Correspondence: 1950
    Commentary by Steve Neal

In June of 1950, Truman faced what he called the most difficult decision of his presidency. After North Korean forces invaded South Korea, the president committed American troops without seeking congressional approval. Truman said that he took this action to save the United Nations. But in making this commitment, he bypassed the 1945 United Nations Participation Act, which authorized the use of military forces in UN missions only with congressional approval.

Mrs. Roosevelt, who believed that nothing but military force would impress the Soviet Union, supported Truman's intervention in Korea. "When the attack occurred, we had two choices," she said. "We could meet it or let aggression triumph by default, and thereby invite further piecemeal conquests all over the globe. This inevitably would have led to World War III, just as the appeasement of Munich and the seizure of Czechoslovakia led to World War II." In the wake of the North Korean attack, she felt that Truman had upheld the credibility of the United Nations. She had long favored the use of an international police force to thwart aggression.

Closer to home, she got so annoyed with Truman during the 1950 midterm campaign that she came close to resigning from the United Nations delegation. Her eldest son, James, leader of the dump-Truman forces at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, won his party's nomination in 1950 for the California governorship. Late in the campaign, Truman came out for California Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate over Republican congressman Richard M. Nixon. But he made no reference to Roosevelt's gubernatorial bid. "Mrs. R. suddenly stated with very great feeling that she had almost resigned from
the UN a couple of days ago because of Truman's endorsement of Helen without an accompanying endorsement of Jimmy," Joseph Lash wrote in his diary. "I was considerably shaken. Mrs. R. does not separate her feelings for her children and her role as a public servant."

Republican incumbent Earl Warren, who had been the 1948 Republican nominee for vice president, won reelection to a third gubernatorial term with nearly two-thirds of the vote. "You had tremendous odds against you & Truman didn't help," Mrs. Roosevelt wrote her son following this defeat.

Mrs. Roosevelt, whose husband narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 1933, wrote with compassion and understanding when two Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on Blair House on November 1 and tried to kill the president. A White House guard was slain and two others were wounded in the attack. One of the assailants was killed. "The only thing you have to worry about is bad luck," Truman said afterward. "I never had bad luck."

"Any President of the United States, or any ruler of any country, or any public official who holds a position of great responsibility and power," Mrs. Roosevelt wrote, "must face the fact that they run this type of risk . . . . I used to think when my husband was President whenever we went anywhere that there was nothing in the world that could prevent a bullet from finding its target."

On numerous occasions, she faced death threats. Yet she refused to be intimidated. "I think I am pretty much a fatalist," she once told the journalist Edward R. Murrow. "You have to accept whatever comes and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best that you have to give."


    1. HARRY S. TRUMAN TO ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, FEBRUARY 11, 1950

 

    Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:


    I read the letter of Mr. Henry Toombs which you sent me on February eighth with a great deal of interest. I'll immediately get busy on it and see if something can't be done about it.

    Our difficulty in the southern situation is due to the fact that the people we have working for these agencies of course, are people who are steeped in violent prejudices affecting the negroes of the South. It is just as difficult as it can be to find people who have an idea of fair treatment for the descendants of the former slaves. I am doing everything I can educationally and otherwise to overcome that feeling. I believe we are making some progress particularly in North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas. The most difficult situation is in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. We are particularly handicapped in Georgia on account of the Governor but we are going to keep hammering at that thing and eventually we will get results.

    I appreciate most highly your interest.

    Sincerely yours,

    

Mrs. Roosevelt noted that Southern conservatives were obstructing Truman's civil rights program. In this letter, Truman is referring to Governor Herman Talmadge, who had introduced a voter-registration system with the intent of disenfranchising 80 percent of Georgia's African-American residents. Talmadge, who served as governor until 1955, represented Georgia in the U.S. Senate from 1957 until 1981, where he persisted in his opposition to civil rights until blacks began voting in larger numbers.


    2. ELEANOR ROOSEVELT TO HARRY S. TRUMAN, MARCH 21, 1950

 

    Dear Mr. President:

    My breakfast was enhanced yesterday when I read in the New York Times about your indulgence in poetry. The Home Book of Verse has been a joy to me for many years. Do you happen to know "The Calf Path"? It is in that volume and it might be worth reading to some of the Senators.

    I hope your vacation is affording you a real rest.

    Very cordially yours,

    The poem goes:

    For men are prone to go it blind
    Along the calf paths of the mind,
    And work away from sun to sun
    To do what other men have done . . .
    But how wise old wood-gods laugh,
    Who saw the first primeval calf . . .
    For thus such reverence is lent
    To well-established precedent.
    -Sam Walter Foss

    


    3. HARRY S. TRUMAN TO ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, MARCH 25, 1950

 

    Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

    Your letter of March twenty-first is a happy reminder that we all love the old songs and the old poems best. "The Calf Path" to which you call my attention is an old favorite. I have read it again since receiving your letter.

    There is merit in your suggestion that it might be worthwhile to read Sam Walter Foss's lines to some of the Senators. I fear, however, that they have for too long been,

    "Prone to go it blind
    Along the calf-paths of the mind."

    Thanks for your letter which brightened my day.

    Always sincerely,

    

Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911), a New England poet and librarian, celebrated the common man in his verse and enjoyed great popularity in his time. "The Calf-path "is a satirical gem about the legend that the streets of Boston were laid out by a calf, which Foss used to gently mock the willingness of people to follow established tradition. His best-known poem is "The House by the Side of the Road."

Where the race of men go by-
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish-so am I . . .
Let me live in my house by the side of the road . . .


    4. ELEANOR ROOSEVELT TO HARRY S. TRUMAN, APRIL 17, 1950

 

    Dear Mr. President:

    I want to send you my congratulations on the vetoing of the Kerr Bill. I know it took a lot of courage.

    With best wishes, I am,

    Very cordially yours,

    


    5. HARRY S. TRUMAN TO ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, APRIL 24, 1950

 

    Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

    Thanks a lot for your note of the seventeenth. There was only one answer to the Gas Bill and, I think, it was stated in the veto message.

    Sincerely yours,

    

Robert S. Kerr (1896-1963), a self-made oil millionaire, represented Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate from 1949 until his death. This legislation would have deregulated the oil and natural gas industry. Harry McPherson, assistant counsel for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee in the 1950s, wrote of Kerr. "He seemed to be saying, "If I can be so open in defending those interests, they can't be wrong; and even if they were, none of you has the guts to challenge me.'" Truman did what he thought was right. Though he liked Kerr personally, the president also regarded him as a tool of the special interests.


    6. ELEANOR ROOSEVELT TO HARRY S. TRUMAN, JUNE 13, 1950

 

    Dear Mr. President:

    I am enclosing to you a copy of a letter which I have sent to Mr. Hickerson to give to the Secretary if he thinks it worthwhile. I am sending you this copy simply because when I spoke to you about this trip you said you would be interested in my impressions. I realize quite well that you have so much information this may be completely valueless.

    While over here I have spoken a good deal about you and your administration and the ideals for which you stand. I would like you to be in close touch with what I do as I hope that you will feel it is a support to your policies.

    With warm good wishes and the hope that you will get some holiday time this summer, and with my kind regards to Mrs. Truman and Margaret, I am

    Very cordially yours,


    Dear Mr. Secretary:

    Now that I have reached Finland I want to send you just a line because I feel in the first place, I want to thank the people in the Department who so kindly spoke to all our representatives over here and I also want to tell you how extremely kind Mr. and Mrs. Bay, Mr. and Mrs. Cummin and Mr. Cabot have been, as well as their staffs.

    I am not writing this letter, however, just to say thank you. I feel you might be interested in the impressions gathered by an unofficial observer.

    In these countries I feel that everywhere there is fear but at the same time, a desperate kind of courage. They do not talk of war and they go about their daily business and they build and they do try to improve the life of the people. In fact they put a tremendous amount of vigor into the effort they are making to improve life for the people as a whole and yet you feel there is a constant shadow not very far away.

    In Norway the heads of government talked guardedly and having joined the Atlantic Pact they, of course, are anxious to be reassured about our attitude. They must count on us if trouble comes, but they are going to do everything possible to carry their full share.

    I was particularly interested in some talks with members of the Parliament and government officials in Sweden. I have been very careful neither to ask questions nor to offer any views of my own on public questions, but they went out of their way to tell me about their differences of opinion on the Atlantic Pact. As you know, only four members of the Swedish Parliament voted to join but they told me that this did not indicate they were not anxious to do their full share in preparation for defense. The party in power, socialists and farmers, want to preserve the traditional Swedish neutrality, but there is a group which is a large one, that would like to join unofficially in having a joint defense program with Norway and Sweden. This is a little difficult since they are unable to join the Atlantic Pact openly, but they are not comfortable about that and I felt there was an apologetic attitude.

    On the whole, I think all of them are grateful to the United States and recognize that the things they believe in and live by are really the things represented by the United States. On the whole most of the responsible people do not seem to be taken in by Soviet propaganda.

    I hope that in my speeches and press conferences and talks in general, I have done some good. I am sure that all of our Ambassadors must be very anxious when strangers who are not familiar with the situations come and talk during these very touchy times but I do not think I have said anything which is not in complete harmony with the foreign policy as stated by you and the President.

    Now I just report something that troubles me, namely, some of our industrialists and some of the members of Congress seem to have left the impression that we are not averse to going to war on the theory that we will have to go to war in the end and we might as well do it while the balance of power is on our side. I do not know that they have actually said it but that is the impression they left and it frightens most of the people very much indeed. It is hard for them to realize that this attitude does not represent the attitude of the administration or of the majority of our people. In addition, some of our senators, belonging to both parties, seem to have said things over here which they could say easily at home and which would be understood as a reflection of partisan or personal views, but over here it seems to be disloyalty to the present administration and results in complete confusion on the part of those to whom they talk. I do not know how this could be prevented unless it were possible to say to each individual coming over that they have a responsibility to prove that our country is a unified one on its foreign policy and above everything else we mean to support the United Nations and work for world peace.

    Some of these people seem to have left the impression that they consider the UN a complete failure and not really worth paying any attention to, which of course, takes away one of the things that these people pray will be a bulwark for peace.

    I am sure you get much more real information from your own people over here but they are official and while my impressions are gathered on the run, and of course not to be trusted against more reliable sources of information, I thought even such unofficial conversations might be of some interest to you and the Department.

    With renewed thanks for all of the courtesies that the Department has extended to me, I am
    Very sincerely yours,

    


    7. HARRY S. TRUMAN TO ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, JUNE 21, 1950

 

    Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

    I certainly did appreciate most highly your good letter, enclosing me a copy of one which you sent to the Secretary of State. The information contained in your letter is highly appreciated both by me and the Secretary.

    You must have had a wonderful trip. I noticed this morning where you have been entertained by the Roosevelts of Holland. That must have been an interesting experience.

    I hope to see you when you return and have a long conversation with you on what you saw and the impression you got as to the situation in Europe generally.
    Sincerely yours,

    

On her trip, Mrs. Roosevelt visited all the Scandinavian and Benelux countries. She dedicated a monument to her husband in Oslo, watched a performance of Hamlet at the Castle of Elsinore, and conferred with government officials at each stop. Most of this region was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, and at this stage of the Cold War, its people felt vulnerable to the Soviet Union.


    8. ELEANOR ROOSEVELT TO HARRY S. TRUMAN, JULY 11, 1950

 

    Dear Mr. President:

    I read your speech at the laying of the cornerstone of the new United States Court Building with great interest.

    Now that I am home I would like to see you sometime at your convenience to tell you of some of my conversations with various people in Europe.

    With every good wish, I am
    Very cordially yours,

    


    9. HARRY S. TRUMAN TO ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, JULY 15, 1950

 

    Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

    I appreciated very much your letter of July eleventh. I am glad you liked my cornerstone speech for the United States Courts Building.

    Of course, I'll be most happy to see you any time that is convenient to you. If sometime in the month of August will suit your convenience just tell Matt Connelly when you are coming and arrangements will be made for you to come in promptly.

    Sincerely yours,

    

On June 26, Truman laid the cornerstone for the new U.S. Courts Building for the District of Columbia. In his remarks, he talked about the principle of equal justice under the law and expressed the hope that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be adopted as international law.


    10. ELEANOR ROOSEVELT TO HARRY S. TRUMAN, AUGUST 9, 1950

 

    Dear Mr. President:

    You will forgive me, I hope, if I send you this personal letter.

    The story written by Homer Bigart in the Herald Tribune yesterday morning is, from my point of view, if true a very shocking one and I am afraid it will have a very bad effect on the morale of mothers and wives in this country.

    For a rich country like ours to be sacrificing its boys with imperfect equipment when they have to face the latest and newest USSR equipment is going to bring not only attacks from the Republicans but violent feeling on the part of the women of the country. To send the Marines from Hawaii with trucks which were old and rebuilt and which promptly broke down, is really a crime.

    I cannot tell you how the feeling against Secretary Johnson is building up because people feel that for political reasons he tried to go even beyond what was asked for in the way of economy and is therefore responsible for our poor showing in the way of equipment. It may be completely unfair but the fact remains that is what a great many people are beginning to feel.

    I do hope we can open the United Nations General Assembly with a very strong speech, giving our plans for peace and not leave the initiative to the USSR. They will certainly present theirs and somehow ours should be a better one and presented first.

    I am deeply concerned and regret that I felt I had to write you this.

    Very cordially yours,

    


    11. HARRY S. TRUMAN TO ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, AUGUST 22, 1950

 

    Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

    I share all of the apprehension expressed in your recent letter about Korea and particularly the bad effect of much of the news during the earlier weeks on the morale of mothers and wives in this country.

    I read very carefully Homer Bigart's story in the New York Herald Tribune to which you called attention. I checked the Bigart story with no less an authority than General Bradley himself. He told me Bigart's assertion that our men were called upon to fight with old and defective equipment was untrue. That had been my understanding and I was glad to have General Bradley's confirmation.

    What is more reassuring is that adequate forces and supplies are now being built up which will enable the situation to be stabilized in Korea. This should prevent serious recurrences of other events as reported by Mr. Bigart and other correspondents and I know the news from Korea will be increasingly acceptable from now onwards. Nevertheless I fervently wish that some of my top men would learn the old, old lesson about the golden quality of silence.

    I share wholeheartedly your view that we must open the United Nations Assembly with a strong pronouncement on our plans for peace. We must not leave the initiative to Moscow. I am grateful to you for writing as you did. I hope you will profit from your stay in Campobello.

    Faithfully yours,

    

At the beginning of the Korean War, American forces were ill-equipped. Homer Bigart (1907-1991), a legendary war correspondent, won Pulitzer prizes in World War II and Korea. Based on the early setbacks in Korea, Truman knew that Bigart's devastating report was accurate. "We were, in short, in a state of shameful unreadiness," said General Matthew Ridgway, then serving as deputy chief of staff.

Defense Secretary Louis Johnson (1891-1956) was perhaps the worst appointment of Truman's presidency. In his zeal to cut spending, Johnson undermined the nation's military strength. Mrs. Roosevelt's opinion of Johnson was shared by Generals Bradley and Eisenhower. Truman wrote in his diary that Johnson had "almost wrecked" the armed services. In June of 1950, "I made up my mind that he had to go." Truman fired Johnson in September and replaced him with General George C. Marshall.

As Mrs. Roosevelt suggested, Truman went before the United Nations General Assembly. In an October 24 address that was carried on a nationwide radio broadcast, Truman declared: "The invasion of the Republic of Korea was a direct challenge to the principles of the United Nations . . . . The people of almost every member country supported the decision of the Security Council to meet this aggression with force . . . . In uniting to crush the aggressors in Korea, these member nations have done no more than the charter calls for."


    12. ELEANOR ROOSEVELT TO HARRY S. TRUMAN, AUGUST 15, 1950

 

    Dear Mr. President:

    Mr. Joseph D. Lohman of the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation's Capital has just written me of the success they have had in St. Louis in keeping their swimming pools unsegregated.

    He tells me that the courageous attitude shown by the administration in supporting democratic principles in the Washington situation has helped the situation all over the country. You and Secretary Chapman have shown great courage in bringing this about. It is these step-by-step achievements which will in the end bring us real equal rights in our own nation.

    Very cordially yours,

    


    13. HARRY S. TRUMAN TO ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, AUGUST 22, 1950

 

    Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

    I certainly appreciated your letter of the fifteenth regarding the operation of the swimming pools in St. Louis and Washington. I think the secretary of the interior has done an excellent public relations job in these two instances.

    Sincerely yours,

    

Truman, on the recommendation of his Committee on Civil Rights, integrated parks and recreation areas in Washington, D.C., where White and Colored signs had been displayed for more than a half century. These racial barriers also began falling in local hotels and restaurants. In 1950, the House approved legislation granting voting rights and home rule to residents of the nation's capital. But in the Senate, Southern Democrats blocked these measures through filibusters.

Joseph D. Lohman (1910-1968), a lecturer in the department of sociology at the University of Chicago, was recruited by the Interior Department to help promote the integration of swimming pools in the nation's capital. Lohman, who served as a member of the National War Labor Board during World War II, was elected Illinois state treasurer in 1958 and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1960.


    14. HARRY S. TRUMAN TO ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, SEPTEMBER 2, 1950

 

    Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

    I was happy to read a tribute to you in the August 1950 Reader's Digest. Belatedly, I send congratulations not only on this appreciation by Frances Whiting but because the Digest consented to include it at all. That was surprising in a reactionary publication which looks backward with nostalgia to the good old days when the law of tooth and claw ruled.

    Very sincerely yours,

    

The Reader's Digest, founded be DeWitt Wallace in 1922, had a readership of more than 8 million in the Truman years. As Truman noted, the magazine stood for traditional values and had a conservative outlook. The article about Mrs. Roosevelt reflected her popularity. In 1950, Wallace launched the hugely successful Reader's Digest Condensed Book Club.


    15. ELEANOR ROOSEVELT TO HARRY S. TRUMAN, DECEMBER 14, 1950

 

    Dear Mr. President:

    The General Assembly has come to an end for all intents and purposes, though I understand it will probably only recess and that the delegates may be on call.

    In any case, I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity of serving in this General Assembly and to tell you that I have been somewhat disturbed by the atmosphere which I found prevalent towards the United States.

    Committee No. 3, not being a political committee as you know, the members of the various delegations act with a good deal of freedom and less direction from the top than they would in a political committee where the results of their actions would have more immediate political repercussions. Therefore I think one sees what might be called honest-to-goodness trends of feeling.

    It certainly is a trend of dislike of the domination of big nations and a feeling that small nations should have more to say.

    The race question has become a very vital one since much of the feeling is that of the colored races against the white race. We are classed with the colonial powers as having exploited them because our businessmen in the past have exploited them, so we have no better standing than the United Kingdom or any other colonial power. I think we have to reckon with this in our whole world outlook because we will need friends badly and it surprising how few we have in spite of all we have done for other people in the past.

    I realize I sound like Cassandra, but I think this situation should be bending every effort to correcting it as soon as possible.

    Very sincerely yours,

    


    16. HARRY S. TRUMAN TO ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, DECEMBER 20, 1950

 

    Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

    I have read very carefully the thoughtful observations on the sessions of the General Assembly embodied in your letter of December fourteenth.

    I attach the greatest importance to everything you say, particularly the trends of discussions in Committee No. 3. It is indeed regrettable that those trends indicate dissatisfaction and a feeling that the big nations dominate and that the small nations think they are not having an opportunity to express themselves adequately. After all, this indicates some of the many pitfalls which await us as we strive through the United Nations to reach the ideal in international relations.

    Far from your offering thanks to me for an opportunity of serving in this General Assembly, I feel that it is for me to express to you the gratitude of the nation for the great public service you are giving your country and indeed the cause of civilization.

    Very sincerely yours,

    

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