Truman, Harry S.

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Harry S. Truman

Robert H. Ferrell

HARRY S. TRUMAN of Independence, Missouri, once remarked that three experiences prepared a man for high political officefarming, banking, and the army. By the time he entered politics he possessed all three. In his preparation for the presidency he might have added three more: knowledge of small-town America, avid reading of books about the leaders and government of the United States, and extensive participation in local and national politics.

The Formative Years

The future president spent his early years in rural America. He was born on 8 May 1884 in the farm village of Lamar (120 miles south of Kansas City), where his father, John, pursued a horse and mule business, buying and selling in a lot across the street from the small white frame family residence. A few months later the Trumans moved to the first of a succession of farms. In 1890 the family, increased by the birth of a second son, John Vivian, and a daughter, Mary Jane, settled in Independence. There, on the several acres surrounding their house on Crysler Street, John Truman conducted his animal-trading business. Independence grew rapidly during the 1890s, doubling in population to twelve thousand by the turn of the century. In 1896 the Trumans moved to another house near the town's principal residential street. Since Independence was a farm town and the county seat of a large rural area to the east of Kansas City, Harry Truman's farm roots did not wither and dry up.

When Truman reached manhood, he worked briefly in Kansas City but soon established himself on a farm near Grandview, twenty miles from Independence, where he remained until he entered the army in 1917. Here his lifetime habits became fixed. He often spoke of the farm experience, even during his presidency. Whatever the duties of the presidential years, however late into the evening he presided over dinners or meetings, he awoke each morning at 5:00 or 5:30 and within minutes was at his desk, long before secretaries and assistants.

The farm meant much loneliness, save for the company of horses and mules, and offered opportunity to consider principles, such as the beliefs of the Baptist Church, which Truman joined in Grandview, and the Masons, to which he applied for membership in 1908. He came away from the farm with a sharpened sense of right and wrong, of how principles counted and irresolute positions did not. He understoodwhen he got into politicsthat it often meant compromise, but he interpreted "compromise" as the discovery of a mutually agreeable position, not as a trimming of principles.

During the farm years, Truman became what Americans of another generation might have described as an administrator: he managed six hundred acres. In the early part of the twentieth century, farming necessitated careful management of time and machinery. Plowing, the initial enterprise, required hours for each acre. Cultivating, mowing, and reaping covered areas of only six or eight feet, meaning almost interminable circling of fields. Truman hired farmhands at fifteen or twenty cents an hour, plus meals, to help run his teams, but unlike later management experts, he did much of the work himself.

The second of Truman's preparations for high political office, banking, appears to have meant far less to him than the experience of farming. Perhaps it was because he spent less time at itthree years, beginning in 1903, when he lived in Kansas City and worked in the cages of the National Bank of Commerce and the Union National Bank as a recorder of tellers' transactions or bookkeeper for checks received from, or sent to, country banks. The young bank clerk functioned on a low level, and appears not to have enjoyed the work, or so he told a friend, although he displayed enough interest and ability to increase his salary from $35 a month to $100. From this experience he may have derived his oft-remarked fascination in later years with the federal budget. As president, he read budgets with intense care, having an acute sense for the reliabilityor deviousnessof line items. He saw the director of the Bureau of the Budget almost daily, believing the budget to be the principal management device of the federal government.

In April 1917 the United States entered World War I, and almost immediately Truman entered the army. He had been a member of the Kansas City field artillery battery of the Missouri National Guard for two enlistments, from 1905 to 1911, and when war began, he volunteered to help enlarge the battery into a regiment. There followed his election as first lieutenant in what became, upon reception into federal service, the 129th Field Artillery, attached to the Thirty-fifth Division from Missouri and Kansas. He went overseas in April 1918, was promoted to captain that month, and in July took command of the most unruly battery in the regiment, Battery D, a group of German Catholics and "wild Irishmen" (so he described them) that had broken four previous commanders.

Ability to manage a bewildering variety of tasks had derived from life on the farm, and in the few months that remained of American participation in the war, Truman demonstrated a remarkable skill in the management of men. After an inauspicious beginning, during which the assembled battery greeted him with what one of its members years later described as a "Bronx cheer," he brought the men under control through a careful combination of firmness and friendliness, and took them through several actions, including the battles of Saint Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, without losing a man. The battery idolized him, and he became known as Captain Harry. When the men took passage home in April 1919 aboard the German liner Zeppelin, a rough rider, they whiled away the time in a day-and-night dice game, during which they set aside a percentage of each pot for purchase of a large engraved silver loving cup for the captain. For the rest of their lives they kept in touch, immensely proud of the man they described as their leader. Each Armistice Day they met in reunion. At the inaugural parade in January 1949, the members of Battery D marched on each side of Captain Harry's automobile.

Among other formative influences was life in Independence during the 1890s. The future president commenced school in 1892 at the age of eight, and in 1894 a near-fatal attack of diphtheria interrupted his studies for months; even so, he graduated with the Independence High School class of 1901 (schooling in those years consisted of ten grades, not twelve). A photograph of the class shows not only Truman but Elizabeth ("Bess") Wallace, who was to become his wife in June 1919. Truman never forgot Independence, in which he was to spend most of his long life. It was, of course, the small town, not the later residential suburb of Kansas City of more than 100,000 inhabitants.

And then there was the reading of books that so influenced him. Just before the Truman family moved to Independence the youngster had been "fine-printed"; that is, fitted with glasses to relieve his farsightedness. As a child in Independence he had been ill with diphtheria. The illness but especially the glasses, which were expensive, kept him out of childhood games, inspired him to study the piano, and made young Truman an inveterate reader during these years. Afterward he tended to exaggerate his reading, but he did spend an unusual amount of time with books. The town library contained seventeen hundred (the president later exaggerated it to four thousand), and he liked to say he had read them all, including the encyclopedias. Perhaps he read several hundred, which seemed like all of them. His taste ran to the historical, especially American history, with an emphasis on the history of American government. He often remembered a four-volume oversized set given him on his twelfth birthday by his mother, who bought it from a door-to-door salesmanGreat Men and Famous Women, edited by Charles F. Horne. He read Plutarch, Arthurian romances, and biographies of presidential heroesWashington, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln. The young Truman also admired Grover Cleveland.

Any analysis of Truman's preparation for the presidency must also look to the twenty years of local and national office holding prior to 1945, to the years when he turned to politics as a "profession" (his proud word). His initial participation in American politics occurred in 1892 when he wore a white hat to school bearing the names of Grover Cleveland for president and Adlai Stevenson (grandfather of a future Democratic nominee) for vice president. As he told the story long afterward, some big Republican boys snatched the hat and tore it up. He entered politics after the failure of the haberdashery he had opened in Kansas City in 1919 with his former army sergeant, Edward Jacobson; the business was caught in a recession that caused shelf stock to plummet in value from $30,000 to less than $10,000. Truman assumed all of the partnership's debts after Jacobson declared bankruptcy in 1925; not until the early 1930s did he pay them off. Indeed, the haberdashery's failure inaugurated a period of twenty years during which he was strapped for funds, for in 1934 and 1940 he had to pay a large share of the cost of two senatorial campaigns.

Truman's political career began because of a chance army friendship. Having met Lieutenant Jim Pendergast during the war, he made the acquaintance of Jim's father, Mike, older brother of the Democratic boss of Kansas City, Thomas J. ("Tom") Pendergast. The Pendergast brothers in 1922 needed a man as "eastern judge" (that is, eastern county commissioner) in the three-man Jackson County court. The eastern part of the county included Independence and its rural hinterland, and Kansas City formed the western part. The court consisted of judges representing each, together with a "presiding judge" elected at large. Truman won the primary, went on to easy victory in November, and served a two-year term (19231924). Defeated in 1924 because of a division in local Democratic ranks caused by an anti-Pendergast leader in Kansas City, Joseph G. Shannon, he ran for presiding judge in 1926, was elected, and served two four-year terms (19271934).

Association with Boss Tom Pendergast proved a terrible liability once the politician from Independence became prominent nationally; people outside of Missouri did not understand either Pendergast or the politics of Jackson County. The Pendergast association was a complex one and could hardly be reduced to the simplicities employed by Truman's opponents.

Machines no longer manage the big cities of America, but in the era of enormous urban growth that began in the 1880s, the machines did much to make cities endurable for immigrants and poor people; machines constituted the welfare system of their time, the boss helping with groceries, medical care, burial, and other necessities in return for loyalty on election day. His ward heelers ensured victory by getting out the vote. In Kansas City this meant getting out enough votes, real or otherwise, to defeat any state ticket or senatorial nominees put up in primaries by the rival political machine (also Democratic) of St. Louis. Pendergast voted absentees and dead people through use of "repeaters," frequently high school students who voted repeatedly on election day. "Ghost voters" often lived in empty lots, and dozens of them lived in tiny apartments. And then there were always the cemeteries, which inspired the election-day quip "Now is the time for all good cemeteries to come to the aid of the party." Pendergast lieutenants desired to show the boss their vote-getting abilities and frequently brought in more votes than occasions demanded.

Truman probably could not have entered Jackson County politics without support from Pendergast, even had he run only for eastern judge, since Pendergast's brother Mike controlled that part of the county. When running at large for presiding judge, he undoubtedly would have lost without Pendergast votes. He was an honest man, which recommended him to Pendergast, who needed an attractive figure on the court. He was cooperative about patronage, understanding that it was the glue of party loyalty. He always drew a line, which Pendergast respected, between patronage and graft, willing to provide the one but not the other. The two men maintained an easy relationship, and the boss looked to other office-holders, such as the city manager of Kansas City, if there was need for graft. Pendergast refused to support road contractors who thought Truman uncooperative for not giving them preference in contracts, insisting on the lowest bidder. Upon the death of Mike Pendergast in 1929, Presiding judge Truman became Tom Pendergast's lieutenant for the eastern part of the county.

During his years on the court Truman put through two major bond issues, totaling $14.4 million, and gave the county skillfully engineered cement roads, a beautiful art deco skyscraper courthouse in Kansas City, and a remodeled Georgian-style courthouse in Independence. Outside each courthouse he placed an equestrian statue of General Andrew Jackson.

It was contention with St. Louis that persuaded Boss Tom to back Truman for senator in 1934, after at least three prospective candidates refused what looked like a difficult race, but Truman, with a forty-thousand-vote plurality, won the primary, which ensured election in November. During the primary the state's senior senator, Bennett Champ Clark, son of the legendary Speaker of the House "Champ" Clark, fought him tooth and nail, and described Truman's campaign as afflicted with "unexampled mendacity." But, in the way of good politicians after defeat, he took Truman down the aisle of the Senate Chamber in January 1935 to be sworn in by Vice President John Nance Garner.

As a decade on the Jackson County court had made Truman conversant with the extraordinary convolutions of politics in a metropolitan county and had taught him how to measure factions and how to advance a forward-looking program, so a decade in the Senate taught him how national and even international issues focused on ninety-six men elected from all parts of the country. He learned how progressive legislation emerged from the work of perhaps a dozen relentlessly hardworking, imaginative senators who usually took the other members along in voting for what they produced. In his two terms, the second cut short by elevation to the vice presidency in January 1945, he joined the group of Senate leaders. In his second term, when he headed the Truman Committee to investigate the national defense effort, he became an outstanding member of the upper house.

His first term opened without fanfare, and President Roosevelt in the remote fastness of the White House required weeks before he found time to see the junior senator from Missouri. The president gave Truman a fifteen-minute appointment, but his secretary ushered the senator out after seven minutes. Roosevelt apparently considered him "the senator from Pendergast," a label Boss Tom may have pinned on Truman by relating expansively how steel corporations and railroads sent senators and he therefore had sent his "office boy." One of Truman's primary opponents in 1934 had claimed that Truman would have calluses on his ears, from the long-distance phone to Kansas City, and Roosevelt may have heard of that remark. To make matters worse, the new senator voted a straight New Deal line, which made him invisible; if he had threatened to get out of line during close votes or otherwise given the appearance of being unpredictable, he would have received attention. Roosevelt gave Missouri's patronage to the mercurial Bennett Clark, who took it as if he deserved it.

Truman's fellow senators ignored him, save for the maverick Democrat Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and one or two others. But Senator Wheeler liked Truman, instructed him in Senate ways, and put him on the railroad subcommittee of the Interstate Commerce Committee, where Truman soon was investigating the successive bankruptcies of major roads in the 1920s and 1930s, including the suspicious involvement of bankruptcy courts in high fees to law firms and financiers in New York. The resultant Truman-Wheeler Transportation Act of 1940 brought order out of corporate financial chaos. Truman was also author of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which provided an independent board and chairman for regulation of the fledgling aviation industry.

At the beginning of his second Senate term, Truman received dozens of letters from Missouri constituents concerning waste in construction at Fort Leonard Wood; in response, he persuaded the Senate to establish an investigating committee with himself as chairman that turned out remarkably well. At the outset the Roosevelt administration displayed no interest and indeed almost no support, and Senator James F. Byrnes allotted only $15,000 to investigate the expenditure of billions. Truman nonetheless brought together several serious-minded senators who made thirty investigations of major aspects of the defense and (after 7 December 1941) war effort, reportedly saving the nation $15 billion. Each Truman Committee report was carefully researched, and the mere threat of an adverse report usually brought correction of abuses.

By 1944, Truman had shown himself an adroit leader, on the local, state, and national levels, and hence was available, to use the political term, for the vice presidency. His achievements in Jackson County politics were almost legendary. On the state level he had managed not merely election to the Senate in 1934 but managed it again in 1940 when he won an extremely close primary campaign against Governor Lloyd C. Stark and another Democratic candidate by a plurality of 7,976 votes. In this campaign the odds had been appalling, be, cause Boss Tom Pendergast had been sentenced to Leavenworth prison for income tax evasion and because the Roosevelt administration favored Stark and refused to endorse Truman (although it did not endorse Stark either). Thereafter Truman showed remarkable leadership with the success of the Truman Committee.

In 1944, Roosevelt allowed party chieftains to recommend Truman as a running mate because the Missouri senator possessed many friends in the upper house and could assist passage of the United Nations treaty. Senators did not respect the vice president at the time, Henry A. Wallace, an aloof figure who took an interest in issues rather than personalities. On their side the party leaders proposed Truman because they considered him presidential timber and were certain that American voters would

reelect Roosevelt to a fourth term and that the president, whose health was deteriorating visibly, would die in office. Truman, let it be said, did not lift a finger for the nomination in 1944, in part because his wife disliked the goldfish-bowl aspect of Washington life and hated the prospect of the vice presidency and presidency; Truman knew, too, that if he had shown any ambition for the vice presidency, Roosevelt would not have liked it, for the president did not like ambitious people. As Truman saw support gathering for his nomination he did not absolutely refuse to accept it; he could have done a "General Sherman," refusing to consider the office under any circumstances, but he did not go that far. One has the impression that he was not unhappy when the office came his way. He knew it meant the presidency.

Following Roosevelt's election to his fourth term, Truman was sworn in as vice president on 20 January 1945, and in subsequent weeks began to accustom himself to his largely ceremonial duties. Then, on 12 April, while he was presiding over a tedious session of the Senate, a tragic scene was being enacted in Warm Springs, Georgia, where the president had gone, as so often before, for treatment of his paralysis. After sitting for his portrait in his small cottage Roosevelt complained of a terrific headache, lost consciousness, and died. Truman was summoned to the White House shortly after five o'clock to learn from Mrs. Roosevelt that he had become president of the United States.

Foreign Policies

When Harry Truman took the oath of office that evening at 7:09 in the Cabinet Room, he was as astonished as were the American people. He knew that the president's health was deteriorating, but the moment was astonishing.

The next day he told a group of newspapermen that he felt as if "the moon, the stars, and all the planets" had fallen upon him, and he asked them to pray for him. This remark, so expressive of his rural Baptist background, was widely quoted. (Privately, Truman doubted if they knew how to pray for him.)

From such remarks people concluded he was an ordinary individual who happened to become president. But he was hardly an ordinary man. Few, if any, leaders in Washington knew more about domestic American politics; the whole of his personal experience had made him a political master. Truman's only obvious lack of qualification for the presidency was his ignorance of international affairs, which were to occupy most of his time during his presidency.

It is a curious fact, not often noticed, that Truman's quickness in learning about foreign affairshe made errors in foreign policy in his first year of the presidency, but not manymay have been attributable to his knowledge of domestic politics. Truman in retirement ruminated about the qualities he so desperately needed upon entering the presidency after virtually no preparation by the secretive and otherwise absentminded Roosevelt, who (as Truman's assistant Clark Clifford once said) thought he would live forever. The president of 19451953 concluded that if a politician knows American domestic politics he can learn quickly about foreign relations. It does stand to reason that if a president, out of long experience, senses what the American people want, he can advance those desires internationally by relying, as Truman did from the outset, upon the negotiating abilities of the Department of State.

The first issue of foreign policy that Truman confronted was the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan. No decision of his presidency has drawn so much criticism as the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August). The question is whether he could have done anything elsethat is, whether he could have delayed use of the bombs by opting for a demonstration of their immense power or refused to employ what General Dwight D. Eisenhower described many years after its employment as an inhuman weapon.

Truman knew about the bomb before he became president. When he was chairman of the investigating committee his investigators had reported on the huge expenditures at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and at Hanford, Washington, the two principal production sites for uranium-235 and plutonium. When he and Roosevelt lunched together under a magnolia on the White House lawn in August 1944, just before the vice presidential candidate went out to campaign, the president told him the secret. At that time the bomb had not been tested.

After he entered the presidency, everything moved rapidly. When, on 16 July 1945, scientists tested a plutonium device (only enough U-235 was available for a single bomb, so they could not test the uranium weapon), they expected a low yield, equal to 5001,500 tons of TNT, and less effective explosive power because everything would be in a single war-head instead of many small bombs. At the very moment of testing, Truman and other high administration officials had just reached the Berlin suburb of Babelsberg in preparation for a Big Three conference that opened next day at Potsdam and lasted until 2 August; the president had no time to think much about a plutonium bomb that he now realized equaled 20,000 tons of TNT. At Potsdam the president spent two weeks in complicated discussion about Germany's occupation and the payment of reparations; the government and borders of Poland; the opening to all commerce of Europe's principal waterways; and a special declaration by the United States, Britain, and China (the Soviet Union did not take part because it had not yet entered the Far Eastern war) warning Japan in general terms to make peace with the Allies.

With the bomb available, and the president at Potsdam, it was necessary to make a decision, and Truman chose to use the new weapon. One reason for his decision was his feeling, and that of virtually all of his countrymen at the time, that the Japanese militaryand behind it the Japanese governmentdid not know how to wage civilized war. The Japanese army not merely had fought well in its campaigns, whether in offense or defense, but it had fought in bestial fashion. The first evidence had appeared in the sack of Nanking in 1937, in which at least 100,000 Chinese, soldiers and civilians alike, were slaughtered. The attack on Pearl Harbor had infuriated the American people, and there had followed the Bataan death march, a terrible affair. The small-scale attack of American bombing planes on Tokyo and other cities in 1942 was followed by another bloodbath of 100,000 or so deaths in China of anyone and everyone suspected of harboring American fliers. The Japanese defense of Manila against the attacking U.S. Army in 1945 may well have added another 100,000 mainly civilian deaths. The same number of American and Allied prisoners were in the hands of the Japanese army and, as it turned out, would have been slaughtered if the United States had invaded the Japanese home islands. And then there was the likely cost of an invasion of the southernmost island of Kyushu scheduled for 1 November 1945, followed by an invasion of Honshu (including the Tokyo plain) on 1 March 1946. At Iwo Jima in 1945 the United States had lost 6,200 men dead, at Okinawa 13,000. Using Okinawa as a measure, the much larger invasion of Kyushu and Honshu would have cost 65,000 deaths, and casualtiesmissing, wounded, and deadcould have run much higher because of the nearness of bases for the kamikaze planes that might have made chance hits on packed troopships. There was every evidence that Japanese forces would exact frightful casualties, all the while themselves fighting to the death.

The Potsdam Declaration by the United States, Great Britain, and China called upon Japan to surrender, although of course it did not mention the new weapon that might force such a result, as Congress itself, despite having paid the bill, did not know of the nuclear program. The Japanese government, in control of the military, contemptuously refused. The two bombs cost 110,000 lives and gave the military the excuse they needed to consider surrender. But even then the decision to surrender was forced by the emperor, who twice broke a tie vote among his highest advisers. A rebellion by the Tokyo division guarding the imperial palace that was fomented as a protest to the emperor's decision was put down only after the murder of its commander.

Truman's second major decision in foreign relations was to change the American stance in international affairs from abstention to participation, a decision that reversed the long-standing policy advocated by George Washington. This reversal, this change, established Truman's reputation as one of the nation's greatest presidents. His announcement of the change through the Truman Doctrine (12 March 1947), which promised United States support to countries threatened by Communism; the Marshall Plan (5 June 1947), which placed an economic. foundation under the struggling nations of Western Europe; and the North Atlantic Treaty (4 April 1949), which assured military assistance, resolved the economic and political near-chaos of Europe after World War II. These measures would, he believed, preserve democracy in Western Europe and thereby help preserve the freedom of the United States. The Truman Doctrine applied to Greece and Turkey. The Marshall Plan included most of the nations of Western Europe: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. (Switzerland signed the convention creating an organization for the plan, but refused to accept funds.) Congress included China in Marshall Plan appropriations. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) comprised the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Britain, Canada, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland; Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, West Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982.

At the time, the logic of Truman's measures may not have been evident to all Americans; many were confused because of proposed policy changes coming so close to the end of World War II, others saw politics in the president's international stance, and still others, having thought little in the past about international affairs, seemed determined to remain in ignorance. The leading figures of the administration, perhaps even the president, were not always sure where they were going; sometimes they were feeling their way. They all had many duties, and the crises came up quickly; they may even have lurched from crisis to crisis.

Confusion often reigned. In the midst of the administration's several measures, the Soviets began the land blockade of the western sectors of Berlin and an airlift became necessary from June 1948 until September 1949. In the Middle East the British government chose the date of 15 May 1948 to give up its mandate over Palestine, resulting not merely in the announcement on midnight of the preceding day, 14 May, of the birth of the State of Israel but in an almost immediate convergence of Arab armies upon the new state, hoping to stifle it at birth. Hostilities lasted until an armistice was worked out the next year. Truman extended almost immediate recognition to Israel, eleven minutes after the state's founding, but the United States remained neutral during the first of the Arab-Israeli wars.

Critics have maintained that Europe could have righted itself without Truman's measures, which, they have said, ensured a permanent cold war. Signs of Soviet weakness, economic and military, were visible at the time and often remarked upon. John Foster Dulles, then a member of an American delegation to a conference in Moscow in 1947, drove from the airport of the Russian capital through the streets to the Kremlin and beheld mile after mile of slums, rundown houses, and aging apartment buildings, the people in tatters. He easily concluded that the Soviet Union had a long way to go before it could match the economic might of the United States. Students of Soviet affairs later concluded that Premier Joseph Stalin in 19471949 needed a foreign enemy because the Soviet economy could not produce both peacetime and military goods and he sought to maintain control by threat of war. World War II revealed large groups of the populace, such as the Ukrainians, susceptible to Westernin this case, Germaninfluence. The Soviet Union defeated the German army, so the argument went, largely by masses of troops thrown against German forces and by primitive weapons similarly expended, but was not able to take its crude military might far beyond its borders.

These alarms and contentions could have no effect on President Truman and his assistants, who could act only on the need to do something to save Western Europeand also, to be sure, on the basis of what they saw, which was Soviet intransigence: vehement protest over peace talks held early in 1945 with German army representatives in Switzerland shortly before surrender of German troops in Italy; looting of territories traversed by the Red Army; indifference to the plight of captured Allied soldiers whose camps Soviet troops overran; demands for huge reparations from Western-occupied zones of Germany; and ruthless domination of the countries of Eastern Europe, despite promises of individual rights and liberties set out in the Yalta Declaration on Liberated Europe, to which the Soviets had promised support. When British, American, and French forces entered their allotted sectors of Berlin in July, they beheld evidences of Russian outrages against the city's population on every side. In ensuing months the Soviets turned the Council of Foreign Ministers, created by the Potsdam Conference to help restore order to Europe, into a debating group, Soviets versus Western Allies.

Then there was the immediate crisis of the spring of 1947. In 1946 it had become obvious that Western Europe's economies could not by themselves recover from the war. The harsh winter of 19461947 froze wheat in the ground, threatening dire food shortages. Coal supplies failed to reach cities, where inhabitants were without heat and frequently without electricity.

Truman did not quite sense the crisis until, in February 1947, the British government gave up support of Greece and Turkey, two weakened states on Europe's periphery, one afflicted by years of German occupation and the other threatened by invasion across the long Turkish-Soviet border. The resultant Truman Doctrine, backed by an appropriation of $400 million, inaugurated years of support that mounted to billions of dollars. The European Recovery Plan, announced by Secretary of State George C. Marshall at the Harvard commencement in June 1947, had an initial installment of $5.6 billion (passed by Congress in March 1948) and eventually totaled $13 billion. (In his inaugural address in 1949 the president proposed economic aid to developing countries, and this fourth point in the addressknown as Point Fourreceived modest congressional appropriations for a few years, mostly in the form of pilot projects of a technical nature, such as water systems or plans for increasing crop yields.) The Truman administration could not sign the North Atlantic Treaty until April 1949that is, until after the president had fought the "whistle stop" campaign of 1948 and become president in his own right. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization did not become an effective military organization until after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. General Dwight D. Eisenhower went to Europe as supreme commander of NATO in January 1951, a clear signal of United States commitment.

The Truman administration perhaps erred in making the Truman Doctrine of 1947 so all-inclusive: the president's enunciation of the doctrine, produced in the State Department, was hard-line and included any threatened country in the world. Administration opponents in Congress immediately raised the question of China, where Communists were fighting Nationalists. Representative Walter H. Judd of Minnesota inquired why the United States sought to protect Greece against Communism when its policy in China, set out clearly in the unsuccessful mission of General Marshall in 1946, was to bring the warring factions together. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson explained that China's size and population were immensely larger than those of Greece. Actually Acheson had asked a department speech-writer, Joseph M. Jones, to use expansive phrases in the Truman Doctrine speech so as to ensure congressional approval. When the United States in the 1960s involved itself in Vietnam, the phrases came to seem singularly inappropriate. It appeared that the Truman Doctrine had been intended to oppose Communism everywhere, including the Far Easta notion that never entered the minds of Truman and Acheson.

Fortune, as well as statesmanship, may have ensured success of the Marshall Plan, as the plan became known, for $13 billion merely primed Western Europe's economic pump. It was American orders for European goods during the so-called Korean War boom that ensured the revival of the European economies, allowing them to take off into the patterns of consumer consumption that had characterized the American economy since the 1920s.

NATO forces, galvanized by Eisenhower, never numbered much beyond the equivalent of twenty-five divisions, not enough to have prevented a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, although enough to prove that any attack was a serious matter, not a probing effort or an accident. The cost of American forces placed the United States at a disadvantage in trade with allies who did not pay for protecting themselves. And the second largest national contingent of NATO came from West Germany. Inclusion of Germans in NATO occurred only after years of contention with the French government that soured relations between Paris and Washington.

President Truman nonetheless pushed through the three major parts of his programthe Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATOto effect the permanent alignment of the United States with Western Europe. For a man who achieved the presidency through the death of his predecessor and whose political experience lay almost entirely in domestic issues, it was an extraordinary personal, as well as public, triumph.

The last leading issue of foreign affairs during Truman's presidency, the Korean War, also displayed his resolution, but its domestic political consequences obscured the essential achievement. Not until nearly half a century later, in the 1990s, when the Korean War had passed into history, was Truman's judgment vindicated.

On 24 June 1950 the president was visiting in Independence when he received the news from Secretary of State Acheson that 135,000 North Korean troops had begun crossing the thirty-eighth parallel into South Korea, equipped with Russian tanks and planesweapons the South Korean forces did not possessand that tanks were rumbling toward Seoul. The next afternoon, the president returned to Washington and, in his limousine en route to Blair House, where he was living during reconstruction of the White House, told Acheson and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, "By God, I'm going to let them have it!" At Blair House that evening his assistants worked out a strategy whereby American naval, air, and, eventually, ground forces entered the fighting in the next few days. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council voted to support South Korea. (The Soviet Union was then boycotting its meetings because the Chinese Nationalist representative occupied China's permanent seat, rather than a representative from Beijing, and thus there was no veto.)

In retrospect, it is clear that at the outset of the Korean War, Truman should have asked Congress for a declaration of war. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advised Truman that, as commander in chief of American armed forces and president of a United Nations member state, he had the right to help defend South Korean independence. He also said that the president might run into a long debate with Congress that could tie the chief executive's hands. Truman therefore described Korea as a "police action." A declaration in June 1950 would have been easily obtained, for Congress almost unanimously supported the war at its outset. Unfortunately, later, when the war became unpopular, the idea of a police action gave Truman's domestic political opponents an easy point of criticism, because the war had far outgrown the designation. Moreover, Truman unwittingly provided a precedent for the Vietnam War years later.

American fortunes in the Korean War wavered erratically, but Truman did his best, much to the confusion of the American people, who often failed to understand either tactics or strategy. The United States Army was so weak in June 1950 that it barely stopped the North Korean advance around the tip of the peninsula near the port of Pusan. The Inchon landing high upon the peninsula's west coast, near Seoul, righted matters, but movement into North Korea brought Chinese intervention in November and December, another retreat, and finally establishment of a line approximately at the thirty-eighth parallel. After seemingly interminable parleys, a truce was worked out in July 1953, after Truman had left the presidency.

In the course of the war, General Douglas MacArthur quarreled publicly with the president over strategy and sought to undercut him, and so Truman dismissed him from his Far Eastern commands in April 1951. The general did not merely contend to the president that he believed the Far East a much more important theater of Russian concern and possible aggression than Western Europe; he also talked to newspaper reporters about his strategic opinions and wrote letters voicing them. He also disagreed with the administration on tactics, for when the Chinese intervened, he wanted to use nuclear weapons against them. This, too, became public knowledge. And he made virtually diplomatic points in public, admonishing the North Koreans and Chinese or in other ways undercutting the State Department. The president issued a directive to subordinates, military and diplomatic, to clear their statements with each other, but MacArthur ignored it. When the two men met for a short conference at Wake Island on 15 October, it seemed that they were in agreement, but MacArthur's subsequent pronouncements made their disagreements obvious. America's allies began to doubt that Truman had the general under control; the British government was especially concerned. When Truman at last dismissed MacArthur, he replaced him with General Matthew B. Ridgway.

Truman's task during the long agony of Korea became one of explanation, and the task proved impossible. Few Americans knew much about Korea. It seemed a strangely unimportant peninsula in which to contain Communism. The timing also appeared wrongmainland China had fallen to the Communists in October 1949. The strategic contentions of MacArthur, with their easy solutionsbombing mainland China, perhaps with nuclear weapons, and sowing a belt of radioactive cobalt across the thirty-eighth parallel with a half-life of sixty-two years (a notion disclosed only after MacArthur's death)required a return to the prenuclear age. ("There is no substitute for victory," he wrote the Republican minority leader of the House of Representatives, Joseph W. Martin, Jr.) Republican leaders in Congress espied an opportunity for a "great debate" in which they could refuse the bipartisanship so successful in Western Europe; Republican presidential nominees had failed in every election since 1928, and an irresistible opportunity arose for victory in 1952.

Truman's problemsthe public's confusion and ignorance, the cries of military and political opponents, and spiraling inflation caused by war orderswere compounded by American casualties of 33,237 men dead, 103,376 wounded, and 410 missing. The American people, Truman often said, understood issues when they were explained to them. That was true of domestic political issues, as the president knew from his whistle-stop explanations, but the international issues in Korea did not lend themselves to explanation from the rear platform of a train.

The trouble with the Korean conflict was that the American people did not yet understand the requirements of statesmanship by a great power in a nuclear age. What really needed to be saidand the administration sought vainly to say itwas that the invention of nuclear weapons had made all-out war in the style of the two world wars impossible and that the differences of the United States and the Soviet Union were likely to flare into limited war in insecure places like Korea and become tests of their resolution. Truman, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary Acheson, and Secretary of Defense Marshall, who had replaced Johnson, knew that only force, coupled with negotiation, would hold the line, but they were unable to convince many.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the purposes of the Soviets in Korea were altogether unclear. The administration was therefore uncertain about what it itself was attempting to doto prevent the Soviets from taking Korea through use of North Korean or Chinese troops; to save Japan by preserving the Korean buffer; or to convince the Soviets that the United States would fight anywhere, even in East Asia, and thereby prevent the Soviets from overrunning Western Europe before the United States could organize NATO. The memoirs of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, published years later, undisguisedly admitted Soviet involvement and offered a presumption that weaknesses of the South Korean regime of President Syngman Rhee, together with such American testimony as Secretary Acheson's speech of January 1950 in which he failed to mention South Korea as within the United States' "defense perimeter" in Asia, encouraged the Soviets to explore American resolution. The Kremlin may also have desired to involve the Communist Chinese against the United States, in the hope that the Beijing regime might busy itself in a peripheral area of Asia, away from Soviet borders. Years later, in 1993, an American researcher in the former Soviet archives was given a document proving that Stalin had started the Korean Warby giving the green light to the head of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, and arranging the date of attack. The purpose was to see how far Kim could go.

Domestic Policies

Truman's domestic policies as president took far less of his time, and proved far less successful, than his foreign policies. Here also he dealt with three major issues: administration of the modern American presidency, a legislative program known as the Fair Deal, and Republican accusations of internal subversion and corruption. He managed well with two of these domestic matters.

Students of the Truman presidency do not often realize that Truman was the first chief executive to organize the administration of his high office. He was not the first modern American president; Franklin Roosevelt deserves that distinction. Under Roosevelt the old ways of the presidency disappeared, for during the New Deal and World War II the government became too large; never again could a president conduct his affairs with a few assistants and enjoy leisure that took him out of White House offices for large parts of each day. But none of these presidents had large office staffs, although Roosevelt had expanded the White House staff from thirty-seven people in March 1933 to several times that number in 1945 and had also arranged for a new group of assistants, the Executive Office of the President, created in 1939 at the recommendation of a federal commission. Truman turned the energies of these assistants to presidential problems rather than, as under Roosevelt, internecine rivalries. He deplored Roosevelt's sloppy and sometimes byzantine administrative ways. He sought ideas from his assistants, welcomed arguments over matters of policy, and asked that contentions be set forth in well-reasoned memoranda. Once he set the lines of policy, he expected support from assistants.

In addition to reorganizing the White House staff, Truman vastly expanded the Executive Office of the President, both because he believed it needed expansion and because Congress forced his hand. Uncertain over the economic advice Roosevelt had received, Congress in 1946 created the Council of Economic Advisers, a three-man panel of trained economists. The National Security Act of 1947 and its 1949 amendments then created an organization for presidential coordination of defense and foreign policy, the National Security Council. At first Truman gave it little attention, but after the outbreak of the Korean War, he attended its sessions and used it carefully as a management device. The act created the Department of Defense, reduced the navy and army to subcabinet status, added an air force subdepartment, and created the Central Intelligence Agency.

Truman also brought the sprawling federal bureaucracy under control. At the outset of his tenure, he found that the bureaucracy had grown from 600,000 civilian employees in 1932 to 2.6 million twenty years later, with 4,000 in the judicial branch, 22,500 in the legislative, and 2.57 million in the executive (1.3 million in defense, 500,000 in the post office, and the rest in other activities). He could not have controlled his part of this mass through the White House staff and the Executive Office staff. Moreover, most civilian employees were under civil service; the president appointed only 3,000. Truman therefore had to rely on his cabinet. He trusted that cabinet members would control their departments and thereby do the bidding of his administration. His management of the cabinet hence turned out to be far different from that of Roosevelt and other of his twentieth-century predecessors. Cabinet departments, to be sure, had been far smaller in pre-Roosevelt days, and perhaps it was easier for a president to ignore the cabinet. Truman, upon becoming president, was appalled to learn of the formlessness of the Roosevelt cabinet: Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins had lost almost all of her department's divisions and agencies, and cabinet members fought each other openly, leaking their arguments to newspaper reporters. He dismissed most of the Roosevelt appointees in the initial months of his administration. He insisted upon dealing directly with members of the cabinet, and it was their task, he said, both to show loyalty to him and to control their departments. Not all Truman cabinet appointees proved able; but in the crucial areas of military and foreign affairs, his appointments were generally excellent. Cabinet meetings became business sessions, each official taking up his problems by bringing them before the group, with the president making the decision himself.

The domestic legislation of the Truman era followed carefully the main lines of expansion of economic and social programs advanced by the New Deal. At the outset, in September 1945, Truman sent to Congress a sixteen-thousand-word message proposing full-employment and fair-employment-practices bills, federal control of the unemployment compensation program, a large housing program, and the development of natural resources. The proposals ran into a hail of criticism ("brickbats," Truman privately described them), and not much came from this message offered so early in his presidency. Most of his initial months were consumed by arguments whether price controls would prevent inflation while manufacturers sought to fill the huge postwar demand for civilian goods. In 19471949 the president offered his major change in American foreign policythe Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO. In 1948, politics and the Berlin blockade took much time. Only in early 1949 could he go back to his domestic program of three years before. The program of 1949 contained twenty-four points and began with the words "Every segment of our population and every individual has the right to expect from our government a fair deal." This promised development of tried-and-true New Deal themes proposed federal control of prices, credit, commodities, exports, wages, and rents; a broadening of civil rights laws; low-cost housing; and a 75-cent minimum wage. It asked repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, which had passed over a presidential veto in 1947 and which outlawed industry-wide strikes, closed shops, and mass picketing; made unions liable to suits; required union leaders, before they could use the National Labor Relations Board, to file affidavits declaring that they were not Communists; set up cooling-off periods before strikes; prohibited the use of union funds for political contributions; and gave the president power to obtain antiunion injunctions. The Fair Deal promised increased coverage for Social Security, federal aid to education, and compulsory health insurance. The last issue brought Truman into frontal conflict with the American Medical Association, whose leaders cried "socialized medicine" and eventually helped to establish private programs of health insurance.

The time was not right for the Fair Deal, in either 1945 or 1949. In the immediate postwar years, the desire to relax, to have done with challenges, governed the popular mood; the exertions of the New Deal era followed by those of wartime had been too much. Truman himself bemoaned the public selfishness of the early postwar period when arguments between his administration and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who wanted to lift price controls because of shortages, notably a meat shortage in 1946, persuaded the president to give up the effort to control consumer prices. He may well have reached the low point of his presidency that year when he wrote out a speech about price controls, which he did not give but which came close to offering his resignation from the presidency. Victory in the election of 1948 and the exhilaration of becoming president in his own right in January 1949 momentarily convinced him that the old American spirit of self-sacrifice and generosity again was abroad in the land, that Americans by voting Democratic had affirmed the New Deal and the Fair Deal. Then he began to sense that his mandate was more personal than public, a recognition of his attractive, fighting personality rather than of his ideas for economic and social legislation. He managed to get parts of his program through the Eighty-first Congress, and the rest of it became a blueprint for successor administrations.

Truman made a valiant attempt to rationalize the nation's agricultural productionto solve what generations of Americans, ever since the opening of the Trans-Mississippi West, had described as the farm problem. Truman's secretary of agriculture during his second term, the able Charles F. Brannan, a long-time high official of the department, proposed what the president announced as the Brannan Plan, perhaps the most promising advance in agricultural policy by the federal government in the present century. The Roosevelt administration had assisted farmers through a crazy quilt of fixed prices and other measurements that tended to assist larger farmers, leaving the American consumer to pick up the check for the support program in the form of higher prices. This policy undercut exports, and the consumer picked up that loss when farmers sold their excess to the government at support prices. The consumer also paid for storing the excess, which the government then usually gave away. Brannan proposed to support all farm products, not just a few, and to translate support into units, such as ten bushels of corn. The plan entitled each farmer to price support for eighteen hundred units, no more, eliminating the advantage of the large farmer. In addition, it proposed direct subsidies instead of government loans and purchase agreements.

But the Republicans would not support his farm program. They preferred to let prices fall and de-claimed against subsidies in favor of disguised payments, such as price supports and conservation awards. The Brannan Plan failed of support, and the farm problem staggered on.

The Fair Deal scored a triumph in one important respectthe first national breakthrough in the protection of civil rights of black Americans. (Most earlier civil rights measures had not been reinforced by adequate enforcement legislation.) Truman had grown up in a family that had celebrated the death of Lincoln. The Missouri of his youth was lily-white. But his reading and his plain observation of the realities of life in Missouri and across the nation convinced him that oppression at home was as bad as, or even worse than (because it was far more easily remedied), oppression abroad. Late in 1946 he established the Committee on Civil Rights, which presented its report, To Secure These Rights, in October 1947. The cabinet split over the question of asking Congress for legislation, but Truman followed his own course and, on 2 February 1948, sent Congress a ten-point civil rights message calling for a new law against lynching, a federal fair-employment-practices committee, an end to segregation in interstate transportation, and protection of the right to vote. None of these proposals was enacted, and had to await later times.

The Democratic convention of 1948 in Philadelphia turned into a donnybrook over civil rights, with representatives from the Deep South departing the hall in high dudgeon to found their anti-black-rights party, the States' Rights Democrats, a "spoiler" group that hoped to gain attention for its position by throwing the election into the House of Representatives. The Dixiecrats, as the group became known, led by Governor J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, presented proof, if such were needed, of Truman's dedication to civil rights. The president already faced a challenge to party unity from the Progressive party, supporters of former Vice President Wallace. Truman could ill afford espousal of black rights in 1948. But he did not hesitate. Neither did Thurmond. A reporter asked the governor why he was taking the drastic step of forming a new party. "President Truman is only following the platform that Roosevelt advocated," the reporter argued. "I agree," Thurmond said. "But Truman really means it." After the election, when civil rights legislation met resistance in Congress, Truman, by executive order, forced compliance with nondiscriminatory rules in government contracts, and by the end of 1951 the order covered a fifth of the nation's economy. During the Korean War the integration of the armed forces, begun in 1948 by executive order, reached completion.

The third major domestic issue during the Truman administration centered on a twin accusation by the Republicans that the president made little effort to clean the Communists out of government departments and that he condoned and covertly supported corruption among members of the White House staff and within government departments. When the Republicans challenged the Democrats in the election of 1952, it was through a crafty formula suggested by Senator Karl E. Mundt of South DakotaK 1C 2. The Korea part was clear enough, and C 2 stood for Communism and corruption. The amalgam of charges produced by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin in 1950, along with the conviction of the onetime State Department officer Alger Hiss for perjury that year and the discovery that spy rings had infiltrated the wartime and postwar nuclear projects, promised to push the GOP to victory in 1952. Combined with charges of Democratic corruption, which had some small basis in fact, the Republican strategy became almost irresistible.

Truman's Republican opponents pressed the Communism-in-government issue, and the president could not easily deny the charge, for a denial would necessarily have forced him to answer many trumped-up chargesand his enemies would always have the advantage of first exposure with their assertions. Moreover, Communists did get into the government, for how else could they have attempted to obtain nuclear secrets or, for that matter, subvert the government? The numbers were minuscule, judging from what the Federal Bureau of Investigation managed to turn up, but the controversy persisted. Truman established the Federal Employee Loyalty Program in 1947, by executive order. By mid-1952 the government had screened 4 million of its employees or prospective employees and dismissed or denied employment to 378 (0.022 percent of the total). The program threatened civil liberties and provided an atmosphere in which character assassins thrived.

The president also had to deal with the charge that the Republicans linked to Communismnamely, corruption. It was in meeting allegations of corruption within the federal government, in the White House staff, and particularly in the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) that the president's patience with his political tormentors nearly ran out. Truman became irritated over this issue of domestic politics, and of course, the more intransigent he became, the harder the opposition hammered at their points about corruption. There may also have been a failure of the president's political experience in this regard, for in his political training with the Pendergast machine he had learned that his efforts at reform had to yield to things as they were. Still another factor entered into his clumsiness in dealing with the corruption issueloyalty. When a subordinate or a friend got into trouble, he instinctively went to his defense.

One of the president's principal errors in handling the corruption issue was his loyalty to an old Missouri friend from World War I days, his military aide, Major General Harry H. Vaughan, an honest but imprudent man. Despite his friendship for Vaughan, he should have cut him loose. Vaughan accepted several freezers, and one of these appliances found its way to 219 North Delaware Street, the president's house in Independence. Vaughan also was friendly with a few individuals who procured federal contracts for a fee of 5 percent. The term "fivepercenter" became a political epithet. General Vaughan was not transferred but remained in the White House for Truman's entire administration.

More unfortunate was presidential insensitivity to corruption in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and the BIR. The RFC naturally attracted employees who made themselves useful to borrowers and left government employ for private enterprise; one of them, unfortunately from Missouri, presented his wife, a secretary in the White House, with a mink coat worth $9,540, paid for by a lawyer for a firm seeking an RFC loan. Congress abolished the RFC in 1953. The BIR offered similar temptations and too many political appointments to collector-ships in regional offices around the country. The BIR was the most sensitive government bureau because its operations touched all taxpayers. The president should have watched it closely and moved against miscreants instantly. In his last months in office, he reorganized the BIR by reducing the numbers of regional districts and collectors and placing almost all of the bureau's personnel under civil service.

Opinion polls reflected Truman's failure to marshal public support during his second term, and by November 1951 his popularity had dropped to 23 percent, down from a July 1945 high of 87 percent. This rating was one point lower than that of President Richard M. Nixon on the eve of his resignation in 1974. For the rest of Truman's administration his popularity rating was very low, and by January 1953 it had risen to only 31 percent.

Part of the reason for Truman's low popularity was the tactics he used to deal with the steel strike of 1952. After appealing to capital and labor, he discovered the animosity and uncooperativeness of both, which seemed especially egregious in the midst of the Korean War. Seeking not to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, he chose to seize the mills in the name of the government. The mill owners went to court, and the resultant decision, in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer, forced Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to give the mills back to the owners and constituted a sharp blow to Truman's prestige. It was one of the century's most important Supreme Court decisions limiting the power of the president.

Early in 1952, Truman announced that he would not run for another term, which he could have done, since he had not served two full terms. He chose, instead, to support Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, who was chosen Democratic standard-bearer that summer. Stevenson sought to distance himself from the Truman administration because of its low public esteem. For a while the president was angry with Stevenson, whom he believed ungrateful. In the autumn, nonetheless, Truman campaigned against the Republican candidate, General Eisenhower, who triumphed easily in the November election.

All in all it was an immensely successful presidency. Truman had kept at the task of leading the government and nation, in belief that posterity would uphold his purposes, foreign and domestic, and that belief has proved well founded. His indefatigable energy despite his age (he was sixty-eight when he left office), his innate modesty that allowed for judgment without involving personal feelings, and his invincible pride in his country carried him forward despite the confusions of his time. In foreign policy he made the decision to use nuclear weapons, whatever it promised for his historical reputation. He rightly took pride in changing the nation's course, from isolation and occasional intervention to participation through the measures of 19471949. The Korean War held the line against Communism. In domestic affairs he left the executive branch securely organized, an extraordinarily helpful inheritance for his successor Eisenhower. The Fair Deal appeared to Truman as a thoroughly reasonable program, a belief justified by its enactment in the 1960s and retention by subsequent administrations, Republican as well as Democratic. The issues of Communism and corruption, which bedeviled his last years in the White House, he firmly believed to be (to use his often-quoted description for the former) a red herring, and mostly they were, although his usual political judgment failed him in handling the latter.

Truman lived nearly twenty years after his presidency. He returned to Independence and the white Victorian house built shortly after the Civil War, renewing acquaintance with the town through brisk morning walks. He published his memoirs in two thick volumes in 19551956, presided over fundraising for construction of the Harry S. Truman Library, and became an active Democratic spokesman. In the mid-1960s he slowed down, for ill health brought his activities virtually to a halt. In his last years he returned to the reading of history, biographies of America's leaders of the past, and narrative accounts of the development of American government. The artist Thomas Hart Benton sketched him in a book-lined room of the Delaware Street house in 1971, piles of books across the desk, the old president holding a book in gnarled, arthritic hands. In this manner he passed the time until his death on 26 December 1972.


Brief biographies are Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency (Boston, 1983), Roy Jenkins, Truman (New York, 1986), William E. Pemberton, Harry S. Truman: Fair Dealer and Cold Warrior (Boston, 1989), and R. Alton Lee, Harry S. Truman: Where Did the Buck Stop ? (New York, 1991). David McCullough, Truman (New York, 1992), and Alonzo L. Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (New York, 1995), are views of Truman and his times; Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman: A Life (Columbia, Mo., 1994), focuses on Truman.

Richard Lawrence Miller, Truman: The Rise to Power (New York, 1986), stops with the presidency but contains much analysis of the president's early life. So does an authorized biography by Jonathan Daniels, The Man of Independence (Philadelphia, 1950), of much interest because Daniels talked with Truman family members and friends in Missouri a dozen years before the Truman Library's oral history program began. See also Alfred Steinberg, The Man from Missouri: The Life and Times of Harry S. Truman (New York, 1962), by an able freelancer. Cabell Phillips, The Truman Presidency: The History of a Triumphant Succession (New York, 1966), is by a New York Times reporter in Washington during Truman's presidency. Robert J. Donovan, Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 19451948 (New York, 1977) and Tumultuous Years: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 19491953 (New York, 1982), are definitive accounts by a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune during the Truman years. A smaller book on the same subject is Donald R. McCoy, The Presidency of Harry S. Truman (Lawrence, Kans., 1984).

Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, vol. 1; Year of Decisions (Garden City, N.Y., 1955) and vol. 2, Years of Trial and Hope (Garden City, N.Y., 1956), constitute a huge analysis of the presidency, with a short narrative of the president's earlier years in the first volume. Francis H. Heller, "Harry S. Truman: The Writing of His Memoirs," in George Egerton, ed., Political Memoir: Essays on the Politics of Memory (London, 1994), is by Truman's principal assistant on the memoirs. Truman Speaks (New York, 1960) is a collection of lectures Truman gave at Columbia University in 1959; and Mr. Citizen (New York, 1960) covers his postpresidential years. Charles Robbins and Bradley Smith, Last of His Kind: An Informal Portrait of Harry S. Truman (New York, 1979), is based on interviews with Truman in Independence in 1953, after retirement.

Margaret Truman, Harry S. Truman (New York, 1973), and her Bess W. Truman (New York, 1986), are of course personally biographical.

Ken Hechler, Working with Truman: A Personal Memoir of the White House Years (New York, 1982), is by a White House staffer. Francis H. Heller, ed., The Korean War: A Twenty-Five-Year Perspective (Lawrence, Kans., 1977), The Truman White House: The Administration of the Presidency, 19451953 (Lawrence, Kans., 1980), and Economics and the Truman Administration (Lawrence, Kans., 1981), are reports of conferences of former administration officials and scholars held by the Truman Library.

Robert Underhill, The Truman Persuasion (Ames, Iowa, 1981), is a study of the president's speechmaking but contains much information generally about the presidency. Franklin D. Mitchell, Harry S. Truman and the News Media: Contentious Relations, Belated Respect (Columbia, Mo., 1998), offers insight to some of the most frank press conferences in recent history. Monte M. Poen, Harry S. Truman versus the Medical Lobby: The Genesis of Medicare (Columbia, Mo., 1979), was another exercise in frankness. Andrew J. Dunar, The Truman Scandals and the Politics of Morality (Columbia, Mo., 1984), is excellent for its subject.

Documents appear in Robert H. Ferrell, ed., Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York, 1980), selected from letters, memoranda, and diary entries beginning in April 1945; The Autobiography of Harry S. Truman (Boulder, Colo., 1980), which draws together autobiographical fragments; and Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 19101959 (New York, 1983), half of the cache of letters discovered in the Truman house after Mrs. Truman's death in 1982. See also Monte M. Poen, ed., Strictly Personal and Confidential: The Letters Harry Truman Never Mailed (Boston, 1982), letters Truman wrote and had second thoughts about mailing; and Truman's Letters Home (New York, 1984), another drawing on the remarkable resources of the Truman Library.

Robert H. Ferrell, Truman: A Centenary Remembrance (New York, 1984), is biography and photographs; James N. Giglio and Greg G. Thielen, Truman in Cartoon and Caricature (Ames, Iowa, 1984), shows how its subject lent himself to caricature; and Richard S. Kirkendall, ed., The Harry S. Truman Encyclopedia (Boston, 1989), is indeed encyclopedic.

Recent works include Steve Neal, Harry and Ike: The Partnership That Remade the Postwar World (New York, 2001) and Michael J. Hogan, A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 19451954 (Cambridge and New York, 2000). The issue of Truman's relations with the political boss of Kansas City in the latter 1920s and 1930s appears in Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston, Pendergast! (Columbia, Mo., 1997); and Robert H. Ferrell, Truman and Pendergast (Columbia, Mo., 1999); and Rudolph H. Hart-mann, The Kansas City Investigation: Pendergast's Downfall, 1938-1939, edited by Ferrell (Columbia, Mo., 1999). On the 1948 election see Harold I. Gullan, The Upset That Wasn't: Harry S. Truman and the Crucial Election of 1948 (Chicago, 1998), and Zachary Karabell, The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election (New York, 2000).

A reprinting of books by or about President Truman, known by its piquant title, the Give 'Em Hell Harry series, begun in 1996, has again made available books mentioned above by Daniels, Donovan, Dunar, Ferrell, Hechler, and Poen, with more to come.

Harry S. Truman

views updated May 21 2018

Harry S. Truman

Born May 8, 1884
Lamar, Missouri
Died December 26, 1972
Kansas City, Missouri

American president and judge

Harry S. Truman became the thirty-third president of the United States when his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, died in 1945. Truman stepped into office at a time when the world was changing and the conflicts were redhot. Among his many acts as president were the decision to use atomic weapons to bring an end to World War II (1939–45); programs that helped to restructure Europe after the war; help in founding the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and leading the United States through the Korean War (1950–53) and the cold war, a period of political anxiety and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that stopped short of full-scale war. Because Truman came from a humble rural background and did not have a college education, he gained an image as the "common man." He was proud of this image, founded on the hard work, common sense, and practical wisdom he learned early in life, and combined it effectively with his uncommon abilities, ethics, and determination.

Family life in Missouri

Harry S. Truman was born May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, the son of John Anderson and Martha Ellen Truman. John Truman had been running a horse and mule business in Lamar, but soon after Harry's birth he turned to farming the family farm in Grandview in 1887. The family moved in 1890 to Independence, Missouri, where John Truman returned to the animal trading business. He made a comfortable living for his family, and from childhood Harry Truman was called on to perform daily chores and to help on the farm.

Truman's childhood was marked by a loving and devoted family. He was very close to his mother, who was college-educated and taught him to read and to value the arts. His father was a politically active Democrat, who brought his son with him to political meetings. His grandfather on his mother's side, Solomon Young, was another great influence. (His grandfather on his father's side was Anderson Shippe Truman. Harry received the middle initial "S," which did not stand for anything, to recognize both grandfathers. That is why his middle initial often appears without the usual period after it.) The family was regular in its church attendance, and Truman is said to have read the Bible twice through by the time he was twelve.

The young Truman was an excellent student, the favorite of many teachers. He was an avid reader, and loved to read biographies of great men. His eyesight was very poor, however, and he had to start wearing glasses at an early age, making him unable to participate in sports (glasses in those days were very fragile). At the age of ten, Truman and his brother both developed a disease called diptheria. There was no cure for the disease at that time, and Truman's case became so severe that he was paralyzed for months. He was left terribly thin and weak after his illness, but when he recovered he managed to catch up in school and then went on to skip a grade. Truman worked very hard preparing to fulfill his dream of going to one of the military academies, West Point or Annapolis. But when he graduated from high school in 1901 at the age of seventeen, the academies rejected him because his eyesight was so poor. At the time, his family's finances were in poor shape. There was no way to pay for college, so Truman began looking for work.

Work and war

Truman worked briefly as timekeeper for a railroad construction contractor and then moved to nearby Kansas City. He worked as a clerk in banks in the city for five years. During that time he joined the Missouri National Guard, which he served from 1905 to 1911. After that, he returned to the family farm, where he worked for the next ten years. He managed the six-hundred-acre spread largely by himself. It was difficult work that required intense scheduling to juggle the tasks and many long hours. The habits Truman acquired on the farm—rising at 5 a.m. daily and handling all the details of administration by himself—stood him well for the rest of his life.

At the outbreak of World War I (1914–18), Truman enlisted in the army almost immediately. He helped organize his National Guard battery into a regiment, and it was soon called into service as the 129th Field Artillery. In France, he was promoted to captain and given command of Battery D, the most unruly battery in the regiment, which had already gone through four commanders. Truman proved to have a strong talent for managing men. He successfully brought his unit through several major actions in the war. His troops idolized him, calling him Captain Harry. Years later, at Truman's presidential inauguration, they marched on each side of his car in the parade. After the war, he joined the reserves and was commissioned a major. He was promoted to colonel on June 17, 1932.

Upon his return to the United States, Truman married his childhood sweetheart, Bess Wallace, on June 28, 1919. He and an army associate, Eddie Jacobson, set up a haberdashery in Kansas City. The store, Truman & Jacobson, failed in 1922. Saddled with debts totaling about $20,000, Truman stubbornly refused to file bankruptcy proceedings and insisted upon repaying his creditors, which took him more than fifteen years to accomplish.

The Pendergast machine and an entry to politics

During this period, Thomas J. "Tom" Pendergast, boss of the Kansas City Democratic machine, appointed Truman to a Jackson County position as an overseer of highways, a post that he held for a year. (The Pendergast machine was a very organized political unit, with some of its powers arising from corrupt practices, that acted under Pendergast's leadership to rule Kansas City, and later Missouri, politics.) Next Pendergast chose Truman to run for the position of county judge for Jackson County. Truman served as judge from 1922 to 1924 but was defeated when he ran for a second term. Around this time, Truman's only child, his daughter Margaret, was born, and the family was without income. They managed to hold on until 1926, when he ran for, and was elected, presiding judge, a post he held for eight years. Truman was determined to measure up to his new title and, although Missouri law did not require that a county judge be a qualified lawyer, he studied law in a Kansas City night school from 1923 to 1925.

Truman ran for the Senate in 1934 and easily won the election. Despite his association with the Pendergast political machine, with its dishonesty and corruption a matter of public record, Truman had established a reputation for personal honesty. In 1940, when he came up for reelection, the Pendergast machine had collapsed. More than two hundred persons associated with the machine had been convicted of vote fraud and Pendergast himself had been convicted of income tax evasion and was sentenced to serve a prison term. Despite his association with the discredited machine, Truman won the primary and the regular election; his own record won him the votes he needed.

Truman never tried to conceal the fact that it was with Pendergast's help that he got his political start. His views on the ethics of machine politics were frank and very practical. After he was nominated for the vice presidency, fellow Democrats urged him to disown his political mentor. He refused, and when Pendergast died in January 1945, Truman attended the funeral.

Senator Harry Truman

Truman made his big splash as senator by attacking military spending. Having learned of wasteful spending from his constituents, he persuaded the Senate to establish an investigating committee, which he chaired. At first, the Roosevelt administration paid little attention; his committee was only allotted $15,000 to investigate billions in possible waste. But Truman was determined; he brought together senators who conducted thirty investigations of major aspects of defense and war spending. It was estimated that the Truman Committee saved the nation $15 billion. Truman had proved his leadership abilities in the Senate and many top Democrats began to view him as presidential material.

The moon, the stars, and all the planets fall

In the July 1944 Democratic National Convention, Truman was nominated as the vice presidential candidate to run with Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945). He had served as vice president only eighty-three days when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. The next day Truman told a group of newspaper reporters he felt as if "the moon, the stars, and all the planets" had fallen upon him, and he asked them to pray for him. Roosevelt had been secretive and provided him with no preparation for his post as president. Wisely, he asked the members of Roosevelt's cabinet and his advisers to stay in their posts. Most agreed Truman was off to a good start as president, his personality contributing greatly to his success. He listened well to his advisers. He was ready and willing to act on urgent matters after getting the advice of the right people.

And at the time Truman took office there were many urgent matters before him. World War II, although winding to an end in Europe, was still being fought with Japan in the Pacific. Almost at once, Truman found himself trying to deal with the leaders of England and the Soviet Union, who had made their agreements with Roosevelt. By July 6, 1945, he was participating in a conference dealing with the major issues of the war with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) at Potsdam in Germany.

The Allies and Japan

In the summer of 1945, Japan continued to fight, although exhausted from the war. Military leaders of the Allied powers (the United States, the British Commonwealth, the Soviet Union, and other European nations) estimated that it might take another eighteen months to subdue Japan and that invading her borders would be necessary. There was a new development to consider, too. The United States had successfully formed an atom bomb. Whether or not to use this new weapon was part of the Potsdam discussion. Another eighteen months of war would cost numerous lives on both sides. Already, air raids had claimed countless lives: seventy-eight thousand in Tokyo alone. Invading Japan, if the bomb wasn't used, would probably kill more than one million people on both sides. The three Allied leaders agreed to bring the war to an end quickly and warned Japan to surrender or be destroyed. Finally, Truman chose the path he felt would result in the fewest casualties: he ordered the atom bomb to be used to bring Japan to the peace table, but requested that it not be dropped on the most heavily populated areas near Tokyo and Kyoto.

Dropping the bomb

On August 6, 1945, the atom bomb was dropped at Hiroshima. Some seventy-five thousand people in this military city were killed and nearly one hundred thousand injured or declared missing. On August 8, Russia declared war on Japan per a prior agreement among the Allies. The next day an American plane dropped a second atom bomb on the naval base at Nagasaki; eighty thousand people were killed or injured. On August 14, Japan agreed to surrender and to accept an initial military rule under the commander of the U.S. forces in the Far East, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964; see entry).

Peace and the division of Korea

A problem arose, however, in the agreements that were made prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb in regard to the Soviet Union's position in Korea. When, at the Potsdam conference, the Allies had asked the Soviets to join the war in the Pacific at such time as the war in Europe was over, they had thought that the Japanese troops in Manchuria, China, were likely to give them trouble if they invaded the Japanese homelands. They hoped that Soviet soldiers would contend with them in China. Once the atomic bombs stopped the war, however, this was no longer an issue. But the Soviets, according to earlier plan, were already in Manchuria and marching into Korea when the atom bombs fell. The U.S. troops could not immediately get to Korea, and it was feared that the Soviet Union would take over the whole peninsula. MacArthur quickly announced a plan for the Japanese surrender. In the plan he proposed a line across Korea at the 38th parallel; Soviet military leaders would accept the surrender of Japanese forces north of the 38th parallel, while the United States would accept the surrender south of that line. The Soviets did not object, and thus the land of Korea was split into two zones. By 1948, both North and South Korea had established their own governments; Soviet and American troops then withdrew. North Korea was firmly communistic, with support coming in from China as well as the Soviet Union. (Communism is a a set of political beliefs that advocates the elimination of private property. It is a system in which goods are owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals and are available to all as needed.) South Korea had set up a democratic government that drew support from the United States.

Monumental changes in foreign policy

Truman had become president at the end of a world war. With no prior foreign affairs experience, he faced international issues of huge proportions. It was in this capacity that he made significant historical changes, with the help of an able staff that included Dean Acheson (1893–1971; see entry), at first undersecretary of state and later full secretary of state. Truman and his team reversed the U.S. foreign policy that had included years of isolationism (not getting involved in external conflicts) and initiated cold war logic. Observing that the Soviet Union was working to expand its empire worldwide— the Soviet Union was composed of fifteen communist republics—they believed that the goal of all foreign policy had to be the containment of communism to its existing borders. With that end in mind, the Truman administration announced its far-reaching cold war programs: the Truman Doctrine on March 12, 1947, which promised United States support to countries threatened by communism; the Marshall Plan on June 5, 1947, which provided billions in financial aid to struggling Western European countries; and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on April 4, 1949, which assured military assistance among the allied Western European nations.

As Truman was taking these steps, the world was changing. Berlin, Germany, had been divided between the Soviet Union and the Western allies. In June 1948, the Soviets began a land blockade of the western sectors of the city and the United States had to begin airlifting supplies to Germans behind the blockade. On May 14, 1948, the new State of Israel was born in Palestine, and at the same time Arab armies attacked, hoping to eliminate the new nation before it was settled. In 1947, Greece and Turkey lost the support of the British and, threatened by Soviet expansionism, began to receive U.S. aid via the Truman Doctrine.

Declining popularity and reelection

By the time he came up for election, Truman's popularity had begun to decline. Fewer than 25 percent of the voters felt that he was doing a good job. Many did not understand his foreign policies. In the presidential election of 1948, his Republican opponent was Thomas Dewey (1902–1971), the poised and intelligent governor of New York. The American press predicted that Truman would lose by a landslide. But Truman was a fighter. Once he had decided to run, he put his whole heart into the battle, making hundreds of speeches and traveling thousands of miles in a vigorous campaign. Still, on election eve, the American newspapers were predicting a landslide defeat. One magazine felt so sure of this it prepared an issue to be released after the election with the headline "Dewey Defeats Truman." (The magazine went out of business after the election.) There was no landslide. Truman was elected president.

Korean War

In his second term, Truman faced a new problem when North Korea's army invaded South Korea, quickly capturing the capital city of Seoul and threatening to push the South Korean army south and into the sea. Although Korea was not uppermost on the list of importance in Washington, D.C., it was assumed almost immediately that the Soviets were behind the invasion. At first Truman moved cautiously, providing only air and naval support for the security of evacuation efforts, but emotions rapidly rose. At the strong urging of MacArthur, the commanding general in the Far East, Truman committed ground troops. He did not go to Congress or declare war, calling the operation in Korea a "police action." The recently created United Nations, established to promote

peace among nations, joined the American initiative and MacArthur was made commander of all UN forces.

The war went very badly in its first month. Truman had greatly reduced the military after World War II and the limited troops available were not prepared for combat. The North Koreans drove them south at an alarming pace in retreat after retreat. By August 1950, the UN forces were penned in at the Pusan Perimeter, the southern part of the Korean peninsula. In September, MacArthur turned the situation around when he launched an amphibious attack (using land, sea, and air forces) at the port city of Inchon, near Seoul, the South Korean capital. The attack was completely successful and the North Korean troops were forced to retreat. UN forces then crossed the 38th parallel and advanced up to the Yalu River border with China. The Chinese had issued several warnings that they would enter the war if U.S. soldiers came too close to their borders, but their warnings went unheeded. In November 1950, the Communist Chinese army entered the war in massive strength, rushing to the support of North Korea. The UN forces, after grueling combat, were forced back below the 38th parallel. After this, the enemies held their positions, more or less, for two-and-a-half more years. For the last two years, truce negotiations proceeded at a snail's pace. In the end, both sides agreed to establish a buffer zone along the 38th parallel and to hold their positions north and south. Truman had worked within the policy of containment to stop a communist takeover of South Korea and had done so through limited warfare without risking a third world war.

Firing an idol

In the course of the war, MacArthur had publicly contradicted the president on many occasions. The general did not merely argue with the president and his staff that the Far East was a more important theater of cold war concern than Western Europe; he also talked to newspaper reporters, delivered a message to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and made public announcements of a diplomatic kind. After six months of the war, Truman issued a directive that military and diplomatic officials clear their public statements with Washington before going public with them. He did this specifically to stop MacArthur from undercutting his administration's positions. MacArthur did not stop, and went so far as to issue an inflammatory statement to the enemy that directly contradicted what the Truman administration had planned. After intense consideration and the agreement of his staff, Truman fired him. MacArthur had a big following as a war hero from World War I and the Philippines. He was a staunch Republican and had the sympathy of many Republican congressmen. Politically, Truman took a terrible beating.


In early 1952, Truman announced that he would not run for another term. With some misgivings, he supported Adlai Stevenson as the Democratic candidate. When nominated, Stevenson began immediately to distance himself from the unpopular Truman. Truman was offended, but gave Stevenson his strong support in the losing race against Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; see entry). As soon as the election was over, Truman quietly packed his bags and went home to Independence. He left in the same condition that he had entered the presidency: not much richer and as humble as before. When reporters asked what he did as soon as he and Bess arrived home, his answer was that he carried their bags up to the attic.

Truman lived quietly with Bess in their old Independence home until his death on December 26, 1972. His headstone merely lists in order the government positions in which he served.

Where to Learn More

Donovan, Robert J. Tumultuous Years: The Presidency of Harry S Truman, 1949–53. New York: Norton, 1982.

Feinberg, Barbara Silberdick. Harry S Truman. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.

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

Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S Truman and the Modern American Presidency. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.

Ferrell, Robert H. Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910–1959. New York: Norton, 1983.

Gosnell, Harold F. Truman's Crises. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Hudson, Wilma J. Harry S Truman: Missouri Farm Boy. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992.

Jenkins, Roy. Truman. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

Kirkendall, Richard S., ed. The Harry S Truman Encyclopedia. New York: G. K. Hall, 1989.

McCoy, Donald R. The Presidency of Harry S Truman. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1984.

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

Miller, Merle. Plain Speaking, an Oral Biography of Harry S Truman. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1950.

Morris, Jeffrey Brandon. The Truman Way. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 1995.

Schuman, Michael A. Harry S Truman. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 1997.

Truman, Margaret. Harry S Truman. New York: William Morrow, 1973.

Web sites

Project Whistlestop: The Truman Digital Archive Project. [Online] (accessed on August 14, 2001).

Words to Know

atomic bomb: a powerful bomb created by splitting the nuclei of a heavy chemical, such as plutonium or uranium, in a rapid chain reaction, resulting in a violent and destructive shock wave as well as radiation.

cold war: the struggle for power, authority, and prestige between the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist Western powers of Europe and the United States from 1945 until 1991.

communism: an economic system that does not include the concept of private property. Instead, the public (usually represented by the government) owns the goods and the means to produce them in common.

containment: a policy or process of keeping an enemy power, such as the Soviet Union, from expanding its empire outside its own borders.

isolationism: the view that a country should take care of its problems at home and not interfere in conflicts in other countries.

limited warfare: warfare with an objective other than the enemy's complete destruction, as in holding a defensive line during negotiations

National Guard: a military defense force recruited by the states, but equipped by the federal government.

NATO: the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance of nations in Europe and North America with shores on the Atlantic Ocean, formed in 1949 primarily to counter the threat of Soviet and communist expansion.

Did You Know?

  • Harry S. Truman was the first president of the United States to have a television in the White House.
  • When Truman ran for president in 1948, a Newsweek poll of the top fifty newspapers and magazines found that not even one of them predicted him to win; all had bet on his opponent, Thomas Dewey.
  • On November 1, 1950, three members of the revolutionary Puerto Rican Nationalist Party broke into Blair House and attempted to assassinate Truman, who was napping. One of them was sentenced to die in the electric chair, but Truman had the sentence commuted to a life sentence.
  • Truman kept a now-famous plaque on his desk that read: "The buck stops here."
  • When Truman was dying in the hospital in 1972, twenty-seven years after ordering atomic bombs to be dropped upon Japan, the bombing was still deeply troubling to him. Weak and ill, he nevertheless spent forty-five minutes discussing and defending that act with former Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark (1899–1977), who had just dropped by to visit.

Truman, Harry S.

views updated May 23 2018

Truman, Harry S. 1884-1972



Harry S. Truman was the thirty-third president of the United States of America. He was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, and died on December 26, 1972, in Kansas City, Missouri. His middle initial, S, does not begin a middle name because of a family disagreement over whether his middle name should be Solomon or Shipp(e). Trumans family moved to Independence, Missouri, in 1890. After graduating from high school in 1901, Truman worked at several clerical jobs and in 1905 joined the Missouri National Guard. He worked at his familys farm from 1906 until 1916.

During World War I, Truman served as an artillery captain in France. Truman was respected by his troops for his bravery in combat and leadership ability. After he returned to Missouri, Truman married Elizabeth Bess Wallace. Truman and an army friend, Edward Jacobson, opened a haberdashery in Kansas City. It was a popular place for veterans to socialize, but the business suffered during the 19211922 recession and went bankrupt.

James Pendergast, a veteran of Trumans artillery unit, persuaded his uncle, machine boss Tom Pendergast, to ask Truman to run for a seat on the county court, actually a public works commission. With the support of the Pendergast machine, Truman was elected as a Democrat to the Jackson County court in 1922, 1926, and 1930. Despite his affiliation with the Pendergast machine, Truman earned a reputation for honesty and efficiency, especially in the construction of new roads and a new courthouse. He accepted Tom Pendergasts offer to run for the U.S. Senate and was elected in 1934.

Upon his arrival in the Senate in 1935, Truman was initially dismissed by his colleagues as the Senator from Pendergast because of his association with the notorious political machine. Truman was frustrated and disappointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelts apparent indifference and occasional hostility toward him. While generally supporting New Deal legislation, Truman also backed Roosevelts failed, controversial court-packing bill, higher defense spending, military aid to Great Britain, and military conscription before the United States entered World War II. At Trumans suggestion, the Senate created a special committee to investigate waste, fraud, and mismanagement in defense contracts and appointed Truman as its chairman. The Truman Committee saved $11 billion in defense spending and made Truman a respected national political figure.

By 1944 a growing number of Democratic politicians and campaign contributors wanted Roosevelt to replace Vice President Henry A. Wallace with Truman as his running mate in the 1944 presidential election. Truman reluctantly accepted Roosevelts offer to be his running mate. During and after the 1944 election, Truman was concerned that the ailing Roosevelt rarely consulted him and did not confer with him about major war policies and postwar plans. Trumans brief vice presidency ended with Roosevelts death on April 12, 1945.


Trumans first few months as president were a whirlwind of major world events and presidential decisions. Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. From July 17 until August 2, Truman conferred with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Potsdam to determine the postwar occupation of Germany and the trial arrangements for Nazi war criminals. One week later, Truman ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Japan formally surrendered on September 2. On September 8, Truman ordered American troops to be stationed in South Korea.

During his first year as president, Truman also confronted labor disputes, inflation, and public demands for a more rapid demobilization of troops and reconversion to a civilian economy. Truman became known for his blunt rhetoric and unequivocal decision-making style, epitomized by the catchphrases The Buck Stops Here and Give em Hell. Nonetheless, Trumans declining public approval ratings and the public perception of his inferiority to Roosevelt helped the Republicans to win control of Congress in 1946.

With regard to foreign and defense policies, Truman had a fairly productive and effective relationship with the Republican-controlled 80th Congress. Truman and Congress enacted the Marshall Plan for the economic reconstruction of Western Europe and a similar plan for Japan, sent military and economic aid for the Greek and Turkish governments fighting communist aggression, reorganized the Department of Defense, and established the foundation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for the collective security of Western Europe.

In the area of domestic policy, however, Truman often had disagreements with Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats in Congress. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act, which reduced the legal powers and privileges of labor unions, became law over Trumans veto. Southern Democrats and some Republicans rejected Trumans civil rights legislation for African Americans.

Most Republicans in Congress disagreed with Truman on tax, housing, price control, and agricultural issues.

Trumans campaign in the 1948 presidential election repeatedly denounced the do-nothing Republican 80th Congress on domestic issues and implicitly linked it to Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, the moderately liberal Republican presidential nominee. Friendly crowds encouraged Truman to give em hell. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party splintered further. The most anti-civil rights Southern Democrats supported Governor J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as the presidential nominee of the States Rights Democrats, or Dixiecrat party. Anti-cold war liberals and leftists supported the Progressive Partys presidential nominee, Henry A. Wallace.

With a comfortable lead in public opinion polls, Dewey avoided sounding antagonistic toward Truman and addressing specific issues that might reveal his differences with more conservative Republicans in Congress. Major newspapers and magazines predicted Deweys victory and speculated on his future policies and cabinet appointments. The Chicago Tribune s top headline on Election Day famously announced, Dewey Defeats Truman. Nonetheless, Truman won an upset victory. The Democrats also won control of Congress.

In his 1949 message to Congress, Truman proposed what he called a Fair Deal for all Americans. His major policy proposals included civil rights, national health insurance, and repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. Except for the Housing Act of 1949, Congress rejected all of the major Fair Deal legislation.

Republicans charged that the Truman and Roosevelt administrations had failed or refused to uncover and prevent communist influence on American foreign and defense policies; in response, Truman created loyalty review boards to find communists in the federal government, especially the state department. The Truman administrations reputation was also tarnished by congressional and media investigations of corruption on the part of some officials. These issues were overshadowed, however, by the communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb, and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

Truman secured a decision from the United Nations (UN) authorizing the United States and other UN members to support South Korea. He appointed General Douglas MacArthur commander of the American and other UN forces in Korea. After MacArthur publicly defied Trumans strategy of limiting the war to Korea and avoiding a war with China, Truman removed MacArthur from command. Trumans removal of MacArthur and the ensuing stalemate in the Korean War proved to be unpopular. Truman spent the remainder of his presidency defending his policies in Korea and supporting the Democratic presidential campaign of Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

After Republican presidential nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower easily defeated Stevenson, Truman spent the early years of his retirement supervising his presidential library in Independence, Missouri, and writing his memoirs. On December 26, 1972, Truman died of complications from pneumonia in a Kansas City hospital. During his retirement and after his death, Trumans historical reputation steadily improved, especially for his integrity and major foreign policy decisions.

SEE ALSO Dixiecrats; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Korean War; Roosevelt, Franklin D.; Thurmond, Strom; World War II


McCoy, Donald R. 1984. The Presidency of Harry S. Truman. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

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

Savage, Sean J. 1997. Truman and the Democratic Party. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Sean J. Savage

Harry S. Truman

views updated May 14 2018

Harry S. Truman

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. Reelected 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 battleshipMissourion 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 plow. His desk also bore a firm motto of executive decision: "The Buck Stops Here!"

The Truman administration at once took steps to demo-bilize 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 labor 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 labor, 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-labor 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.

Traveling 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 labor 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 Reelection

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 centered 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.

Further Reading

Truman's account of his career is in his Memoirs (2 vols., 1955-1956) and Mr. Citizen (1960). Biographies of Truman include Jonathan Daniels, The Man of Independence (1950); Alfred Steinberg, The Man from Missouri: The Life and Times of Harry S. Truman (1962), a scholarly study; Cabell B. H. Phillips, The Truman Presidency: The History of a Triumphant Succession (1966), written from a journalistic perspective; and Joseph Gies, Harry S. Truman: A Pictorial Biography (1968), a useful but laudatory study. More recent biographies include David McCullough's Truman (1992), Margaret Truman's Harry S Truman (1972), and Harold Gosnell's Truman's Crises (1980).

Truman's election campaign is recounted in Irwin Ross, The Loneliest Campaign: The Truman Victory of 1948 (1968). The presidential election is detailed in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). Truman's administration is considered in general in L.W. Koenig, The Truman Administration (1956), and Barton J. Bernstein, ed., Politics and Policies of the Truman Administration (1970). Specific aspects of his administration are covered in Richard O. Davies, Housing Reform during the Truman Administration (1966); Arthur F. McClure, The Truman Administration and the Problems of Postwar Labor, 1945-1948 (1969); and William Carl Berman, The Politics of Civil Rights in the Truman Administration (1970).

American foreign policy is examined in Herbert Feis, The Atom Bomb and the End of World War II (1961; rev. ed. 1966) and From Trust to Terror: The Onset of the Cold War, 1945-1950 (1970). Revisionist views, critical of Truman's policies, are in Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (1965), and David Horowitz, The Free World Colossus: A Critique of American Foreign Policy in the Cold War (1965; rev. ed. 1971). For general historical background Eric Goldman, The Crucial Decade—and After: America, 1945-1960 (1956; rev. ed. 1960), is recommended. □

Truman, Harry S.

views updated May 14 2018

Harry S. Truman

Born: May 8, 1884
Lamar, Missouri
Died: December 26, 1972
Kansas City, Missouri

American president, vice president, and senator

Harry S. Truman (18841972), thirty-third president of the United States, led America's transition from wartime to peacetime economy, created the Truman doctrine, and made the decision to defend South Korea against communist invasion.

A shy start

Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884. He went to high school in Independence, Missouri. From 1900 until 1905 he held various small business positions, then for the next twelve years he farmed on his parents' land. In 1917, soon after the United States entered World War I (191418; a war fought in Europe between the Central PowersGermany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkeyand the AlliesFrance, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan, and, after 1917, the United States), he enlisted in the artillery, serving in France. After returning from the war, he married Bess Wallace (18851982) in 1919. The couple had one child, Margaret.

As Truman grew to manhood, he achieved a notable change. As president he would be known for his outgoing personality and for his use of such tough-talking phrases as "The buck stops here!" and "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." As a boy, however, Truman was anything but tough and outgoing. He was accident-prone and sickly, and his poor vision and thick glasses forced him to avoid the rough activities in which other boys engaged. Instead, he stayed indoors, taking piano lessons and reading. One of his favorite books as a boy, Great Men and Famous Women, detailed the lives of influential historical and political figures.

Political beginnings

A loyal Democrat, Truman entered politics in the 1920s. He was elected as a Jackson County, Missouri, judge in 1922 and served until 1924. He was presiding judge from 1926 to 1934, giving close attention to problems of county administration.

In the national election of 1934, Truman, who was a firm supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt (18821945), was chosen U.S. senator from Missouri. Reelected in 1940, he gained national attention as chairman of the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. He kept his chairmanship loyal to the Roosevelt administration. When Roosevelt was nominated for a fourth presidential term in June 1944, he chose Truman for vice president.

Thrust into the presidency

Roosevelt was reelected, but after Truman had served only eighty-two days as his vice president, Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945. Truman then became the president. He quickly took command, and in his first address to Congress he promised to continue Roosevelt's policies. That July he attended the Potsdam Conference, Germany, at which the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union set terms for the administration of Germany after World War II (193945; a war fought between the Axis powersGermany, Italy, and Japanand the Allied powersmainly Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and after 1942, the United States). Later in the summer he authorized the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, and approved the surrender of the Japanese in a treaty signed on September 2, 1945.

The Truman administration quickly took steps to dismantle the military forces and the agencies set up to conduct the war, as well as to resume production of peacetime goods. Truman was soon forced to tackle inflation (a steep rise in the cost of living) and new demands by labor unions. He showed his power of quick decision declaring wage increases that were needed to cushion the blows from changes in the economy. He also sternly opposed measures to restrict labor organizations and acted to maintain union rights.

Truman also called for a broad program of social welfare. Although sharp friction developed between the Truman administration and conservatives (people who resist change and prefer to keep traditions) in Congress, he pushed measures through Congress for clearing away slums, construction of low-cost housing, health insurance, and the establishment of the Council of Economic Advisers to help citizens gain full employment.

In his foreign policy, Truman was alarmed by the growing power of the Soviet Union, a communist nation. He feared the spread of Soviet influence in eastern Europe and Asia, and he supported strong Western reaction to the threat of Soviet expansion. As Soviet aggressiveness made the international scene stormier, he gave vigorous support to the establishment of the United Nations.

Truman Doctrine

In the wake of World War II, Turkey and Greece seemed to be at risk of economic collapse and communist takeover. To prevent this from happening, Truman backed the leaders of his State Department in their stand for continued American support to democracy abroad and asked Congress for $400 million in funds to sustain Turkey and Greece. He also announced the Truman Doctrine (March 12, 1947), declaring that the United States would support all free peoples who were resisting attempts to dominate them, either by armed minorities at home or aggressors outside their borders.

Truman's policy made it possible for members of his state department to push through Congress the important measure known as the Marshall Plan, which began in April 1948. The plan provided for the transfer of large amounts economic aid from Western nations to countries in Europe and Asia that were threatened by communist domination. The presidential campaign of 1948 came as the Marshall Plan gathered widespread support from democratic governments in Europe, South America, Africa, and elsewhere.


In 1948 Truman entered the presidential contest and fought a stubborn battle against Republican Thomas E. Dewey (19021971). Truman faced heavy odds in this presidential race. Besides the Democratic and Republican candidates, the entry of two new political parties into the battle made the outcome doubtful.

As the election drew near most newspapers seemed confident that Dewey would win. Public opinion polls also indicated a Dewey victory. On election night, Truman went to bed as the Chicago Tribune published a special issue with the headline "Dewey Defeats Truman!" The next morning, however, Truman awoke to find the he had not only carried the country by more than two million votes but had also brought in a Democratic Congress.

Korean War

On Sunday, June 25, 1950, the Korean War (195053) began when North Korean Communist forces invaded the Republic of South Korea. Truman at once summoned an emergency conference and 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 in action in Korea. Truman held firm in the costly war that followed but hesitated to approve a major advance across the Yalu River on the northwest border of North Korea and China. China had entered the war on North Korea's side partly to protect its territory in this area.

In April 1951, amid national frustration over the war, Truman dismissed General Douglas MacArthur (18801964) as head of the Far East Command of the U.S. Army. He took this action on the grounds that MacArthura national hero of World War II (193945)had repeatedly challenged the Far Eastern policies of the administration and had recommended the use of bombs against Chinese forces north of the Yalu. Such an attack against the Chinese might have provoked open war with the Soviet Union and cost the United States the support of important allies in the war. Nevertheless, MacArthur's dismissal was highly controversial, and Truman announced that he would not run again for the presidency. He retired to private life, publishing two volumes of memoirs (memories) in 1955 and 1956.

Lasting popularity

Truman died on December 26, 1972, but his popularity continued to soar long after his death. New books and movies about him have continued to appear, and he has been commemorated with a U.S. postage stamp.

For More Information

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.

Leavell, J. Perry. Harry S. Truman. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

McCoy, Donald R. The Presidency of Harry S. Truman. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1984.

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

Schuman, Michael. Harry S. Truman. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1997.

Truman, Harry S. The Autobiography of Harry S Truman. Edited by Robert H. Ferrell. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1980.

Truman, Harry S.

views updated May 21 2018


Like his most admired presidential hero, Woodrow Wilson (19131921), Harry Truman (18841972) spent two terms in the White House, and became far better known for his handling of war situations than for his progressive and protective post-war domestic policy efforts. Truman became the thirty-third president of the United States quite suddenly, on April 12, 1945, when President Franklin Roosevelt (19331945) died; Truman was thrust from vice president to president during the last days of World War II (19391945), at one of the most critical moments in U.S. history.

Born in 1884., Harry S. Truman (the "S" does not stand for any name) was six years old, the eldest of three children, born to John and Ellen Truman, when the entire family moved from the family farm to Independence, Missouri. Truman grew up in Independence, read books a great deal, and at age 18, joined the Baptist church. He worked at a variety of odd jobs until 1918. After that, he went into the Missouri National Guard, became a lieutenant, and eventually went to France to fight in World War I (19141918), rising to the rank of colonel. Before and after World War I, Truman had gained much experience as a small businessman; he worked hard and believed in U.S. capitalism, but lightning never struck. Frustrated by his failures in business, Truman decided to enter politics in an effort to reduce much of the business corruption he saw around him.

He joined the Democratic Party, was elected county judge in Missouri, and won a reputation for scrupulous honesty, and straightforward talk. In 1934 he was elected to the United States Senate, and immediately began working on issues for the public good and those involving business corruption. The enactment of the Transportation Act of 1940 was a Truman program that greatly regulated railroad financing thereby reducing corrupt business practices and saving U.S. tax dollars.

Continuing in the spirit of watching for corruption in business, Truman involved himself as a senator by creating The Truman Committee in 1940, to oversee waste and corruption in defense spending. Corrupt business practices had a foothold in war-production efforts during World War II (19391945); Truman's efforts at uncovering waste and illegal business led to savings of $15 billion in tax dollars.

Truman's political career continued to rise, and he found himself serving as vice president under President Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt died suddenly, Truman was thrust into the position of leader of the nation. World War II was ongoing, and there were many matters to challenge the new president (19451953). Thirteen days after Truman took office as president, the first United Nations conference met in San Francisco to plan for the post-war recovery. Days later, on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered, and the war in Europe was over. The next day was Truman's sixty-first birthday. The United States was, however, still fighting a war with Japan, and preparing to deal with the communist Soviet Union and its dictator Joseph Stalin (19281953).

To end World War II completely, Truman made the profoundly controversial decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japanone on Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, and the next on the city of Nagasaki three days later. Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945. These events were stunning for the world, but more so for Truman, who had only learned of the atomic bomb's existence after becoming president months before. Truman's introduction into the U.S. presidency was likely the most dramatic and complex of any president.

Truman was a lifelong Democrat, and always a champion of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies begun in the 1930s. As part of the post-war transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy, Truman sought to reconstruct the post-war United States in order to complete the New Deal. In September 1945, after barely five months as president, Truman requested that Congress create national health insurance for all U.S. citizens, and a permanent Federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to protect minority rights. Congress should also initiate an influx of money for scientific research and develop a large public power project on a variety of large U.S. rivers to provide clean and inexpensive electricity to U.S. residents with dam-generated power. The Republican Party, which controlled the Congress in 1946, blocked and stopped almost all of these measures. The Republicans believed that all of these plans would be bad for U.S. business and free enterprise.

Despite opposition from Republicans in Congress, Truman made consistent efforts to create a "Fair Deal" for the working post-World War II generation, and especially for veterans just back from the war. He fought to create civil rights legislation; repeal the Taft-Hartley Act which hindered union activities; create a new farm program stressing higher farmer incomes and lower consumer prices; provide federal aid to education; begin a federal housing program; and institute increases in the social security program. Conservative Democrats joined with Republicans to defeat most of Truman's domestic proposals.

Truman's legacy is largely that of a war president. He served the nation during World War II, the Korean War (19501953), and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. His progressive ideas of a "Fair Deal" were left for other generations of politicians to deal with.

Truman died of severe lung congestion on December 26, 1972, twenty years after leaving the White House.

See also: Korean War, Franklin Roosevelt, United Nations, World War II


Feinberg, Barbara S. Harry S. Truman. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1994.

Fleming, Thomas. Harry S. Truman, President. New York: Walker and Co. Library, 1993.

Hamby, Alonzo. Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

McCoy, Donald. The Presidency of Harry S. Truman. Kansas City, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1984.

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

Truman, Harry S.

views updated Jun 27 2018


Harry S. Truman served as the thirty-third president of the United States from 1945 to 1953. Truman, who became president upon the death of President franklin d. roosevelt on April 12, 1945, made some of the most momentous decisions in U.S. history, including the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the rebuilding of Europe under the marshall plan, and the fighting of the korean war. A defender of Roosevelt's new deal domestic programs, in 1948 Truman fought unsuccessfully for a federal civil rights law that would have outlawed racial discrimination in employment. Though Truman was unpopular when he left office, by the 1960s his reputation had rebounded dramatically. Many political historians consider him one of the greatest U.S. presidents.

Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, the son of a farmer and mule trader. After graduation from high school in Independence, Missouri, in 1910, Truman held a succession of jobs. During world war i, he entered the U.S. Army and distinguished himself as a captain of a gunnery unit during fighting in France. After the war Truman's career choices did not improve. He became a partner in a men's clothing store but lost his savings when the business went bankrupt in the postwar economic depression.

At that point Truman entered politics, developing an association with Thomas J. Pendergast, the Democratic leader who ran Kansas City and Jackson County, Missouri. With Pendergast's backing, Truman became a county judge in 1922, at a time when a law degree was not required to be a judge. Truman proved an able judge and administrator, but anti-Pendergast forces defeated him in 1924. He was reelected to the judgeship in 1926, however, and served until 1934. During this period Truman studied law at the Kansas City School of Law.

In 1934 Pendergast had difficulty finding a U.S. senatorial candidate. He selected Truman, his fourth choice, and in November 1934 Truman was elected amid rumors that Pendergast had rigged the votes in Jackson County to ensure the victory.

As a U.S. senator, Truman was viewed at first as a Pendergast stooge, but he soon convinced his colleagues of his independence and intelligence. An ardent defender of Roosevelt's New Deal programs, Truman entered the national limelight during world war ii as the head of a Senate committee that investigated defense spending. Truman drew praise for uncovering graft, mismanagement, and inefficiency in the U.S. war production industries.

In 1944 Roosevelt, who was running for an unprecedented fourth term, replaced Vice President Henry A. Wallace with Truman. After his reelection Roosevelt had little to do with his new vice president; before his death on April 12, 1945, he met only twice with Truman.

"Democracy is based on the conviction that man has the moral and intellectual capacity, as well as the inalienable right, to govern himself with reason and justice."
—Harry S. Truman

When he assumed office, Truman faced grave decisions in both domestic and foreign policy as World War II drew to a close. The fighting

in Europe ended with Germany's surrender on May 7, 1945. Truman attended the Potsdam Conference in July to discuss the postwar future of Europe, but little was decided besides the division of Germany into zones to be governed by the Allies. U.S. relations with the Soviet Union began to chill as it became apparent that the Soviets would maintain control over Eastern Europe.

In August 1945 Truman approved the use of atomic bombs against Japan. On August 6 a bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and three days later Nagasaki was also devastated by nuclear attack. Japan opened peace negotiations on August 10 and surrendered on September 2. Truman justified his actions based on the belief that without the use of the atomic bombs, U.S. troops would have had to invade the Japanese mainland at great loss of military and civilian life.

By 1946 it was clear that an official "cold war" existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. Truman maintained a strong stand against the Soviets and the danger of Communist intervention in Europe. In 1947 he announced the Truman Doctrine, which promised U.S. aid to countries that resisted Communist aggression. Based on this doctrine, Truman provided military and financial assistance to Greece and Turkey to help them to remain independent.

Truman followed up this initiative with the Marshall Plan of 1947. This plan aided the restoration of Western Europe by providing massive amounts of financial aid to rebuild the European infrastructure. In 1949 Truman encouraged the acceptance of the north atlantic treaty organization (NATO), by which the United States and European nations not under Communist rule pledged mutual protection against aggression.

On the domestic front, Truman faced a difficult situation. In 1946 the republican party won control of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in a generation. Truman fought unsuccessfully to prevent the passage of the taft-hartley act, also known as the labor management relations act (29 U.S.C.A. § 141 et seq.), which restricted some of the powers that labor

unions had acquired in the 1930s. By 1948 it appeared that Truman would not win election to a full term.

At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Truman backed a platform plank that called for a federal civil rights bill that would ban racial discrimination in employment. Many southern Democrats walked out of the convention, formed the segregationist Dixiecrat Party, and nominated South Carolina governor strom thurmond for president. A left-wing offshoot, the progressive party, nominated Henry Wallace, Roosevelt's vice president before Truman, for president. The Republican Party nominated New York governor thomas e. dewey, who in the early weeks of the campaign appeared to have an insurmountable lead.

Truman demonstrated his political acumen by calling the Republican Congress back into session after the political conventions to consider his legislative proposals. When the Republicans turned these aside, he labeled them the "do nothing Congress" and began a cross-country campaign during which he delighted crowds with his "give 'em hell" speeches. To the surprise of most commentators, Truman beat Dewey by 114 electoral votes.

Truman made little progress on his domestic agenda, which he called the Fair Deal. His second term was beset with foreign problems. The Chinese Communists won control of their country, and in 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. Truman authorized the sending of U.S. troops to Korea under the sponsorship of the united nations to prevent the fall of South Korea to the Communist North Koreans. After General Douglas MacArthur led U.S. troops deep into North Korea, the Communist Chinese joined the fighting and pushed the U.S. forces back. Soon the war was a stalemate.

Truman's popularity declined after he removed MacArthur from his command for insubordination—the general had stated publicly that the United States should bomb China. Domestically, Truman took the controversial step of seizing the steel industry in 1952 to prohibit a strike that would have crippled the national defense. In youngstown sheet & tube co. v. sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 72 S. Ct. 863, 96 L. Ed. 1153 (1952), popularly known as the Steel Seizure case, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to allow the government to seize and operate the steel mills and rejected Truman's argument that he had inherent executive power to issue the seizure order.

In 1952 Truman decided not to run for a second term. He retired to Independence, Missouri, to oversee the Truman presidential library but remained a prominent Democratic leader for the remainder of his life. He died on December 26, 1972, in Kansas City, Missouri.

further readings

Daniels, Jonathan. 1998. The Man of Independence. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press.

Neal, Steve, ed. 2003. HST: Memories of the Truman Years. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.

Truman, Harry S. 2002. The Autobiography of Harry S. Truman. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press.

Turner, Robert F. 1996. "Truman, Korea, and the Constitution: Debunking the 'Imperial President' Myth." Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 19 (winter).


Cold War.

Truman, Harry S.

views updated May 21 2018

Truman, Harry S. (1884–1972), thirty‐third U.S. president.Born in Lamar, Missouri, a poor farmer's son, Harry Truman abandoned hope of a West Point education because of poor eyesight, but joined the National Guard in 1905. In World War I, 1917–18, Captain Harry Truman commanded Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 35th Division, at the Battle of St. Mihiel, Varennes, the Meuse‐Argonne Offensive, and Metz. Back home as a protégé of the Democratic Pendergast machine of Kansas City, Truman won several local elections before his election as a U.S. senator in 1934. During World War II, in 1941–44, he chaired a special Senate committee investigating defense spending. He became President Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice presidential running mate in 1944, and succeeded to the presidency upon Roosevelt's death, 12 April 1945.

After the successful test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico in July 1945, Truman maintained the unconditional surrender demand toward Japan and took an increasingly hard line toward the Soviet Union. He approved the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought about the end of the war.

As president, 1945–53, Truman shaped U.S. foreign and defense policy in the early Cold War. His internationalism—more accurately, militant nationalism—depended heavily on military preparedness, a result of his belief in dealing from strength and his own combative personality. He relied upon particularly cosmopolitan, hard‐line advisers, especially Secretaries of State George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson and the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, W. Averell Harriman; but he prided himself on making the final decisions.

Responding to Josef Stalin's imposition of Soviet control in Eastern Europe and American fears of a global expansion of communism, the Truman administration sought to create a postwar order of democracy, self‐government, and expanding world trade. But the Truman Doctrine of “containment” announced originally in 1947 as political and economic soon because militarized, as did the Marshall Plan of 1948 and NATO, created in 1949. The administration began to support a variety of anti‐Communist efforts in Europe and Asia.

U.S.‐Soviet relations had became confrontational in 1946. By 1948, in a dispute over Germany, Stalin blockaded Berlin; Truman responded with the Berlin airlift. In 1949, after the Soviet A‐bomb test, Truman ordered U.S. development of the hydrogen bomb.

The Truman administration in the late 1940s had sought an expanded military within a restricted budget. It failed to achieve universal military training for the army and in 1948 accepted a selective draft. In 1949, when it canceled the navy's supercarrier, it faced a “Revolt of the Admirals.” Primary reliance was placed on atomic bomber aircraft of the U.S. Air Force, made independent by the National Security Act of 1947.

The Korean War changed the budget picture and led to the enormous expansion of all the armed services. It also led to desegregation of the armed services, ordered by Truman in 1948. Yet the frustrations of this limited war precipitated a major crisis in civil‐military relations: Gen. Douglas MacArthur's public challenge to the administration's restrictions against attacking China itself. Consequently, President Truman relieved him of command.

Although the Truman administration was highly unpopular when it left office in 1953, admiration for Truman rose in the 1970s over his plain and honest style, decisiveness, and many of his Cold War policies, which some in the 1990s credited with ultimately defeating the Soviet Union. Yet a number of scholars believe that Truman's get‐tough style and hard‐line policies interacting with Stalin's paranoia and ruthlessly blunt policies served to escalate rather than diminish the Cold War.
[See also Berlin Crises; Civil Military Relations: Civilian Control of the Military; Manhattan Project; World War I: Military and Diplomatic Course; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Richard F. Haynes , The Awesome Power: Harry S. Truman as Commander in Chief, 1973.
Melvyn Leffler , Preponderence of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War, 1992.
David McCullough , Truman, 1992.
Alonzo L. Hamby , Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman, 1995.

Richard F. Haynes

Truman, Harry S.

views updated May 11 2018

Truman, Harry S. (1884–1972) 33rd US President (1945–53). He was elected to the Senate in 1934. In 1944, he was Franklin D. Roosevelt's running mate. Truman became president on Roosevelt's death and faced many difficulties abroad. He approved the use of the atomic bomb to force Japanese surrender (1945) at the end of World War 2, and adopted a robust policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Truman approved the Marshall Plan (1947) and the creation (1949) of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Lacking Roosevelt's charisma, he was expected to lose the election of 1948, but won narrowly. In the Korean War (1950–53), he was forced to dismiss the US commander, General MacArthur. Truman declined renomination in 1952. Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded him.;

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