The crowds in Mexico City were such as Truman had never experienced. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets to see and cheer an American President for the first time. The trip had been Truman's idea and the acclaim was thrilling. He returned the "Vivas!" of the throngs (one woman shouted, "Viva Missouri!"), and several times broke away from his Mexican and Secret Service escorts to shake hands with people. "I have never had such a welcome in my life," to told the Mexican legislature, to whom he pledged anew Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy. To a crowd of American citizens later, he said he hoped they would remember that they, too, were ambassadors.
The next morning, he announced suddenly that he wished to make an unscheduled stop at Mexico City's historic Chapultepec Castle, where, with one simple, unheralded gesture, he did more to improve the Mexican-American relations than had any President in a century. Within hours, as the word spread, he had become a hero.
The long motorcade pulled into the shade of an ancient grove of trees. Truman stepped out of his black Lincoln and walked to a stone monument bearing the names of Los Niños Héroes, "the child heroes," six teenage cadets who had died in the Mexican-American War in 1847, when American troops stormed the castle. According to legend, five of the cadets had stabbed themselves, and a sixth jumped to his death from a parapet rather than surrender. As Truman approached, a contingent of blue-uniformed Mexican cadets stood at attention. As he placed a floral wreath at the foot of the monument, several of the cadets wept silently.
After bowing his head for a few minutes, Truman returned to the line of cars, where the Mexican chauffeurs were already shaking hands with their American passengers.
The story created an immediate sensation in the city, filling the papers with eight-column, banner headlines. "Rendering Homage to the Heroes of '47, Truman Heals an Old National Wound Forever," read one. "Friendship Began Today," said another. A cab driver told an American reporter, "To think that the most powerful man in the world would come and apologize." He wanted to cry himself, the driver said. A prominent Mexican engineer was quoted: "One hundred years of misunderstanding and bitterness wiped out by one man in one minute. This is the best neighbor policy."
President Truman, declared Mexican President Miguel Alemán, was "the new champion of solidarity and understanding among the American republics."
Asked by American reporters why he had gone to the monument, Truman said simply, "Brave men don't belong to any one country. I respect bravery wherever I see it."
Merle Miller first met Truman in the summer of 1961. Truman had served as President through January 1953 and had been living back in his home town of Independence, Missouri since then. Miller spent many hours from mid-1961 through the winter of 1962 interviewing Truman for a TV documentary series on his Presidency. He reported the following dialogue from their first meeting in the book he later compiled from all the material (the TV series was never made), Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman:
That first afternoon with Mr. Truman we talked for a few minutes about plans for the television series, and then I said, "Mr. President, could I ask you a question that you might consider impertinent?
"Go right ahead," he said. "If I want to stop you, I'll stop you."
"Well, sir, I've been wearing glasses since I was three years old, and I know you had to wear glasses when you were a boy. I wonder, sir, did they ever call you four-eyes?"
The President smiled. It was a good smile, warm and welcoming, holding nothing back. I was never sure whether the even teeth were false.
"I've worn glasses since I was six years old," he said, "and of course, they called me four-eyes and a lot of other things, too. That's hard on a boy. It makes him lonely, and it gives him an inferiority complex, and he has a hard time overcoming it."
He paused a moment, still smiling, then said, "Of course, we didn't know what an inferiority complex was in those days. But you can overcome it. You've got to fight for everything you do. You've got to be above those calling you names, and you've got to do more work than they do, but it usually comes out all right in the end."
In the years after leaving office, Truman spent much of his typical day at the Truman Library. He truly enjoyed meeting and talking with people, and the most enjoyable hours for him were in the auditorium of the library when it was filled with children. He was an avid student of history, and he could make the Founding Fathers come alive when he talked about them, as he could with Roman emperors and other characters throughout history. Truman considered those historical characters as if they were friends or neighbors, having a strong conviction that there was nothing new in human nature. At the end of his speeches there would be a question period, and one incident that Miller observed started with a question from "an anxious small boy with red hair whose ears had grown up, but not his face":
"Mr. President," he said, and his future and the world's depended on the reply, "was you popular when you was a boy?"
The President looked at the boy over the glasses that always made him look like an irritated owl. "Why, no," he said, "I was never popular. The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists. I was never like that. Without my glasses I was blind as a bat, and to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy. If there was any danger of getting into a fight, I always ran. I guess that's why I'm here today."
The little boy started to applaud, and then everybody else did, too.
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