Harry S. Truman: Thirty-Third President of the United States
Nickname: The High-Tax Harry
Terms in Office: 1945-1949; 1949-1953
- Born May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri
- Parents: John Anderson and Martha Ellen Young Truman
- Died December 26, 1972, in Kansas City, Missouri; age 88
- Age upon Start of First Term: 60; Age upon Conclusion of First Term: 64
- Age upon Start of Second Term: 64; Age upon Conclusion of Second Term: 68
- Religious Affiliation: Baptist
- Political Party: Democrat
- Height: 5 feet 9 inches
- Vice President: none (1945-1949) and Alben W. Barkley (1949-1953)
Harry Truman assumed the presidency in 1945 after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. As president, he oversaw the conclusion of both the European and the Pacific front in World War II. Truman won a surprise second term, during which time he worked to stabilize the American economy to prevent a second depression and organized the American invasion of Korea during the Korean War.
What Was He Thinking?
Harry Truman was an honest politician who believed favors should not exist in the world of politics. He followed his predecessor – Franklin Roosevelt – in regard to his progressive attitude, endeavoring to protect labor unions, improve working conditions, and stabilize the American economy through government regulation and higher income taxes. An avid opponent of communism, Truman believed communist beliefs were a huge danger to democracies worldwide.
Why Should I Care?
One of Truman’s most significant legacies is the Truman Doctrine. It was responsible for branding the United States as the nation charged with protecting new democracies across the globe from impending communist invasion. As a result, America took a lead role in the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf War. Since the adoption of the Truman Doctrine, trillions of dollars have been sent overseas to countries requesting American aid in their fight against communist regimes and dictatorships.
Breakin’ It Down
Harry was the first of three children born to John and Martha Truman. A sickly child Harry had bad eyesight and battled long bouts of diphtheria. His illness often kept him from participating in activities with kids his age. It did not stop him, however, from going to school. He quickly became an avid reader, reading everything from biographies and histories to accounts of military battles.
Harry also loved playing the piano, practicing for two hours before school every morning. After grade school, Harry wanted to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, but his nearsighted vision and thick glasses prohibited him from doing so. At this time, he took on a series of odd jobs to provide for himself and his family. He worked as a timekeeper at the local Santa Fe railway line and then as a mail clerk at the Kansas City Star newspaper. He also worked for a construction company and then as a clerk at a bank, where he earned one hundred dollars a month. On top of his paying jobs, Harry worked the family farm, rising at five in the morning every day to care for the livestock and do chores. By saving his hard-earned money, Harry was later able to invest thousands of dollars in a zinc mine and an oil company.
In 1905, Harry was determined to join the army. Although his eyesight had not improved, Harry memorized the eye chart to pass the vision test. He joined the National Guard, eventually becoming first lieutenant of the Missouri Second Field Artillery. During the First World War, Harry served in the 129th Field Artillery, reaching the rank of major. Near the end of the war, in March of 1918, Harry was promoted to captain for his bravery in battle.
After his service in the army, Harry returned home and became a co-owner of a local clothing store – but the store failed three years later. After his lack of success in the business realm, Harry decided to enter the world of politics.
While fighting in World War I, Truman’s horse fell on top of him during one of the battles and nearly suffocated him to death.
If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world, and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation. – Harry Truman
Harry Truman and Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace met for the first time in Sunday school at the local Presbyterian Church in 1890, when Harry was six and Bess was five. They would later attend fifth grade together. Although they were childhood friends, it took a seven-year courtship (and three proposals) for Bess to agree to marriage. Harry, however, had loved Bess from the moment he saw her in Sunday school, saying, “She had tanned skin, blond hair, golden as sunshine: and the most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen, or will see.” They were married in 1919. Together they had one daughter. During the war, Harry carried a photo of Bess in his pocket, praying he would return to her. He did, and they eventually occupied the White House and to serve their country as president and first lady.
Harry and Elizabeth Truman received the first two Medicare registration cards.
Harry S. Truman was Harry’s full name – he actually had no middle name. His parents couldn’t decide between his paternal grandfather’s middle name, Shipp, and his maternal grandfather’s name, Solomon. So they decided on S.
Truman referred to his wife, Bess, as “The Boss” and his daughter, Margaret, as “The Boss’s Boss.”
The Sayings of Harry Truman
If you ever said, “The buck stops here,” then you have said the words of Harry Truman. Truman also created the idiom, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Previous Political Career
Appointed a supervisor of roads and buildings for Missouri’s Jackson County. He worked to improve the local construction system and fired certain government officials to decrease corruption.
1922: Elected as a judge on the Jackson County Court. He lost reelection in 1924 but won again in 1926 and 1930.
1934: Elected to the U.S. Senate. He fervently supported Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and quickly became active in the Senate. He was reelected in 1940. He was appointed to the Appropriations Committee and the Interstate Commerce Committee, and he created the Civil Aeronautics Board to regulate the airplane industry. He formed the “Truman Committee,” which worked to eliminate government waste. Fraud and corruption had cost taxpayers $400,000 over just three years, and this committee saved the country $15 billion.
1945: Vice president under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Truman campaigned tirelessly, traveling by train thirty thousand miles across the country with his “whistle-stop” campaign tour. He gave approximately three hundred speeches to a cumulative twenty million people, but no one thought he would pull it off.
Election of 1948
- Harry S. Truman: 303 Electoral Votes
- Thomas E. Dewey: 189 Electoral Votes
- J. Strom Thurmond: 39 Electoral Votes
The Dixiecrats: The Dixiecrats were former members of the Democrat Party who branched off after Truman desegregated the military. These southern Democrats favored the strong segregation rules in the south.
During Truman’s second term in office, baseball was desegregated for the first time. Additionally, in the early 1950s, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Harry Truman was known to his family, friends, and even enemies to be humble and courteous, but at the same time outspoken and blunt. Truman was confident in his judgments, and once he made a decision, he stuck to it. His temper often overtook his composure, oftentimes showing through in his impassionate speeches. Although he loved the world of politics, he remained honest and incorruptible.
Truman served as vice president for a brief eighty-two days, meeting with the president only twice before FDR’s death. With the president’s death on April 12, Truman was sworn into office as the nation’s seventh “accidental president.”
FDR had told Truman little about what was happening in the administration; in fact, it wasn’t until his first meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson that Truman learned about America’s atomic nuclear capabilities. To ease the transition, Truman requested Roosevelt’s cabinet stay intact for the time being.
On May 8, 1945, Truman experienced the day Roosevelt would have given anything to have experienced: the Allies’ victory on the European front, known as V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). However, the war with Japan still continued. Because of this, the possibility of America using the atomic bomb on Japan became greater and greater. America decided to drop the atomic bombs. After two bombings of Japan on August 7 and 10, Japan surrendered on September 2.
Use of the Atomic Bomb
The atomic bomb had the strength of two thousand British “Grand Slam” bombs – the largest bomb ever to be used up to that time – and could kill tens of thousands. In comparison to how many individuals would have died as a result of land invasion – up to five hundred thousand – the magnitude of the atomic bombings can be put in perspective. Land battles between the U.S. and Japanese were especially brutal because of the Japanese’s dedication to their historic Bushido code, a code that required them to die before ever surrendering.
For instance, at the battle of Iwo Jima in Japan, approximately 27,000 American and Japanese soldiers were killed and nearly 20,000 more were wounded. At the battle of Okinawa, over 115,000 Japanese and American soldiers died and approximately 40,000 were wounded. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima resulted in 130,000 Japanese casualties (deaths or injuries) and the bombing of Nagasaki resulted in 70,000 casualties.
On April 12th, Eleanor Roosevelt called Harry Truman personally, asking for him to come and see her immediately – a call which reportedly drained the color from Truman’s face. The moment Truman arrived in Eleanor’s office, she said, “Harry, the president is dead.” After a brief moment of silence, Truman asked if there was anything he could do for her. She replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if any of you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me. – Harry Truman
Beginnings of the Cold War
As soon as the war on the Pacific front ended, the Cold War began. Problems arose with Soviet Russia as soon as Japan surrendered. After the Yalta Conference, it was agreed that Germany would be divided between the Allied powers: the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet Union refused to hold democratic and uncorrupted elections and slowly began cutting East Germany off from the rest of the world by stationing soldiers along the border to refuse access or exit. The Soviet Union also began supporting communist rebels in Turkey and Greece. These actions resulted in the “Truman Doctrine,” which sent U.S. dollars ($150 million to Turkey and $250 million to Greece) to help suppress the communist rebels.
The Marshall Plan
Truman’s secretary of state, George Marshall, formed the Marshall Plan, which sent $12.5 billion to foreign nations over the next four years. This money was used to strengthen anti-communist countries, to prevent communist takeovers, and to fund projects to battle the postwar famines quickly spreading through most of Europe. It was based on the “domino theory,” which theorized that if communism were allowed to spread to one country and take over the government there, then other countries would quickly fall to the same fate. The Marshall Plan could only go so far, however, and Eastern Europe – the countries between East Germany and the Soviet Union – fell under Soviet communist rule. Soon, contact with East Germany was shut off completely and roads leading into Berlin were blocked, preventing any resources from reaching the East Berliners and Germans. When conditions began to deteriorate, Truman issued the “Berlin Airlift,” otherwise known as Operation Vittles, which delivered supplies to East Germany by air for almost a year.
Fair Deal and Civil Rights Reform
Although the war and the resulting industrial boom lifted America from the Great Depression, Truman was careful to prevent history from repeating itself, so he proposed his “Fair Deal” legislation: a series of price and wage controls, an expansion of public housing, extension of old-age benefits, and the formation of national health insurance. After the Republicans secured both housed of Congress in 1946, all of Truman’s proposals were stalled.
Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, ordering the desegregation of the military – meaning the military could no longer separate and discriminate against soldiers based on race. This executive order created havoc inside the Democrat Party, leading to the split of the Democrat Party and the southern Democrats during the presidential election of 1948.
Because of the partisan divide and the constant debate in Washington, D.C., Truman’s popularity sank to an all-time low. Labor unions were angry over the recently passed Taft-Hartley act, which allowed the government to regulate and interfere in worker strikes. Business managers resented the continuation of the strict wartime government regulations, and Truman lost support over his anti-segregation policies. Everyone considered it impossible for Truman to be reelected, but in 1948 he won 49.5 percent of the popular vote, with two million more votes than his opponent, and won 57 percent of the electoral vote.
Success in the Midterm Election
Things turned around after the election of 1948 when the Democrats won the majority in both chambers of Congress. With Congress on his side, Truman was able to pass his “Fair Deal” legislation. However, Truman and the rest of the U.S. government struggled to combat communism inside America. The Red Scare (the anticommunist movement in the 1950s) leg to a dramatic increase in suspicion among the United States citizens: who might be secretly communist or leading a double life as a Soviet spy? At the height of the Red Scare, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy held his historic McCarthy Hearings – a practice called McCarthyism.
Hundreds of people were brought before the Senate and the “House Committee on Un-American Activities” on the basis of suspicion of showing communist beliefs. As a result, hundreds of people lost their jobs and their reputations, and many were stripped of their constitutional rights with national security as the excuse.
Beginning of the Korean War
Although communist expansion in America was curbed, the communism scare at home was heightened when the international stage once again erupted with turmoil and warfare. This time, instead of Europe, the focus landed on the small country of Korea, which was now divided into the communist north and anticommunist south. An alliance was formed with the United Nations, fifteen other nations allied with the United States to support South Korea. North Korea received support from the People’s Republic of China and the USSR. Within a matter of months, South Korea and her allies regained the “38th Parallel” – the previous border between the two countries. General Douglas MacArthur proposed a plan to push past the 38th parallel and into mainland China, but Truman rejected the plan, believing that the Marshall Plan only called for keeping existing countries safe. Nevertheless, MacArthur pushed his soldiers northward into North Korea in an attempt to destroy the communist forces there. In retaliation, the People’s Republic of China deployed thousands of their own troops. As a result, the war continued months longer than it should have and many more lives were lost. The three-year-long Korean War between the United States and North Korea extended past Truman’s leave from office, leaving 128,000 Americans dead, missing, or wounded.
Taft-Hartley Act of 1947: This act outlawed union-only workplaces and prohibited union activities. It also prevented unions from contributing to campaigns and allowed courts to stop strikes that could harm the public good. Truman vetoed the legislation, but Congress overrode the veto. This act was repealed with the changes of political majority in the Congress.
Truman’s Fair Deal Legislation: This piece of legislation increased federal funding for housing, increased the minimum wage, improved civil rights for African-Americans, and increased Social Security benefits.
Presidential Succession Act: Passed in 1947m this act established the process of presidential succession if the president and the vice president were to both die while serving. The succession would be Speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate, secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, secretary of defense, and then attorney general.
National Security Act: This act, passed in 1947, established the Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA), the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and the Department of the Air Force.
Internal Security Act: Also known as McCarran Act of 1950, this act required all communist organizations to register with the government. It also legalized the arrest of all communist officials during a “national emergency,” and it prohibited communists from working in national defense positions. The act also prohibited any individual who was a part of a totalitarian organization from immigrating to the United States.
Thoughts on the Constitution
The Federal Government has a clear duty to see the Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws are not denied or abridged anywhere in the Union. – Harry Truman
After leaving the presidency, Truman retired to his home state of Missouri, living in the city of Independence for the rest of his life. During his retirement, Truman wrote three books: Year of Decisions (1955), Years of Trial and Hope (1956), and Mr. Citizen (1960). Truman also oversaw the construction of his presidential library in Missouri. On the day after Christmas in 1972, Truman passed away in his own home.
The Potsdam Conference
July 24, 1945 – Victory has been declared in Europe, but the war in the Pacific continues. Japan is proving to be a difficult enemy to defeat as battles continue and result in massive casualties. To defeat Japan, President Truman believes the U.S. Army will need the help of the U.S.S. R. Last week on July 17, Truman traveled to Potsdam, Germany, to attend the Potsdam Conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. The conference resulted in a pact with Joseph Stalin that guaranteed his assistance on the Japanese front. Also at this conference, an international council was proposed to conduct war-crime trials, named the Nuremberg Trials, against high-ranking Nazi officials.
“Fat Man” and Little Boy”: The Atomic Bombs Dropped on Japan
August 7, 1945 – Yesterday, Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The bomb was dropped at 9:15 a.m. Tokyo time. The bombing came after America gave Japan an opportunity to surrender earlier this week. However, Japan gave no sign of surrender. It is estimated that the bombing resulted in 130,000 casualties and 175,000 Japanese losing their homes. The Soviets are also now invading Manchuria and Korea.
August 10, 1945 – After Sunday’s bombings, Japan has still refused to surrender. Yesterday, President Truman authorized the second atomic bomb to be dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The devastation at Nagasaki was just as horrendous: it appears that one-third of the entire city was destroyed and 70,000 Japanese were killed or injured.
September 2, 1945 – Today, aboard the USS Missouri, Japan signed the terms of surrender, officially ending the Second World War. This comes after their verbal surrender on August 15, after several days of behind-the-scenes negotiations and a failed coup d’etat by Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese.
November 1, 1950 – Two men attempted to force their way past guards to enter Blair House with the intention of assassinating President Truman. Shots were fired when the two men drew their guns, resulting in the death of one of the gunmen and the death of a secret service agent. The remaining gunman is now imprisoned. Truman has been staying in Blair House during the White House renovations, and security has been relatively relaxed. The extent of security comprises three secret service men guarding the main entrance to the house and a small guard shack on the road front. Security is likely to now be increased.
State of the Union
(1) States: 48
(2) U.S. Population: (1945) 143,501,630
(3) U.S. Debt (1945) $264,052,143,292
(4) Value of the Dollar: $1 in 1945 would be worth $12.99 today. $1 in 1953 would be worth $8.77.
- 1945 – Adolf Hitler commits suicide
- 1945 – The charter for the United Nations is signed
- 1945 – The first electronic computer is built
- 1945 – Percy Spencer patents the microwave oven
- 1946 – The first U.N. meeting is held in London
- 1946 – The League of Nations dissolves
- 1947 – The Dead Sea Scrolls are discovered
- 1947 – The Diary of a Young Girl, from the diary of Anne Frank, is published
- 1947 – The twenty-second amendment to the Constitution is passed
- 1948 – Mahatma Gandhi is assassinated in New Delhi
- 1948 – The nation of Israel is established
- 1948 – The Berlin Blockade and Berlin Airlift take place
- 1949 – The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is formed
- 1949 – The first successful Soviet atomic test takes place
- 1949 – Communists take over China
- 1950 – McCarthyism begins
- 1950 – The Korean War begins
- 1951 – Color television is introduced
- 1952 – An airplane lands on the North Pole for the first time
- 1953 – Joseph Stalin dies
- 1953 – Elizabeth II is crowned Queen of England
No government is perfect. One of the chief virtues of a democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible and under democratic process can be pointed out and corrected. – Harry Truman
Truman said this in his 1947 speech to the joint session of Congress. He explained that America’s democratic government, although it is not perfect, is amendable and correctable.
What Has He Done for Me Lately?
The decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was one of the most significant decisions ever made by a U.S. president. However, had the bombs not been dropped, the fighting would have continued for many more months and the death toll would have risen considerably during that time – especially if a land-invasion tactic had been used instead. Either way, the options were bleak, for war will always result in tragic death.
Juliette Turner is the National Youth Director of Constituting America, and the author of three books: Our Constitution Rocks, Our Presidents Rock and the novel, based on life at her ranch with her mom, actress Janine Turner, That’s Not Hay In My Hair (all published by HarpersCollins/Zondervan).
Our Presidents Rock, HarpersCollins/Zondervan, 2014. Reprinted with permission.