both volumes sold well upon their release.

Truman remained active in American politics after he left the White House. Eisenhower's handling of the presidency annoyed and angered Truman, who regularly criticized the administration's policies and politics in public appearances. He actively campaigned against Eisenhower in 1956. The personal relationship between the two men, already strained after Ike declared in 1952 that he would run for the Republican nomination, deteriorated throughout the eight years of Eisenhower's presidency. Truman had better relations with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He expressed reservations about Kennedy in 1960—thinking him too young and too Catholic to be a successful Democratic presidential nominee—but once in office, Kennedy and his wife charmed the ex-President. Truman felt even more comfortable with President Johnson, with whom he had enjoyed cordial relations while Johnson was on Capitol Hill. He never got along with President Nixon, however.

Truman found time to relax and rest in his post-presidential years. He was never far from his favorite bourbon and enjoyed clanking glasses with the old friends, political allies, and dignitaries who came through Independence. While his health permitted, he took regular walks around town. He traveled some, including a 1953 auto trip to New York during which a policeman stopped him on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for making an illegal lane change. It was Truman's only attempt at a long drive after leaving the presidency.

Harry S. Truman died on December 26, 1972, of old age rather than any specific sickness. Bess vetoed plans for an elaborate state funeral and arranged an Episcopalian service in the auditorium of the Truman Library. She had a Baptist minister and the Grand Masonic leader of Missouri conduct the proceedings. Truman was buried in the courtyard of his presidential library, with a simple stone epitaph that he himself had prepared. It listed the dates of his birth and death, the birth of his daughter, and his public offices from district judge to President of the United States. When Bess joined him ten years later, her marker read "First Lady of the United States."