No, Harry Truman didn't start pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys

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President Harry S. Truman  pets a Thanksgiving turkey that is a gift to him from members of the Poultry and Egg National Board and other representatives of the turkey industry. They are standing outside the White House. Others are unidentified. November 16, 1949

There's a big turkey dispute between some historians and the staff of the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo. The historians allege that HST started the tradition of pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys. But the Truman staff members are correct. The 33rd president did what most other chief executives before and after him did — at least until 1989 when George H.W. Bush began the pardon rite: Truman ate them.

Here's the lowdown. Presidents from the time of Abraham Lincoln sometimes received poultry from citizens when Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863. What distinguished Truman was that he received in 1947 a big bird from the Poultry and Egg National Board in the midst of some hard economic times that the board wanted to gloss over in the hope of still selling turkeys.


For on Oct. 5, 1947, in the first television address ever made by a president from the White House, Truman urged Americans to voluntarily give up certain foods each week in order to aid the still war-ravaged countries of Europe short on basic necessities. No meat was to be consumed on Tuesday, one slice of bread was to be saved each day, and poultry and eggs were to be given up on Thursday. As the calendar would have it, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's fell on poultry-free Thursdays. So, instead, Americans were urged to give up any bird and eggs on Monday of those weeks to make up for the holiday schedule.

Besides, turkeys were expensive in this era, made moreso because throughout World War II and the postwar years the birds were first sent to American soldiers abroad, meaning that the remaining production cost a pretty penny at home. The famous Norman Rockwell illustration on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on March 6, 1943, popularly known as the Thanksgiving Day painting, was more wishful thinking than reality.


And Truman wasn't reluctant to scold Americans on their food intake in his TV address: "There are also many Americans who are overeating and wasting food. Unless these people cut their consumption in the ways required, ... they will be personally contributing to the increased inflation at home and to the desperate scarcity of food overseas."

Here's the rub: Truman didn't receive the Poultry and Egg National Board turkey until Dec. 15, well after Thanksgiving. Thus the legend emerged that he pardoned the turkey.

It's a safe conclusion that Truman, wife Bess and daughter Margaret consumed their 1947 turkey, probably on Christmas, in accordance with his announced restraints because as country folk they didn't waste food. Moreover, the president a year later accepted two birds that he admitted were the highlight of their Christmas dinner

Perhaps never in the 20th century did a president and wife show more thriftiness — not only in food — than the Trumans in their official life. For example, when Bess — when she wasn't doing the cooking and cleaning in White House — was in her Missouri home (which was frequent because she simply didn't like the capital life), the president communicated to her via the mail, not the telephone. And his letters to her, always signed, "Lots of Love, Harry" are still extant, some even published.

To be sure, the Trumans had to watch their pennies. Congress did not provide pensions to former presidents until 1958. After Truman left the White House, it wasn't uncommon for him to be seen mowing the lawn and chatting with neighbors.

So here's the last word on turkey talk and pardoning. HST ate his gifted turkeys, and unlike some other presidents who were picky eaters when it came to veggies accompanying their main meal (remember George H. W. Bush bashing broccoli and Barack Obama making light of peas), Harry S Truman on Thanksgiving may have been the first to be served — excuse me — KALE to the chief.

Happy Thanksgiving.