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TRUMAN, HARRY S. (1884–1972)

The thirty-third President began his career in local Democratic politics in Missouri. Truman served in various capacities, including county judge and planning official, and helped coordinate employment and relief programs during the early 1930s. After his election to the United States senate in 1934, he supported the new deal programs and specialized in transportation policy. Declining President franklin d. roosevelt's offer of an appointment to the Interstate Commerce Commission, he was reelected to the Senate in 1940. During the war years he attracted notice as the effective chairman of a Senate investigating committee established to oversee the efficiency and fairness of defense contracting. Elected vice-president in 1944, he succeeded to the presidency the next year when Roosevelt died. He returned to the White House in 1949 for a second term, following an unexpected election victory.

Truman believed in a strong and active presidency, operating within a Constitution sufficiently flexible to accommodate executive initiatives for the public good. The Framers of the Constitution, Truman said, had deliberately left vague the details of presidential power, allowing the "experience of the nation to fill in the outlines." He disagreed with scholars who claimed that history makes the man: "I think that it is the man who makes history." His roster of favorite Presidents included george washington, thomas jefferson, andrew jackson, abraham lincoln, grover cleveland, theodore roosevelt, woodrow wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Although criticized at times by liberals for providing inadequate leadership and action on civil rights, Truman's record is impressive. In 1946 he created the President's Committee on Civil Rights. A year later it issued an important document, To Secure These Rights, that took a firm stand against various forms of racial discrimination. In 1948 Truman issued executive order 9981, ending discrimination in the armed services, and in that same year delivered a powerful civil rights message to Congress and supported the inclusion of a civil rights plank in the Democrats' platform.

Truman's commitment to the bill of rights was tested by the issue of subversion that overshadowed his administration. As a student of history he was keenly aware of the hysteria that had fanned repressive episodes, from the Salem witch trials to the Red Scare of 1919. He felt prepared to handle the new cycle that took the form of anti-communism and indiscriminate labeling of "subversives." (See subversive activities and the constitution.)

executive order 9835, issued by Truman in 1947, established procedures to control subversive infiltration of the federal government. The effect was to deprive agency employees of fundamental elements of due process, including the right to receive specific charges against them and to confront their accusers. Even when an accused received clearance from a loyalty board, the data remained in the files, forcing the employee to answer the same charges with each move to a new job. Truman later admitted that the program, which thrived on secret evidence and secret informers, was filled with defects and injustices.

Truman began to give closer attention to civil liberties. In a message to Congress on August 8, 1950, he warned that pending legislation on internal security would forbid dissent. When the internal security bill reached his desk in the fall of 1950, he delivered a ringing denunciation, protesting in his veto message that the bill would put government in the "thought control business." Especially objectionable to him was a provision requiring "Communist-front" and "Communist-action" groups to register with the attorney general. This placed on the government the responsibility for probing the "attitudes and states of mind" of organization leaders. Groups could be linked to the Communist party whenever their positions failed to "deviate" from those of the Communist movement. Thus, any organization dedicated to low-cost housing or other humanitarian goals espoused by the party could be branded a communist front. Truman called this feature "the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press and assembly, since the alien and sedition laws of 1798." The veto message, delivered in the midst of an election campaign that featured charges from some Republicans about Democrats being soft on communism, was courageous and principled. Within a day both Houses of Congress easily overrode the veto. (See internal security act.)

Following North Korea's invasion of the south in June 1950, Truman dispatched American soldiers to Korea without seeking congressional support or approval. A month later the State Department issued a belated memorandum defending the President's legal authority to repel the attack. The memo claimed that Truman's action was justified by international law, the united nations charter, "and the resolution pursuant thereto." However, the United Nations issued two resolutions on Korea, one of June 25 calling for the cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of North Korean forces to the 38th parallel, and a second resolution (adopted two days later) recommending armed force to repel the attack. Truman intervened militarily before passage of the second resolution. (See korean war.)

Truman placed General Douglas MacArthur in command of American forces in Korea. MacArthur wanted to widen the military front, probing deeply into North Korea. He objected repeatedly, in public, to the limited war policy adopted by the administration. Eventually he alienated Truman, top cabinet officials, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council. Over the course of almost a year, Truman became convinced that MacArthur was untrustworthy and insubordinate, but his abrupt dismissal of the general on April 11, 1951, triggered a storm of protest across the nation. In explaining his decision, Truman said it was fundamental that "military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them in the manner provided by our laws and Constitution."

Only a few members of Congress questioned Truman's authority to send troops to Korea, but as part of a "Great Debate" in 1951, legislators challenged his constitutional power to send ground forces to Europe. Resolutions were introduced in each house to require congressional authorization before military forces could be sent abroad. Although these measures were not enacted, uneasiness about the scope of presidential war-making power persisted. After President lyndon b. johnson's commitment of American troops to Southeast Asia and subsequent military actions there by President richard m. nixon, Congress passed the war powers resolution of 1973 to restrict the President's military powers. (See emergency power.)

Truman's attitude about presidential power and constitutional constraints is illuminated by his 1952 seizure of steel mills. He believed that a pending strike would prevent production of materials needed for the war in Korea. (See executive order 10340; steel seizure controversy.) At a news conference on April 17 he was asked whether his inherent powers permitted seizure of newspapers and radio stations. To the consternation of the press he replied that the President could act "for whatever is for the best of the country." A week later, complaining that speculation about him seizing the press and the radio was "hooey," he stated that he had "difficulty imagining the Government taking over and running those industries." Continuing to respond to concerns about his views of emergency power, on April 27 he wrote in a letter that presidential powers are "derived from the Constitution, and they are limited, of course, by the provisions of the Constitution, particularly those that protect the rights of individuals."

Meanwhile, the Justice Department was developing a different scenario for District Judge David Pine. Assistant Attorney General Homer Baldridge told Pine on April 24 that "there is not power in the Courts to restrain the President.…" After Pine had declared the seizure invalid, Truman claimed at a news conference on May 22 that "nobody" (including Congress and the Court) could take from the President his power to seize private property and to protect the welfare of the people. However, he said that he would abide by the Supreme Court's verdict, and when the decision fell on June 2 (see youngstown sheet & tube co. v. sawyer), declaring the seizure invalid, he immediately ordered the government to relinquish possession of the mills.

Often careless with his remarks at press conference, for which he paid dearly, Truman came to the White House with a solid understanding of history and governmental institutions and processes. He maintained a deep respect for individual rights and civilian government. Through his personal integrity and honesty he helped moderate many of the repressive forces that operated during his years in office.

Louis Fisher


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

Truman, Harry S. 1955 Year of Decisions. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

——1956 Years of Trial and Hope. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

——1960 Mr. Citizen. New York: Bernard Geis.

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Truman, Harry S. (1884–1972)

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