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Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 7)

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, April 10, 2019

With the Second World War coming to an end and the Great Depression an unpleasant and distant memory, Americans entered 1945 with high hopes for an extended era of peace and prosperity. They looked to the man that had led them for twelve years guide them into that new era: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But FDR, who had led America to the status of a superpower, would not live to see the final triumph, dying on April 12, 1945. In his place stepped a man whose background and personality could not have been more different than his predecessor’s: Harry S. Truman.

Harry Truman, 1945, courtesy Library of CongressTruman was born May 8, 1884, on a farm near Lamar, Missouri, but his family moved to Independence when he was six. He served in the Army in World War I, and was a partner in a men’s store before climbing the political ladder to the U.S. Senate in 1934.

During this period came one of his first known encounters with Arkansas. In September 1937, Truman spent a week and a half at the Army-Navy Hospital at Hot Springs, suffering from exhaustion, headaches, and nausea. A thorough checkup indicated that he suffered from the effects of overwork and job-related stress, although there was nothing seriously wrong with him. Truman returned a couple of occasions during his Senate term to rest and undergo further checkups.

Not only would Truman gain exposure to Arkansas during his stays in Hot Springs, but through the years he would develop important political and personal ties as well. Jonesboro native John Snyder studied at Vanderbilt, served in the Army, and would serve in the reserves with Truman. Developing a close friendship, Snyder would serve during almost all of Truman’s presidency as Treasury Secretary, with a mandate to encourage a strong peacetime economy for the millions of soldiers returning home from a world war.

Another Arkansas native adviser was Thornton (Calhoun County) native John R. Steelman. A graduate of Henderson-Brown College (now Henderson State University), Steelman pursued a career in academia before being noticed by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. Impressed with his settlement of a labor dispute in Alabama, Perkins appointed Steelman to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. When Truman succeeded FDR, Steelman would rise to Assistant to the President, where he was particularly focused on establishing policies on science and higher education.

Yet the relationship with an Arkansan that would have more direct benefit for both Truman and the state would be the President’s relationship with Sid McMath. McMath had won the Democratic nomination for Governor in the July 1948 primary, and was working to gain control of the party machinery. McMath was a war hero who had gained a reputation as an aggressive prosecutor fighting official corruption in Garland County.

Yet nationally, the Democratic Party was splitting at the seams after twelve years of FDR’s firm hand. Truman’s strong stance on both anti-communism and civil rights had gained him enemies in both the left and right wings of his party. This was reflected in part in Arkansas, as outgoing Governor Ben Laney openly sided with the anti-civil rights “Dixiecrat” faction, and wanted to have the Dixiecrat candidate, Strom Thurmond, endorsed by the state party. McMath’s forces gained control of the state Democratic convention and held Arkansas in the Truman column in the President’s historic upset victory in 1948.

Eternally grateful to his young Arkansas protégé, Truman and McMath formed a bond that would last until Truman’s death in 1972. As part of that gratitude, Truman made several visits to the Land of Opportunity during his second term. In June 1949, the President visited the state to attend a reunion of the Army’s 35th Division, of which the 129th Field Artillery Regiment, which he served in, was a part of.

The event produced one of Arkansas’s most famous political photos, that being of the 35th marching through downtown Little Rock led by Frank Spina, Truman's personal barber and fellow 35th Division veteran; Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson, Truman, McMath; and General Harry H. Vaughn, the President’s military advisor. Yet his official business was the dedication of War Memorial Park on June 11, 1949. While War Memorial Stadium had been dedicated in September 1948, Truman gave a brief dedicatory speech for the park, but spent most of the speech on foreign affairs.

In 1952, with his presidency beginning its sunset year, Truman would return to Arkansas again in July 1952, taking a train north from Little Rock to dedicate the Bull Shoals and Norfork dams in north central Arkansas, then would travel south to Newport where a crowd of several thousand people turned out to see the President, who was accompanied by members of the congressional delegation and Governor McMath. Both Truman and his friend would be stepping off the stage the following January: the President opted not to seek a third term (he was the last to be eligible), while McMath was defeated in his third term bid in the July primary. But the partnership between the two was another milestone in Arkansas’s increasing notice on the national stage, and as a destination for those desiring the big house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.