Kansas City, MO Thursday Nov. 14th
What an enriching and educational day! I just hope we can remember more than snippets of it as time goes on. But pictures were not allowed at two of our stops and museums are not known for the most notable photo ops. You will get mainly narrative today.
Our first stop was in Independence MO where we visited the Harry S Truman Visitor Center, Home, and Presidential Library and Museum. Independence is now a town of 115,000 but was only about 10,000 in the early 1900s. President Truman grew up here, married, raised a family, and came back here to live for another 20 years after he left office.
Continuing our theme of human complexity, Truman has different facets. He grew up in a small town, farming, and working at local businesses. He met his future wife at an early age, courted for a long time, but they did not marry until their mid-30s. She came from the local upper crust and marrying a farmer did not make her family happy. He came back from WWI where he had proved himself as a captain and they finally married. They were a devoted couple until his death at age 88. Bess died 10 years later at age 97. Part of his political success came from his ability to relate to farmers and other “normal” Americans.
Another facet was his early election results were heavily dependent on the Democratic machine in Kansas City run by the Pendergasts, a well-documented corrupt city boss. Truman’s first position, essentially county commissioner, resulted in numerous civic improvements but Truman’s own notes reflect his concern over the corruption he had witnessed. Truman’s election as Senator (two terms) also owes a lot to the turnout orchestrated by the Democratic machine.
His early time in the Senate was marked by a need to overcome the moniker of “Senator from Pendergast”. During his second term, he gained recognition for ferreting out corruption and waste in defense contracts during WWII. When FDR ran for a fourth term in 1944, Henry Wallace, a liberal who had upset Southern Democrats and others, was dumped despite being very popular. Truman was selected in his place. Democratic officials believed FDR unlikely to survive the full term and did not want Wallace to be president. (Wallace went on to run in 1948 as a Progressive for President but was never a real threat.)
As President, Truman faced many important decisions and events, serving while Republicans frequently had control of Congress. He proposed several “liberal” ideas, including national health insurance, that were not enacted. He did, by presidential decree, desegregate the armed forces and opened federal employment to blacks. Other civil rights proposals did not make it through Congress. His background from a town that practiced segregation might have made one think his positions here would not be so enlightened.
He is well known for his decision to drop the two nuclear weapons on Japan that is still debated to this day as whether it was ethical and/or necessary. He also faced the Soviet blockade of Berlin and used a successful 12 month airlift of supplies to keep Berlin operating until the Soviets backed down. Truman was responsible for getting the Marshall Program to rebuild Europe under way.
Truman was President during the Korean War and made the hugely unpopular decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur for his unwillingness to take orders from the civilians in government (the President). (MacArthur, as I recall from another recent museum, had disobeyed orders in dispersing veterans along the D.C. Mall in the 1930s). MacArthur was not only a WWII hero, he had reversed the North Korean success and seemed the savior of the war. After the U.S. advances, MacArthur said the Chinese would never get involved and was proven wrong. MacArthur then wanted to expand the engagement to the Chinese mainland but Truman wanted a limited engagement, not WWIII. When MacArthur was too publicly vociferous, Truman sacked him. MacArthur got the hero welcome when he returned to the U.S.
The Truman home was the childhood home of Bess Wallace Truman. When he left office, the two of them returned here to live on his military pension of $112 per month. No Secret Service protection. No fancy entourage. Much unlike Bill Clinton who goes about giving speeches for huge sums of money. The home is large due to Bess’s family and their wealth in the late 1800s. There was no major trust fund or ongoing family money though. A tour of the house today shows it preserved pretty much in its 1950s style with some turn of the century hand-me-downs. It reminded me of my Grandmother Lynch’s home in New Richmond WI.
We continued this mid-America theme with a lunch of hot dogs and Coke from one store and ice cream from the soda where Harry worked as a kid. Then it was on to the Museums at 18th and Vine in Kansas City; the Jazz Museum and the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum.
The Negro Baseball Leagues Museum documents the role of separate black baseball leagues that existed due to a “gentlemen’s agreement” in the major leagues going back to the 1880s that no team would employ African-American ball players, coaches, etc. This continued on until 1947 when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Dodgers. But even then, it took years before all teams in the major leagues were regularly using black players. As one display in the museum noted, the leagues seemed not to have a problem with players from Latin American, most of whom had African roots in the genealogy due to European importation of slaves to South American also.
The leagues were frequently owned by whites, continuing the oppressive nature of American society. The ball players faced discrimination in being served in hotels and restaurants when they traveled. But the teams existed for decades, providing entertainment to black and white communities. The level of play in the majors improved dramatically when integration succeeded, as demonstrated by the disproportionate number of MVPs, Cy Young award winners, batting champs, etc who were African-American. Once integration was complete, the Negro leagues went away.
The Jazz Museum shares one half of the museum building at 18th and Vine. The history of jazz in America is documented. Opportunities to play music from well-known jazz musicians and singers exist throughout the museum. One could spend more than a day just listening to the various recordings available.
Dinner was at a local barbecue restaurant in K.C. I might not get out enough in the Twin Cities. We have observed that most restaurants serve your beverage (water, pop, iced tea-but not milk) in jumbo sized 32 oz cups. Less time spent refilling it, I guess. They even offer to fill it up and let you take it out of the restaurant in a styrofoam cup.
More touring tomorrow.
Ed and Chris Nov. 14th 10 pm