Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman(1884-1972), 33d president of the United States.
Most Americans in the 1950s did not expect that Harry Truman would become
one of their most highly regarded presidents. By 1952, just before he announced
his decision not to run again, only 25% of the people thought he was
doing a good job. Within a decade, however, most American historians regarded
him as one of the nation's greatest presidents. To be sure, a "revisionist
view developed that attacked his record at home and abroad, picturing
him as ineffective in some areas, oppressive in others, and as the architect
of the Cold War. Yet the favorable appraisal seemed to be the dominant American
Appraisals of presidents depend on the observer's assumptions
concerning what leaders should try to accomplish and what they are capable
of accomplishing. Obviously, Truman was not so effective in domestic affairs
as his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, had been in the 1930's, but Truman's
opportunities were smaller. He might have accomplished more had he pressed
his proposals more boldly, yet his appraisal of political realities persuaded
him that he could not do so. He was unable to gain acceptance for many new
domestic proposals in such areas as health and education, but he provided
publicity for them. He expanded and improved established programs and defended
them against attempts by their foes to weaken them. And he worked harder on
behalf of civil rights than any of his predecessors.
Truman's record in foreign affairs, while also flawed, was
more significant. He effectively developed a larger role for the nation in
world affairs than it had played before World War II
. Prewar policies had
not kept the American people out of major wars. Truman's policies did not
accomplish their objectives in some places, such as eastern Europe, and they
did not avert a war in Korea. But they promoted the recovery and reconstruction
of western Europe and Japan.
Short and rather owlish behind thick glasses, Truman was
not imposing in appearance. He spoke in the Midwesterner's flat, nasal tone.
But he was scrupulously hones, and he established a reputation for speaking
Born in Lamar, Mo., on May 8, 1884, Truman was the oldest
of three children of John Anderson and Martha Ellen (Young) Truman. His birthplace
was just south of the area into which his grandparents had moved from Kentucky
four decades earlier. The letter "S in his name was not an abbreviation.
It reflected the family's reluctance to choose between his grandfathers--Anderson
Shippe Truman and Solomon Young--in selecting his name.
In 1890 the Trumans moved to Independence, Mo. There, Harry's
thick glasses prevented him from joining in many boyhood activities. Encouraged
by his mother, he turned to the piano and books. At the piano, he developed
a talent that provided relaxation in later years. From books, he acquired
some of the historical information that influenced his career.
Truman did not attend college. His father's financial difficulties
prevented him from doing so, and his poor eyesight dashed his hope of entering
the U. S. Military Academy at West Point.
Several years of work for a railroad and two banks added
more to Truman's experiences than to his finances
or sense of accomplishment. Then, at the age of 22, he returned to the rural
work into which he had been born. He spent the next 11 years as a farmer,
helping his father manage the Young farm in Grandview, Mo. Working on a good
farm in the "golden age of American agriculture, he experienced a
personality change, becoming less withdrawn, much more gregarious, much more
confident in his relations with other people than before. He began to participate
actively in Democratic party politics, and he joined several other organizations,
including the Masons, that later helped him as a politician.
World War I provided new opportunities. Commissioned by
the National Guard, Captain Truman served in France in command of Battery
D of the 129th Field Artillery, 35th Division, American Expeditionary Force,
fighting in major battles late in the war. He discovered that he had talents
as a leader, and he gained the affection and esteem of a group of men who
voted for him later. After the war, he joined veterans organizations and the
Army Reserve, rising to the rank of colonel.
After returning home in 1919, Truman married Elizabeth (Bess)
Wallace, his childhood sweetheart, and established a clothing store in Kansas
City. The marriage succeeded, but the store did not. Founded during the postwar
boom, it collapsed in the postwar depression. Left with heavy debts, Truman
was forced to think once again about his career.
Entry into Politics
Encouraged by the Kansas
City political organization headed by Thomas Pendergast, Truman turned to
politics. As years passed, the machine proved to be both a help and a handicap.
It supplied essential votes in Kansas City but acquired a bad reputation that
alienated many voters elsewhere. While Truman avoided the corrupt side of
the organization and handled his own offices honestly and efficiently, he
remained loyal to Pendergast and defended machines as necessary, though dangerous,
features of democratic politics.
Truman was elected judge of the Jackson county court in
1922, failed to win reelection in 1924, became presiding judge of the court
two years later, and was reelected in 1930. These positions, administrative
rather than judicial, enabled him to accomplish much, especially as a builder
In 1934, eager to move higher in politics, Truman accepted
Pendergast's request that he run for a seat in the U. S. Senate. He campaigned
vigorously, with help from the machine. His own record, his many friends throughout
the state, and his endorsement of President Roosevelt and his popular New
Deal policies were also important assets. He won the primary and defeated
an anti-New Deal Republican in the general election.
In the Senate
As a first-term senator, Truman
supported the New Deal and worked hard on his committee assignments. As an
active member of the Interstate Commerce Committee, he helped to produce the
Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and the Transportation Act of 1940. In spite
of his record, he came close to defeat in 1940, narrowly winning reelection.
Pendergast had been sent to prison for income tax evasion, and Truman was
criticized for his ties with the discredited organization.
After his reelection, Truman began a series of Senate investigations
that brought him fame and saved the taxpayers billions of dollars. As head
of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, he promoted
economy and efficiency among defense contractors.
As a senator he supported Franklin Roosevelt in foreign
as well as domestic affairs. Truman's thinking was influenced by his experiences
during World War I and as a veteran and reserve officer after the war. He
considered military power to be of great importance, worked for a stronger armed force, and, after the Japanese attacked
Pearl Harbor, blamed the "pacifists and the "isolationists.
During the war, he worked for the creation of an international organization
to preserve peace. He favored the use of American economic power in the Lend-Lease
program as another means of influencing international affairs.
Truman's new prestige plus
his ability to get along with all factions in his party made him a contender
for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1944. His own ambitions
did not reach beyond the Senate. But Roosevelt, running for a fourth term,
was eager to find a lieutenant who would help him avoid the difficulties that
Woodrow Wilson had encountered in the Senate after World War I. The incumbent
vice president, Henry Wallace, was not popular with many party leaders. Prodded
by one of Truman's associates, Robert Hannegan, a St. Louis politician and
chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Roosevelt persuaded Truman
to run with him. Truman defeated Wallace for the nomination on the second
ballot at the Democratic National Convention. The ticket was elected.
Truman's new position added little to his preparation for
the presidency, because Roosevelt made no effort to train him. Consequently,
when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Truman faced the tremendous task of
learning to be president by dealing with the problems that flowed in upon
First term: International Relations
to carry out Roosevelt's policies, Truman brought to fruition the plans for
the unconditional surrender of Germany, which came on May 8, and the establishment
of the United Nations. He attended the UN founding conference in San Francisco
in late April. Truman made the decision to use Atomic Bombs against Japan,
believing that they would end the war quickly, save lives, and place the United
States in a position to revolutionize Japanese life. Alternatives to the bomb,
including a negotiated settlement, were available, but they were not as apparent
then as they would seem later, and they appeared likely to produce results
more slowly and restrict opportunities for change in Japan. Two bombs dropped
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, coupled with Russia's declaration of war against
Japan, brought the war to an end on August 14.
Some persons have argued that Truman used the bomb to influence
the Russians rather than the Japanese, but they have demonstrated only that
he and some of his aides hoped that this new evidence of American power would
restrain the Russians at the same time that it accomplished American objectives
in Japan. By August 1945, Truman had become more critical of the Russians
than Roosevelt had been, but not because the new president had brought to
the White House a more hostile attitude toward them. The change in presidential
behavior is explained chiefly by changes in the situation, not in personnel.
As time passed in 1945, Russian efforts to dominate eastern Europe became
more obvious and alarming to American officials, and the need for Russian
help, which had influenced Roosevelt so much, significantly declined as Germany
and Japan were defeated and the United Nations was established.
Truman did bring to the job convictions as to how expanding
nations should be treated. His thinking on foreign policy was dominated by
political considerations. It included a theory of power that emphasized both
the importance of power and the limits on it. He was determined to avoid what
he regarded as the errors of the American past: military weakness and a reluctance
to get involved in international problems.
Thus Truman could be expected to protest Soviet expansion
in eastern Europe. He did so, soon adopting a policy of "toughness
in his dealings with Moscow. He found it impossible, however, to do more than
protest, because U.S. military power was declining rapidly under the pressures
for demobilization, and neither he nor anyone else was eager to provoke another
war. Henry Wallace, now secretary of commerce, held on to the wartime hope
for cooperation with the Russians, and in September 1946 he publicly criticized the "get tough policy. The president, regarding
Wallace as a "pacifist and a "dreamer, the type of person
who had caused trouble in the past, obtained his resignation so as to clarify
administration policy and the relationships between the president and his
Perhaps Truman should have offered no objections to Russian
behavior and recognized it as merely an expression of concern for national
security. Years later, it did seem that the administration had overestimated
the Russian threat to the West. Russia, after all, had been severely damaged
by the war. Yet the security interest of the Russians conflicted with the
interests of the people of eastern Europe, and they too deserved consideration
from American officials--and inevitably received it because of American
hopes for national self-determination and unhampered commercial relationships.
Given the Russian military presence and determination in
eastern Europe, Truman had little opportunity to be effective there, but he
found larger opportunities in southern and western Europe. Economic and political
weaknesses seemed to give the Russians a chance to extend their influence
into the region, but a series of American moves from 1947 to 1949 promoted
economic improvements, strengthened non-Communist governments, and contributed
to the frustration of Communist groups, especially in Greece, Italy, and France.
The momentous new steps included the Truman Doctrine, which
granted aid to Greece and Turkey and promised assistance to other nations
threatened "by armed minorities or by outside pressure; the Marshall
Plan, which used American economic resources to stimulate the recovery of
European economies outside the Soviet sphere; the Berlin airlift, designed
to maintain the Western presence in that city, which was surrounded by the
Russian-occupied zone of Germany; and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,
the nation's first peacetime military alliance. Truman's Point Four program
helped new nations develop economically.
These steps, which added up to a policy of "containment
of communism, constituted unprecedented U.S. involvement in Europe during
peacetime. Truman not only made the decisions but used all his power to get
the policies accepted. His success also owed much to a bipartisan group in
which a Republican, Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg (Mich.), played a key role.
Truman accomplished less
in domestic affairs, in part because he was so busy with international concerns.
Beginning in September 1945, he fought to continue and expand the New Deal,
soon labeling his program the Fair Deal. He encountered the same coalition
of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats that had frustrated Roosevelt
frequently after 1936. This coalition effectively opposed Truman when the
Democrats dominated Congress (1945-1946 and 1949-1956) as well
as when the Republicans were in control (1947-1948). One of his few
domestic victories was the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, which included
a provision for public housing.
In another area in which Truman made important contributions--civil
rights--he had to rely chiefly on executive action, publicizing the question
and desegregating the armed forces. But he failed to obtain passage of a law
assuring equal job opportunities for blacks and ending poll taxes, lynchings,
and discrimination on public transportation. His personal concern about the
problems of black Americans, as well as his quest for the black vote, and
his worry about the damage that American racial practices did to the nation's
image in the world moved him to act. Nearly all Southerners opposed him, however,
and Southern senators filibustered effectively against his legislative proposals.
In 1947, Congress overrode Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley
Act, which Truman said unfairly weakened the bargaining power of unions. Truman's
frequent interventions in labor-management disputes were significant, because
they expanded the role of the president in this area. The railroad and coal
industries provided major occasions for action in 1946. Steel did in 1952.
But the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the argument that the president has inherent
powers to seize firms in emergencies. Faced with a steel strike during the
Korean War, Truman had seized steel mills to keep them operating.
The election of 1948 presented
Truman with one of his most spectacular challenges. He faced a confident Republican
party, headed by its presidential nominee, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York.
Furthermore, groups on the left and right wings of his own party deserted
him to form the Progressive and States' Rights parties. In this situation,
the pollsters predicted a Republican landslide, but Truman campaigned vigorously,
traveling thousands of miles and speaking
hundreds of times, often extemporaneously. His objective was to persuade the
members of the old Roosevelt coalition that they should vote for him to protect
the programs that had been especially beneficial to them. Employing a "
give 'em hell technique, he denounced the 80th Congress as a "do-nothing
body dominated by men with "a dangerous lust for power and privilege,
and he contrasted this with his own program. He often introduced his
wife and daughter and chatted informally with the people who clustered about
his campaign train. The style of his campaign illustrated his conception of
himself as a common man and his conception of the president as champion of
The result was an upset, although by a small margin in a "
low turnout election. He received fewer than half of all of the popular
votes but outpolled Dewey 24,104,030 to 21,971,004, and secured 303 electoral
votes to 189 for the Republican candidate.
Truman soon encountered major
problems in Asia, a part of the world the administration regarded as less
important than western Europe and less capable of using American aid effectively.
He had tried since 1945 to get the Chinese Nationalists and Communists to
work together in one government. He hoped thereby that Chiang Kai-shek, the
Nationalist leader, would find time to deal with China's problems. The policy
failed, and the Communists drove their foes from the mainland in 1949.
Korea was the next area of crisis in Asia, partly out of
shortcomings in U.S. military policy. American policy was dominated by confidence
in air power and the atomic bomb, a popular desire to keep Americans out of
uniform, and fear of heavy government spending. Some of these considerations
influenced Truman himself, and Congress rejected his departures from them,
such as his advocacy of universal military training. One result was a small
Army. This fact, along with North Korean ambitions and concern about those
of South Korea, Communist fears of American plans for Japan, and the obvious
American reluctance to get involved militarily on the Asian mainland, probably
influenced the North Korean decision to invade South Korea on June 25, 1950.
In spite of military weaknesses, Truman decided to act boldly
to repel the aggressors. First he won passage of a United Nations Security
Council resolution recommending that member states furnish aid to South Korea.
Truman then authorized U.S. military intervention. Recalling events of the
1930's, such as the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Truman was determined
to avoid the mistakes he believed had been made then. Furthermore, he could
not believe that the Constitution prevented him from acting quickly and forcefully.
A few critics argued that only Congress could authorize sweeping military
action of the sort he had ordered, but Truman's defenders emphasized his authority
as commander in chief and cited many occasions when presidents had acted independently.
Two decades later, after subsequent presidents had intervened in Vietnam,
Truman's action would seem even to some of his earlier defenders to have provided
a dangerous precedent.
The decision to intervene militarily in Korea led to other
American moves. One was protection for Chiang Kai-shek, who had retreated
to Formosa. Another was increased support for the French in their battle against
revolution in Southeast Asia. A third was a sharp increase in the size, cost,
and complexity of American armed forces and in the number stationed in Europe.
The administration also carried out plans for a peace treaty and an alliance
Truman still recognized that American power had limits.
Nevertheless, he authorized his forces to pursue the enemy into North Korea
after the North Koreans had been pushed back into their own territory, and
he changed the goal of the war from containment to liberation. China, however,
quickly entered the war and pushed the anti-Communist forces back to South
Truman then retreated to his original goal. His commander
in the Far East, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, advocated an expansion of military
operations so as to defeat the Chinese and unify Korea, but Truman feared
that the general's suggestions would tie down American forces in Asia, give
Russia new opportunities in Europe, and lead to a world war. When MacArthur
publicly criticized administration policies, Truman removed him from command
on April 11, 1951, thereby reaffirming the principle of the subordination
of the military to civilian officials as well as the theory of limited power.
While MacArthur did not force Truman to change his policy,
the controversy did weaken his authority. The general's argument obscured
what had been accomplished in the Korean War. It suggested that the United
States had failed be cause it had not
unified the Korean peninsula. The criticism neglected the fact that a Communist
effort to expand had been checked without kindling World War III.
The clash with MacArthur contributed to growing protests
against the administration. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) charged that
the country was "losing on every front and blamed disloyal men, especially
in the State Department.
Truman seemed incapable of curbing the growing discontent.
He argued that McCarthy and others were "chipping away our basic freedoms
as insidiously and far more effectively than the Communists have ever been
able to do and creating "such a wave of fear and uncertainty that
their attacks upon our liberties go almost unchallenged. Such arguments
failed to rally public support, perhaps because he and his aides had talked
so often of the dangers posed by Communists, and, in line with their rhetoric,
had developed a loyalty-security program that alarmed civil libertarians and
had prosecuted the leaders of the U.S. Communist party. On the other hand,
Truman had vetoed the Internal Security Act in 1950. His tendency toward harsh
expression when angered by critics increased his difficulties, as did inflation
and charges of corruption in government.
Deciding not to run again, Truman saw power slip from his
grasp and from the grasp of his party. The Republicans, led by a popular military
hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, returned to the White House in 1953.
Returning to Independence and benefiting from good health
most of the time, Truman enjoyed his retirement. He traveled widely and spoke
frequently, often to groups of young people about their civic responsibilities.
He remained active in politics, criticizing the Republicans, seeking unsuccessfully
to influence the choice of the Democratic presidential candidate in 1956 and
1960, and joining in campaigns. Reflecting his strong interest in history
and a desire to present his own view of his years in Washington, he published
his memoirs in 1955 and 1956. In 1957 the Truman Library was dedicated in
Independence. After Truman's death in Kansas City, Mo., on Dec. 26, 1972,
he was buried on the grounds of the library.
Richard S. Kirkendall
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