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Harry Truman's Hell
September 7, 2015
by William P. Meyers

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"According to the pleasant mythology Truman later created about those years, he was the solitary rose in the manure pile, an honest public servant unaware of the crimes around him."

Thomas Joseph Pendergast was the political boss of the Democratic Party of Kansas City and effectively controlled the city from 1925 until about 1936.

Harry Truman served in the U.S. Army in World War I, and one of his associates then was a nephew of Pendergast. Truman was elected county judge in 1922 with the backing of the Pendergast machine (which had been started by Tom's older brother). Like many city machines of that era, corruption was rampant. With Prohibition in full swing, vast bootlegging profits slushed around Kansas City; plenty to buy any votes needed to control the political offices.

Harry was a funny guy, according to his own notes. He followed orders from Pendergast, helping the machine to rob the city, but (he claimed) doing his best to minimize that, and refusing to take any graft for his own use. "I could have had $1,500,000.00. I haven't $150.00. Am I a fool or an ethical giant?"

Pendergast liked Harry because he was a competent administrator, kept his own hand out of the till, and yet followed orders. When a U.S. Senate seat became available, it was Pendergast's machine that sent Harry Truman to Washington in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. Truman then and later claimed there were no strings attached. Biographer Richard L. Miller observed: "Clearly he protested too much, perhaps to ease his own guilty conscience about his role as an honest front protecting the power of thieves and murderers."

During the Pendergast era Kansas City was the nation's Las Vegas. Nothing illegal was not available and easy to find: alcohol, prostitutes, casinos and other forms of gambling. The city actually prospered, as organized criminals led by Johnny Lazia made sure visitors and citizens were safe from petty crime, and the take from the criminal enterprises was generally divvied up in a civil manner. They even used a lot of it to build up infrastructure. Even after Lazia was gunned down in July of 1934.

Senator Truman, of course, was an ardent supporter of the New Deal. Pendergast eventually fell victim to his own gambling addiction. He was indicted for tax evasion by the IRS and went to jail in 1939. In 1940 a reform slate came to power in Kansas City, just in time to the boom years of World War II.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1940, found he needed the corrupt urban political machines (he had not needed them, at least not much, in 1932 or 1936). American tradition, starting with George Washington, was that no President would serve more than 2 terms. Roosevelt imagined himself indispensable, but he did not openly run for the Democratic nomination. When the convention assembled in Chicago (where the Capone machine still ran things) the delegates thought they were nominating John Nance Garner, then FDR's Vice President. Ed Kelly, Chicago's Mayor and a Capone man, packed the convention hall with thugs who "spontaneously" staged an hour-long demonstration demanding that Roosevelt accept the nomination. Roosevelt did. Mussolini's March on Rome was not more perfectly staged.

By 1944 the bosses were back in charge of the Democratic Party. "The 1944 convention — dominated by Hannegan, Hillman, and the city bosses — added Truman to the ticket. Roosevelt died three months after his fourth inauguration, and Tom Pendergast's boy became President."

President Truman continued the New Deal and tried to extend it to creating a national health insurance program. He also committed heinous war crimes, continuing Roosevelt's policies of purposefully targeting civilians in German and Japanese cities with conventional weapons, then becoming the only human in history to actually use nuclear weapons, and against mainly civilian targets at that.

Go to hell, Harry.

[All quotes were found in Stephen R. Fox's Blood and Power, Organized Crime in Twentieth Century America, William Morrow & Company, 1989.]

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