|Born||May 8, 1884, Lamar, Mo.|
|Military service||U.S. Army, 1917-19, discharged as Major.|
|Previous public office||♦ road overseer, Jackson County, Mo., 1914|
♦ postmaster, Grandview, Mo., 1915;
♦ Jackson County judge, 1922-24;
♦ Jackson County presiding judge, 1926-34
♦ U.S. Senate, 1934-45;
♦ Vice President, 1945
|Died||Dec. 26, 1972, Kansas City, Mo.|
Truman grew up on a farm near Independence, Missouri. He finished high school and became a railroad worker, mail room boy, bank clerk, and bookkeeper, returning to his grandfather's farm after several years. In World War I he served as a first lieutenant and then captain of artillery, seeing action near the end of the war in the Argonne Forest and at Verdun. In 1919 he married Elizabeth Virginia (“Bess”) Wallace. Truman became a partner in a men's haberdashery with an army friend; when the store failed and left him deeply in debt, he refused to declare bankruptcy and spent years paying off creditors.
Truman's political career began after he was introduced to the Democratic boss of Kansas City, Missouri, Tom Pendergast. As a loyal worker in the Pendergast machine, he helped the organization move into rural Jackson County. He became a county judge (an administrative, not a legal, position), and in 1934 the Pendergast machine backed him in a three-way race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Truman won the nomination, then campaigned for and won election as a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. In 1940 he again won a three-way race for the Democratic nomination, then won re-election even though Boss Pendergast had been sentenced to prison for income tax evasion and other members of his machine had been convicted of vote fraud. Voters knew that Truman had not been involved in these activities.
In his second term in the Senate, Truman chaired the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. He uncovered waste, fraud, and corruption and contributed greatly to the successful U.S. war effort.
In 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt dropped Henry Wallace from his ticket and offered the Democratic convention a choice between Harry Truman and Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas. Although a majority of the delegates supported Wallace on the first ballot, they bowed to Roosevelt's wishes and nominated Truman on the second ballot
President Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945, elevated Truman to the Presidency.
On May 7 Truman announced that the war in Europe had ended. His first important mission was the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, where he met with British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to negotiate the fate of Eastern Europe. Returning home, Truman won Senate consent to the charter of the United Nations; for the first time, the United States would be part of a world organization. In July he decided to use the atomic bomb against Japan to end the war in the Pacific. Hiroshima was destroyed on August 6, Nagasaki on August 9. On August 14 Japan surrendered.
In foreign policy, he announced in 1947 the ‘Truman Doctrine’ with reference to the Greek civil war, and reversing an earlier decision to scrap the US intelligence services, authorized the creation of the CIA. In 1948 he signed the Marshall Plan of financial aid for European economic recovery and called Stalin's bluff with the Berlin airlift. But he was such an underdog going into the 1948 elections that the day after polling day several newspapers incorrectly headlined that his opponent had won.
In 1948 Truman won the Democratic nomination for President with the support of the urban party bosses. In a brilliant election-year tactic, Truman called the Republican-dominated Congress into special session and challenged it to pass his program. While the Republicans stalled, Truman campaigned for reelection against the “Do-Nothing 80th Congress.” He made a whistle-stop railroad tour and crowds chanted “Give 'em Hell, Harry.” In the midst of the campaign Truman issued an executive order ending racial segregation in the armed forces. With overwhelming support from blacks, Truman eked out narrow margins of victory in key Northern states and defeated Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Truman won less than half the popular vote, in the closest election since 1916.
Truman returned to Washington to savor his victory, proudly holding aloft a copy of the Chicago Tribune that carried the election night headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”
In 1949 he set up NATO, and instituted a program of aid to underdeveloped countries, while his opponents yapped that he had ‘lost’ China to Mao Tse-tung and bayed for the blood of the crypto-communists in his administration who they said were responsible.
Truman's major domestic success after winning reelection was the Housing Act of 1949, which provided for slum clearance and public housing in urban areas. Congress also raised the minimum wage. It stalled, however, on Truman's farm, education, health, labor, and civil rights proposals.
The Rio Pact and the Anzus Pact committed the United States to the defense of the Western Hemisphere, Australia, and New Zealand. Mutual defense treaties were also signed with the Philippines and Japan.
The Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949, so in 1950 Truman permitted development of the powerful hydrogen bomb to proceed. It was successfully tested in 1952.
His foreign policies elsewhere were highly successful, but Asia was less amenable to U.S. intervention.
The containment policy against communist aggression was put to the test. On June 28, 1950, Truman ordered U.S. air and ground forces to repel a North Korean invasion of South Korea. Truman's conduct of the war was controversial. On the advice of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, he did not ask Congress for a declaration of war. He allowed General Douglas MacArthur to invade North Korea, but when communist Chinese troops entered the war, Truman refused to allow bombing of North Korean supply bases in China because he feared it might lead to all-out war between the United States and China. On April 11, 1951, Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination after the general called for bombing China. MacArthur received a hero's welcome back in the United States and addressed a joint session of Congress.
The Korean War dragged on. Close to 50,000 U.S. troops were killed and 100,000 wounded. The war created problems in the economy and contributed to Truman's declining popularity.
After Truman seized steel mills on April 8, 1952, during a strike, claiming he had to ensure production as a war measure, the Supreme Court ordered that he return the mills to their owners. This ruling further diminished Truman's popularity.
On March 29, 1952, Truman announced that he would not seek reelection. In his farewell address, he observed that “the President's job is to make decisions. … He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.” With his job over, he retired to Independence, Missouri, where he wrote his memoirs and oversaw the creation of his Presidential library. “You, more than any man, have saved Western civilization,” Winston Churchill told him. (1952); Wallace, Henry
Chosen as the vice presidential candidate for the certain third re-election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he met the great man twice, briefly, before he died and left him with the world to run, not even knowing about the Manhattan Project or any other of the high secrets of state. This makes more astonishing the fact that a man who had shown no signs of aspiring even to mediocrity for 61 years, stepped into the giant shoes of his predecessor and calmly, competently, and humanely directed the affairs of the world's most powerful state during the eight years of her greatest strength.
The product of probably the most corrupt of all the many urban Democratic party ‘machines’, surrounded by crooks and fixers throughout all his public life, he was personally honest. A failure at every business he tried to start, he provided the seed money for the whole western European economy after WW II.
His decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan shortened World War II and reduced U.S. casualties. In the postwar period he presided over the creation of collective security measures to contain communist expansion in Europe.
Although he won an elected term in one of the greatest upsets in U.S. history, subsequent inflation and labor unrest, coupled with his decision to use U.S. troops to defend South Korea, contributed to his unpopularity and his decision not to seek a second elected term.
Truman's greatest asset, an ability to identify with the ordinary American, was also his greatest liability. He could seem, at his worst, limited, undignified, erratic, and altogether incapable of dealing with the awesome responsibilities of the postwar presidency. He attempted to mask what appears to have been a certain discomfort with his high office by adopting a pose of decisiveness that too often appeared to be impetuosity.
Some scholars believe that Truman's get-tough style and hard-line policies interacting with Stalin's paranoia and ruthlessly blunt policies served to escalate rather than diminish the Cold War.
Widely unpopular when he retired in 1953, he enjoyed a subsequent upswing in public esteem as the American people increasingly remembered him for his frank commonness and contrasted him favorably with successors who appeared artificial and devious. Nowadays, he is considered one of the greatest US presidents.