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Harry S. Truman

1884 - 1972


Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), thirty-third president of the United States, led America's transition from wartime to peacetime economy, forged the Truman doctrine, and made the decision to defend South Korea against Communist invasion.


US Senator 1935 – 44, Vice-President 1945, President 1945 – 53 Born the son of a livestock salesman and farmer, Truman had the distinction of having a letter of the alphabet as part of his name. The families of his parents reputedly could not agree on a middle name — one wanting the family name of Shippe and the other Solomon — so his parents simply gave him "S" as his middle name. His formal education was confined to high school. His father ran into financial difficulties, which prevented Harry from going to college. Harry also had poor eyesight — he wore glasses from the age of 8 — and this prevented him from being admitted to West Point to pursue a military career. Instead he took up a number of clerical jobs before returning to work on the family farm. He was mobilized in 1917 and saw action during the First World War — showing leadership qualities that were admired by his men — and was demobilized with the rank of captain in 1919. Returning to Missouri, he married and with a friend set up a haberdasher's store. The store briefly flourished but then foundered. As the store hit hard times Truman began to take an interest in politics.

Truman began his political career in 1922 when he was elected to the administrative post of district judge. He lost a re-election bid in 1924 but was elected chief judge of Jackson County in 1926. He established a reputation for integrity and in 1934 the Democratic Party bosses in that state chose him to contest a Senate seat. They did so reluctantly after other potential candidates had turned them down. Truman won the election but had difficulty in making his mark in the Senate. He was associated with the party machine that had chosen him. What saved Truman's career was the decision of the Governor of Missouri, Lloyd Stark, to run against him for the Senate nomination in 1940. Truman had considered retiring — he had achieved little and found it difficult living in Washington — but he was stung into remaining in the race after President Franklin Roosevelt offered him a federal appointment as a means of providing a clear field for Stark. Truman stumped the state to rally support and was successful especially in getting unions and many workers to support him. He won a narrow victory in the primary and a clear victory in the general election.

Once returned to the Senate, he was chosen to head a committee investigating how money was spent on defence. The committee was largely Truman's idea and it served to bring his name to national prominence. The committee revealed massive overspending and inefficiency, identifying how corporations were profiting at the expense of the war effort. The result was a significant improvement in efficiency and regulation, saving the country several billion dollars. Truman emerged as a leading figure in the Senate. It was a position that established him as a possible vice-presidential candidate. In 1944, Roosevelt dropped Vice-President Henry Wallace from the ticket — Wallace was deemed too radical to be allowed to continue in the office — and Democratic Party chairman Bob Hannegan favoured Truman to succeed him. Truman, who had come to enjoy life in the Senate and supported James Byrnes for the vice-presidency, had to be persuaded by Hannegan and Roosevelt to accept the nomination. Not for the first time, Truman was to ascend the political ladder because of the favours of a political boss.

Roosevelt's re-election to a fourth term in 1944, albeit it by a relatively narrow margin, resulted in Truman being sworn in as Vice-President of the United States. The swearing-in ceremony took place on 20 January. Truman had little contact with the President. He only recalled seeing him twice, on both occasions Cabinet meetings at which nothing important was discussed or decided. On 12 April, after chairing the Senate, he was asked to go to the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt informed him that the President was dead. Truman was sworn in as the 33rd President in the Cabinet Room. Although Roosevelt was clearly ill, Truman had had no idea how bad his condition was. His elevation to the presidency came as a massive shock.

Truman realized that there were many Americans who could do the job better than he could but that they were not the ones who had the job of President. He threw himself into the massive task that confronted him. Though not an original thinker, he had a grasp of history — he spent his early years reading history books — and was not afraid to take decisions. Once taken, he stood by them. Inasmuch as he had a problem in carrying out the job, it was not a reluctance to take decisions but rather the speed at which he took them. He did not always spend a great deal of time reflecting before reaching a decision. He was also prone to express himself in fairly plain terms. This sometimes aided communication but could undermine efforts at diplomacy. After giving Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov a verbal dressing-down over the Soviet stance over Poland and the United Nations, Molotov complained that "I have never been talked to in my life like this." To which Truman retorted: "Carry out your agreements and you won't get talked to like this."

Truman had to take many decisions quickly. He authorized the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He presided over America's response to the developing Cold War. He achieved perhaps his greatest success in ensuring, with the support of the Republican leader Senator Arthur Vandenberg, that America remained a military actor on the world stage rather than withdrawing within its own borders. In 1947 he proclaimed the Truman doctrine, prescribing a policy of containment for the Soviet Union. In 1948 he approved the Marshall Plan, developed by Secretary of State George Marshall for the economic recovery of Europe. The same year he authorized the Berlin airlift, using planes to ship in supplies after the Soviets closed the road routes to Berlin.

Domestically, he faced many fights with Congress, especially after the Republicans gained control in 1946. His domestic programme was dubbed the Fair Deal but made little headway. His proposals to counter inflationary pressures failed to pass. Prices soared and industrial unrest increased. Congress passed the *Taft-Hartley Act, outlawing the closed shop, over Truman's veto. His liberal stance on social issues, including race, upset some of his own supporters, a number of whom — dubbed Dixiecrats — staged a walkout at the 1948 Democratic convention. Truman entered the 1948 presidential election as the underdog, most commentators expecting the Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey — who had fought Roosevelt in 1944 — to win, a view shared by Dewey himself. Truman waged an energetic campaign, calling Congress into special session and then, when it failed to achieve anything, attacking it as the "do-nothing 80th Congress". On election night, early forecasts suggested that Truman had lost and the Chicago Tribune went to press with the headline "Dewey defeats Truman", but by morning it was clear that Truman had won, winning 24.1 million votes against 21.9 for Dewey. Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat States' Rights candidate won just over 1 million votes, as did Henry Wallace running as a Progressive.

Truman's second term was dominated by the Cold War and events in the Far East. After North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel in Korea, Truman sent American forces to repel them, a move that was subsequently given United Nations sanction. General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge and he decided to pursue the fighting into North Korea, a tactic that prompted Chinese forces to intervene. MacArthur variously criticized both UN policy and that endorsed by his own President. After tolerating the General's insubordination for some months, Truman decided to act and dismissed MacArthur. MacArthur returned as a popular hero rather than a disgraced officer, though his popularity later waned.

MacArthur's dismissal came at a time when Truman was unpopular. Fears of Communists in government had led the Republicans to attack Truman for being "soft on Communism". Congress passed the McCarren Act in 1950, requiring Communists to register with the Justice Department; Truman vetoed it and Congress overrode the veto. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the attack on Communists in public office. The threat of disruption to steel supplies by an industrial dispute led Truman to seize the steel mills in 1952, a move that was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. With the Korean War still dragging on, Truman decided that he had had enough. Though eligible to seek re-election for a second term in his own right, he declined to do so. Instead, he retired to Independence, Missouri, to work on his memoirs and the Truman Library. He lived for almost another twenty years, doing some travelling and spending time with his family. In 1971 he declined the Congressional Medal of Honour on the grounds that he had not done anything to deserve it. He died on 26 December 1972 at the age of 88.

Truman was a man who was willing to lead and to accept responsibility. Down to earth in language and approach, he was willing to fight for what he believed was right. He was loyal to friends and family. If a reviewer criticized the performance of his daughter Margaret at a concert, a call from the White House would result, leaving the reviewer in no doubt as to the President's opinion of the review. However, he was also loyal to many old cronies — some of whom lacked his integrity — keeping them longer than was politically wise. He battled for his policies with a hostile Congress and was unpopular for most of his presidency. His reputation increased in the years after leaving the White House. In the 1962 poll of historians on US presidents, he was ranked as a near-great president and in subsequent polls has always figured in the list of the top ten presidents. In the 1995 Chicago Sun-Times poll of presidential scholars he was ranked sixth, behind Thomas Jefferson and ahead of Woodrow Wilson. It was quite an achievement for the farm boy from Missouri.


Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), thirty-third president of the United States, led America's transition from wartime to peacetime economy, forged the Truman doctrine, and made the decision to defend South Korea against Communist invasion.

Harry Truman was born in Lamar, Mo., on May 8, 1884. He went to high school in Independence, Mo. From 1900 until 1905 he held various small business positions. During the next 12 years he farmed on his parents' land near Independence. In 1917, soon after the United States entered World War I, he enlisted in the artillery, serving in France and achieving the rank of captain. On returning from the war, he joined a friend in opening a haberdashery. The haberdashery went bankrupt, but he adhered to hard work, accepting misfortunes serenely. In 1919 he married Bess Wallace; they had one child, Margaret.

Beginner in Politics

A staunch Democrat and admirer of Woodrow Wilson, Truman entered politics with the encouragement of Jackson County boss Tom Prendergast. With Prendergast's aid, Truman was elected county judge in 1922 and served from 1922 to 1924. He was presiding judge from 1926 to 1934, giving close attention to problems of county administration.

In the Democratic sweep in the national election of 1934, Truman, a firm supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, was chosen U.S. senator from Missouri. Re-elected in 1940, he gained national attention as chairman of the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. Long a student of history, he feared that corruption might cloud government operations and supported the creation of this Senate committee to watch contracts. But, aware that the partisanship shown by an earlier congressional committee had embarrassed President Abraham Lincoln, he kept his chairmanship loyally helpful to the Roosevelt administration. When Roosevelt was nominated for a fourth term in June 1944, the President bowed to the wishes of influential state and city leaders and named Truman for vice president.

Thrust into the Presidency

After Truman had served only 82 days as vice president, Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945. Though staggered by the burdens thrust on him, Truman quickly took command and in his first address to Congress promised to continue Roosevelt's policies. That July he attended the Potsdam Conference of the Great Powers on urgent international problems. It was his ominous task to authorize the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and to approve the surrender of the Japanese government on Allied terms in a treaty signed on the battleship Missourion Sept. 2, 1945. After the surrender of Japan, he replaced the model of a heavy gun on his desk with the replica of a shiny new plough. His desk also bore a firm motto of executive decision: "The Buck Stops Here!"

The Truman administration at once took steps to demobilize the armed forces, terminate wartime agencies, and resume production of peacetime goods. Truman was thus brought face-to-face with inflation, a steep rise in the cost of living, and a new militancy on the part of labour unions, which had conformed to wartime pledges against strikes. He immediately showed his power of unhesitating decision - one of his principal traits. He declared wage increases essential to cushion the blows from changes in the economy, sternly opposed restrictive measures against labour, and acted to maintain union rights as set forth in the Wagner Act. When a new Congress, controlled by Republicans, passed the Taft-Hartley Bill, which limited labor action, he vetoed it as bad for industry and workers alike. After Congress repassed it over his veto, he continued denouncing it as a "slave-labour bill, " thus keeping it a subject of popular and congressional contention.

Truman also energetically supported the wartime Fair Employment Act, designed to prevent discrimination against African Americans, Jews, and other minority groups. He also advocated a broad program of social welfare, harmonizing with the New Deal policies. Although sharp friction developed between the Truman administration and conservative elements in Congress, he carried the passage of measures for slum clearance, construction of lowcost housing, the beginnings of a health insurance program, and the establishment of the Council of Economic Advisers to help attain full employment. Though hampered by lack of experience and limited education, and bitterly denounced by cultivated and affluent groups, he gained wide support among the masses as an effective example of the average man.

Travelling to Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., in March 1946, Truman heard British prime minister Winston Churchill deliver his "Iron Curtain" speech, declaring that tyranny was spreading in Europe, that an Iron Curtain was descending from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic, and that the Soviet Union, aiming at an indefinite expansion of its powers, would respect only military strength in a steel-clad alliance of America, Britain, and other Western powers. Truman, who said later that he had sponsored Churchill's speech as a test of public sentiment, was delighted by the generally positive reaction throughout the Western world to this direct challenge to Russia. As Russian aggressiveness made the international scene stormier, he gave vigorous support to the United Nations Charter, which the United States had accepted on July 28, 1945.

Cabinet Dissension

Truman exhibited his characteristic decisiveness in crushing dissension in his own Cabinet. When Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, delivered a speech in New York supporting the Russian position in world affairs, attacking Great Britain, and criticizing American foreign policy for failure to cooperate with the Soviets, Secretary of State James Byrnes acidly declared that he would resign if the President did not insist that Wallace refrain from criticizing American foreign policy while in the Cabinet. Senator Arthur Vandenberg declared that he could serve only one secretary of state at a time, and Truman immediately forced Wallace out of the Cabinet.

By his stern measures, Truman pleased labour and international liberals but made himself unpopular with radical leftist sympathizers. Meanwhile, his friendship with old-time associates, his platitudinous utterances, and his hesitancy to delay using price controls as a weapon against inflation aroused general criticism. But Truman hewed firmly to the policies he had chosen, faced Redbaiting senator Joseph McCarthy without flinching, and read calmly Republican headlines of 1946 asking "Had enough?"

Truman Doctrine

But Truman's greatest and most decisive stroke lay just ahead. Turkey and Greece seemed to stand on the edge of bankruptcy and defeat by Communist elements. Truman staunchly backed Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other State Department leaders in their stand for continued American support to democracy abroad. Refusing to flinch at costs, Truman sent Congress a message on March 2, 1947, asking for an appropriation of $400 million for sustaining Greece and Turkey. He also announced the Truman Doctrine, declaring that the United States would support all free peoples who were resisting attempted subjugation either by armed minorities at home or aggressors outside their borders.

Truman's unyielding policy made it possible for George Marshall, in charge of economic affairs in the State Department, and George Kennan, supervising policy planning, to carry through Congress the epochal Marshall Plan for the transfer of massive economic aid from the free nations of the West to beleaguered countries in Europe and Asia. The presidential campaign of 1948 came as the Marshall Plan gathered widespread support from democratic governments in Europe, South America, Africa, and elsewhere.

His Re-election

In 1948 Truman, with undiminished courage, entered the presidential contest and fought a stubborn battle against the Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey. With Clark Clifford mapping his strategy, he faced heavy odds. Although Dewey refused to discuss many issues, keeping safely silent, Truman and the Democratic party centreed heavy attacks on the record of the 80th Congress. The President covered 22, 000 miles in campaign trips, making 271 speeches. The entry of two new parties into the battle made the outcome doubtful. The conservative Southern Democrats, or "Dixiecrats, " nominated a ticket under Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and followers of Henry Wallace organized the Progressive party behind him.

A heavy majority of newspapers and pollsters seemed confident that Dewey would win. Truman was speaking to enthusiastic whistle-stop crowds, whose rallying cry was "Give 'em hell, Harry!" He addressed himself mainly to industrial workers and agricultural groups and was the first major candidate to stump in Harlem. Truman went to bed on election night as the Chicago Tribune published an "extra" with the headlines, "Dewey Defeats Truman!" Next morning he awoke to find the country enjoying a wild guffaw as it learned that Truman had not only carried the country with a plurality of 2, 000, 000 votes (24, 105, 812 ballots for Truman against 21, 970, 065 ballots for Dewey) but had won a Democratic Congress.

Korean War

On Sunday, June 25, 1950, the Korean War was precipitated when North Korean Communist forces invaded the Republic of South Korea, crossing the 38th parallel at several points. Truman at once summoned an emergency conference and on June 27 announced that he would pledge American armed strength for the defense of South Korea. By September 15, American troops, supported by other forces of the United Nations, were taking the offensive in Korea. Truman held firm in the costly war that ensued but hesitated to approve a major counteroffensive across the Yalu River. In April 1951, amid national frustration over the war, he courageously dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur as head of the Far East Command of the U.S. Army. He took this action on the grounds that MacArthur had repeatedly challenged the Far Eastern policies of the administration, thus overriding the basic American principle that the military must always be subordinate to the civil arm of the government, and that MacArthur had recommended the use of bombs against Chinese forces north of the Yalu River in a way which might well provoke open war with Russia and cost the United States the support of important allies in the war.

Following the storm over MacArthur, Truman announced that he would not run again for the presidency, though a new constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms did not apply to him. He retired to private life, publishing two volumes of Memoirs in 1955 and 1956, and giving influential support to President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s.

Retirement and Legacy

Truman died on December 26, 1972 and was buried in the courtyard of the Truman Library. When his wife Bess died in 1982, she was buried beside him. Their home in Independence, Missouri remains just as it was when Bess died; Truman's 1972 Chrysler Newport still sits in the garage, and his hat and coat hang under the stairs. The nearby Truman Library is one of the most popular presidential libraries, and includes much of his papers and correspondence, as well as a reproduction of the Oval Office as it looked during his term. The mock White House room even includes a 1947 television, significant since Truman was the first president to own a TV set.

Long after Truman's death, his popularity continues to soar. During the 1996 presidential elections he was quoted by both candidates in debates and speeches. In 1997, new books and movies were in the works, and earlier in the decade he was even commemorated with a $.020 United States postage stamp. Truman's daughter Margaret has carved out a successful career as a novelist, with works such as Murder in the National Gallery.










This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008