WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Richard Cohen, Washington Post columnist, has been provoked by recent revelations about President Harry Truman to asseverate in all his comely humility that "It is ... a good thing that he (Truman) did not express his feelings to someone like me, because -- had the Secret Service not been around -- I would have decked him."
Poor Harry, what did he say all those years ago that brings the he-man out of this otherwise exquisite moral conscience?
History is the greatest of the humanities. To remind us of its consequentiality it leaves specimens of itself around for later generations to discover to their amazement and edification. The other day, Cohen along with millions of other Americans, discovered a specimen of the first half of the last century, when the contents of a hitherto undiscovered diary from 1947 was made public by the National Archives.
The 5,500-word diary was in the handwriting of President Truman. It had been found scrawled in the diary section of a book that had been gathering dust in the Truman Library for decades, and rightly so. The book's title is, alas, "The Real Estate Board of New York, Inc., Diary and Manual 1947." Not surprisingly, visiting historians dismissed it as an old reference book, devoid of much value to them in their reconstructions of Truman. They were thunderously wrong.
The diary section can be read as a personal confession from the president to his mother or perhaps to a sympathetic friend seated with him at the end of the bar. In smoldering dudgeon, the 33rd president opined, "The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement (a popular spelling in the 1940s) on world affairs."
He had been provoked by a call he had received from his Jewish former secretary of the treasury, Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau was seeking Truman's assistance on behalf of a group of Jewish refugees from Hitler's Europe. That irritated Truman.
"The Jews, I find are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D(isplaced) P(ersons). ..." And the president's rant went on to embrace other matters, "When the country went backward -- and Republican -- in the election of 1946, this incident (another occasion when Morgenthau assisted Jewish refugees) loomed large on the D(isplaced) P(ersons) program."
Americans have come to admire Harry Truman as a flinty defender of American interests. He was a doughty combatant and a very good president, at least in foreign affairs. Not surprisingly, we have forgotten just how much controversy his administration found itself in.