Harry S. Truman (1884-1972)

Became the 33rd President of the United States, at one of the most critical moments in American History. He had been Vice President for only 83 days when president Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. World War II still had to be won. Plans to establish the United Nations organization had just been started.

When Truman became President, he was known mainly for his work as chairman of a wartime Senate investigating committee that had saved millions of dollars in military contracts. The Missouri Democrat met the challenges of his presidency with courage, determination, and imagination. During the first few weeks of his Administration, the Allies won victory in Europe. Truman made one of the most decisions ever considered by one human being to use the powerful new atomic bomb against Japan to end World War II.

Truman faced other great problems throughout his years in the White House. The United States had to reorganize its economy from a wartime to a peacetime basis. Many war-torn countries needed large relief programs. Western nations faced Communist Subversion and aggression in a Cold War that divided the world. To meet those challenges, Truman’s Administration created such far-reaching programs as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Point Four Program, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

When the Communist forces from North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, Truman faced another grove decision. If he sent armed forces to intervene without waiting for United Nations action he risked war with the Soviet Union, a Communist ally of North Korea. But if he delayed, help might be too late. Within two days, the President ordered American armed forces to aid South Korea. His action preserved South Korean independence and demonstrated that the United States would support and defend its allies. Truman’s strong personality and fighting spirit won him loyal friends and bitter enemies. Blunt and outspoken, he often lashed out with strong language at those who opposed him. His opponents said he was too undignified. His friends love him as a straight forward man of the people.

Early Life

Childhood

Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, MO, on May 8th, 1884. He was the oldest of the three children of John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Young Truman. His parents named him Harry in honor of his uncle, Harrison Young. They chose the middle initial “S”. But they gave him no middle name so that both his grandfathers, Solomon Young and Anderson Shippe Truman, could claim that he was named for them.

Wen Truman was 6, his family moved from a farm near Grandview, MO, to Independence, MO. Harry went to elementary school and high school in Independence. Severely nearsighted, he began wearing glasses when he was 8. “I was so carefully cautioned by the eye doctor about breaking my glasses and injuring my eyes”, he later wrote, “that I was afraid to jam in the rough-and-tumble games in the schoolyard and back lot. My time was spent in reading and by the time I was 13 or 14 years old I had read all the books in the Independence Public Library and our old Bible three times through”.

During the summers Harry, his brother Vivian (1886-1965), and his sister May jane (1889-1978) visited their grandparents farm near Grandview. At the age of 18, Harry joined the Baptist Church.

First Jobs

Truman wanted to go to the United States Military Academy at West Point, but his vision wasn’t good enough to meet Army Standards. After graduating from high school in 1901, Harry attended business school in Kansas City. He also worked for a short time in the mailing room of the Kansas City Star and then took a job as a time keeper for a construction crew of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway company.

His next employment was as a clerk and later as a book-keeper in two Kansas City banks. He moved to Grandview in 1906 and, with his father, operated the family farm. He worked on the farm until 1917.

Soldier

Truman was a member of the Missouri National Guard from 1905 to 1911. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he helped organize a field artillery regiment that was attached to the 35th Division. Truman then became a lieutenant. Truman was set to France early in 1918. There, as a captain, he commanded an artillery battery in the Vosges, the Meuse-Argonne, and Sommedieu Campaigns. Truman was honorably discharged major and later rose to colonel.

Truman’s Family

Six weeks after returning home, on June 28, 1919, Truman married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth “Bess” Virginia Wallace (1885-1982). They had met at Sunday school when they were children.

They had one child, Mary Margaret Truman (1924-2008), when they called Margaret. She had a brief career as a concert soprano and later became a writer.

Businessman

Before World War I, Truman had lost money in mining and oil investments. In 1919, he and his friend Eddie Jacobson invested their savings in a men’s clothing store in Kansas City.

They worked hard, keeping the store open from 8 AM to 9 PM, but the business failed during the severe recession that began in 1921. Truman worked about 15 years to pay the store debts.

Political Career

Discouraged by the failure of the store, Truman decided to seek a career in politics. He received help from “Big Tom” Pendergast, the Democratic Party boss of Kansas City. Pendergast’s nephew had know and admired Truman in the army. Pendergast led one of the strongest political machines in the United States. He decided that Truman could win votes because of his farm background, his war record, and his friendly personality.

County Judge

Pendergast supported Truman in his campaign for election as county judge of Jackson County. This post in Missouri resembled that of county commissioner in other states. Truman won the election and served from 1922 to 1924. He lost the 1924 election because of a split in local Democratic forces. Truman attended the Kansas City School of Law during the mid-1920s but didn’t obtain a degree. He served as presiding county judge from 1926 to 1934. The Pendergast machine was notoriously dishonest, but Truman won a reputation for honesty and efficiency. He supervised new projects financed by &14 million in tax funds and bond issues.

US Senators

In 1934, again with Pendergast’s support, Truman was elected to the United States Senate. As a member of the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee, Truman directed an investigation of railroad finances. His staff found damaging evidence about many of Truman’s friends in Missouri, but he ordered the investigation completed. A major result was the Transportation Act of 1940, which regulated railroad financing. Also, during this time, a government study of the Pendergast political machine disclosed vote frauds and shady financial dealings. Pendergast pleaded guilty to income tax evasion, and he and many of his followers were sent to prison. The scandals didn’t touch Truman, but he refused to disclaim Pendergast. In 1940, Truman won reelection to the Senate.

The Truman Committee

In 1940, although the United States wasn’t formally involved in World War II, the nation’s defense spending rose to huge sums. Truman realized that the defense effort created may opportunities for waste and corruption. He remembered that many committees had investigated military spending after World War I when they were powerless to recover wasted funds. Truman urged the Senate to setup a Committee to investigate defense spending as it occurred. Early in 1941, the Senate established the Committee to investigate the National Defense Program. Truman was named Chairman. The Truman committee, as the group soon became known, uncovered waste and inefficiency. It saved the government about &15 billion and speeded war production.

Vice President

In 1944, many Democratic leaders believed that president Franklin D. Roosevelt would not live through a fourth term in the White House. They realized that the man they chose for Vice President would succeed to the presidency.

The contest for the vice-presidential nomination almost split the party. Many liberals supported Vice President Henry A. Wallace for re-nomination. Others favored Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Southern conservatives preferred James F. Byrnes, a former justice of the Court. Roosevelt refused to name a preference. But Robert E. Hannegan of St Louis, MO, a Truman supporter and Chairman of the party’s national committee, backed Truman as a compromise candidate. Truman had a national reputation because of his committee investigations. He also had a good voting record as a senator, and Roosevelt was willing to accept him. Byrnes withdrew, and the delegates nominated Truman on the second ballot.

Roosevelt and Truman easily defeated their Republican opponents, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Governor JOHN W. Bricker of Ohio. As Vice President, Truman presided over the Senate. During the 83 days he held this office, he worked hard to obtain Senate approval of Henry A. Wallace as secretary of commerce.

He also broke a Senate tie by voting against an amendment prohibiting postwar delivery of goods through the Lend-Lease program.

First Administration (1945-1949)

Late in the afternoon of April 12, 1945, Truman was suddenly summoned to the White House by telephone. He was taken to Eleanor Roosevelt’s study, and she stepped forward to meet him. “Harry” she said quietly, “the President is dead”. Truman’s first words were: “Is there anything I can do for you?” Mrs. Roosevelt replied: “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now”.

At 7:09 PM, Truman took the oath of office as the 33rd President of the United States. The next day, while talking to the White House newsmen, he said: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me”.

The End of World War II

When Truman became President, Allied armies were winning the war in Germany, and were preparing to invade Japan. Thirteen days after Truman took office, the first United Nations conference met in San Francisco (San Francisco Conference). Then on May 7, Germany surrendered after Hitler committed suicide. Truman proclaimed May 8 as V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). It was on his 61st birthday.

In July, Truman traveled to Potsdam, Germany, to confer with Prime Minster Winston Churchill of Great Britain and Premier Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union (Potsdam Conference).

While in Potsdam, the President received secret ward that American scientists had successfully tested an atomic bomb for the first time. On his way home, Truman ordered American fliers to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. The first bomb fell on the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan agreed to end the war on August 14, and finally surrendered on September 2, 1945.