Harry S. Truman (May 8, 1884 – December 26, 1972) was the 33rd President of the United States (1945–1953). The final running mate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, Truman succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when Roosevelt died after months of declining health. Under Truman, the U.S. successfully concluded World War II; in the aftermath of the conflict, tensions with the Soviet Union increased, marking the start of the Cold War.
Truman was born in Missouri, and spent most of his youth on his family's farm. During World War I, Truman served in combat in France as an artillery officer in his National Guard unit. After the war, he briefly owned a haberdashery and joined the Democratic Party political machine of Tom Pendergast in Kansas City, Missouri. He was first elected to public office as a county official, and in 1935 became U.S. senator. He gained national prominence as head of the wartime Truman Committee, which exposed waste, fraud, and corruption in wartime contracts.
While Germany surrendered a few weeks after Truman assumed the Presidency, the war with Japan was expected to last another year or more. Truman ordered the use of atomic weapons against Japan, intending to force Japan's surrender and spare American lives in an invasion; the decision remains controversial. His presidency was a turning point in foreign affairs, as the nation supported an internationalist foreign policy in conjunction with European allies. Working closely with Congress, Truman assisted in the founding of the United Nations, issued the Truman Doctrine to contain communism, and passed the $13 billion Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, including the Axis Powers of both world wars, whereas the wartime Ally Soviet Union became the peacetime enemy, and the Cold War began. He oversaw the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and the creation of NATO in 1949. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he immediately sent in U.S. troops and gained UN approval for the Korean War. After initial success, the UN forces were thrown back by Chinese intervention and the conflict was stalemated through the final years of Truman's presidency. On domestic issues, bills endorsed by Truman often faced opposition from a conservative Congress, but his administration successfully guided the American economy through post-war economic challenges and started the racial integration of the military.
Corruption in Truman's administration, which was linked to certain members in the cabinet and senior White House staff, was a central issue in the 1952 presidential campaign which Adlai Stevenson, Truman's successor as Democratic nominee, lost to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. Popular and scholarly assessments of his presidency were initially negative, but eventually became more positive after his retirement from politics. Truman's 1948 election upset for his full term as president is routinely invoked by underdog candidates.
Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, the oldest child of John Anderson Truman (1851–1914) and Martha Ellen Young Truman (1852–1947). His parents chose the name Harry after his mother's brother, Harrison "Harry" Young (1846–1916). They chose "S" as his middle initial to please both of his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young. The "S" did not stand for anything, a common practice among the Scots-Irish. A brother, John Vivian (1886–1965), was born soon after Harry, followed by one sister, Mary Jane (1889–1978).
John Truman was a farmer and livestock dealer. The family lived in Lamar until Harry was ten months old, when they moved to a farm near Harrisonville. The family next moved to Belton, and in 1887 to his grandparents' 600-acre (240-ha) farm in Grandview. When Truman was six, his parents moved to Independence, so he could attend the Presbyterian Church Sunday School. Truman did not attend a traditional school until he was eight.
As a boy, Truman was interested in music, reading, and history, all encouraged by his mother, with whom he was very close - as president, he solicited political as well as personal advice from her. He got up at five every morning to practice the piano, which he studied twice a week until he was fifteen. Truman was a page at the 1900 Democratic National Convention at Convention Hall in Kansas City; his father had many friends who were active in the Democratic Party and helped young Harry to gain his first political position.
After graduating from Independence High School (now William Chrisman High School) in 1901, Truman worked as a timekeeper on the Santa Fe Railroad, sleeping in hobo camps near the rail lines. He then worked at a series of clerical jobs, and was employed briefly in the mailroom of the Kansas City Star. He returned to the Grandview farm in 1906, where he remained until entering the army in 1917. During this period, he courted Bess Wallace and proposed to her in 1911. She turned him down. Truman said that before he proposed again, he wanted to be earning more money than a farmer did.
Truman is the most recent U.S. president to not have earned a college degree. When his high school friends went off to the state university in 1901, Truman enrolled in Spalding's Commercial College, a Kansas City business school, but only remained a semester. In 1923–25 he took night courses towards a law degree at the Kansas City Law School (now the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law), but dropped out after losing his government job.
Truman had been turned down for appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, which was his childhood dream, because of poor eyesight. He then enlisted in the Missouri Army National Guard in 1905, serving until 1911 in a Kansas City-based artillery battery. At his induction, his eyesight had been an unacceptable 20/50 in the right eye and 20/400 in the left. The second time he took the test, he passed by secretly memorizing the eye chart.
At the war's conclusion, Truman was mustered out as a captain; he returned to Independence, and married Bess Wallace on June 28, 1919. The couple had one child, Mary Margaret.
Shortly before Truman's marriage, he and Jacobson had opened a haberdashery at 104 West 12th Street in downtown Kansas City. After brief initial success, the store went bankrupt during the recession of 1921. Truman did not pay off the last of the debts from that venture until 1934, when he did so with the aid of a supporter. Jacobson and Truman remained close friends, and Jacobson's advice to Truman on Zionism later played a role in the U.S. government's decision to recognize Israel. In 1922, with the help of the Kansas City Democratic machine led by Tom Pendergast, Truman was elected a judge of the County Court of the eastern district of Jackson County - an administrative, not judicial, position similar to county commissioners elsewhere.
After serving as judge, Truman wanted to run for Governor or Congress, but Pendergast rejected these ideas. Truman thought that he would serve out his career in some well-paying sinecure at the county level. Instead, after four other men turned him down, Pendergast reluctantly backed Truman as a Democratic candidate for the 1934 U.S. Senate election for Missouri. During the Democratic primary, Truman defeated two congressmen, John J. Cochran and Jacob L. Milligan, with the solid support of Jackson County, which was crucial to his candidacy, as were the contacts he had made statewide as a county official. Truman then defeated the incumbent Republican, Roscoe C. Patterson, by nearly 20 percentage points.
Vice President Henry Wallace, though popular among Democratic voters, was viewed as too far to the left and too friendly to labor for some of Roosevelt's advisers. Knowing that Roosevelt might not live out a fourth term, both the President and several of his confidantes moved to replace Wallace. Outgoing Democratic National Committee chairman Frank C. Walker, incoming chairman Hannegan, party treasurer Edwin W. Pauley, strategist Ed Flynn, Chicago Mayor Edward Joseph Kelly and lobbyist George E. Allen all wanted to keep Wallace off the ticket. Roosevelt told party leaders he would accept either Truman or Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. State and city party leaders strongly preferred Truman, and Roosevelt agreed. Truman himself did not campaign for the Vice-Presidential spot though he welcomed the attention as evidence that he had become more than the "Senator from Pendergast".
Truman's brief vice-presidency was relatively uneventful. Roosevelt rarely contacted him, even to inform him of major decisions; the President and Vice President met alone together only twice during their time together in office. In one of his first acts as vice president, Truman created some controversy when he attended the disgraced Pendergast's funeral. He brushed the criticism aside, saying simply, "He was always my friend and I have always been his." He had rarely discussed world affairs or domestic politics with Roosevelt and was uninformed about major initiatives relating to the war and the top-secret Manhattan Project, which was about to test the world's first atomic bomb.
Truman had been vice president for only 82 days when President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. That afternoon, Truman presided over the Senate as usual. He had just adjourned the session for the day and was preparing to have a drink in House Speaker Sam Rayburn's office when he received an urgent message to go immediately to the White House. Truman assumed that President Roosevelt wanted to meet with him, but Eleanor Roosevelt informed him that her husband had died after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Truman's first concern was for Mrs. Roosevelt. He asked if there was anything he could do for her, to which she replied, "Is there anything we can do for you? You are the one in trouble now!"
Upon assuming the presidency, Truman asked all the members of FDR's cabinet to remain in place, and told them that he was open to their advice, but laid down a central principle of his administration: he would be the one making decisions, and they were to support him. Although Truman was told briefly on the afternoon of April 12 that the Allies had a new, highly destructive weapon, it was not until April 25 that Secretary of War Henry Stimson told him the details. Truman benefitted from a honeymoon period in the aftermath of Roosevelt's death, and from the Allies' success in Europe, wrapping up the war there. Truman was pleased to be able to issue the proclamation of V-E Day on May 8, 1945, his 61st birthday.
In the wake of Allied victory, Truman journeyed to Europe for the Potsdam Conference, and he was there when he learned that the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb on July 16 had been successful. He hinted to Joseph Stalin that the U.S. was about to use a new kind of weapon against the Japanese. Though this was the first time the Soviets had been officially given information about the atomic bomb, Stalin was already aware of the bomb project, having learned about it (through espionage) long before Truman himself did.
In August, after the Imperial government refused surrender demands, Truman authorized the atomic bombing of Japan. Although it was not known how devastating the explosions and the aftermath would be, Truman, like most Americans, was not inclined to be merciful towards the Japanese in the wake of the long years of war. Truman always stated that his decision to bomb Japan saved life on both sides; military estimates for an invasion of the Japanese home islands were that it could take a year and result in 250,000 to 500,000 American casualties. He also knew that the program could cost $2 billion, and so he was not inclined to forgo an alternative that might quickly end the war. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6 and Nagasaki on the 9th. When the Japanese were still slow to surrender, Truman ordered a massive conventional air raid on Tokyo for August 13; Japan agreed to surrender the following day.
The end of World War II was followed by an uneasy transition from war to a peacetime economy. The costs of the war effort were enormous, and Truman was intent on decreasing government expenditures on the military as quickly as possible. Demobilizing the military and reducing the size of the various services was a cost-saving priority. The effect of demobilization on the economy was unknown, but fears existed that the nation would slide back into a depression. A great deal of work had to be done to plan how best to transition to peacetime production of goods while avoiding mass unemployment for returning veterans. There was no consensus among government officials as to what economic course the postwar U.S. should steer. In addition, Roosevelt had not paid attention to Congress in his final years, and Truman faced a body where a combination of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats formed a powerful voting bloc.
The president was faced with the reawakening of labor-management conflicts that had lain dormant during the war years, severe shortages in housing and consumer products, and widespread dissatisfaction with inflation, which at one point hit 6% in a single month. Added to this polarized environment was a wave of destabilizing strikes in major industries, and Truman's response to them was generally seen as ineffective. A rapid increase in costs was fueled by the release of price controls on most items, and labor sought wage increases. A serious steel strike in January 1946 involving 800,000 workers - the largest in the nation's history - was followed by a coal strike in April and a rail strike in May. The public was angry, with a majority in polls favoring a ban on strikes by public service workers and a year's moratorium on labor actions. Truman proposed legislation to draft striking workers into the Armed Forces, and in a dramatic personal appearance before Congress, was able to announce settlement of the rail strike. His proposal passed the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate. For commodities where price controls remained, producers were often unwilling to sell at artificially low prices: Farmers refused to sell grain for months in 1945 and 1946 until payments were significantly increased, even though grain was desperately needed, not only for domestic use, but to stave off starvation in Europe.
On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blocked access to the three Western-held sectors of Berlin. The Allies had never negotiated a deal to guarantee supply of the sectors deep within the Soviet-occupied zone. The commander of the American occupation zone in Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, proposed sending a large armored column across the Soviet zone to West Berlin with instructions to defend itself if it were stopped or attacked. Truman believed this would entail an unacceptable risk of war. He approved a plan to supply the blockaded city by air. On June 25, the Allies initiated the Berlin Airlift, a campaign that delivered food and other supplies, such as coal, using military aircraft on a massive scale. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before, and no single nation had the capability, either logistically or materially, to have accomplished it. The airlift worked; ground access was again granted on May 11, 1949. Nevertheless, the airlift continued for several months after that. The Berlin Airlift was one of Truman's great foreign policy successes; it significantly aided his election campaign in 1948.
The 1948 presidential election is remembered for Truman's stunning come-from-behind victory. In the spring of 1948, Truman's public approval rating stood at 36%, and the president was nearly universally regarded as incapable of winning the general election. The "New Deal" operatives within the party - including FDR's son James - tried to swing the Democratic nomination to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a highly popular figure whose political views and party affiliation were totally unknown. Eisenhower emphatically refused to accept, and Truman outflanked opponents to his nomination.
At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Truman attempted to unify the party by placing a vague civil rights plank in the party platform; the aim was to assuage the internal conflicts between the northern and southern wings of his party. Events overtook the president's efforts at compromise, however. A sharp address given by Mayor Hubert Humphrey of Minneapolis - as well as the local political interests of a number of urban bosses - convinced the Convention to adopt a stronger civil rights plank, which Truman approved wholeheartedly, but all of Alabama's delegates, and a portion of Mississippi's, walked out of the convention in protest. Unfazed, Truman delivered an aggressive acceptance speech attacking the 80th Congress, which Truman called the "Do Nothing Congress", and promising to win the election and "make these Republicans like it."
Within two weeks of the convention, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the U.S. Armed Services. Truman took considerable political risk in backing civil rights, and many seasoned Democrats were concerned that the loss of Dixiecrat support might destroy the Democratic Party. The fear seemed well justified—South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond declared his candidacy for the presidency on a Dixiecrat ticket and led a full-scale revolt of Southern "state's rights" proponents. This rebellion on the right was matched by one on the left, led by Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket. Immediately after its first post-FDR convention, the Democratic Party found itself disintegrating. Victory in November seemed a remote possibility, with the party not simply split but divided three ways. For his running mate, Truman accepted Kentucky Senator Alben W. Barkley, though he really wanted Justice Douglas, who turned down the nomination.
In the end, Truman held his progressive Midwestern base, won most of the Southern states despite the civil rights plank, and squeaked through with narrow victories in a few critical states, notably Ohio, California, and Illinois. The final tally showed that the president had secured 303 electoral votes, Dewey 189, and Thurmond only 39. Henry Wallace got none. The defining image of the campaign came after Election Day, when an ecstatic Truman held aloft the erroneous front page of the Chicago Tribune with a huge headline proclaiming "Dewey Defeats Truman."
Truman's inauguration was the first ever televised nationally. His second term was grueling, primarily because of foreign policy challenges connected directly or indirectly to his policy of containment. He quickly had to come to terms with the end of the American nuclear monopoly; with information provided by its espionage networks in the U.S., the Soviet Union's atomic bomb project progressed much faster than had been expected and they exploded their first bomb on August 29, 1949. In response, on January 7, 1953, Truman announced the detonation of the first U.S. hydrogen bomb.
On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo attempted to assassinate Truman at Blair House. The attack, which could easily have taken the president's life, drew new attention to security concerns surrounding Truman's residence at Blair House. He had jumped up from a nap, and was watching the gunfight from his open bedroom window until a passerby shouted at him to take cover. On the street outside the residence, Torresola mortally wounded a White House policeman, Leslie Coffelt. Before he died, the officer shot and killed Torresola. Collazo, as a co-conspirator in a felony that turned into a homicide, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in 1952. Truman later commuted his sentence to life in prison. Acknowledging the importance of the question of Puerto Rican independence, Truman allowed a plebiscite in Puerto Rico in 1952 to determine the status of its relationship to the U.S. Nearly 82% of the people voted in favor of a new constitution for the Estado Libre Associado.
A 1947 report by the Truman administration titled To Secure These Rights presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. In February 1948, the president submitted a civil rights agenda to Congress that proposed creating several federal offices devoted to issues such as voting rights and fair employment practices. This provoked a storm of criticism from Southern Democrats in the runup to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying: "My forebears were Confederates ... but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten." Tales of the abuse, violence, and persecution suffered by many African American veterans upon their return from World War II infuriated Truman, and were a major factor in his decision to issue Executive Order 9981, in July 1948, desegregating and requiring equal opportunity in the Armed Forces. After several years of planning, recommendations and revisions between Truman, the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity and the various branches of the military, Army units became racially integrated.
Another executive order, also in 1948, made it illegal to discriminate against persons applying for civil service positions based on race. A third, in 1951, established the Committee on Government Contract Compliance (CGCC). This committee ensured that defense contractors did not discriminate because of race.
In 1951, the U.S. ratified the 22nd Amendment, making a president ineligible for election to a third term or for election to a second full term after serving more than two remaining years of a term of a previously elected president. The latter clause would have applied to Truman's situation in 1952 except that a grandfather clause in the amendment explicitly excluded the amendment from applying to the incumbent president.
At the time of the 1952 New Hampshire primary, no candidate had won Truman's backing. His first choice, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, had declined to run; Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson had also turned Truman down, Vice President Barkley was considered too old, and Truman distrusted and disliked Senator Kefauver, who had made a name for himself by his investigations of the Truman administration scandals. Truman had hoped to recruit General Eisenhower as a Democratic candidate, but found him more interested in seeking the Republican nomination. Accordingly, Truman let his name be entered in the New Hampshire primary by supporters. The highly unpopular Truman was handily defeated by Kefauver; 18 days later the president announced he would not seek a second full term. Truman was eventually able to persuade Stevenson to run, and the governor gained the nomination at the 1952 Democratic National Convention.
Eisenhower gained the Republican nomination, with Senator Nixon as his running mate, and campaigned against what he denounced as Truman's failures: "Korea, Communism and Corruption". He pledged to clean up the "mess in Washington," and promised to "go to Korea." Eisenhower defeated Stevenson decisively in the general election, ending 20 years of Democratic presidents. While Truman and Eisenhower had previously been good friends, Truman felt betrayed that Eisenhower did not denounce Joseph McCarthy during the campaign. Similarly, Eisenhower was outraged when Truman, who made a whistlestop tour in support of Stevenson, accused the former general of disregarding "sinister forces ... Anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-foreignism" within the Republican Party. Eisenhower was so outraged he threatened not to make the customary ride down Pennsylvania Avenue with the departing president before the inauguration, but to meet Truman at the steps to the Capitol, where the swearing-in takes place.
Upon leaving the presidency, Truman returned to Independence, Missouri, to live at the Wallace home he and Bess had shared for years with her mother. Once out of office, Truman quickly decided that he did not wish to be on any corporate payroll, believing that taking advantage of such financial opportunities would diminish the integrity of the nation's highest office. He also turned down numerous offers for commercial endorsements. Since his earlier business ventures had proved unsuccessful, he had no personal savings. As a result, he faced financial challenges. Once Truman left the White House, his only income was his old army pension: $112.56 per month. Former members of Congress and the federal courts received a federal retirement package; President Truman himself ensured that former servants of the executive branch of government received similar support. In 1953, however, there was no such benefit package for former presidents, and he received no pension for his Senate service.
On December 5, 1972, Truman was admitted to Kansas City's Research Hospital and Medical Center with lung congestion from pneumonia. He developed multiple organ failure and died at 7:50 am on December 26 at the age of 88. Bess Truman opted for a simple private service at the library for her husband rather than a state funeral in Washington. A week after the funeral, foreign dignitaries and Washington officials attended a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral. Bess died in 1982; they both are buried at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in Independence.
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