Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Captain Truman's World War I Letters
Diane R. Elliott
12 Course US History 102 (UMKC dual credit)
Time Frame:
3-4 class periods
Grade Levels:

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:

Students will read letters written by Capt. Harry S. Truman from France to his fiancée Bess Wallace and his cousins Mary Ethel and Nellie Noland and compare them to accounts of the experiences of his division (35th) during WWI.


Students will gain experience in working with primary sources, in deductive reasoning, and in writing analytical essays.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

  • MO Social Studies (9-12) GLE 7 (Knowledge of the use of tools of social science inquiry.) B. Selecting and analyzing primary/secondary sources. D. Interpreting various social studies resources.

Missouri Standards

6. Relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions

7. The use of tools of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, documents)


Kansas Standards


Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills.

1. (A) analyzes a theme in United States history to explain patterns of continuity and change over time.

2. (A) develops historical questions on a specific topic in United States history and analyzes the evidence in primary source documents to speculate on the answers.

4. (A) compares competing historical narratives in United States history by contrasting different historians’ choice of questions, use of sources, and points of view, in order to demonstrate how these factors contribute to different interpretations.

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • Robert Ferrell. The Collapse at Meuse-Argonne (2004)
  • Richard L. Miller, “Harry S. Truman, Cannoneer” in Army: The Magazine of Landpower, May 1984.
  • Richard S. Kirkendall, “Harry Truman: One Man’s Experiences in the Great War and How They Shaped Him” (2007)

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

Technology Required:

Computer with Internet 

Full description of activity or assignment.

Following the WWI reading assignment and lecture, students will go to the computer lab and go to the Truman Library website to read the letters to Bess and the Nolands. They will be given a reference folder containing a map of France and any other helpful documents. Students are to write an analytical essay in which they address the following questions:  (1) Did Harry give his “special women” an accurate picture of what he and his troops were doing in France, or did he sugarcoat it for them?__(2) What do these letters tell us about his relationships with women? (3) How do you think that Truman’s military training and experience helped to shape his character? (If possible, the students will visit the World War I Museum in Kansas City prior to beginning this unit.)

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:

Students will write a 250-word essay addressing the above three questions. The essay is worth 60 points (20 for each question). In order to earn the full 60 points, the student must give at least three specific examples supporting the answers to each question and use a compare/contrast form of analysis for #1. Points will be deducted for omissions.