There has always been a fascination with the written records of the presidents of the United States since the time of George Washington. Diaries, letters, notes and other documents have been used to offer insight into the life and work of the presidency. When publishing his diaries, which covered the momentous period in which he succeeded to the presidency towards the end of World War II, and the decision making process over the dropping of the Atom bomb on Japan, President Harry S. Truman said: "I want the people to know the Presidency as I have experienced it and I want them to know me as I am."
The diaries of President Truman (in office 1945-1953) helped to illustrate how government and high office was rapidly evolving, and shared his private thoughts, his range of interests, devotion to duty and work, and the loneliness, which he understood as the fate of all presidents. Such diaries have become important parts of the historical record. In Truman's opinion, if President Andrew Johnson "had not given special interviews to a number of different newspaper correspondents, voicing his views on problems confronting him, a good deal of important historic material of the presidency of Andrew Johnson might not have been unearthed or even known."
In publishing his own diaries, Truman hoped "perhaps the American people and the people of the world will understand a little better what I am trying to do and historians will have additional authentic data to what is disclosed by the archives." Because his notes were not originally intended for publication, the President said that is why they were written in simple words and were not polished up.
Presidents have also used letters and diaries in their correspondence with foreign partners or political opponents. The correspondence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with more than 1,700 letters, telegrams and other messages exchanged between them during World War II, is an important record of the stresses and strains of an alliance between the two countries. The letters show that in World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill, besides political and military allies, became friends.
In these letters, the basis for Anglo-American co-operation was established and the means for implementing it devised long before the United States actually entered the war in December 1941. The letters between the two leaders, however, are not a complete record of their communications, since over the period of five years, many oral messages were sent by various emissaries and ambassadors, there were many transatlantic telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings.
The letters of President Theodore Roosevelt (in office 1901-1909) are a personal expression of the constant thought and love for his children. "After all, fond as I am of the White House and much though I have appreciated these years in it, there isn't any place in the world like home — like Sagamore Hill, where things are our own, with their own associations, and where it is real country," the President wrote. Before his children were able to read, he used to send them picture letters, which included drawings of his own in illustration of the written text. He wrote to them always as his equals.
The United States operates a presidential library system, part of the National Archives and Records Administration, with libraries which provide repositories for preserving and making available the papers, records, collections and other historical materials of every president since Herbert Hoover. The presidential library system formally began in 1939, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt donated his personal and presidential papers to the federal government. Before the presidential library system, presidential papers were often dispersed at the end of the administration. Some have come in to the hands of the Library of Congress, but many others are held in private collections, or have been lost or destroyed.
Recently, U.S. presidents have established presidential libraries in their home states in which documents, artifacts, gifts of state and museum exhibits are maintained that relate to the former president's life and career. Because of the nature of his departure from office, it was not until 2007 that the Richard Nixon museum and collection was included in the presidential library system.