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Harry S. Truman
1945-1953


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Provided courtesy of The American Presidency Project.  John Woolley and Gerhard Peters. University of California, Santa Barbara.
  89. Remarks at the National Health Assembly Dinner  
May 1, 1948

Mr. Chairman, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

It is a pleasure to me to be with you tonight, and to listen, as I like to do, to the Marine Band. I was highly pleased with that barber shop quartette. I understood their music very well. And if you don't think that it is just as complicated and just as hard to execute as those numbers that the Marine Band were executing, try to do it some day.

I want to congratulate the recipients of the citations tonight. They have made a contribution, and are making a contribution, towards something which is closer to my heart than any other one thing in the world except peace in the world. And the contribution that they are making to the welfare and health of this country can contribute toward peace in the world. Of course, that is the first thing all of us are striving for.

When Mr. Ewing consulted me about the health program, I did write him a letter. He tells you that I write a good many letters. I sign my name on the average of six hundred times a day. Not all to letters, some of them are orders and to checks and things of that sort, usually on the Treasury of the United States. If I sign any check, it is at the expense of the taxpayer!

But I am vitally interested in health, and the welfare of this country. That is fundamental. This meeting was called with the object in view of trying to outline a 10-year program for the health and welfare of the people of this country. I became interested in health and welfare a long time ago, comparatively. More than 30 years ago--to be exactly accurate, in 1917--it was my privilege to help organize a regiment of field artillery. That is the reason they played that field artillery song up there. And one of the shocking things that came to my attention when they were organizing that regiment was the number of young men who were physically unfit for service. That was a National Guard volunteer regiment, and when a man got turned down because he was physically unfit, that was not only tragic to him but it was tragic to us who wanted him to serve with us.

Then, after that unpleasantness was over, known as the First World War, we thought we had settled the peace of the world for all time to come. I got into politics, and I became the chief executive officer of the county at home. The county had about five or six hundred thousand inhabitants at that time. That has been 20 years ago. And it was my duty, as the presiding officer of that court, which was really a commission-it was an administrative organization--to pass, with the other two judges, on the sanity of the people who would come before the judges and court, who would be tried for mental cases. Those cases ran over an 8-year period while I was in the court--from two to three to the thousand of that population of that county. A most horrifying situation. It was our duty to send those people to the State hospitals for care--and we had a number of excellent hospitals in the State of Missouri, and still have them, where they really know how to take care of people with mental diseases. That did not include the people who were in private institutions. I became aware of what that situation means in a community and what it means to future generations.

It was also my duty at that time to see that poor people were properly taken care of from a health standpoint. We had two medical men in that county at that time who devoted their whole time to the health and welfare of those people, who couldn't afford to pay for medical care. We had an excellent county home which had a population on the average of about eight hundred all the time. And Kansas City had a hospital which contained from five to seven hundred, all the time, of people who could not afford medical care in any other way. They were indigent. And I found out with that experience that the people at the indigent bottom of the scale and the people at the top of the scale were the only ones who can afford adequate hospital care and medical care. And I became vitally interested in that situation.

And when I came to the Senate of the United States, I did not need to be sold on social security and the health and welfare of the Nation.

And when I became Chief Executive of the Nation I tried to do something about it, and I am still trying to do something about it.

You remember, on the 6th day of September 1945, after the Japanese had folded up, I sent a 21-point message to the Congress of the United States, and in that message I promised them that I would send a message on health--on the health and welfare of the country, at a later date. I sent that message, and it caused a great deal of controversy-some parts of it did, and it is still causing some controversy. But I still believe that message is right and I hope that the Congress, sometime or other, will come to the conclusion that it is right, and will give us the things that I asked for in that message. They have given us some of them, but they haven't given us all of them. They haven't given us the vital parts of them.

You know the things in which I am vitally interested. I want to find some way to meet the health situation in this country, and at the same time encourage more doctors, more young men to become doctors, encourage the erection of more hospitals, and arrange things so that those hospitals may be available to the people who need them most, the people who are not the very rich and who are not the very poor, but who are the backbone of the population of this great Nation of ours, the very people who make this Nation great. The fact that we have a well-informed so-called middle class in this country, is what makes it the greatest republic the sun has ever shone upon, or ever will shine upon again. And I want to keep that republic going, just as it has done in the past, by any small or great contribution that I can make to that end.

In this World War Number Two, one of the most disgraceful things that came to light was the fact that nearly 33 1/3 percent of all the young men who came up for physical examination for the purpose of serving their country--33 1/3 percent of them were not fit for service, due to either some mental defect or some physical defect. That is one of the reasons why in November 1945 I asked for a universal training program. I had hoped that we could find some way to correct that situation as far as it could be corrected, for a great many of these defects, if they are caught in time, can be corrected. That is one of the principal reasons why I asked for a universal training program. I didn't get it in 1945. I asked for it again in 1946-twice. I asked for it again in 1947--twice. And then I appointed a commission to look into the situation, and I put a cross section of the country, and the brains of the country, on that commission. And there were four able and distinguished gentlemen on that commission, who were not in their own minds in favor of universal training. They sat and worked diligently. I never saw a commission work any harder in my life. The Government never had a commission that worked any harder than that one.

And I met one of the able gentlemen of the cloth one day, along with John Steelman here, going from the White House over to the Executive Office, and he was shaking his head--he is one of the great preachers of this country--and he said, "I have got to do some praying."

I said, "What's the matter with you?"

And he said, "I have found out I have been wrong, and I have got to change my viewpoint, for I have got to sign this report of yours on universal training, and say it's all right."

And all the rest of them came to that same conclusion.

Now that is not going to hurt the country. That is going to help the country, that is going to make every young man in the country a better young man. I know! Because when I was 21 years old, I voluntarily joined the National Guard of the United States, and I had to pay dues in order to join that National Guard. And I learned how to get along with young men. I learned the history of the country, to some extent. And I learned what to do to take care of myself physically. That is what a great many of us need to do.

You know, the most of us, the reason we are not physically fit is because we are too lazy to take care of ourselves. We sit down and wait until this paunch comes on, and when we get bent over, then we try to correct it by heroic methods; and 9 times out of 10, if you go along and do what you ought to, in the first place, you wouldn't have that situation.

What I want to do is to have the medical men and the health plant of this country to keep people healthy, not to cure them after they get sick, or after they get beyond the point where they can be cured.

You know, there is another situation in his country that is a disgrace. There are more than 23 million people in this country who are disabled, and who have been disabled through some accident that could have been prevented. Now you have got a great man in this audience, and he and I are "nuts" on that subject, if you want to call it that. That is Dr. Rusk. We have been working on plans. It was brought to a head by the fact that we were trying to rehabilitate these young men who had been maimed in the war, and we found that the rehabilitation could go much further than that. And I have been trying to correct that situation, too. I have called a conference to stop accidents.

The most terrible weapon that has ever been invented in this country, outside the atom bomb, is an automobile. More people have been killed and injured by automobiles in the last 20 years than in all the wars we ever fought, including the last one. Now that is something for you to contemplate. And millions of dollars damage that are done by accidents that should never, never happen. That is a health situation just as well as when you have a bad cold. Somebody told me the other day--I don't know whether it was Charlie Ross--that if you do what the doctors told you about a bad cold, it would get well in about 2 weeks, and if you didn't do anything, you would get well in a fortnight anyway. I don't know whether that is so or not, but that is what I have been told !

But what I am vitally interested in, and what I know you are vitally interested in, is a program for the health and welfare of this country. I want to see the coming generation healthier and with a better outlook on life than we had when we were growing up.

In order to do that, you have got to educate people. You have got to educate young people. You have got to tell them how to take care of themselves. You have got to tell them what to do in certain emergencies, and you have got to have a medical profession and a hospital organization program that can meet that situation, and that the people can afford to pay for. We have got two things to do in this health program. We have got to improve our technical skill-improve our knowledge; and then we have got to find an economic program that will help us to make use of that information.

You know, in the Spanish-American War, yellow fever and typhoid were the scourges. More soldiers died of yellow fever and typhoid than were ever killed in the war itself. We have conquered that situation. We know how to prevent typhoid and yellow fever.

In the Second World War we had flu and lots of other diseases. We haven't really found out exactly what the cure for flu is, but they are still working on it, so they tell me. And we have a lot of things that have been with the human race ever since its inception. One is heart trouble, and I think most heart trouble is caused by the fact that we are living in an age that makes day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow in about 10 minutes. I don't know what the remedy for that is. Maybe you health experts can find a remedy. Maybe you can give us a cast-iron heart that will stand that situation. I don't know. I think perhaps we could adjust ourselves to most any condition. Maybe you can find a way to adjust us to that one, because that is the most vital situation with which we are faced.

Then this cancer program is one of the best that the country has. We will sometime, I am sure, find the necessary remedy for that terrible scourge. We are combating TB, we are combating polio, and we are winning in both of those, I think. The two worst are the cancer and heart trouble.

Keep on working. Keep on studying.

You know, we all talk about the atom age, what happened after the breaking of the atom, and we have been considering that awful discovery as one for destruction only. I don't look at it that way.

I was talking to Henry Ford before he died in 1943. I was up there examining his factory, for the purpose of seeing how many tractors--tanks he could turn out on his tractor line. We got to discussing the horrors of war, and what a terrible thing it is for people to try to murder each other in order to accomplish the purpose that can be accomplished without it. And the old man said to me, "Well, it's a terrible thing, but we will have things discovered, and things will come out of this war that will be of greater benefit to humanity than the destruction the war will cause."

Well, to some extent I think that prophecy is coming true, because we are going to find a way to make this breaking of the atom work for the welfare of mankind rather than for his destruction. We have got to do that, unless we all want to get destroyed; and I know we don't--I am very sure of that.

And I have been told, and I am not telling you anything that is behind the scenes, that there are great discoveries just on the brink that will make the world a greater place in which to live. Let's get ourselves ready to meet that situation. I think that is what the Almighty intended us to have. I think He set this great Nation of ours up as an example of what is foretold in the Testament of the millennium that is to come, and I think we can lead the world in peace and in quiet, and to honor. That is exactly what I want to do. That is all I have worked for, for the last 3 years: to get a peace in the world that will work, and to let this atom discovery work for the welfare of mankind and not for its destruction.

You know, the life expectancy of the human man in Caesar's time was 31 years. It is over 60 now--I think 62. If we keep that up, we will all be so old that we will join the Townsend plan and be paying taxes to keep each other in pensions so we can live forever.

I do want you, though, to make this conference come out with a 10-year health program that will correct some of the things I have been calling to your attention.

It is a crime that 33 1/3 percent of our young men are not physically fit for service. Let us see if we can't meet that situation. Let us see if we can't remedy it. I know we can.

We have met everything else in this mechanical age. Now let us see if we can't make the greatest machine--the machine that God made--work as he intended it.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 9:55 p.m. at the Statler Hotel in Washington. His opening words "Mr. Chairman" referred to Oscar R. Ewing, Federal Security Administrator, who presented scrolls to four recipients in recognition of their services to public health. The awards went to Al Capp, cartoonist, for his rehabilitation work; Bill Robinson, dancer, for his entertainment of convalescents; Walter Winchell, columnist, who led the raising of $2 million for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund; and Ralph Edwards, radio announcer, who also participated in fundraising for cancer research.
 
Provided courtesy of The American Presidency Project.  John Woolley and Gerhard Peters. University of California, Santa Barbara.