When our editor toured the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum in Independence, she came away with a heightened appreciation for the only Missourian to serve as president of the United States. Here’s why you should visit, too.

Story and photos by Sandy Selby

From where I’m standing, it’s a short walk to 1945. Kurt Graham, director of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, greets me in the expansive, light-filled foyer of the recently renovated facility. On one side of the long space is an attractive gift shop and a counter where visitors can get information and purchase tickets. On the other side, a life-sized bronze statue of President Truman stands like a wallflower on the perimeter of a party. But down the hall to the left, Harry is the center of attention.

The museum, located in Independence, originally opened in 1957, and some early visitors found themselves on tours led by Truman himself.

The immersive video presentation that shapes a visitor’s first impression today captures the nation’s shock at the news of President Franklin Roosevelt’s death. Vice President Truman has ascended to the nation’s highest office, and neither politicians nor the public know what to make of the plain-spoken Missourian.

“We start with the world in pieces,” Kurt says as the film begins. “We start in 1945, and that allows us to go back and ask the question, ‘Who is this guy?’ There’s a farmer from Missouri about to take the reins of the free world, and what are the implications of that? What does that mean?”

Our tour continues through galleries that trace Truman’s childhood, his courtship with Bess, and his enlistment in the Army during World War I. Kurt explains that the exhibits were created with different learning styles in mind. There are the artifacts and signs one expects in a museum, but those are accompanied by hands-on experiences and multimedia presentations.

One compelling exhibit after another follows Truman through the milestones of his life, a path that takes him to the United States Senate, then to the vice-presidency for 82 days before he is thrust into the role of wartime president. Roosevelt’s death propelled Truman into perhaps the most harrowing four months any president has endured. 

Shortly after being sworn in on April 12, 1945, he learned for the first time that the United States had developed an atomic bomb. The Truman Library depicts the weeks that followed with a gallery that narrows, little by little, as World War II rages on. The gallery ends in a small, dimly lit room. In the center is a display with a single artifact: the green safety plug from the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. A second display, situated along the back wall, centers on one tiny paper crane made by a Japanese child as she was dying from radiation poisoning. The emotional power of these two artifacts closes the distance between decades.

The Truman Museum doesn’t shy from difficult topics. Amid exhibits that celebrate Truman’s accomplishments are reminders of his greatest challenges. The museum includes areas devoted to his response to segregation, his narrow victory over Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election, the recognition of Israel, and decisions he made about the Korean Conflict that undermined his approval rating.

After the tour, I crossed the courtyard to view the meticulously preserved office that President Truman kept at this facility. On the desk is that famous plaque announcing “The Buck Stops Here.” But on the other side of that sign is a message that kept the Missouri farm boy-turned-president in touch with his roots whenever he sat at his desk: “I’m from Missouri.” Visiting the museum devoted to the only Missourian to become president makes me proud that I’m from Missouri, too.

Article originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Missouri Life.