Harry S. Truman (May 8, 1884 - December 26, 1972) was the thirty-third President of the United States (1945-1953); as Vice President, he succeeded to the office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Truman, whose personal style contrasted sharply with that of the patrician Roosevelt, was a folksy, unassuming president. He overcame the low expectations of many political observers who compared him unfavorably to his highly regarded predecessor. President Truman suddenly assumed office at a watershed moment in the twentieth century: the end of the Second World War both in Europe and Pacific took place in his first months in office; he was the only President ever to authorize the use of the atomic bomb (against Japan); he sponsored the creation of the United Nations; he presided over the rebuilding of Japan and helped rebuild Europe through the Marshall Plan; he recognized the new state of Israel; and the Cold War began in his first term which took the form of a hot conflict by 1950 in the Korean War. Although he was forced to abandon his re-election campaign in 1952 because of the quagmire in Korea and extremely low approval ratings, scholars today rank him among the better presidents.
Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, the eldest child of John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Young Truman. A brother, John Vivian, soon followed, along with sister Mary Jane Truman.Did you know?Truman's middle initial "S" honors his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young
Harry's father, John Truman, was a farmer and livestock dealer. Truman lived in Lamar until he was 11 months old. The family then moved to his grandparent's 600-acre farm at Grandview, Missouri. When Truman was six years old, his parents moved the family to Independence, Missouri, so he could attend school. After graduating from high school in 1901, Truman worked at a series of clerical jobs. He returned to the Grandview farm in 1906 and stayed there for the next decade.
For the rest of his life, Truman would hearken back nostalgically to the years he spent as a farmer, often for theatrical effect. The ten years of physically demanding work he put in at Grandview were real, however, and they were a formative experience. During this period he courted Bess Wallace and even proposed to her in 1911; she turned him down. Truman said he wanted to make more money than a farmer before he proposed again. He did propose to her again, successfully, in 1918 after coming back as a captain from World War I.
He was the only president after 1870 not to earn a college degree, although he studied for two years toward a law degree at the Kansas City Law School in the early 1920s.
World War ITruman in uniform ca. 1918
With the onset of American participation in World War I, Truman enlisted in the Missouri National Guard. At his physical, his eyesight had been an unacceptable 20/50 in the right eye and 20/400 in the left eye; he passed by secretly memorizing the eye chart.
Before heading to France, he was sent for training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He ran the camp canteen, selling candy, cigarettes, shoelaces, sodas, tobacco, and writing paper to the soldiers. To help run the canteen, he enlisted the help of his Jewish friend Sergeant Edward Jacobson, who had experience in a Kansas City clothing store as a clerk. Another man he met at Fort Sill who would help him after the war was Lieutenant James M. Pendergast, the nephew of Thomas Joseph (T.J.) Pendergast, a Kansas City politician.
Truman was chosen to be an officer, and then commanded a regimental battery in France. His unit was Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery, 60th Brigade, 35th Division. Under Truman's command in France, the battery performed bravely under fire in the Vosges Mountains and did not lose a single man. Truman later rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, and always remained proud of his military background.
Marriage and early business careerThe Trumans' on their wedding day, June 28, 1919
At the war's conclusion, Truman returned to Independence and married his longtime love interest, Bess Wallace, on June 28, 1919. The couple had one child, Margaret.
A month before the wedding, banking on the success they had at Fort Sill and overseas, the men's clothing store of Truman & Jacobson opened in downtown Kansas City. After a few successful years, the store went bankrupt during a downturn in the farm economy in 1922; lower prices for wheat and corn meant fewer sales of silk shirts. In 1919, wheat had been selling for $2.15 a bushel, but in 1922 it was down to a catastrophic 88 cents a bushel. Truman blamed the fall in farm prices on the policies of the Republicans and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, a factor that would influence his decision to become a Democrat. Truman worked for years to pay off the debts. He and his former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, were accepted together at Washington College in 1923. They would remain friends for the rest of their lives, and Jacobson's advice to Truman on the subject of Zionism would, decades later, play a critical role in Truman's decision to recognize the state of Israel.
Jackson County judge
In 1922, with the help of the Kansas City Democratic machine led by boss Tom Pendergast, Truman was elected judge of the county court of Jackson County, Missouri-an administrative, not judicial, position similar to county commissioners elsewhere. Although he was defeated for reelection in 1924, he won back the office in 1926, and was reelected in 1930. Truman performed his duties in this office diligently and won personal acclaim for several popular public works projects, including an extensive series of roads for the increase in automobile traffic, the construction of a new county court building, and the dedication of a series of 12 "Madonna of the Trail" monuments honoring pioneer women.
In 1922, Truman gave a friend $10 for an initiation fee for the Ku Klux Klan but later asked to get his money back; he was never initiated, never attended a meeting, and never claimed membership. Though it is a historical fact that Truman at times expressed anger towards Jews in his diaries, it is also worth remembering that his business partner and close friend Edward Jacobson was Jewish. Bess Truman however was proud that a Jew had never set foot in her or her mother's home.1 Truman's attitudes toward blacks were typical of Missourians of his era. Years later, another measure of his racial attitudes would come to the forefront: tales of the abuse, violence, and persecution suffered by many African-American veterans upon their return from World War II infuriated Truman, and were a major factor in his decision to back civil rights initiatives and desegregate the armed forces.
In the 1934 election, Pendergast's political machine selected Truman to run for Missouri's open United States Senate seat, and he campaigned successfully as a New Deal Democrat in support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Democratic primary, Truman defeated Tuck Milligan, the brother of federal prosecutor Maurice M. Milligan, who would eventually topple the Pendergast machine-and run against Truman in the 1940 primary election.
Widely considered a puppet of the big Kansas City political boss, Truman assumed office under a cloud as "the senator from Pendergast." Adding to the air of distrust was the disquieting fact that three people had been killed at the polls in Kansas City. In the tradition of machine politicians before and since, Truman did indeed direct New Deal political patronage through Boss Pendergast-but he insisted that he was an independent on his votes. Truman did have his standards, historian David McCullough later concluded, and he was willing to stand by them, even when pressured by the man who had emerged as the kingpin of Missouri politics.
Milligan began a massive investigation into the 1936 Missouri gubernatorial election that elected Lloyd C. Stark; 258 convictions resulted. More importantly, Milligan discovered that Pendergast had not paid federal taxes between 1927 and 1937 and had conducted a fraudulent insurance scam. He went after Senator Truman's political patron. In 1939, Pendergast pled guilty and received a $10,000 fine and a 15-month sentence. Stark, who had received Pendergast's blessing in the 1936 election, turned against him in the investigation and eventually took control of federal New Deal funds from Truman and Pendergast.
In 1940, both Stark and Milligan challenged Truman in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Robert E. Hannegan, who controlled St. Louis Democratic politics, threw his support in the election to Truman. Truman campaigned tirelessly and combatively. In the end, Stark and Milligan split the anti-Pendergast vote, and Truman won the election by a narrow margin. Hannegan would go on to broker the 1944 deal that put Truman on the Vice Presidential ticket for Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
Truman always defended his decisions to offer patronage to Pendergast by saying that by offering a little, he saved a lot. Truman also said that Pendergast had given him this advice when he first went to the Senate, "Keep your mouth shut and answer your mail."
On June 23, 1941, a day after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Senator Truman declared, "If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. Neither of them thinks anything of their pledged word" (The New York Times, June 24 1941). Liberals and conservatives alike were disturbed by his seeming suggestion of the possibility of America backing Nazi Germany, and he quickly backtracked.
He gained fame and respect when his preparedness committee (popularly known as the "Truman Committee") investigated the scandal of military waste by exposing fraud and mismanagement. His advocacy of common sense, cost-saving measures for the military attracted much attention. Although some feared the Committee would hurt war morale, it was considered a success and is reported to have saved at least $11 billion. In 1943, his work as chairman earned Truman his first appearance on the cover of TIME. (He would eventually appear on nine TIME covers and be named its Man of the Year in 1945 and 1949.2)
Truman's diligent, fair-minded, and notably nonpartisan work on the Senate committee that came to bear his name turned him into a national figure. It is unlikely that Roosevelt would have considered him for the vice presidential spot in 1944 had the former "Senator from Pendergast" not earned a new reputation in the Senate-one for probity, hard work, and a willingness to ask powerful people tough questions.
Truman was selected as Roosevelt's running mate in 1944 as the result of a deal worked out by Hannegan, who was Democratic National Chairman that year. Roosevelt wanted to replace Henry A. Wallace as Vice President because he was considered too liberal. James F. Byrnes of South Carolina was initially favored, but as a segregationist he was considered too conservative. After Governor Henry F. Schricker of Indiana declined the offer, Hannegan proposed Truman as the party's candidate for Vice President. After Wallace had been rejected as too far to the left, and Byrnes as too far to the right, Truman's candidacy was humorously dubbed the "Missouri Compromise" at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The nomination was well received, and the Roosevelt-Truman team went on to score a victory in 1944 by defeating Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. He was sworn in as Vice President on January 20, 1945, and served less than three months.
Truman shocked many when, as Vice President, he attended his disgraced patron Pendergast's funeral a few days after being sworn in. Truman was reportedly the only elected official of any level who attended the funeral.
On April 12, 1945, Truman was urgently called to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt informed him that the President was dead. Truman, thunderstruck, could initially think of nothing to say. He then asked if there was anything he could do for her, to which the former First Lady replied, "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."3
First term (1945-1949)
End of World War IIThe mushroom cloud created by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945. Truman was the only President who authorized the military use of this weapon.
Truman had been Vice President for only 82 days when President Roosevelt suddenly died. He had very little meaningful communication with Roosevelt about world affairs or domestic politics since being sworn in as Vice President, and was completely in the dark about major initiatives relating to the successful prosecution of the war-notably the top secret Manhattan Project, which was, at the time of Roosevelt's passing, on the cusp of testing the world's first atomic bomb.
Shortly after taking the oath of office, Truman said to reporters: "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."3
Momentous events would occur in Truman's first five months in office:
- April 25-Nations met in San Francisco to create the United Nations
- April 28-Benito Mussolini of Italy killed
- May 1-Announcement of the suicide of Adolf Hitler
- May 2-Berlin falls
- May 7-Nazi Germany surrenders
- May 8-Victory in Europe Day
- July 17-August 2-Truman, Josef Stalin, and Winston Churchill met at the Potsdam Conference to establish the political landscape of post-war world
- August 6-U.S. drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan
- August 8-USSR declares war on Japan and enters the Pacific theater
- August 9-U.S. drops atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan
- August 14-Japan agrees to surrender (Victory over Japan Day)
- September 2-Japan formally surrenders aboard the USS Missouri
The United Nations, the Marshall Plan and Beginning of the Cold War
As a Wilsonian internationalist, Truman strongly supported the creation of the United Nations, and included former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the delegation to the U.N.'s first General Assembly in order to meet the public desire for peace after the experience of the Second World War. One of the first decisions he made in office was to personally attend the San Francisco UN Charter Conference. He saw the United Nations as in part the realization of an American dream, providing essential "international machinery" that would help America re-order the world by allowing states to cooperate against aggression. Some critics argue the United Nations should have admitted only democratic states, and Truman should have resisted the Soviet Union's permanent membership on the Security Council, which from the outset compromised the United Nation's integrity. But most of the provisions of the UN Charter had already been negotiated by Roosevelt with Stalin, and the Soviet Union obtained not only permanent UNSC membership but three seats in the General Assembly (for three Soviet socialist republics); moreover, the USSR was still an ally in April 1945 and no one could predict when World War II would end.
On the other hand, faced with Communist abandonment of commitments to democracy in Eastern Europe made at the Potsdam Conference, and with Communist advances in Greece and Turkey, Truman and his advisers concluded that the interests of the Soviet Union were quickly becoming incompatible with those of the United States. The Truman administration articulated an increasingly hard line against the Soviets, and by 1947 most scholars consider that the Cold War was in full swing.
Although he claimed no personal expertise on foreign matters, and the opposition Republicans controlled Congress, Truman was able to win bipartisan support for both the Truman Doctrine, which formalized a policy of containment, and the Marshall Plan, which aimed to help rebuild postwar Europe. To get Congress to spend the vast sums necessary to restart the moribund European economy, Truman used an ideological approach, arguing forcefully that Communism flourished in economically deprived areas. He later admitted that his goal had been to "scare the hell out of Congress." To strengthen the United States against Communism, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 and reorganized military forces by creating the Department of Defense, the C.I.A., U.S. Air Force (originally the U.S. Army Air Forces), and the National Security Council.
After many years of Democratic majorities in Congress and two Democratic presidents, voter fatigue with the Democrats delivered a new Republican majority in the 1946 midterm elections, with the Republicans picking up 55 seats in the House of Representatives and several seats in the Senate. Although Truman cooperated closely with the Republican leaders on foreign policy, he fought them on domestic issues. He failed to prevent tax cuts and the removal of price controls. The power of the labor unions was significantly curtailed by the Taft-Hartley Act, which was enacted by overriding Truman's veto.
As he readied for the approaching 1948 election, Truman made clear his identity as a Democrat in the New Deal tradition, advocating universal health insurance, the repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, and an aggressive civil rights program. Taken together, it all constituted a broad legislative program that he called the "Fair Deal."
Truman's Fair Deal proposals made for potent campaign rhetoric that helped Truman to win the 1948 presidential election, but the proposals were not well received by Congress, even after Democratic gains in the 1948 election. Only one of the major Fair Deal bills, an initiative to expand unemployment benefits, was ever enacted.
Recognition of Israel
Truman, who had been a supporter of the Zionist movement as early as 1939, was a key figure in the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
In 1946, an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry recommended the gradual establishment of two states in Palestine, with neither Jews nor Arabs dominating. However, there was little public support for the two-state proposal, and Britain, its empire in rapid decline, was under pressure to withdraw from Palestine quickly because of attacks on British forces by armed Zionist groups. At the urging of the British, a special United Nations committee recommended the immediate partitioning of Palestine into two states, and with Truman's support, this initiative was approved by the General Assembly in 1947.
The British announced that they would leave Palestine by May 15, 1948, and the Arab League Council nations began moving troops to Palestine's borders. Support for a Jewish state in Palestine was strong in portions of European nations, many of whose citizens were eager to endorse some kind of tacit compensation for the genocidal crimes against Jewish communities perpetrated by the Nazis. The idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East was also extremely popular in the U.S., and particularly so among one of Truman's key constituencies, urban Jewish voters.
The State Department, however, was another matter. Secretary George C. Marshall resolutely opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine on the grounds that its borders were strategically indefensible. Nonetheless, Truman, after much soul-searching, agreed to the fateful step of holding a face-to-face meeting with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann-arranged by Truman's old Jewish friend, Eddie Jacobson-who deeply moved Truman. Truman promised the "old man" that he would recognize the new Jewish state.4 According to historian David McCullough, Truman feared Marshall would resign or publicly condemn the decision to back the Jewish state, both disastrous outcomes given the rising tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union. However, in the end, Marshall chose not to dispute the President's decision. Ultimately, Truman recognized the state of Israel eleven minutes after it declared independence on May 14, 1948, one day before the British mandate expired.
On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blocked access to the three Western-held sectors of Berlin. The Allies had never negotiated a deal to guarantee supply of the sectors deep within Soviet occupied East Germany. The commander of the American occupation zone in Germany, Gen. Lucius D. Clay, proposed sending a large armored column driving peacefully, as a moral right, down the Autobahn from West Germany to West Berlin, but prepared to defend itself if it were stopped or attacked. Truman, however, following the consensus in Washington, believed this entailed an unacceptable risk of war. On June 25, the Allies decided to begin the Berlin Airlift to support the city by air. The airlift continued until May 11, 1949, when access was again granted.
Integration of the military
After a hiatus that had lasted since Reconstruction, the Truman administration marked the federal government's first steps in many years in the area of civil rights. A series of particularly savage 1946 lynchings, including the murder of two young black men and two young black women near in Walton County, Georgia, and the subsequent brutalization of an African American WWII veteran, drew attention to civil rights and factored in the issuing of a 1947 report by the Truman administration titled To Secure These Rights. The report presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms, including making lynching a federal crime. In February 1948, the President submitted a civil rights agenda to Congress that proposed creating several federal offices devoted to issues such as voting rights and fair employment practices. This provoked a firestorm of criticism from Southern Democrats in the time leading up to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying "My forbears were Confederates… . But my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten."5
Second Term (1949-1953)
1948 ElectionTruman was so widely expected to lose the 1948 election that the Chicago Tribune ran this incorrect headline the day after Election Day. Truman is standing on the rear platform of his train car at Union Station in St. Louis.
The presidential election of 1948 is best remembered for Truman's stunning come-from-behind victory.
At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Truman attempted to place a tepid civil rights plank in the party platform so as to assuage the internal conflicts between North and South. A sharp address, however, given by Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey, Jr. of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and candidate for the United States Senate-as well as the local political interests of a number of urban bosses-convinced the party to adopt a strong civil rights plank, which was wholeheartedly adopted by Truman. Within two weeks he issued Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the U.S. armed services.6 Truman took considerable political risk in backing civil rights, and was very concerned that the loss of Dixiecrat support might destroy the Democratic Party.
With Thomas E. Dewey having a substantial lead, the Gallup Poll quit taking polls two weeks before the election7 even though 14 percent of the electorate was still undecided. George Gallup would never repeat that mistake again, and he emerged with the maxim, "Undecided voters side with the incumbent."
Truman's "whistlestop" tactic of giving brief speeches from the rear platform of the observation railroad car Ferdinand Magellan became iconic of the entire campaign.8 His combative appearances captured the popular imagination and drew huge crowds. The massive, mostly spontaneous gatherings at Truman's depot events were an important sign of a critical change in momentum in the campaign-but this shift went virtually unnoticed by the national press corps, which simply continued reporting Dewey's (supposedly) impending victory as a certainty.
The defining image of the campaign came after Election Day, when Truman's held aloft the erroneous front page of the Chicago Tribune that featured a huge headline proclaiming "Dewey Defeats Truman."9
The Soviet Union, aided by espionage on America's "Manhattan Project," developed an atomic bomb much faster than expected and exploded its first weapon on August 29, 1949, commencing the Cold War arms race. On January 7, 1953, Truman announced the detonation of the much bigger hydrogen bomb.
On December 21, 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist forces left the mainland for Taiwan in the face of successful attacks by Mao Zedong's Communists. In June 1950, Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet of the U.S. Navy into the Strait of Formosa to prevent further conflict between the PRC and the Republic of China on Taiwan. Truman also called for Taiwan to cease any further attacks on the mainland.10
Rise of McCarthyism
A period of intense anti-communist suspicion in the United States began in the late 1940s that lasted a decade. It saw increased fears about Communist influence on American institutions and espionage by Soviet agents. Originally coined to criticize the actions of Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, "McCarthyism" later took on a more general meaning of a witch-hunt against alleged communists. During this time many thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before governmental or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists.
The reality was that the Soviet Union in some instances had made successfully penetrations of the U.S. government both prior to and during World War II, and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin benefited from highly classified American information that informed his own decisionmaking. The most prominent alleged Soviet spy, named by former communist and writer Whittaker Chambers, was State Department official Alger Hiss, who presided over the United Nations Charter Conference in San Francisco in 1945.
Korean WarPresident Truman signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency that initiates U.S. involvement in the Korean War.
In June 25, 1950, armies of North Korea invaded South Korea, nearly occupying the whole of the peninsula. Truman promptly urged the United Nations to intervene; it did. The Soviet Union was not in attendance at the Security Council vote that authorized U.S. forces and those of 15 other nations to take military action under the UN flag.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur led the UN Forces, pushing the North Korean army nearly to the Chinese border after scoring a stunning victory with his amphibious landing at Inchon. In late October 1950, the Peoples Republic of China intervened in massive numbers on North Korea's behalf. MacArthur urged Truman to attack Chinese bases across the Yalu River and use atomic bombs if necessary; as it was, he was not even permitted to bomb the Chinese end of Yalu bridges. Truman refused both suggestions. The Chinese pushed American forces back into South Korea, and temporarily recaptured Seoul. MacArthur, who had given assurances that he would respect Truman's authority as Commander in Chief during a one-on-one meeting at Wake Island on Oct. 14, 1950, publicly aired his views on the shortcomings of U.S. strategic decisionmaking in the conduct of the war, appearing to indirectly criticize Truman. MacArthur reached out his hand to Truman for a handshake, instead of saluting him as Commander in Chief, a small gesture that held great implications in military protocol.
Truman was gravely concerned that further escalation of the war would draw the USSR which now possessed a few atomic weapons into the conflict. He was also personally offended at what he interpreted as MacArthur's insubordination. On April 11, 1951, Truman finally relieved MacArthur of his command. The Korean War turned into a stalemate until an armistice took effect on July 27, 1953, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The war, and his dismissal of MacArthur, helped make Truman so unpopular that he eventually chose not to seek a third term. Truman thus earned a strange-and, so far, unique-distinction in American history: He ascended to the presidency to inherit the responsibilities of conducting a war already in process-and left office while an entirely different armed conflict with a foreign enemy was still underway.
White House renovations
Unlike most other Presidents, Truman lived in the White House very little during his second term in office. Structural analysis of the building in 1948 showed the White House to be in danger of imminent collapse, partly because of problems with the walls and foundation that dated back to the burning of the building by the British during the War of 1812. While the interior of the White House was systematically dismantled to the foundations and rebuilt (the outer walls were braced and not removed), Truman moved to nearby Blair House, which became his "White House." Before this demolition took place, Truman had ordered an addition to the exterior of the building, an extension to its curved portico known as the "Truman Balcony."
On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate Truman at Blair House. One mortally wounded a police officer, who shot the assassin to death before expiring himself. The other gunman was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in 1952. Truman later commuted his sentence to life in prison.
Major legislation signed
- National Security Act-July 26, 1947
- Truman Doctrine-March 12, 1947
- Marshall Plan/European Recovery Plan-April 3, 1948
Important executive orders
- Executive Order 9981 establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services
Administration and Cabinet
|President||Harry S. Truman||1945-1953|
|Alben W. Barkley||1949-1953|
|State||Edward R. Stettinius, Jr.||1945|
|James F. Byrnes||1945-1947|
|George C. Marshall||1947-1949|
|Dean G. Acheson||1949-1953|
|Treasury||Henry Morgenthau, Jr.||1945|
|Fred M. Vinson||1945-1946|
|John W. Snyder||194