Harry 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 battleship Missourion Sept. 2, 1945. After the surrender of Japan, he replaced the model of a heavy gun on his desk with the replica of a shiny new 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 on Harry S. Truman

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.