Over this past Memorial Day weekend, I journeyed through three states, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri to visit the three Midwestern Presidential libraries to learn about the small town American values of three notable Presidents. Each one of the presidential libraries pay tribute to small town men, who rose to greatness on the world’s stage. Each applied his small town sensibility to govern our country.
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa with a population of only twenty-five hundred is located an hour from Iowa City. It is truly, small town America. Hoover, born in 1874 was the first President born west of the Mississippi River. He was raised in a small cabin located adjacent to the Library at the Hoover National Historic site.
The Library is a true reflection of the 31st President, simple and unassuming. The son of Quakers, he lost his parents at the age of seven and was sent to Oregon to be raised by relatives. He entered Stanford University in its inaugural class at the age of seventeen. He graduated with a geology degree and headed to Australia to forge his life in the mining industry. By the age of twenty-three, he held a leadership position in an international mining company and traveled world. It was during these years that he amassed his fortune.
He returned to the states to marry his college sweetheart, Lou Henry in 1899, a feisty woman who loved the outdoors. They left immediately after the ceremony for China where they bore witness to the bloody Boxer rebellion. At thirty-two, he was a freelance mining engineer. Hoover assisted in safely rescuing stranded American tourists in Europe at the start of World War One. After the ravages of the war, Hoover assisted in the recovery of Belgium.
He went on to serve as the Secretary of Commerce under Presidents’ Harding and Coolidge. He was instrumental in the creation of the Hoover Dam in Nevada. And in 1927, he oversaw eight governmental relief agencies after a devastating Mississippi River flood that displaced over 600,000 people.
Hoover was the Republican nominee for President in 1928. In 1929, just eight months after his election, the stock market crashed. In response to the crisis, he began a public works program and instituted banking reform. He also created the Veterans Administration in 1930. He is largely remembered for the Depression but his legacy is actually one of Humanitarianism. Today, the Hoover Institute, a think tank located at Stanford University, promotes opportunity, prosperity and safeguarding peace.
Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Hoover in the 1932 election and he lost Lou in 1944. These events set Hoover adrift. He began contributing to the nation again when President Truman tasked him with the reorganization of the Executive Branch of Government in 1947. It was also Truman who encouraged him to build his library and attended the library dedication on August 10, 1962. Today, the library contains eight million pages of documents related to the Hoover’s.
Hoover died on October 20, 1964 at 90 in New York City. He is buried on a hill overlooking his birthplace and library. His grave shows only his name and does not carry the presidential seal. His unassuming Quaker roots stayed with him until the end.
Eisenhower Presidential Library
My journey continued through small town America to Abilene, Kansas, population 6200 and the Eisenhower Presidential Library two and half hours west of Kansas City. Comprised of five buildings, Eisenhower’s boyhood home, Museum, Library, Place of Mediation and Visitors Center, the complex is unique amongst the Presidential Libraries. It is a pastoral setting for David Dwight Eisenhower’s legacy.
Born in Denison, Kansas, the Eisenhower family moved back to Abilene when he was just two. While the family lived on the “wrong side of the tracks”, they were well respected. While West Point was not his first choice, Eisenhower graduated at twenty-five in 1915 and rose quickly through the ranks to lead men into battle, direct NATO and be elected our 34th President.
He married Mamie, whom he had met though friends while stationed at Fort Sam Houston, in 1916. By 1935, he was military aide to General Douglas McArthur. In 1943, he was promoted to Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces and commanded the massive Normandy invasion of France on D-day on June 6, 1944. Before the attack commenced, he sent a letter to every soldier about the importance of the success of the invasion.
He was designated Chief of Staff of the Army in 1945. Then three years later he left the military to become President of Columbia University. In 1950, he was recalled to the Army and assigned as Supreme Allied Commander, NATO. In 1952, he was elected as the 34th President.
Serving two terms as President, he oversaw the armistice that ended the Korean War creating the 38th parallel demilitarized zone; signed the 1957 Civil Rights bill; laid the groundwork for the Interstate Highway program and established NASA. He passed the torch to John K. Kennedy in 1961 and he and Mamie retired to their farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Eisenhower died in 1969 and was interred at the Place of Mediation on the grounds on the Presidential library in a soldier’s casket. Mamie died in 1979 and is buried next to Ike and their son, Doud, who died of Scarlet Fever in 1921.
The library houses in excess of twenty-six million pages of documents, three-hundred thousand photographs and seven hundred feet of film. It also houses a slice of the “Eisenhower tree” which stood on the Augusta Golf Course where Eisenhower had been a member. He repeatedly hit the tree when playing the course and lobbied to have the tree removed. In 2014, an historic ice storm damaged the tree and it was removed. The library received this unusual memorial to the beloved Augusta member.
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library
Leaving Kansas, I was headed to the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. Again, this is small town America and Independence is wild about Harry Truman who was born there in 1884.
From a local farming family, Truman met his future wife Bess, who was from a prominent family, in elementary school. He joined the military in 1917, serving in France as a commander for an artillery combat unit. Eight weeks after his return, he and Bess married and moved into her father’s house on North Delaware St. where they would live for the rest of lives.
On his return from World War One, he went into business and failed. He was then offered a county administrator job which he kept for 10 years. He was a builder who got things done honestly. He was tapped by the Democratic Party to run for Senate in 1934 and by 1944 he was making a name for himself.
Truman was FDR’s first choice for Vice President during his 4th term. When Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, GA only 82 days after his fourth inauguration, Truman took the oath of office at the White House at 7:09pm as the 33rd President.
During his meetings with Stalin and Churchill in Potsdam, to discuss end of World War II in Europe, he told Stalin about the atomic bomb. In August, 1945, a B29 dropped an atomic bomb Hiroshima, Japan. When Japan failed to surrender, Nagasaki was bombed three days later, ending World War II.
Europe had been devastated by the war and Truman approached George Marshall, who created the Marshall plan to save Europe from starvation. In 1948, he thought he would lose the election and the secret service woke him at 4am to tell him he had won the election. He decided he would make “hay” of the newspapers who had called the election for Thomas Dewey, his opponent.
The White House was in a state of physical collapse by 1948 and a massive three year renovation was set in motion. Truman moved into Blair House for the duration of the renovations.
When the Korean War began in 1950, Douglas McArthur was in charge of the NATO troops. Concerned that China might enter the war, Truman met with McArthur on Wake Island. McArthur assured the President that the war was won. McArthur then defied the President and attacked China. Truman relieved McArthur of his command. McArthur’s farewell address to congress concluded with “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
Deciding not to run for office again, he and Bess returned to Kansas City in 1953 and were greeted by hundreds of supports welcoming them back to their home. Truman was pleased to return to his life as “Mr. Citizen”. He could be found on many days talking brisk walks around Independence. Truman died in December, 1972 and Bess in October, 1982.
The library was opened in July, 1957 and features a replica of Truman’s Oval Office and his famous ‘the buck stops here” plaque.