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Live From the White House: The First-Ever Televised Presidential Speech

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Between State of the Union addresses, U.N. speeches, press conferences, and even Daily Show appearances, seeing the President of the United States on your TV is fairly commonplace these days. But in the late 1940s, the opportunity to watch the most powerful man in the world from the comfort of your living room was something Americans had never been able to do before.

Though FDR experimented with television on a small scale in 1939 by using screens to speak to World’s Fair attendees, Harry Truman was the first president to use TV on a national level when he took to the airwaves October 5, 1947. His topic? How Americans could cut back on food consumption. European farmers, still recovering from WWII, were now struggling to stay afloat after a series of droughts, floods, and bouts of cold. In an effort to come to their aid, Truman delivered a televised address asking the nation for their help—while also scolding them.

“[Europeans] cannot get through the coming winter and spring without help—generous help—from the United States and from other countries which have food to spare,” Truman said.

He outlined four steps citizens could take to conserve food: Abstain from meat on Tuesdays, and poultry and eggs on Thursdays. Cut back on a slice of bread every day. And, he added, restaurants should only serve bread and butter by specific request.

Then came the admonishment:

“I realize that many millions of American housewives have already begun strict conservation measures. I say to those housewives, 'keep up the good work' and save even more when and where you can. On the other hand, there are also many Americans who are overeating and wasting food. Unless these people cut their consumption in the ways required, they will be taking more than a fair share of the supplies available. They will be personally contributing to increased inflation at home and to the desperate scarcity of food overseas.”

The White House was expected to abide by those rules as well. During the week of Truman's address, the Citizens Food Committee released the White House's menus:

Tuesday, luncheon—grapefruit, cheese souffle, buttered peas, grilled tomatoes, chocolate pudding; dinner—clear chicken soup, broiled salmon steak, scalloped potatoes, string beans, sauteed eggplant, perfection salad, sliced peaches.

Thursday, luncheon—corn soup, peppers stuffed with rice and mushrooms, lima beans, glazed carrots, baked apples; dinner—melon balls, baked ham, baked sweet potatoes, asparagus, cauliflower, green salad, coffee mallow.

The vast majority of the world still didn’t have TVs in 1947, so Truman’s speech was also broadcast over the radio. Still, he was savvy enough to use the growing medium for another television first the following year: In 1948, Truman became the first presidential candidate to broadcast a paid political ad.

Listen to the whole speech here or read the transcript here

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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