Truman, Harry S.

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Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman took over the presidency upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) and helped bring an end to World War II (1939–45).

Truman was born into a farming community in Missouri on May 8, 1884. His middle initial, “S,” does not stand for a middle name; his parents gave him just the middle initial to honor both his grandfathers—Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young. Both Truman's mother and father were influential in their son's life, and he grew up happy on his grandparent's farm.

Truman's family did not have enough money to send him to college; they were not even able to make ends meet by farming. They moved to Kansas City, where jobs were easier to get, and Truman took a job at a drugstore, then with a newspaper, and then with a railroad. His last job before joining the military and serving in World War I (1914–18) was as a bank clerk. He earned $100 a week.

Marriage and politics

When the war ended, Truman married his childhood sweetheart, Bess Wallace. The couple moved into the mansion where her mother lived, and Truman began job hunting once more. He and a friend opened a men's clothing store. The business gave Truman the opportunity to meet some influential politicians. In 1922 Truman became a judge on the Jackson County Court. He lost reelection in 1924 but won a position as presiding judge of the county court two years later. He was reelected in 1930 and served until he won a seat in the Senate four years later. He was reelected to the Senate in 1940.

In 1943 President Roosevelt ran for a fourth term. He wanted his vice president, Henry Wallace (1888–1965), to run with him again. Some felt that Wallace would hurt Roosevelt's chances of winning, however, and it was suggested he select Truman instead. Truman had no desire to run as vice president, but when Roosevelt approached him with the offer, he accepted. The nation was in the midst of World War II (1939–45), and he did not feel it would be right to cause further conflict at home.

Roosevelt was reelected, and Truman became vice president in 1944. He served in that capacity for eighty-two days and knew very little of what was going on with the war. When Roosevelt suddenly died on April 12, 1945, Truman was thrust into a presidency he did not know how to conduct. He was honest and spoke plainly and it made him more popular than his predecessor had ever been.


Truman had no idea that the United States was secretly developing an atomic bomb . This news came at a time when Japan was still fighting capably in the war, and Truman found himself having to deal with England and the Soviet Union, who had been working with Roosevelt. He met with the leaders of those countries at Potsdam in Germany in 1945. The men discussed the possibility of using the atomic bomb on Japan, and Truman decided to have the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. He chose this city because bombing it would send a clear message, but it would not kill as many people as bombing Tokyo or Kyoto would.

The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and around 75,000 people were killed. Another 100,000 were injured or declared missing. The United States dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9. Eighty thousand more people were killed or injured. On August 14, Japan agreed to surrender.


Although Truman's decisions put an end to the war, his popularity declined, and fewer than 25 percent of voters believed he was doing a good job. They did not like his choice of government officials and criticized his habit of appointing friends to positions of power. When the time came for reelection, Truman decided at the last minute that he would run. He had just fourteen months to convince the American public that he really could lead the country in a satisfactory manner.

Truman's opponent was Republican Thomas Dewey (1902–1971), governor of New York. Newspapers were certain Dewey would win by a landslide, and when Truman actually defeated him, the media was surprised. One magazine had printed an issue with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman,” and when the prediction proved false, the magazine was so embarrassed that it went out of business.

Truman's second term was one of conflict as well. The administration had outlined a policy of containment (preventing the spread of communism ) that made the thirty-eighth parallel the dividing line of Korea. North Korea would remain communist with support from Russia and China. South Korea developed a democratic government with support from the United States.

Shortly after Truman's reelection, that boundary became a battleground as the North Korean army marched across the border and invaded South Korea. (See Korean War .) Truman's general, Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), was ordered to Korea, where he took command of the troops. He personally led the army in a ground and water attack against North Korea. Communist troops were forced into retreat back across the thirty-eighth parallel. But hundreds of thousands of Chinese volunteer troops rushed to support North Korean soldiers, and they forced MacArthur's men back below the border.

Heated disagreement

MacArthur, a distinguished officer, wanted to destroy the North Korean army, so he asked Truman for permission to again enter North Korea. He wanted the president to authorize a bombing campaign on military bases in China to distract their troops. Truman refused permission; he was committed to containing communism without risking another war. MacArthur, long known for his bad temper, seemed ready to charge ahead without the president's permission, so Truman fired him. This was a bold move, as MacArthur was a popular American hero. The proposed violence was not necessary; in the end, both sides agreed to establish a buffer zone along the border and hold their positions. Truman's decision turned out to be the right one.


Before Truman's second term ended, he signed into law a bill prohibiting presidents from serving more than two terms in office. Once his second term was over, Truman went home to Independence, Missouri, where he sold part of his farm and wrote two volumes of memoirs.

In 1962 historians conducted a poll to rate the presidents of the United States. Truman was voted among the “near great” presidents, a distinction that both surprised and pleased him. He died one day after Christmas in his Missouri home in 1972.