FHSU class tours Truman museum

Truman Museum

By Randy Gonzales
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. -- A group of Fort Hays State University students recently learned about the decision-making process President Harry Truman used when it came to dropping the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of World War II.

Fourteen students traveled from Hays to Independence, Mo., to tour the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum as part of their class, "Harry Truman and the Second World War."

They were joined at the museum by a Virtual College student also taking the class. Alyson Burnett-Rawitch, Stilwell graduate student, met Truman when she was young. Burnett-Rawitch's father took her to the movie theater to see "The Sound of Music," and she said sitting next to her was an older gentleman who resembled her grandfather.

"I would not leave the man alone," Burnett-Rawitch said. "He eventually got up and left." Only later did Burnett learn the man she was pestering was the former 33rd president of the United States.

Fast forward to the present day, and Burnett-Rawitch marveled at Truman's presidential library and museum, which she has toured before. There was the Oval Office as it looked in Truman's day. There was an artillery field piece identical to the one used by the battery Truman commanded during World War I. There were interactive exhibits for the children. There was even the famous sign, protected in a glass case: "The Buck Stops Here."

"I love this class," Burnett-Rawitch said, adding she had read David McCullough's biography on Truman before, but never studied it.

"There's a difference between reading casually and trying to analyze it," she said. "So, that's been fascinating."

This was the first time the class was taught as a short course.

"It was eight weeks. They said they were going to jam an entire semester into it, and they definitely did. It was really stressful," said Hays senior Trevor Henningsen, who is majoring in organizational leadership and elementary education.

Henningsen liked looking at the breadth of exhibits on display.

"There was stuff other than what we studied in class," he said. "They had a little bit about the bomb, but it showed a lot of everything else he did and how peaceful the man he was, compared to the things we studied in class."

The class brought together students majoring in history, leadership studies and political science. It was team-taught for the first time, said Dr. Kim Perez, chair of the Department of History. Dr. Curt Brungardt, director of the Center for Civic Leadership, and Omer G. Voss Distinguished Professor of Leadership Studies, joined Perez in teaching the course.

"I learned a lot about leadership theory," Perez said. "It actually enables me now to apply it to history."

Perez was impressed by her students' enthusiasm for a course which required approximately 1,400 pages of reading in the first six weeks.

"I was reminded again how incredibly capable Fort Hays State students are when they are motivated by something and digging into something," Perez said. "This group was an impressive group of students."

The Truman museum had something for everybody.

"I think they do a really good job with the World War II stuff, and I liked how much they had about the Cold War, since that's my favorite," said Libby Ary, a senior history major from CaƱon City, Colo.

Before making the trip, students read McCullough's 992-page biography, "Truman" in three weeks. In addition, students read another 292-page book in one week, as well as a short graphic novel about the bomb and selected primary documents.

"Actually getting here and being able to see everything we put a lot of time into reading, it was pretty cool to see it all in front of you," Henningsen said.

After the readings, after the tour of the library and museum, after participating in a decision-making scenario about dropping the bomb, Ary looked at Truman in a new light.

"I think what I came out with was the importance of his presidency," Ary said. "You hear about Harry Truman, and a lot of people only think about the bomb.

"He made so many key decisions throughout his presidency," she added. "I think we kind of skip over how in that era how different the presidency was. I think the biggest thing, really looking into detail, especially about the atomic bomb, all the other options he had. And the science behind it, how it changed the world so much."

Class members took part in a three-hour scenario at the White House Decision Center at the library. Each student portrayed a key figure in the decision-making process of whether the atomic bomb should have been used. Ary, one of two students who portrayed Truman, ran a cabinet meeting where the issue was discussed, then she made the final decision. Ary announced her decision to drop the bomb in the White House briefing room before being grilled by her classmates, who were acting as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the press.

"I think the biggest part for me was how much pressure I felt when we got into the (cabinet) room," Ary said.

"Everyone just started talking at the same time," she said. "Even in just a simulated little exercise knowing I didn't have to make a real decision, imagining what he could have possibly felt like in one of those moments, I felt even a little bit of it. My heart was racing, my face was flushing."

The next day, class members toured Truman's residence in Independence. In one room was the grand piano Truman gave his young daughter, Margaret, for Christmas instead of the train set she wanted. Another room was Truman's study, with a soft easy chair and lighted lamp beside it. One could almost imagine Truman sitting down to read a book, a favorite pastime. Across the street students toured the house where his cousins lived, and where the young Truman met his future wife, Bess.

"I really enjoyed the class itself," Henningsen said. "Being able to be here kind of put a polish on the end. You have a picture in your mind what everything's going to be like. You get here, it's like -- whoa -- it's spectacular."

Perez said the department also has taught a class on President Dwight Eisenhower. That class tours his presidential museum in Abilene and discusses the D-Day invasion of France. The courses have alternated every two years. Eisenhower would be next, in two years, and the next Truman course would be in four years.

"It's really kind of unusual to build a class around a particular event," Perez said. "It's less about the event than the decision-making. We use the event like a case study to understand historical decision-making."

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