President Harry S. Truman warns about witch-hunts, fears, and political deceptions

Harry Truman

Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was the 33rd president of the United States. It’s often AFTER they left office that these old presidents said the most interesting things. (image source: wikipedia)

At a news conference earlier this week (on April 30th, 2012), the single most prominent U.S. politician accused another politician of not being enthusiastic enough about hunting down and killing another human being without a trial.

The precedent this sets – for openly hunting down and killing human beings without trial, and then bragging about it to gain political advantage – is unsettling for me.  (Paradoxically, polls indicate that many Americans – 2/3 or more – have questions about the crime allegedly committed by this allegedly executed person.)

I know we’re not supposed to talk about these things – we tend to have such strong feelings about politics, polarized into “us versus them” camps, and it’s hard to step back and look at things from a panoramic view.

But as brave BOT students we’re going to try, and see if these recent events relate to some remarks President Harry S. Truman gave in 1960:

I want to bring home to you what can happen when some demagogue starts playing on the fears of the people and stirring them up for his own welfare and aggrandizement.  It’s the most terrible thing in the world.  And it’s not just a matter of the distant past.  We’ve had it very recently….


In Massachusetts in 1692, women were said to have been labelled as terrorists (“witch” was the term back then), perhaps water-boarded to extract confessions, and then executed, according to some accounts, without proper trial. While the past may be hard to know for certain, these same practices are now becoming “acceptable” today, in what are considered the “freest” of societies, and are being justified by politicians in exactly the same manner. (image source)

We are still going through a period where some of our witch-hunters in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives are charging people with things that do not exist….

When a Senator gets up and makes a demagogue out of himself and misrepresents the facts to the people, he’s one of the most dangerous men that can be allowed to run loose in this country.  There’s not much way that you can prosecute him, because whatever a fellow says in the Senate is privileged; he can’t be charged with it when he gets outside.  Some of them take advantage of that.  It makes some men feel great, you know, to get up on the floor and attack somebody.

I hope– I sincerely hope– that you will keep your minds clear, that you’ll become familiar with the history of governments in the world, with the history of religions in the world.  If a man lives by what he professes to believe, whether he’s a Catholic, a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a Jew, he’ll make a good citizen, because there’s a moral code which was given to us by the Almighty God himself.  If you try to live by the code which you pretend to believe, you’ll never get into trouble, because the foundation of that code is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  That’s the best cure in the world for demagogues and for hysteria.1

By the way, I don’t at all mean to imply that I agree with everything Truman ever did or said, just that this particular quote seems useful & pertinent, and happens to be in The Basket of Tolerance.


  • What does President Truman mean when he says “I hope – I sincerely hope – that you will keep your minds clear”? What influences make it harder or easier for you to keep your mind clear?  [see elsewhere on this site for suggestions :) ]
  • Why is executing human beings without a proper trial problematic, according to some people? How do you feel about it?
  • What does Truman mean by “playing on the fears of the people and stirring them up for his own welfare”?
  • Do the politicians that you – whether reluctantly or enthusiastically – put your hope in live by the creed of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?
  • Can we afford to listen to Truman’s warning in today’s world, or is what he says here irrelevant?

BoT Student

  1. Excerpted from Truman Speaks, a collection of three public talks by Harry S. Truman.  (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1960.)  As included in The Basket of Tolerance by Adi Da Samraj.
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