Boomers Lived Through and Celebrated Presidential History

Another Presidents Day is here. Mister Boomer has noted how the federal holiday came to be, and that boomers remember a time before Presidents Day (Boomers Said, “Hail to the Chief”). At this point in history, boomers have been living through the terms of fourteen presidents. However, the man who was POTUS when the first Baby Boomer was born in 1946 was Harry Truman, and not many boomers know much about this president.

If you are a boomer like Mister B, you were not taught much about President Harry Truman, other than he made the decision to drop first one, then another atomic bomb on Japan in an effort to end World War II. Germany had previously surrendered in May of 1945 following the suicide death of Hitler one month earlier. Two weeks prior to Hitler’s death, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died suddenly, thrusting his Vice President, Harry Truman, onto the international stage. The fight with Japan continued.

It was surprising for Mister B to learn that the Vice President of the United States was kept in the dark about the program to develop the atomic bomb — the Manhattan Project. Historians record that Truman only learned of it after becoming President. The Russians, however, did know about it in great detail, due to a network of spies in the U.S. and around the world. Thus, the Russians were working to develop an A-bomb of their own, which ultimately led to the Cold War.

As boomers recall their history lessons, President Truman, when faced with the prospect of a prolonged bloody conflict with a ground invasion of Japan, ordered the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. When Japan failed to surrender after the destruction of that city, the president ordered a second bomb to be dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. Together, nearly a quarter million Japanese citizens were killed in the bombings. Japan signaled surrender, and on August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced it, ultimately signing a formal surrender declaration on September 2.

In 1946, President Truman dissolved the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) and other war-related agencies that were created to gather intelligence during the War. To replace them, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Council (NSC) and others were created under The National Security Act of 1947. The purpose of these agencies was to oversee the gathering and sharing of intelligence that both military and political figures felt was necessary to protect a post-war America.

In early 1950, paranoia over the rise of the Soviet Union in the wake of the War led some American political figures, notably Senator Joseph McCarthy, to conduct hearings under the authority of the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy, in a speech in West Virginia, specifically charged that the State Department was harboring Communist “traitors.” A reporter asked President Truman for comment, and Truman stated, “I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy.” The official response to the committee from the Truman Administration, residing in the National Archives, calls the charges rumors, lies, or based on no evidence.

An in-depth look at this underpublicized president is far beyond the scope of a boomer blog; Harry Truman was a complex man filled with contradictions and human emotions. His penchant for speaking his mind is why the phrase, “Give ’em hell, Harry” was attached to him when he began his political career. Records show, in his personal life, he was conflicted by ideas of racial equality. Yet in 1948 he ended segregation in the military, and supported civil rights legislation soon after the War.

In 1950, Truman’s fear of the threat of the spread of Communism led him to bring the U.S. into what was called a “police action” in Korea. Truman’s administration assembled a group of international allies to serve alongside United Nations troops. With the involvement of China and the Soviet Union, it became apparent that victory in Korea was far from a sure thing. Truman was advised to again use nuclear weapons. A World War I veteran himself, and in the wake of his overseeing the end of hostilities in World War II, he refused to do so. Ultimately, the U.S. and U.N. troops retreated to the 38th Parallel, which became the basis for the DMZ that marked the division between North and South Korea.

In January of 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th President of the United States. Boomers then began witnessing a new era of presidents.

Do you have any memories of learning about President Harry Truman, boomers?

Boomers Said, “Hail to the Chief”

We’ve arrived at another Presidents’ Day on the calendar, but as any Baby Boomer can tell you, the holiday didn’t exist when boomers were young. The day, still officially called Washington’s Birthday on the federal list of holidays, was marked for February 22nd, Washington’s birthday. President Rutherford B. Hayes first signed the declaration of the holiday in 1879, but it only covered the District of Columbia. It wasn’t until 1885 that all states adopted the holiday. At that time, only four other days were nationally-recognized holidays: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

In 1971 the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took several federal holidays and moved them to Mondays so people would have a number of long weekends throughout the year. As a result, the day is celebrated the third Monday in February. The nation’s retail industry and labor unions wholeheartedly supported the change, and it was the retail industry that brought other presidents into the picture as a way of extending their weekend sales opportunities. Today we embrace the notion of celebrating all of the country’s presidents, rather than just Washington, or Washington and Lincoln, though their images still dominate the landscape of sale ads.

In the early boomer years of the 1950s and ’60s, there was Washington’s birthday on February 22nd, and Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th. It was up to each individual state as to which of the days, or both, were official holidays. In Mister Boomer’s state, the only way the days were any different than any other day was that the post office and banks were closed. Everyone else seemed to be working, and schools were open.

Schools enjoyed teaching about arguably the country’s two most famous presidents. Starting in kindergarten, kids were taught the story of how George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree, and when confronted, owned up to the act by saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” As a result, Mister Boomer recalls coloring pages of the images of a hatchet, cherries, tri-corner hat and a chopped down cherry tree. These symbolic images were also fodder for drawings and art projects. By contrast, poor Abe Lincoln only had the symbol of a stovepipe hat — and it was black at that — and possibly a standing Abe Lincoln holding the Gettysburg Address.

Like the story of Columbus “discovering” a New World, the Washington cherry tree story was repeated for decades, without regard to whether the story was actually true. In fact, there is no evidence that the story is factual, at least in its entirety. Most historians agree that the story began when Parson Mason Weems published a book called, “The Life of Washington,” in 1800, one year after Washington’s death. Lacking corroborating evidence, it would appear Weems, an author and not a historian, concocted the story as a parable to teach children the virtue of honesty. Several stories in his biography are considered dubious in nature, so Weems is credited with expanding the mythology of Washington.

Recently, however, a piece of cloth that depicted the cherry tree story, made in Germantown, Pennsylvania, came up for auction. The cloth, if authentic, was made prior to the publication of Weems’ book, and before Washington died in 1799. Therefore, the story may not have originated with Weems, but existed earlier and Weems adopted it. Nonetheless, Weems did not actually write that Washington chopped down the tree; merely that he “barked” the tree (though the story says the tree was sufficiently hacked up that it probably did not survive). Taking these two items that have surfaced into consideration, that has led some historians to conclude that there may be some truth to the story after all.

Washington was a revered figure in the early days of our Republic, so it was not a far-fetched notion that his legend and myth would expand with each passing year. As far as some truth, it has been noted that the story begins when Washington, as a boy age six or seven, was given a hatchet as a birthday gift. Knowing that young boys do like to chop at things at that age, it is plausible to suppose the young Washington took a whack at a cherry tree and chipped the bark. However, it is also plausible to surmise that a boy of that age may not have the physical strength to actually chop a tree down; it would have to be a pretty small tree to fall with only a few chops from a young hand.

So, did he or didn’t he? That’s one for the historians to argue. As for boomers like Mister B, the story brings back school day memories that were synonymous with the holiday we now know as Presidents’ Day.

Were you taught the lesson of Washington’s cherry tree honesty in school, boomers? Which president’s birthday did your state celebrate?