Category Archives: Harry Truman

The Buck Stops Here

Harry Truman? A. B. Warfield? Spencer Z. Hilliard? Clifford M. Alexander? Lester C. Hunt? Anonymous?

trumansign09

Dear Quote Investigator: The phrase “pass the buck” refers to shifting responsibility from one person to another. U.S. President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk in the White House that famously stated:

The Buck Stops Here

Thus, Truman expressed a willingness to assume the ultimate responsibility for the executive decisions made during his administration. Do you know who coined this colorful and forthright statement?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a journal titled “Hospital Management” in October 1939. A meeting of managers was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey and Brigadier General A. B. Warfield spoke about processing laundry which was a large logistical task within the military. The following passage described a sign on Warfield’s desk. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Gen. Warfield spoke on “Co-operation,” emphasizing the value of doing the job without seeking to escape responsibility by referring to a motto he keeps on his desk—“The buck stops here.” He described the extensive system of laundries operated by the Army Quartermaster Department at Army posts, producing a profit for the department, as required by law.

Currently, Warfield is the leading candidate for crafter of this expression. Other individuals such as Spencer Z. Hilliard and Harry Truman also employed this saying, but citations suggest that the phrase was already in circulation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1939 October, Hospital Management, Volume 48, Number 4, Need for Education Stressed at Meeting of Laundry Managers, Start Page 54, Quote Page 55, Column 1, Published by G. D. Crain, Illinois, (WorldCat lists Clissold Publishing Company) (Verified with scans thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system) (The name “Warfield” occurred multiple times in the text; the specific occurrence in the excerpt was misspelled “Warfied” in the original text)

If You Can’t Convince Them, Confuse Them

Harry Truman? A. C. Wilson? Adolph Hitler? Richard H. Leask? Anonymous?

truman02Dear Quote investigator: The following maxim is attributed to President Harry Truman:

If you can’t convince them, confuse them

Did Truman really say this? It seems inconsistent with his personality because he was often lauded for being plain spoken and not dissimulating.

Quote Investigator: Harry Truman did use this expression in a speech delivered in 1948; however, he was not advocating the technique described by the adage. Instead, Truman asserted that his political opponents were using the tactic which he viewed as unscrupulous. The details are given further below.

The earliest evidence of a precise match for this saying located by QI appeared in a 1919 publication from the Manchester Literary Club in England. A novel by William De Morgan featured a clever character named Christopher Vance who sometimes resorted to distracting and baffling other characters to achieve his aims. Vance’s strategy was described and encapsulated with a motto in an article by A. C. Wilson printed in the “Manchester Quarterly”. Wilson may have been presenting a pre-existing adage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“If you cannot convince them, confuse them,” might have been his motto, and not a bad one either; at any rate it came off in his case.

In April 1942 a short item was printed on the editorial pages of at least two newspapers in New York and Wisconsin. The saying was attributed to an anonymous observer, and the declamatory technique was condemned by a linkage to Adolph Hitler: 2 3

One observer of today’s scene has this advice to orators: If you can’t convince them, confuse them. Hitler is one who goes on this principle.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1919, Papers of the Manchester Literary Club: Manchester Quarterly, Volume 45, Christopher Vance by A. C. Wilson, (Article by A. C. Wilson about the character Christopher Vance in William De Morgan’s novel “Joseph Vance”), Start Page 179, Quote Page 182, Sherratt & Hughes, Manchester, UK. (Internet Archive Full view) link
  2. 1942 April 3, Kingston Daily Freeman, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Kingston, New York. (Old Fulton)
  3. 1942 April 7, Racine Journal Times, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Racine, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)

A Man May Do an Immense Deal of Good, If He Does Not Care Who Gets the Credit

Benjamin Jowett? Father Strickland? William T. Arnold? Harry Truman? Ronald Reagan? Charles Edward Montague? Edward Everett Hale?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a quotation I love that presents an insightful guideline for the most effective way to achieve a goal by accenting humility:

The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit for doing them.

When I tried to find out who was responsible for these quotations I became confused because there are so many different versions of what I consider to be the same basic idea. Could you look into this expression or family of expressions and figure out who first verbalized the thought?

Quote Investigator: This is a complicated question, and QI will attempt to tackle it for you. This concept of positive action coupled with a generous spirit has a multiplicity of formulations, and it has inspired a large number of people. Here are five versions:

[1] A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.

[2] This was the opportunity for a man who likes to do a good thing in accordance with the noble maxim … “Never mind who gets the credit.”

[3] The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.

[4] There is no limit to what a man can do who does not care who gains the credit for it.

[5] There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.

These sayings are certainly not identical, but they are closely interlinked thematically. Quotation number [1] appeared in a diary entry from the year 1863 in which the words were recorded as spoken by a Jesuit Priest named Father Strickland. This is the earliest citation located by QI.

In 1896 the text of [2] was published, and the phrase “Never mind who gets the credit” was dubbed the noble maxim of Edward Everett Hale.

In 1905 quotation [3] was published, and the words were attributed to Benjamin Jowett who was a theologian and classical scholar at Oxford University. But one of the author’s who made this attribution decided it was flawed, and in a later book he reassigned credit for the saying from Jowett to a “Jesuit Father”. This is probably a reference to Father Strickland. This maxim is a very close match to the quote given by the questioner above.

Expression [4] was used by Charles Edward Montague in 1906, but he did not claim coinage of the phrase. He said it was the favorite saying of his friend and colleague the journalist William T. Arnold. But Montague did not credit Arnold as originator either. He left the attribution anonymous by using the locution “someone has said”.

In 1922 Montague published a close variant of saying [4], “There is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit”, in his book “Disenchantment”. For this reason he is sometimes cited in modern texts and databases.

Finally, quotation [5] appeared in the 1980s on a small plaque atop the desk in the Oval Office of the White House during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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Want a Friend in Washington, Get a Dog

Harry Truman? Samuel Gallu? Gordon Gekko?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love dogs and live near Washington D.C. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to former President Harry Truman who experienced some bruising political battles and said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Could you please investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: That is an enjoyable quote that appeals to the multitude of dog fanciers. But, it is very unlikely that it was said by Harry Truman. Further below the origin of the saying is discussed, but first a comment about the fate of a dog named Feller is instructive. The dog was given to Truman while he was in the White House and a contemporary newspaper account in 1948 describes what happened [TRD1]:

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