President Truman’s Media Milestone: The First Televised Speech from the White House

Today’s post is by Laurie Austin. Laurie is an audiovisual archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. 

In 2022, we take for granted that the president can communicate directly with the American people whenever necessary through a White House speech. The media landscape now provides a staggering array of ways to view such a speech from almost anywhere on the planet. Seventy-five years ago this month, President Harry S. Truman started the trend with the first live TV broadcast from the White House.

The topic, a severe food shortage in Europe, was a matter of great concern to President Truman. Two years after the conclusion of World War II, Europeans were still recovering from multiple wartime devastations: loss of life, destruction of property and infrastructure, and a significant population of displaced people in need of permanent housing. Mother Nature provided her own challenges in 1947, with flooding in some areas, drought in others, and extreme temperatures on both ends of the spectrum.

The desire to help Europe with food and other resources was all a part of the president’s foreign policy for the United States. President Truman had been promoting programs to assist Europe in its postwar recovery since the conclusion of the war. Americans were already aware of famine in Europe, having raised money and sent CARE packages for more than a year. In March 1947, President Truman proposed what would be called the Truman Doctrine, a massive program to prop up Greece and Turkey in the wake of their postwar civil unrest. This was the global context for President Truman’s first televised White House speech.

Photo 99-755: President Truman (left) and Charles Luckman (head of the Citizen’s Food Committee, right) reported to the nation on the food situation. It marked the first time that television cameras entered the White House for a live broadcast, photographed here in the Diplomatic Reception Room. October 5, 1947. Photo by Harris & Ewing. Harry S. Truman Library.

In 1947, television was still in its infancy in the United States. President Truman had a television in his second floor study in the White House, which you can see under the portrait of Martha Truman in this September 1947 photograph.

Photo 59-1347-1: President Harry S. Truman’s study in the second floor oval room at the White House. September 19, 1947. Photo by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service. Harry S. Truman Library.

The president’s situation was unusual, though. Most people did not have a television in their home, and wide swaths of the center of the US had no television station whatsoever. But the technology had progressed to the point that there were national television networks–namely CBS, NBC, and DuMont–who had stations in select urban areas from coast to coast. Most people who saw President Truman’s broadcast probably watched it in a bar or other public venue.

Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but it’s an important thing to remember: a live TV broadcast was not pre-recorded. The only way to get a recording of a live broadcast was to point a film camera at a television screen to capture it as it happened. This concept, now commonly referred to as a Kinescope, was also a nascent technology. The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library is extremely lucky that an NBC employee named Hubert Chain was experimenting with early Kinescope technology at the time of this broadcast. This is the only reason why we have the three-minute film excerpt you see here:

Clip from MP59-4, President Truman Speaks About Food for Europe

The more typical way for Americans to see a presidential address was through newsreels shown in movie theaters. For several of his public statements, Mr. Truman would often do two versions of the speech: a full text audio version for print and radio; then an excerpted on-camera version for the benefit of the newsreels. That is why, in addition to the live TV version we have, you can also find newsreel excerpts in the National Archives’ motion picture collection. In this Universal Newsreel recording, you’ll clearly see President Truman in a different setting delivering different sections of his Citizens Food Committee speech.

NARA Local Identifier: UN-UN-5649X3

On this occasion, and for many years still to come, most Americans would see President Truman in newsreels rather than on television. In the reaction mail in our archives, only two letters mention that the writer saw the president on television. One of them was Judge Jed Johnson, who said he watched with his wife and son on NBC in New York, and gives his full support on the food program.

Mr. Truman replied saying, “…I am glad you had a chance to listen to me through television. I would like very much to be able to see myself that way so I could make corrections of errors in appearance. It is going to be pretty hard on the old politicians to stand in front of the television and talk but I guess most of them will be able to do it.”

The other writer was J.R. Poppele, president of the Television Broadcasters Association. He remarked it was a treat it was to watch the speech from his home in South Orange, NJ. He said, “…I feel confident that the addition of sight to sound added a greater effectiveness to the very important message that you delivered…” and he called it an “epic occasion which marked another milestone in the progress of television.”  It took a little while to catch on, but 75 years ago, Mr. Truman began the trend.

Letter to President Truman from J.R. Poppele, President of the Television Broadcasters Association. (Papers of Harry S. Truman. White House Office Files. President’s Personal File 3468)

Related Resources:

The full text of President Truman’s speech, as released in advance to the press—is here: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/270627459

The sound recording of the full speech is available here: https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/soundrecording-records/sr64-59-radio-and-television-address-concluding-program-citizens-food

The National Archives motion picture collection also contains a partial German language newsreel on this topic, here:

Story 1 from Universal Newsreel Volume 20, Release 79; NAID: 234273095

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