Truman, Harry S.

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(b. May 8, 1884; d. December 26, 1972) Thirty-third president of the United States (1945–1953).

Harry Truman served as president of the United States from April 12, 1945, to January 20, 1953, a time of pivotal importance in America's relations with the world. Wars—past, present, and future, hot and cold—heavily influenced his point of view and dominated his presidency.

The impact of war began early and continued to be a major feature of Truman's life. As a young man, he served for six years in the Missouri National Guard. Volunteering for World War I in 1917, he became the captain of an artillery battery and participated in the drive that ended the war. Following that war, he championed military preparedness as an officer in the army reserve for two decades and as a United States senator, beginning in 1935.

World War II influenced Truman in major ways. It strengthened his conviction that the United States had made great mistakes during the interwar years by refusing to develop military strength and by trying to isolate itself from the world's troubles. It also offered him an opportunity

to chair a special senatorial committee that investigated the national defense program and gave him the prestige required to rise to the presidency. In addition, his experience in a second global conflict persuaded him that the United States had made a great mistake when it refused in 1919–1920 to join the League of Nations. Consequently, during his early weeks in the White House, he carried to completion Franklin Roosevelt's plans for establishment of the United Nations (UN).

As president, Truman soon moved into conflict with the Soviet Union. He has sometimes been blamed for this, and the blame has a basis in fact for his conception of the great mistakes of the past influenced his perception of the Soviet Union. To avoid another world war, he believed he must not repeat the mistakes of American military weakness and isolationism that had led to World War II. Quickly concluding that Soviet behavior, especially in Eastern Europe, resembled Japanese and German military aggression in the 1930s, he decided that he must make a forceful response to the possibilities of further Communist expansion. If he did not do so, the consequences would be worse than a stalemate.

Interpreting international relations in this way, Truman made a series of moves. At first, he relied mainly on American economic power. Under the Truman Doctrine, the United States sent millions of dollars to the governments of Greece and Turkey, which faced pressures from Communist forces, and promised similar assistance to other nations faced with such challenges. The Marshall Plan gave economic aid to the countries of Western Europe, helping them to rebuild their war-torn economies. The Berlin Airlift (1948–1949) brought supplies to West Berlin after the Soviet Union imposed a blockade against land traffic into the city. The establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization offered assurances that the United States would respond militarily to an invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet Union and was followed by a Military Assistance Program that sent money to America's allies to help them strengthen their armed forces.

The Cold War (1946–1991) influenced Truman's domestic agenda. Most of the items on that agenda—including the establishment of the Loyalty Program, his calls for national health insurance and for reform of race relations in the armed forces and throughout American society, and his promotion of dam building on rivers in the American West—reflected this influence.

By 1949 American military power consisted mainly of atomic bombs and long-range bombers. Truman preferred a "balanced" force but placed a ceiling on military spending so as not to overburden the federal budget. He responded to the Soviet Union's success in developing an atomic weapon by authorizing a program to build an even more powerful bomb, but he declined to endorse a State Department plan for a large-scale military buildup.

After North Korean forces invaded South Korea in June 1950, Truman made several more major decisions, all of them designed to avoid World War III. For him, the invasion resembled the Japanese move into Manchuria in 1931, so he sent U.S. troops into combat after obtaining UN authorization. He also promoted a large military buildup and strengthened American forces in Europe, but after the Communist Chinese moved into Korea, he rejected General Douglas MacArthur's proposal to carry the war into China and then removed him from command when he tried to force a change in policy.

Unable to end the Korean War, Truman came to be widely regarded in the United States as a failure, but he insisted in his farewell address that he had been highly successful. Above all, he maintained that he had not repeated the great mistakes of the interwar period and thus had avoided World War III. Furthermore, he predicted that if his successors continued his foreign policy, they too would avoid such a war and the United States would win the Cold War.


Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman: A Life. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Hamby, Alonzo L. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State 194–194. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Kirkendall, Richard S., ed. Harry's Farewell: Interpreting and Teaching the Truman Presidency. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Offner, Arnold A. Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War 194–193. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Richard S. Kirkendall

See also:Civil Liberties, 1946–Present; Cold War Mobilization; Containment and Détente; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Hiroshima Guilt; Korea, Impact of; Labor, 1946–Present; MacArthur, Douglas; Marshall Plan; Marshall, George C.; McCarthyism; NSC #68; Rosenberg, Hiss, Oppenheimer Cases; Truman Doctrine.