Give 'Em Hell, Harry! (1975)




Director:    Steve Binder.

Starring:     James Whitmore.

James Whitmore's one man stage show covering the political and personal life of  President Harry Truman.



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Part I. 

Truman asks his secretary Rose if Tom Clark, Charlie Ross, Mr. Whitney and Mr. Johnston have arrived.  He asks them what they have worked out on the proposed settlement?  Eighteen out of twenty railroad unions accepted the arbitration award, but the unions are still going on strike.  An angry Truman says:  "If you think I'm going to sit here and let you tie this whole damn country up, you're crazier than hell.  You've got forty-eight hours to settle it.  If you don't I'm going to take over the railroads in the name of the government.  That's all , boys.  I said that's all Mr. Johnston and Mr. Whitney."   Johnston and Whitney leave. 

He says he is going to teach the wealthy boys and the war-rich unions a lesson in social responsibility.  Truman wants inflation curbed and will not lift price controls. He says:  "There's only one way to stop this and that's a few swift kicks in the right asses."

Truman says he never saw himself being president.  "I was just in the right place at the wrong time."  He sees himself as a rather ordinary man. 

The president telephones ex-president Herbert Hoover at the Shoreham Hotel.  He sets up a meeting with him and sends a car over to pick him up.  He gets a call from his childhood friend Eddy Jacobson.  Eddy wants to talk about Israel and Truman tells him he already told him that he will get to the matter when he gets to the matter.  The president has to warn Eddy not to start crying.  He says if he's crying when he comes over to the White House, he is going to have him thrown out. 

Truman believes that one of the biggest causes of problems for the country is that the control of the nation's finances is in the hands of too few people.  He says he spoke out against Wall Street when he was in the Senate. 

Hoover comes in.  Truman says he wants to talk about hunger.  There is a surplus of food in this country and he wants to get it into the right places in Europe and Asia.  He offers Hoover a job to oversee that his happens.  Hoover accepts.

He talks about Thomas Jefferson and his migraine headaches.  He also speaks of President FDR, his predecessor in the office.  He is always thinking about what would FDR do in his situation.  He talks to FDR as if he were still alive.  He tells Franklin about his decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan.  If he had to, he would make the same decision as he did during the war.  He says they tell him that he probably saved a million casualties on both sides of the conflict.   

He likes to go back to his home in Independence, Missouri.  Being in the presidential office, he feels he becomes isolated from people and doesn't know what they are thinking.  He thinks a trip back to Missouri helps keep him in touch with the way the people are thinking. 

The president says he has worn eye glasses since he was ten years old.  He had a case of diphtheria and it almost ruined his eye sight.  The boys wouldn't let him play baseball with them.  His wife Bess back then was the shot-put champion of her high school.  Madge Gates Wallace, her mother, never thought he was a proper son-in-law. 

He was in the National Guard in Missouri before World War I.  He went to France and took command of an artillery unit full of Irishmen. When he got back from France, he married Bess.  They moved in with Mrs. Wallace and have been there ever since. 

He went into the haberdashery business with Eddy Jacobson..  They went out of business in the 1922 depression.  So he ran for county judge.  He was backed by the Prendergast family.  The head of the family, Tom Prendergast, puts pressure on Truman to hire his men to build the roads.  Truman refuses because he says he has seen their piecrust roads and the roads certainly do crumble like piecrust.   After that, Tom never again tried to interfere with his office. 

When he ran again for the senate in 1940, he spoke out for black people.  He did this in Sedalia, the state headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan.  He says he believes in the brotherhood of all men before the law.  The blacks of Missouri were being driven from the rural areas into the cities and there they were been ignored by the authorities.  They lived is segregated slums, where they barely have the necessities of life.  He won the election by 8,000 votes. 

The Ku Klux Klan in Missouri was a very powerful force in politics and they played a role in his 1924 election.  They came to him to get him to join their organization in return for their support in the election.  Truman refused to join the Klan.  The Klan then threatened to kill him.  He went to one of their meetings to confront the situation head on.  Eddy Jacobson, a Jew, insisted on coming along.  He called them a bunch of hooded bastards and says:  "Shame on you!" 

He lost that election, but was never prouder to lose anything in his entire life. 


Part II.

Truman writes a letter to a Boston music critic.  He says he read his review of his daughter Margaret's concert and he has concluded that he is an eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.  He actually threatens physical harm to the man if he ever sees him. 

The news of the day is that the troops are doing badly in Korea.  He speaks of MacArthur and compares him to Gen. McClellan of the Civil War.  He says his problems with the man started when he was the head man in the occupation of Japan.  He would make pronouncements on US government policies without consulting anybody in the government and certainly not Truman.  The president calls Gen. George C. Marshall  in to speak with him on the matter of MacArthur.  Marshall says he should have fired the man two years ago.  Truman says MacArthur was a play actor.  The president flew out to Guam to speak with the man.  The two men walked alone on the beach.  He read the riot act to the general.  Truman demanded that MacArthur stop all this talk about going into China.  And he was to stop making statements that keep inflaming the China Lobby back in the States.  MacArthur says he doesn't think the Chinese will intervene.  Truman is not so sure.

MacArthur was proved wrong as the Chinese poured over the border and "kicked the living hell out of us".   MacArthur announced that he could have won the war if the president would have let him do what he wanted to do.  The general called for a blockade of the Chinese mainland and wanted to bomb China's main industrial centers.  And he was preaching this line when Truman himself was calling for a cease-fire.  Truman gets a call back from Gen. Marshall saying that Gen. Bradley agrees.  Truman says:  "All right.  Fire the Son of a Bitch! 

The president speaks out against dirty politics.  For instance, Robert Taft's people decided they would use Eisenhower's letters to Marshall saying that he was going to marry an English girl to block Ike's nomination to be the Republican candidate for the presidency.  Truman hears of this and finds out that the letters in question are still in the government's possession.  The president has the letters sent to Marshall with the suggestion that he destroy them.  Truman figures he did just that because he never heard about the letters again. 

Truman complains about Adlai Stevenson who ran against Ike for the presidency.  He says Stevenson thought he was Hamlet.  The president asked him three time to commit himself to run and the man just couldn't commit.  The problem with Stevenson, says Truman, is that he never knew how to talk to people.  He always thought more about how he was going to say something, rather than worrying about what he was going to say. 

The president also gets after Eisenhower.  The man curried the favor of the "worst political gangster" ever produced in America, Joseph McCarthy, and would not speak up to protect the good name of Gen. Marshall, when the right wing said he had been disloyal to his country. 

Truman says he took on McCarthy.  He says in Massachusetts that McCarthy uses Hitler's technique of the "big lie".  He and his cronies tell lies that are so monstrous, that people are shocked at hearing them, and then repeat the lies so often that people come to believe it.  The man has never been able to find a single communist in the government and all he ever carries in that briefcase of his is a bottle of booze.  "This man must be stopped and stopped now."

He turns his attention to the 1948 election campaign.  Using the trains, he went on a "whistle stop campaign".  Dewey only paid attention to the experts, who just knew Dewey would win.  On his way back to Washington on election eve, The Chicago Tribune has the headline:  "Dewey Defeats Truman." 

Richard Nixon was questioning other people's patriotism and Truman says about him:  "Richard Nixon is a no-good, lying son of a bitch." 

Truman says he is about to leave this office of the presidency. He adds:; "My promotion is to be one of you."

The actor James Whitmore gets a standing ovation.


Terrific acting in this one person play by James Whitmore.  The film gives a lot of information on Truman, but the play is chock full of jokes.  The audience laughed a lot.  Of course, it's better to have some pre-knowledge of the times in which Truman lived, but the play is good at providing some of the needed background.  It is amazing how similar Truman's complaints about American politics are to our modern criticisms of American politics.  For instance, he complained about the Wall Streeters and the fact that just a few people held too much power over the nation's finances.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:


See Truman (1995) for Historical Background.



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