11 February 1999
Harry S. Truman
Short and rather bird-like behind thick glasses, Harry S. Truman was not intimidating in looks. He spoke in a Midwestern farmerís tone. But he was a shrewd politician, and established a reputation for speaking the truth.
Truman was born on May 8, 1884 in Lamar, Missouri. He was the oldest of three children of John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen (Young) Truman(Steins 41). His birthplace is just south of the area into which his grandparents had moved from Kentucky four decades earlier(aol 2). The letter "S" in his name was not an abbreviation. It showed the familyís reluctance to choose between his grandfathers, Anderson Shippe Truman and Solomon Young. In 1887 Truman as an infant was moved to a 600 acre farm owned by his motherís family (Hargrove 19). Harry often recalled how his granddad drove him to the Grandview Fair as a child. Harry also played in the cornfield and mud holes with his Shetland pony and his brother, Vivian (Hargrove 19).
Shortly after Harryís sister, Mary Jane, was born the family moved to the little town of Independence, Missouri. There, Harryís thick glasses prevented from joining in many boyhood activities (aol 2). One of the friends that Harry met was a little, curly headed girl named Elizabeth "Bess" Wallace at the age of four years. Eventually they would marry (Hargrove 20). Harry started public school in 1892. Because of his poor eyesight his mother encouraged him to turn to piano and books (Steins 42). Harry began to read small sentences in the newspaper at the early age of five. This helped him stay away from the rough and tumble games that would break his glasses. He once said, "I was so cautioned about my glasses that I was afraid to join the boyish activities that I dearly so wanted to be a part of," (Hargrove 22). Despite some diphtheria in the second grade, Harry was an excellent student. He skipped the third grade entirely. Ironically, Harry had his first job while in the first grade at a drug store owned by William Clinton (Hargrove 22).
Harry finished high school in 1901. He graduated with honors but was turned down an appointment to West Point due to poor eyesight (Steins 42). He took a job as a mailroom clerk at the Kansas City Star . Several years of work for a railroad and two banks added more to Trumanís experience than to his finances (aol 3). Then, at the age of 22, he returned to the rural work into which he had been born. He spent the next eleven years as a farmer helping his father manage the Young farm in Grandview (aol 3). Working on a farm in the golden age of American agriculture he experienced a personal change, becoming less withdrawn and much more confident in his relations with other people. He began to actively participate in Democratic Party politics that later helped him as a politician.
In 1917 the world was at war. After the sinking of the Lusitania, the U.S. was enveloped by war and also Harry heard his calling. Truman enrolled in Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 35th Division, of the United States Army (Hargrove 25). He discovered that he had talents as a leader and gained the affection 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 his childhood friend, Bess, and established a haberdashery in Kansas City. The marriage succeeded, but the store didnít. Founded during the post war boom, it collapsed in the post war Depression. Left with heavy debts Truman was forced to think once again about his career (aol 3).
Through an old army friend, Truman was appointed highway overseer of Jackson County, Missouri. While Truman avoided the corrupt side of the organization and handled his own offices honestly and efficiently, he remained loyal to the dirty Pendergast that got him elected. In 1926, Truman wanted a higher position. He became county judge of Jackson County. In the era where bad politics was popular politics Truman soon became known and applauded for being an honest guy (Steins 43, 44).
In 1934, eager to move higher in politics, Truman accepted Pendergastís request that he run for a seat in the U.S. Senate. He campaigned vigorously and with help from Pendergast the failed businessman was now a Senator. As a first term Senator, Truman supported the New Deal and worked hard on his committee assignments (Steins 44). As an active member of the Interstate Commerce Committee, he helped produce the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and the Transportation Act of 1940 (aol 3). In spite of his record he came close to defeat in 1940, narrowly winning re-election. Pendergast had been sent to prison for income tax evasion, and Truman was criticized for his ties with the discredited organization. Contrary to the negative events of the previous few years, he made a strong showing in his second term.
As head of the special committee to investigate the National Defense Program, he promoted economy and efficiency among defense contractors, saving taxpayers billions of dollars (aol 4). "The Truman Committee," as it was often called, was soon known for its success in debasing waste and stopping mis-management and negligence. Trumanís thinking was often influenced by his experiences and leadership capabilities in World War I (aol 4). 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 (Hargrove 39).
Trumanís 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 (aol 4). In the election year of 1944, there was little doubt that Franklin Roosevelt was the choice for President of a majority of Americans. The question was who would be his running mate. Vice-President Henry Wallace, however, was a more controversial figure. There were rumors spreading that Roosevelt might prefer someone else as his Vice-President in the future. Among the names mentioned was that of Harry Truman, although he later wrote that he had little interest in the vice-presidency. "I was doing the job I wanted to do; it was the one I liked and I had no desire to interrupt my career in the Senate." (Hargrove 49). Shortly before he left for the Convention, Truman received a phone call from a man named James Byrnes (Hargrove 50). Byrnes was a skillful public servant who had given up his job as Supreme Court Justice to be an aide to Roosevelt. Now Byrnes wanted Trumanís nomination for Vice-President. Before long Maryland and Missouriís Senators and Representatives said they would support Truman for vice-president. This left Truman in a "Harry" situation. Unaware that Roosevelt really wanted Truman, Truman turned down the nomination, but received it unknowingly the next day on July 20, 1944 (Hargrove 54).
"Well, if thatís the situation, I guess Iíll have to say Ďyes,í but why the hell didnít he say so in the first place." Truman was now Vice-President. With a very popular president in front of him, Truman became automatically popular along side Roosevelt. For a few months Truman performed the limited duties of Vice-President. He served as President of the Senate and at the President's request, he attended the few cabinet meetings that were held in the early months of 1945 (Hargrove 55). On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, Trumanís friend, Sam Rayburn, told Truman of a call from the White House. He sped out of the parking garage so fast that he didnít even get the message about the call was about.
"Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now," the new President told reporters on April 13, 1945. One of them shouted, "Good luck, Mr. President." "I wish you hadnít said that," Truman answered sadly (Hargrove 1945). Roosevelt was dead and Harry Truman had to take responsibility in the midst of the largest war in the history of civilization. During the early weeks of his presidency, many people found it almost impossible to believe that FDR was dead. But from the beginning, "Give Ďem hell, Harry," let it be known that he was the new man in charge of the White House (aol 5).
The people who worked with President Harry Truman quickly realized that America had found a surprisingly and intelligent new leader (Hargrove 60). By 1946 fifteen million workers were on strike. Truman was sympathetic but didnít want this crisis to disrupt the normal functions of the county. Trumanís next move was to seize all rail lines. Then, he made a domestic program called "Fair Deal," structured after Rooseveltís " New Deal." He supported the use of unions and raised the minimum wage thus ending the strike. Then, his next big plan, acting on his beliefs, he desegregated the military (Steins 48). But of the first things that Harry Truman did forming the United Nations was probably the greatest (Hargrove 61). Truman quickly orchestrated the babying and coaxing of Russia into the UN, this is what made the UN successful.
When Japanese leaders refused to take the head of Trumanís warnings, Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, informed Harry of the Manhattan Project (Hargrove 66). Harry demanded more information about the atomic bomb and when he saw the opportunity and had no other choice, he ordered the Enola Gay to drop "Fat Man" on Hiroshima (Hargrove 67). Three days later Truman ordered another drop of "Little Boy" on Nagasaki. The war was over, and September 9, 1945 was declared Victory in Japan Day (Hargrove 67).
Another area in which Truman made contributions was civil rights. Mentioned earlier, he desegregated the military. But he failed to obtain passage of law assuring equal job opportunities for blacks. Nearly all Southerners opposed him and the Southern Senators effectively filibustered against his legislative proposals (aol 6). This proved almost deadly for Truman in 1948.
The election of 1948 presented with Truman with one of his most spectacular challenges. He faced a confident Republican Party headed by its nominee, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York (aol 6). The pollsters predicted a deluge of votes for Dewey and Harryís "give Ďem hell" tactics to fail. Though he was not given a fair shake Truman campaigned hard, and denounced the Republican Senate as a "do nothing" body. On the night of November 5th, The Chicago Tribune Ďs headline read "Dewey Defeats Truman" (aol 7). Truman held it up the next at his victory speech.
Trumanís second term was not filled with as many hard decisions as his first term, but he changed many domestic and foreign policies that were just as important. Korea was Trumanís next area of crisis. He realized that America still had its limits. He ordered troops into South Korea and then authorized them to push Communist forces back into North Korea and China. Then, General Douglas McArthur gained a reputation for disobeying Truman. While McArthur did not force Truman to change his policy, the controversy did weaken his authority. But in the end, the United States was successful in keeping Communist North Korea out of South Korea.
Trumanís last big crisis as President was a clash with Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy insisted that the U.S. was losing on every front and accused disloyal men, especially in the State Department. Truman argued that McCarthy was chipping away at Americanís freedoms and soon McCarthy lost his credibility. Deciding not to run again, Truman saw power slip from his grasp and from the Democratic Party. The Republicans, led by a popular military hero, Dwight Eisenhower, returned to the White House.
Returning to Independence and benefiting from good health most of the time, Truman enjoyed his retirement. He traveled widely, spoke frequently, stayed active in politics, and seeked unsuccessfully to influence the Democratic candidate in 1956 and 1960. Reflecting his strong interest in history and a desire to present his own view of his years as President, he published his memoirs in 1955 and formed the Truman Presidential Library in Independence in 1957. After his death in Kansas City on December 26, 1972, he was buried on the grounds of his library (aol 9).