It’s absolutely true.
Truman was urgently called to the White House on the evening of April 12, 1945 and when he arrived, Eleanor Roosevelt told him that FDR was dead. A few minutes after 7:00 PM, Truman was sworn in as President in the Cabinet Room and had a brief meeting with Roosevelt’s Cabinet (which was now Truman’s Cabinet). Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson lingered after the other Cabinet members left and, when he and the new President were alone, basically told Truman, “So…there’s something you should know…”
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it really wasn’t much more than that at first. Truman was already overwhelmed by being thrust so suddenly into the Presidency — many people don’t realize that Truman was only Vice President for 82 days. Everything was a whirlwind in April 1945. FDR died on April 12th. The Allies were meeting in San Francisco to form the United Nations on April 25th. Mussolini died on April 28th. Hitler died on April 30th. American, British, and Soviet forces were closing in on Berlin as the month came to an end. And, through it all, Truman took the reins of government, attempting to fill a seat held by a President and Commander-in-Chief who had held the White House longer than anyone else in history ever had and ever would.
Imagine, in the midst of all of that, being told for the very first time — and only because he unexpectedly became President — of a massive and devastating weapon that was so new and so unheard of that Truman wasn’t only informed about it, but he had to be educated about how it worked and what it might be able to do (if it worked, of course). Secretary Stimson gave Truman a bare bones description on the night that Roosevelt died. It wasn’t until he was able to get more in-depth briefings over the next few days with other FDR Administration insiders and scientists involved with the bomb’s development that Truman gained a real understanding about exactly what the bomb might be capable of. Pretty crazy, right? Welcome to the White House, Mr. President.
I think that Eisenhower and Reagan probably would have been tempted to seek a third term, if possible. They both had health problems during their Presidencies, but I could see Eisenhower seeking a third term anyway. He had a difficult time stepping away, which is one reason why he waited so long to give Richard Nixon a solid endorsement in 1960. It wasn’t necessarily a lack of confidence in Nixon’s abilities, but partly because Ike felt that he (Ike) was still the best man for the job.
Reagan, like Clinton, loved being President, too. But when Reagan left office in 1989, he was about two weeks away from his 78th birthday and, according to his official biographer, Edmund Morris, there were signs that he may have been facing the early stages of his Alzheimer’s in the last few weeks of his Administration. Since President Reagan looked relatively healthy and definitely looked fit for his age, it’s difficult for people to realize that he was almost a full eight years older than Eisenhower (70) was when Ike left office. Even if Eisenhower had served another term, Ike still would have been four years younger than Reagan at the end of that third term. I think Reagan’s age and deteriorating health would have prevented him from a third term if it was Constitutionally possible. As closely as his public image was protected by Nancy Reagan, there is no way she would have stood by while he hung on for another term and publicly started to suffer from serious Alzheimer’s symptoms.
An interesting thing is that, if they had the opportunity to run for a third term and their health allowed it, I think Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton all would have been easily elected to another term. I think George W. Bush would have had a much more difficult time with seeking a third term, if possible. However, I don’t think Bush would have run again even if he was Constitutionally eligible. In those last few months of 2008, President Bush looked SO ready to get back to Texas. Even if his chances of being re-elected were positive, I still think he would have chosen retirement instead of a third term.
As for the second part of your question, I think that Truman would have stepped away in 1952, no matter what. All Truman ever wanted to do was remain a U.S. Senator. When he was suggested as a potential Vice Presidential candidate, he was not interested, and when others reminded him that President Franklin D. Roosevelt likely wouldn’t survive the term, Truman declared that he didn’t want to be President either. Of course, he was elected Vice President and as in the case of almost every VP who succeeds to the Presidency, once Truman got to the White House he wanted to be elected to a term in his own right. Still, before Eisenhower declared that he was a Republican, Truman was suggesting that he (Truman) would be happy to step aside and be Eisenhower’s running mate if Ike wanted to run for President as a Democrat. So, Harry Truman did not mind retiring home to Missouri in 1952, and I think he would have done so, no matter what.
LBJ’s case was different. The fact that he was very nearly upset in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary by Eugene McCarthy really shook President Johnson up and showed that he was vulnerable. If there wasn’t a serious challenge from within his own party — first from McCarthy and then from RFK — LBJ would have stayed in that race in 1968. Despite his withdrawal from the race, deep down LBJ still had a flicker of hope that the Democratic National Convention would be deadlocked, turn to the outgoing LBJ, draft him into the race, nominate him, and he’d be the conquering hero, vanquishing Nixon and bringing the Vietnam War to an end.
LBJ was also a man of contradictions, though. Throughout his life, he always said that he would die young because all of the men in his family died by the time they were 64 or 65. As much as Johnson was addicted to power and craved the love of the American people (something that he never received like JFK did, which “broke his heart” according to Richard Nixon), he was also deeply worried that another four years in the White House would kill him. Worse yet, he would suffer an incapacitating stroke like Woodrow Wilson. LBJ often had a nightmare where he fell ill like Wilson and was an invalid — a shell of a once-powerful man bedridden or feebly being rolled through the White House in a wheelchair. It was an macabre thing to think about, but it was something that frequently haunted President Johnson, especially because he had suffered a near-fatal massive heart attack in 1955 when he was Senate Majority Leader. The confident, arrogant, impetuous, strong-willed LBJ wanted to take on Nixon and serve four more years in the White House. The sensitive, insecure, depressed LBJ considered resigning, didn’t think he’d live through the next term (1969-1973), and often had to receive a pep talk from Lady Bird to get his act together and go to work. So, with LBJ, it would actually depend on which LBJ you got on decision day when it comes to whether he would have sought a third term if not for the disastrous results of the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary.
By the way, Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973. If he had served a third term, it would have ended on January 20, 1973, just two days prior to the day that he actually died.
HARRY S. TRUMAN
33rd President of the United States (1945-1953)
Full Name: Harry S. Truman
Born: May 10, 1884, Lamar, Missouri
Term: April 12, 1945-January 20, 1953
Political Party: Democratic
Vice President: Alben William Barkley
Died: December 26, 1972, Research Hospital, Kansas City, Missouri
Buried: Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri
When Harry Truman left office, he had one of the lowest approval ratings in American History. As the years passed — as we frequently see happen — Americans and historians began to remember him more fondly. They looked at his style of leadership and his decisive manner and recognized that Truman was a straight-shooter, confident in his ability, his power, and with the decisions that he made. We don’t have many politicians like Harry Truman anymore. That’s why he’s a favorite of leaders from both sides of the aisle — George W. Bush was a big fan of Truman (and has often mentioned the rehabilitation of Truman’s legacy when asked about his own low approval ratings). Truman wasn’t cool and unemotional like FDR or calm and collected like Eisenhower, but he was decisive and he never second-guessed himself. Truman doesn’t have a list of accomplishments that propel him to the top of the rankings, but his personality and his decisive leadership make him one of the greats.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 9 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 8 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 7 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 8 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 5 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 7 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 7 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 5 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 9 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 7 of 40
From the rear platform of his train on October 9, 1952 in Muncie, Indiana during a whistlestop campaign in 1952 in support of Adlai Stevenson against Dwight D. Eisenhower:
"The Republicans like to call themselves the GOP. Now let me tell you what that really stands for. It stands for the ‘General’s Own Party’. Now let me read you about the generals — there’s General Motors, there’s General Electric, General Mills, General Foods, and a lot of other generals who don’t use this title. Maybe that is why most of the military generals turn Republican, like General MacArthur and General Wedemeyer and General Martin — and that other general who is the head of their ticket [Eisenhower]. At least, he is supposed to be the head of the Republican ticket, although you can’t tell now who is running the Republican Party.
Now, my friends, the way he has been acting has been a terrible disappointment to me. I once thought he might be a good President, but that was a mistake. In this campaign he has betrayed almost everything I thought he stood for.
Don’t you make the same mistake, or you will be stuck with it for 4 years.
In the Democratic Party we don’t have so many generals. Ours is the party of the privates. I have always said I am perfectly willing to let the Republican Party have all the generals. I will take the corporals and the privates, and win the election.
We also have one general, and he is the one that the Republicans won’t touch with a 10-foot pole — and that is the general welfare of all the people.
Now, my friends, if all the privates will just go out and vote on Election Day, the country will be all right. Don’t turn our country over to the generals of big industry, or over to the military generals, either. We don’t want big business in government. We don’t want a military government. We want a civilian government. That is the reason the Constitution of the United States made the President of the United States the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. And the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the President of the United States, ought to be a civilian, so he can tell the generals and admirals to stand around — and I have done it.”