Harry S. Truman

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Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman

In office
April 12, 1945 –  January 20, 1953
Vice President(s)   None (1945–1949),
Alben W. Barkley (1949–1953)
Preceded by Franklin D. Roosevelt
Succeeded by Dwight D. Eisenhower

34th Vice President of the United States
In office
January 20, 1945 –  April 12, 1945
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded by Henry A. Wallace
Succeeded by Alben W. Barkley

Born May 8, 1884
Lamar, Missouri
Died December 26, 1972
Kansas City, Missouri
Political party Democratic
Spouse Bess Wallace Truman
Religion Baptist

Harry S Truman ( May 8, 1884– December 26, 1972) was the thirty-third President of the United States (1945–1953); as Vice President, he succeeded to the office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In domestic affairs, Truman faced challenge after challenge: a tumultuous reconversion of the economy marked by severe shortages, numerous strikes and the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act over his veto. After confounding all predictions to win re-election in 1948, he was able to pass almost none of his Fair Deal program. He used executive orders to begin desegregation of the U.S. armed forces and to launch a system of loyalty checks to remove thousands of Communist sympathizers from government office; he was nevertheless under continuous assault for much of his term for supposedly being "soft on Communism." Another ongoing domestic political problem was the perception of corruption among members of his administration: hundreds of his appointees were forced to resign in a series of financial scandals.

Truman's presidency was eventful in foreign affairs, starting with victory over Germany, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II, the founding of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the Truman Doctrine to contain Communism, the beginning of the Cold War, the creation of NATO, and the Korean War. The war became a frustrating stalemate, with over 30,000 Americans killed. Highlighting what he considered to be Truman's failures ("Korea! Communism! Corruption!"), Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ended 20 years of Democratic rule in 1952. In retirement, Truman wrote his well-regarded Memoirs.

Truman, whose personal style contrasted sharply with that of the patrician Roosevelt, was a folksy, unassuming president; he popularized such phrases as "The buck stops here" and "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." He overcame the low expectations of many political observers who compared him (unfavorably) to his highly regarded predecessor. Truman was forced out of his re-election campaign in 1952 after losing the first primary. His public opinion ratings were the lowest on record, but scholars today rank him among the top ten Presidents. His honesty and integrity, his political courage, and his firm stand for Western democracy after World War II have earned him high praise from all political corners, including, among others, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater. His legendary upset victory in 1948 is routinely invoked by underdog presidential candidates.

Early life

Truman in c. 1908
Truman in c. 1908

Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, the eldest child of John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Young Truman. Martha and John could not agree on the middle name for Harry apart from the inital S. A brother, John Vivian (1886–1965), soon followed, along with sister Mary Jane Truman (1889–1978).

Harry's father, John Truman was a farmer and livestock dealer. Truman lived in Lamar until he was 11 months old. The family then moved to his grandparent's 600-acre (240 ha) farm in Grandview, Missouri. When Truman was six years old, his parents moved the family to Independence, Missouri, so he could attend the Presbyterian Church Sunday School. Truman did not attend an actual school until he was eight.

As a young boy, he had two main interests, which were music and reading. He got up at 5 AM every morning to practice the piano and he went to a local music teacher twice a week until he was fifteen. Truman read four or five histories or biographies a week and also acquired an exhaustive knowledge on military battles and the world's greatest leaders. After graduating from high school in 1901, Truman worked at a series of clerical jobs. He returned to the Grandview farm in 1906 and stayed there for the next decade.

For the rest of his life, Truman would hearken back nostalgically to the years he spent as a farmer, often for theatrical effect. The ten years of physically demanding work he put in at Grandview were real, however, and they were a formative experience. During this period he courted Bess Wallace and even proposed to her in 1911; she turned him down. Truman said he wanted to make more money than a farmer before he proposed again. (He did propose to her again, successfully, in 1918 after coming back as a Captain from World War I.)

He was the only president after 1870 not to earn a college degree, although he studied for two years toward a law degree at the Kansas City Law School (now the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law) in the early 1920s.

World War I

Truman in uniform ca. 1918
Truman in uniform ca. 1918

With the onset of American participation in World War I, Truman enlisted in the Missouri National Guard. At his physical, his eyesight had been an unacceptable 20/50 in the right eye and 20/400 in the left eye; he passed by secretly memorizing the eye chart.

Before heading to France, he was sent for training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He ran the camp canteen, selling candy, cigarettes, shoelaces, sodas, tobacco, and writing paper to the soldiers. To help run the canteen, he enlisted the help of his Jewish friend Sergeant Edward Jacobson, who had experience in a Kansas City clothing store as a clerk. Another man he met at Ft. Sill who would help him after the war was Lieutenant James M. Pendergast, the nephew of Thomas Joseph (T.J.) Pendergast, a Kansas City politician.

Truman was chosen to be an officer, and then battery commander in an artillery regiment in France. His unit was Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 60th Brigade, 35th Infantry Division. Under Captain Truman's command in France, the battery performed bravely under fire in the Vosges Mountains and did not lose a single man. Truman later rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the National Guard. Always proud of his Army artillery service, Truman was indignant at contemporary press accounts that appeared to him to exalt the battle exploits of the U.S. Marines during the war, instilling in him an intense dislike of the Marine Corps that would have ramifications later in life.

Marriage and early business career

The Trumans' wedding day  June 28, 1919
The Trumans' wedding day
June 28, 1919

At the war's conclusion, Truman returned to Independence and married his longtime love interest, Bess Wallace, on June 28, 1919. The couple had one child, Margaret (born February 17, 1924).

A month before the wedding, banking on the success they had at Ft. Sill and overseas, the men's clothing store of Truman & Jacobson opened at 104 West 12th Street in downtown Kansas City. After a few successful years, the store went bankrupt during a downturn in the farm economy in 1922; lower prices for wheat and corn meant fewer sales of silk shirts. In 1919 wheat had been selling for $2.15 a bushel, but in 1922 it was down to a catastrophic 88 cents a bushel. Truman blamed the fall in farm prices on the policies of the Republicans and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon. Truman worked for years to pay off the debts. He and his former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, were accepted together at Washington College in 1923. They would remain friends for the rest of their lives, and Jacobson's advice to Truman on the subject of Zionism would, decades later, play a critical role in the US government's decision to recognize the state of Israel.


Jackson County judge

In 1922, with the help of the Kansas City Democratic machine led by boss Tom Pendergast, Truman was elected as a judge of the County Court of Jackson County, Missouri — an administrative, not judicial, position similar to county commissioners elsewhere. Although he was defeated for reelection in 1924, he was elected in 1926 as the presiding judge for the court and reelected in 1930. Truman performed his duties in this office diligently and won personal acclaim for several popular public works projects, including an extensive series of roads for growing automobile traffic, the construction of a new County Court building, and the dedication of a series of 12 Madonna of the Trail monuments honoring pioneer women.

In 1922, Truman gave a friend $10 for an initiation fee for the Ku Klux Klan but later asked to get his money back; he was never initiated, never attended a meeting, and never claimed membership. Though Truman at times expressed anger towards Jews in his diaries, his business partner and close friend Edward Jacobson was Jewish. Truman's attitudes toward blacks were typical of white Missourians of his era, and were expressed in his casual use of terms like "nigger". Years later, another measure of his racial attitudes would come to the forefront: tales of the abuse, violence, and persecution suffered by many African-American veterans upon their return from World War II infuriated Truman, and were a major factor in his decision to back civil rights initiatives and desegregate the armed forces.

U.S. Senator

Senator Truman seeks election during this July 1940 speech.
Senator Truman seeks election during this July 1940 speech.

In the 1934 election Pendergast's machine selected Truman to run for Missouri's open United States Senate seat, and he campaigned successfully as a New Deal Democrat in support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Democratic primary, Truman defeated Tuck Milligan, the brother of federal prosecutor Maurice M. Milligan, who would eventually topple the Pendergast machine -- and run against Truman in the 1940 primary election. Truman then defeated the incumbent Republican Roscoe C. Patterson by nearly 20%.

Widely considered a puppet of the big Kansas City political boss, Truman assumed office under a cloud as "the senator from Pendergast." (Adding to the air of distrust was the disquieting fact that three people had been killed at the polls in Kansas City.) In the tradition of machine politicians before and since, Truman did indeed direct New Deal political patronage through Boss Pendergast -- but he insisted that he was independent on his votes. Truman did have his standards, historian David McCullough later concluded, and he was willing to stand by them, even when pressured by the man who had emerged as the kingpin of Missouri politics.

Milligan began a massive investigation into the 1936 Missouri gubernatorial election that elected Lloyd C. Stark; 258 convictions resulted. More importantly, Milligan discovered that Pendergast had not paid federal taxes between 1927 and 1937 and had conducted a fraudulent insurance scam. He went after Senator Truman's political patron. In 1939, Pendergast pled guilty and received a $10,000 fine and a 15-month sentence. Stark, who had received Pendergast's blessing in the 1936 election, turned against him in the investigation and eventually took control of federal New Deal funds from Truman and Pendergast.

In 1940, both Stark and Milligan challenged Truman in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Robert E. Hannegan, who controlled St. Louis Democratic politics, threw his support in the election to Truman. Truman campaigned tirelessly and combatively. In the end, Stark and Milligan split the anti-Pendergast vote, and Truman won the election by a narrow margin. (Hannegan would go on to broker the 1944 deal that put Truman on the Vice Presidential ticket for Franklin Roosevelt.)

Truman always defended his decisions to offer patronage to Pendergast by saying that by offering a little, he saved a lot. Truman also said that Pendergast had given him this advice when he first went to the Senate:

Keep your mouth shut and answer your mail.

Truman Committee

On June 23, 1941, the day after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Senator Truman declared: "If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. Neither of them thinks anything of their pledged word." Liberals and conservatives alike were disturbed by his seeming suggestion of the possibility of America backing Nazi Germany, and he quickly backtracked.

He gained fame and respect when his preparedness committee (popularly known as the " Truman Committee") investigated the scandal of military wastefulness by exposing fraud and mismanagement. His advocacy of common-sense cost-saving measures for the military attracted much attention. Although some feared the Committee would hurt war morale, it was considered a success and is reported to have saved at least $11 billion. In 1943, his work as chairman earned Truman his first appearance on the cover of Time Magazine. (He would eventually appear on nine Time covers and be named the magazine's Man of the Year in 1945 and 1949.)

Truman's diligent, fair-minded, and notably nonpartisan work on the Senate committee that came to bear his name turned him into a national figure. It is unlikely that Roosevelt would have considered him for the vice-presidential spot in 1944 had the former "Senator from Pendergast" not earned a new reputation in the Senate -- one for probity, hard work, and a willingness to ask powerful people tough questions.

Vice President

Order: 34th Vice President
Term of Office: January 20, 1945 – April 12, 1945
Preceded by: Henry A. Wallace
Succeeded by: Alben Barkley
President: Franklin D. Roosevelt
Political party: Democratic

After months of uncertainty over the President's preference for a running mate, Truman was selected as Roosevelt's vice presidential candidate in 1944 as the result of a deal worked out by Hannegan, who was Democratic National Chairman that year.

Roosevelt, increasingly frail, agreed to replace Henry Wallace as Vice President because he was considered too liberal by the party establishment. The surviving evidence suggests that Roosevelt chose to leave the selection of a running mate unresolved well into the summer of 1944. James F. Byrnes of South Carolina was initially favored, but as a segregationist he was considered too conservative. Roosevelt apparently favored Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas for vice-president, but in a meeting with party leaders, Hannegan proposed Truman. Before the convention began, Roosevelt wrote a note saying he would accept either Truman or Douglas, and party operatives were able to get Truman the nomination. Truman himself appears not to have campaigned directly or indirectly that summer for the number two spot on the ticket, and in years to come he would always maintain that he had not wanted the job of Vice President.

Truman's candidacy was humorously dubbed the Second " Missouri Compromise" at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as his appeal to the party centre contrasted with the liberal Wallace and the too conservative Byrnes. The nomination was well received, and the Roosevelt-Truman team went on to score a moderate victory in the United States presidential election, 1944 by defeating Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. Truman was sworn in as Vice President on 20 January 1945, and served less than three months.

Truman shocked many when, as Vice President, he attended his disgraced patron Pendergast's funeral a few days after being sworn in. Truman was reportedly the only elected official of any level who attended the funeral.

On April 12, 1945, Truman was urgently called to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt informed him that the President was dead. Truman, thunderstruck, could initially think of nothing to say. He then asked if there was anything he could do for her, to which the former First Lady replied, "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."

Presidency 1945–1953

First Term (1945-1949)

End of World War II

Presidential portrait of Truman, painted by Greta Kempton.
Presidential portrait of Truman, painted by Greta Kempton.

Truman had been Vice President for only 82 days when President Roosevelt died. He had very little meaningful communication with Roosevelt about world affairs or domestic politics since being sworn in as Vice President, and was completely unbriefed about major initiatives relating to the successful prosecution of the war -- notably the top secret Manhattan Project, which was, at the time of FDR's passing, on the cusp of testing the world's first atomic bomb. (Truman was quickly briefed and eventually authorized its use against the Japanese).

Shortly after taking the oath of office, Truman said to reporters:

"Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."

Momentous events were to occur in Truman's first five months in office:

  • April 25 - Nations meet in San Francisco, California to create the United Nations
  • April 28 - Benito Mussolini of Italy killed
  • May 1 - Announcement of the suicide of Adolf Hitler
  • May 2 - Berlin falls
  • May 7 - Germany surrenders
  • May 8 - Victory in Europe Day
  • July 17-August 2 - Truman, Josef Stalin, and Winston Churchill meet at the Potsdam Conference to establish political landscape of post-war world
  • August 6 - Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima
  • August 8 - USSR declares war on Japan
  • August 9 - Atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki
  • August 14 - Japan agrees to surrender ( Victory over Japan Day)
  • September 2 - Japan formally surrenders aboard the USS Missouri

United Nations and Marshall Plan

Truman signs U.N. charter as Secretary of State James F. Byrnes looks on
Truman signs U.N. charter as Secretary of State James F. Byrnes looks on

As a Wilsonian internationalist, Truman strongly supported the creation of the United Nations, and included former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the delegation to the U.N.'s first General Assembly in order to meet the public desire for peace after the carnage of the Second World War. Faced with Communist abandonment of commitments to democracy made at the Potsdam Conference, and with Communist advances in Greece and Turkey that suggested a hunger for global domination, Truman and his foreign policy advisors concluded that the interests of the Soviet Union were quickly becoming incompatible with the interests of the United States. The Truman administration articulated an increasingly hard line against the Soviets.

Although he claimed no personal expertise on foreign matters, and the opposition Republicans controlled Congress, Truman was able to win bipartisan support for both the Truman Doctrine, which formalized a policy of containment, and the Marshall Plan, which aimed to help rebuild postwar Europe. To get Congress to spend the vast sums necessary to restart the moribund European economy, Truman used an ideological argument, arguing forcefully that Communism flourishes in economically deprived areas. He later admitted that his goal had been to "scare the hell out of Congress." To strengthen the U.S during the cold war against Communism, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 and reorganized military forces by creating the Department of Defense, the CIA, U.S. Air Force (separate from the U.S. Army), and the National Security Council.

Fair Deal

After many years of Democratic majorities in Congress and two Democratic presidents, voter fatigue with the Democrats delivered a new Republican majority in the 1946 midterm elections, with the Republicans picking up 55 seats in the House of Representatives and several seats in the Senate. Although Truman cooperated closely with the Republican leaders on foreign policy, he fought them on domestic issues. He failed to prevent tax cuts and the removal of price controls. The power of the labor unions was significantly curtailed by the Taft-Hartley Act, which was enacted by over-riding Truman's veto.

As he readied for the approaching 1948 election, Truman made clear his identity as a Democrat in the New Deal tradition, advocating universal health insurance, the repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, and an aggressive civil rights program. Taken together, it all constituted a broad legislative program that he called the " Fair Deal."

Truman's Fair Deal proposals made for potent campaign rhetoric, but they were not well received by Congress, even after Democratic gains in the 1948 election. Only one of the major Fair Deal bills, an initiative to expand unemployment benefits, was ever enacted.

Recognition of Israel

Truman, who had been a supporter of the Zionist movement as early as 1939, was a key figure in the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

In 1946, an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry recommended the gradual establishment of two states in Palestine, with neither Jews nor Arabs dominating. However, there was little public support for the two-state proposal, and Britain, its empire in rapid decline, was under pressure to withdraw from Palestine quickly because of attacks on British forces by armed Zionist groups. At the urging of the British, a special U.N. committee recommended the immediate partitioning of Palestine into two states, and with Truman's support, this initiative was approved by the General Assembly in 1947.

The British announced that they would leave Palestine by May 15, 1948, and the Arab League Council nations began moving troops to Palestine's borders. The idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East was popular in the U.S., and particularly so among one of Truman's key constituencies, urban Jewish voters.

Truman and Chaim Weizmann, May 25, 1948
Truman and Chaim Weizmann, May 25, 1948

The State Department, however, was another matter. Secretary of State George Marshall, and most of the foreign service experts, strongly opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Thus, when Truman agreed to meet with Chaim Weizmann he found himself overruling his own Secretary of State. In the end, Marshall did not publicly dispute the President's decision, as Truman feared he might. Truman recognized the State of Israel 11 minutes after it declared itself a nation on May 14, 1948.

Berlin Airlift

On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blocked access to the three Western-held sectors of Berlin. The Allies had never negotiated a deal to guarantee supply of the sectors deep within the Soviet-occupied zone. The commander of the American occupation zone in Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, proposed sending a large armored column driving peacefully, as a moral right, down the Autobahn across the Soviet zone to West Berlin, with instructions to defend itself if it were stopped or attacked. Truman, however, following the consensus in Washington, believed this entailed an unacceptable risk of war. He endorsed an unprecedented plan to supply the city by air. On June 25, the Allies initiated the Berlin Airlift. The airlift continued until May 11, 1949 when access was again granted, and for several months after that. The Berlin Airlift is considered one of Truman's great foreign policy successes as president, and aided his election in 1948.

Defense Cutbacks

In order to cut taxes Congress and the Pentagon demobilized after the war, mothballing ships and sending the veterans home (many complained that they were released too slowly.) In order to fund domestic spending requirements, Truman had advocated a policy of defense program cuts for the U.S. armed forces at the end of the war. The Republican majority in Congress, anxious to enact numerous tax cuts, approved of Truman's plan to "hold the line" on defense spending. In 1949, Truman appointed a political supporter, Louis A. Johnson as Secretary of Defense. Impressed by U.S. advances in atomic bomb development, Truman and Johnson believed that the atomic bomb rendered conventional forces irrelevant to the modern battlefield. This complacency received a rude shock when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic weapon in the same year. Nevertheless, reductions in force continued, affecting U.S. conventional defense readiness.

Both Truman and Johnson had a particular antipathy to Navy and Marine Corps budget requests. Truman had a well-known dislike of the Marines dating back to his service in World War I, and famously said "The Marine Corps is the Navy's police force and as long as I am President that is what it will remain. They have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin's." Indeed, Truman had proposed disbanding the Marine Corps entirely as part of the 1948 defense reorganization plan, and that service was possibly saved only after a letter-writing campaign and the intervention of influential congressmen who were Marine veterans

Under Truman defense budgets through FY 1950, many navy ships were mothballed, sold to other countries, or scrapped. The U.S. Army, faced with high turnover of experienced personnel, cut back on training exercises, and eased recruitment standards. Usable equipment was scrapped or sold off instead of stored, and even ammunition stockpiles were cut. The Marine Corps began to hoard surplus inventories of World War II era weapons and equipment.

Civil Rights and desegregation of the military

A 1947 report by the Truman administration entitled To Secure These Rights opened the civil rights issue for the first time since 1890. The report presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. In February 1948, the President submitted a civil rights agenda to Congress that proposed creating several federal offices devoted to issues such as voting rights and fair employment practices. This provoked a firestorm of criticism from Southern Democrats in the time leading up to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying "My forbears were Confederates... But my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten." Later that year -- in the middle of a presidential election campaign -- he signed the landmark Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the U.S. military.

1948 election

The United States presidential election, 1948 is best remembered for Truman's stunning come-from-behind victory.

At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Truman attempted to place a tepid civil rights plank in the party platform so as to assuage the internal conflicts between the northern and southern wings of his party. A sharp address, however, given by Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey, Jr. of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and candidate for the United States Senate—as well as the local political interests of a number of urban bosses—convinced the party to adopt a strong civil rights plank, which Truman endorsed wholeheartedly. Within two weeks he issued Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the U.S. Armed Services following World War II. Truman took considerable political risk in backing civil rights, and was very concerned that the loss of Dixiecrat support might destroy the Democratic Party.

Truman's " whistlestop" tactic of giving brief speeches from the rear platform of the observation car Ferdinand Magellan became iconic of the entire campaign. His combative appearances captured the popular imagination and drew huge crowds. The massive, mostly spontaneous gatherings at Truman's depot events were an important sign of a critical change in momentum in the campaign -- but this shift went virtually unnoticed by the national press corps, which simply continued reporting Dewey's (supposedly) impending victory as a certainty. It was a campaign tactic that would be most notably repeated by George H. W. Bush in 1992, who as another trailing incumbent who fought constantly with Congress, compared himself with Truman.

The defining image of the campaign came after Election Day, when Truman held aloft the erroneous front page of the Chicago Tribune that featured a huge headline proclaiming "Dewey Defeats Truman".

Truman did not have a vice president in his first term. His running mate, and eventual Vice President for the term that began January 20, 1949, was Alben W. Barkley.

Second term (1949-1953)

With information provided by its espionage networks in the United States, the Soviet Union developed an atomic bomb much faster than was expected and exploded its first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949. On January 7, 1953, Truman announced the detonation of the first U.S. hydrogen bomb.

People's Republic of China

On December 21, 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist forces left the mainland for Taiwan in the face of successful attacks by Mao Zedong's Communists. In June 1950, Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet of the United States Navy into the Taiwan Strait to prevent further conflict between the PRC and the Republic of China on Taiwan. Truman also called for Taiwan to cease any further attacks on the mainland.

Soviet espionage and the rise of McCarthyism

In August 1945, fearful of Soviet surveillance of her movements in Washington D.C. and New York, Elizabeth Bentley, an American and a Soviet intelligence agent, defected to the FBI. She provided information on the Golos and Greg Silvermaster spy rings operated by Soviet intelligence. Two counterintelligence debriefing memoranda with outlines of Soviet espionage in the United States were passed to the White House, the initial debriefing with code name "Gregory" disclosing the networks, together with an extensive memo with Bentley's real name attached. The memos included the names of high level administration officials accused of complicity in passing classified information to Soviet agents. A patriotic man with a strongly regional viewpoint, Truman disbelieved reports of potential Communist or Soviet penetration of the U.S. government, and the official White House response was to dismiss the Bentley allegations as a "red herring."

On August 3, 1948, former Soviet NKVD agent and senior Time Magazine editor Whittaker Chambers testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and presented a list of what he said were members of an underground Communist network working within the United States government in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the names on that list was Alger Hiss, a State Department official who had participated in the creation of the United Nations. Hiss confronted Chambers on August 17, 1948.

Chamber's revelations led to a sensational trial. On February 9, 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy in a speech at the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia accused the State Department of being riddled with Communists. McCarthy and HUAC received considerable public support in the wake of the Soviet Union nuclear explosion, the loss of U.S. atom bomb secrets, the fall of China and new revelations of Soviet intelligence penetration of other U.S. agencies, including the Treasury Department.

Korean conflict

On June 25, 1950 the North Korean People's Army under the command of dictator Kim Il Sung invaded South Korea, precipitating the outbreak of the Korean War. Poorly trained and equipped, without tanks or air support, the South Korean Army was rapidly pushed backwards, quickly losing the capital, Seoul.

Stunned, Truman called for a naval blockade of Korea, which went into effect; while the U.S. Navy no longer possessed sufficient surface ships with which to enforce such a measure, no ships tried to challenge it. Truman promptly urged the United Nations to intervene; it did, authorizing armed defense for the first time in its history (the Soviet Union was not in attendance at the Security Council vote). Truman sent in the full military resources based in Japan. United Nations (primarily U.S.) forces under U.S. General Douglas MacArthur crushed the North Korean invasion in 90 days. However, Truman decided not to consult with Congress, a decisive error that greatly weakened his position.

In the first four weeks the American infantry forces hastily deployed to Korea proved too few and were underequipped. The Eighth Army in Japan was forced to recondition World War II Sherman tanks from depots and monuments for use in Korea. By 60 days into the war Truman had sent a massive amount of military supplies into Korea, and UN forces outnumbered the invaders and had far more supplies, munitions, air supremacy and naval supremacy.

Responding to a firestorm of criticism over readiness, Truman fired his Secretary of Defense, Louis A. Johnson, replacing him with retired general George C. Marshall. Truman (with UN approval) decided on a roll-back policy—that is, conquest of North Korea. UN forces led by General Douglas MacArthur led the counterattack, scoring a stunning surprise victory with an amphibious landing at the Battle of Inchon that nearly trapped the invaders. UN forces then marched north, toward the Yalu River boundary with China, with the goal of reuniting Korea under UN auspices.

China surprised the UN forces by a large-scale invasion in November. The UN forces, heavily outnumbered in severe winter weather, were forced back to below the 38th parallel, then recovered and in early 1951 the war became a fierce stalemate at about the 38th parallel where it began. UN and U.S. casualties were heavy. Truman rejected MacArthur's request to attack Chinese supply bases north of the Yalu, but MacArthur promoted his plan to Republican House leader Joseph Martin. Truman was gravely concerned that further escalation of the war might draw the Soviet Union further into the conflict—it was already supplying weapons and providing warplanes (with Korean markings and Soviet fliers). On April 11, 1951, Truman fired MacArthur from all his commands in Korea and Japan. Fierce criticism hit Truman accusing him of refusing to shoulder the blame for a war gone sour and blaming his generals instead. The war remained a stalemate until President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons and the Chinese agreed to a cease-fire and exchange of prisoners in July 1953.

The war, and the dismissal of MacArthur, helped to make Truman so unpopular that he was defeated in the New Hampshire primary and was forced to cancel his reelection campaign. In February 1952, Truman's approval mark stood at at 22% according to Gallup polls, the all-time lowest approval mark for an active American President. Truman thus inherited a war already in process and left office while an entirely different war was still underway.


United States' involvement in Vietnam began during the Truman administration. On V-J Day 1945, Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh declared independence, but the US announced its support of restoring French power. In 1950, Ho again declared Vietnamese independence and was recognized by Communist China and the Soviet Union. He controlled some remote territory along the Chinese border, while France controlled the remainder. Truman's "containment policy", (calling for opposition to Communist expansion), led the U.S. to continue to recognize French rule and the French client government. In 1950, Truman authorized $10 million in aid to the French, sending 123 non-combat soldiers to help with supplies. In 1951, the amount escalated to $150 million. By 1953, the amount had risen to $1 billion (one third of U.S. foreign aid and 80 percent of the French cost). A basic dispute emerged: the Americans wanted a strong and independent Vietnam, the French cared little about containing China but instead wanted to suppress local nationalism and integrate Vietnam into the French system.

White House renovations

View of the interior shell of the White House during reconstruction in 1950.
View of the interior shell of the White House during reconstruction in 1950.

In 1948 Truman ordered a controversial addition to the exterior of the White House: a second-floor balcony in the south portico that came to be known as the "Truman Balcony."

But at the same time it was becoming clear that the building, much of it over 130 years old, was in a dangerously dilapidated condition. That August a section of floor actually collapsed and Truman's own bedroom and bathroom were closed as unsafe. No public announcement was made until the election had been won, by which time Truman had been informed that his new balcony was the only part of the building that was sound. The Truman family moved into nearby Blair House; as the newer West Wing, including the Oval Office, remained open, Truman found himself walking to work across the street each morning and afternoon. In due course the decision was made to demolish and rebuild the whole interior of the main White House, as well as excavating new basement levels and underpinning the foundations. The work lasted from December 1949 until March 1952.

Assassination attempt

On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo attempted to assassinate Truman at the Blair House. Torresola mortally wounded a White House policeman, Leslie Coffelt, who shot Torresola to death before expiring himself. Collazo, as a co-conspirator in a felony that turned into a homicide, was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to death in 1952. Truman later commuted his sentence to life in prison.

Acknowledging the importance of the question of Puerto Rican independence, Truman allowed for a genuinely democratic plebiscite in Puerto Rico to determine the status of its relationship to the United States.


In 1950, the Senate, led by Estes Kefauver, investigated numerous charges of corruption among senior administration officials, some of whom received fur coats and deep freezers for favors. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was involved. In 1950, 166 IRS employees either resigned or were fired, and many were facing indictments from the Department of Justice on a variety of tax-fixing and bribery charges, including the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Tax Division. When Attorney General Howard McGrath fired the special prosecutor for being too zealous, Truman fired McGrath. Historians agree that Truman himself was innocent and unaware—with one exception. In 1945, Mrs. Truman became the recipient of a new, expensive, hard-to-get deep freezer. The businessman who provided the gift was the president of a perfume company and, thanks to Truman's aide and confidante General Harry Vaughan, received priority to fly to Europe days after the war ended, where he bought new perfumes. On the way back he "bumped" a wounded veteran being flown home. Disclosure of the episode in 1949 humiliated Truman, and he responded by vigorously defending Vaughan, who was involved in multiple influence peddling scandals from his White House office. [Donovan 1982, 116-17].

Charges that Soviet agents had infiltrated the government bedeviled the Truman administration and became a major campaign issue for Eisenhower in 1952. In 1947, Truman set up loyalty boards to investigate espionage among federal employees. Between 1947 and 1952, "about 20,000 government employees were investigated, some 2500 resigned “voluntarily,” and 400 were fired". From 1945 to 1946, J. Edgar Hoover repeatedly warned Truman that Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the Treasury Department, was a Soviet spy. The Prime Minister of Canada warned the FBI about White, and the information was confirmed by Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko. Truman responded by making White the U.S. representative to the International Monetary Fund. Truman himself later asserted that the loyalty program was the biggest single mistake of his presidency.

Major legislation signed

  • National Security Act – July 26, 1947
  • Truman Doctrine – March 12, 1947
  • Marshall Plan/ European Recovery Plan – April 3, 1948

Important executive orders

  • Executive Order 9981

Administration and Cabinet

(All of the cabinet members when Truman became president in 1945 had been previously serving under Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

President Truman signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency that initiates U.S. involvement in the Korean War.
President Truman signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency that initiates U.S. involvement in the Korean War.
President Harry S. Truman 1945–1953
Vice President None 1945–1949
  Alben W. Barkley 1949–1953
State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. 1945
  James F. Byrnes 1945–1947
  George C. Marshall 1947–1949
  Dean G. Acheson 1949–1953
Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. 1945
  Fred M. Vinson 1945–1946
  John W. Snyder 1946–1953
War Henry L. Stimson 1945
  Robert P. Patterson 1945–1947
  Kenneth C. Royall 1947
Defense James V. Forrestal 1947–1949
  Louis A. Johnson 1949–1950
  George C. Marshall 1950–1951
  Robert A. Lovett 1951–1953
Attorney General Francis Biddle 1945
  Tom C. Clark 1945–1949
  J. Howard McGrath 1949–1952
  James P. McGranery 1952–1953
Postmaster General Frank C. Walker 1945
  Robert E. Hannegan 1945–1947
  Jesse M. Donaldson 1947–1953
Navy James V. Forrestal 1945–1947
Interior Harold L. Ickes 1945–1946
  Julius A. Krug 1946–1949
  Oscar L. Chapman 1949–1953
Agriculture Claude R. Wickard 1945
  Clinton P. Anderson 1945–1948
  Charles F. Brannan 1948–1953
Commerce Henry A. Wallace 1945–1946
  W. Averell Harriman 1946–1948
  Charles W. Sawyer 1948–1953
Labor Frances Perkins 1945
  Lewis B. Schwellenbach 1945–1948
  Maurice J. Tobin 1948–1953

Supreme Court appointments

Truman appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

  • Harold Hitz Burton 1945
  • Fred M. Vinson ( Chief Justice) – 1946
  • Tom Campbell Clark 1949
  • Sherman Minton 1949

1952 election

In 1951, the U.S. ratified the 22nd Amendment, making a president ineligible to be elected a third time, or to be elected a second time after also having succeeded to the presidency and served more than two years. The latter clause would have applied to Truman in 1952, but he was still eligible to run for a third term since a grandfather clause in the amendment explicitly excluded the current president from its provisions.

At the time of the 1952 New Hampshire primary, no candidate had won Truman's backing. His first choice, Chief Justice Fred Vinson said no; Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson repeatedly said no; Vice President Barkley was considered too old; and Truman distrusted and disliked Senator Estes Kefauver, whom he privately called "Cowfever."

Truman's name was on the New Hampshire primary ballot, but Kefauver won, so Truman announced his decision not to run on March 29. Stevenson, having reconsidered his presidential ambitions, received Truman's backing and won the Democratic nomination. Eisenhower crusaded against what he denounced as Truman's failures regarding "Korea, Communism and Corruption" -- and won in a landslide.


Truman Library, Memoirs, and life as a private citizen

Truman (seated right) and his wife Bess (behind him) attend the signing of the Medicare Bill on July 30, 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson.
Truman (seated right) and his wife Bess (behind him) attend the signing of the Medicare Bill on July 30, 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson.

Truman returned home to take up residence at his mother-in-law's house in Independence, Missouri. His predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had organized his own presidential library, but legislation to enable future Presidents to do something similar still remained to be enacted. Truman worked to garner private donations to build a presidential library, which he then donated to the federal government to maintain and operate -- a practice adopted by all his successors.

Former members of Congress and the federal courts received a federal retirement package, and it was President Truman who had ensured that servants of the other branches of government received similar privileges. The benefit did not, however, apply to former presidents. Once out of office, Truman quickly decided that he did not wish to be on any corporate payroll, a choice that reflected his view that to take advantage of such financial opportunities would diminish the integrity of the nation's highest office. He also turned down numerous offers for commercial endorsements. As a result, he faced an interesting set of financial challenges, having no private fortune to support him after his time as president, and no federal pension.

He took out a personal loan from a Missouri bank shortly after leaving office, and then set about establishing another precedent for future former chief executives: a hefty book deal for his memoirs of his time in office. (Ulysses S. Grant had overcome similar financial issues with a similar book, but had declined to write about life in the White House in any detail.) Truman received a record sum of $600,000 as an advance on the publication of his memoirs, though much of that sum went to taxes and expenses of maintaining a staff to assist in writing.

Truman's memoirs were a commercial and critical success; they were published in two volumes in 1955-56:

  • Memoirs by Harry S. Truman: Year of Decisions (vol. 1) (ASIN B000BC81YE)
  • Memoirs by Harry S. Truman: Years of Trial and Hope (vol. 2) (ASIN B000CQXZWM)

In 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, offering a $25,000 yearly pension to each former President, primarily because of Truman's financial status. The one other living former President at the time, Herbert Hoover, also took the pension, even though he did not need the money; reportedly, he did so to avoid embarrassing Truman.

Later life and death

In 1956, Truman took a trip to Europe with his wife, and was a sensation. In Britain he received an honorary degree in Civic Law from Oxford University, an event that moved him to tears. He met with his friend Winston Churchill for the last time, and on returning to the U.S., he gave his full support to Adlai Stevenson's second bid for the White House, although he had initially favored Democratic Governor W. Averell Harriman of New York for the nomination.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare bill at the Truman Library and gave the first two Medicare cards to Truman and his wife Bess. Truman had fought for government health care during his tenure.

He was also honored in 1975 by the establishment of the Truman Scholarship, a federal program launched in his honor that sought to honour U.S. college students who exemplified dedication to public service and leadership in public policy.

Upon turning 80, Truman was feted in Washington and asked to address the United States Senate. He was so emotionally overcome by his reception that he was unable to deliver his speech. He also campaigned for senatorial candidates. A bad fall in the bathroom of his home in 1964 severely limited his physical capabilities, and he was unable to maintain his daily presence at his presidential library. On December 5, 1972, he was admitted to Kansas City's Research Hospital and Medical Centre with lung congestion from pneumonia. He subsequently developed multiple organ failure and died at 7:50 a.m. on December 26, at age 88. He and Bess are buried at the Truman Library.


When he left office in 1953, Truman was one of the most unpopular chief executives in history. Public feeling toward him grew steadily warmer with the passing years, however, and the period shortly after his death consolidated a partial rehabilitation among both historians and members of the general public. However, his policy of defense reductions and reluctance to address potential Soviet intelligence penetration of the U.S. government remain a continuing source of criticism. After a review of information available to Truman on the presence of espionage activities in the U.S. government, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that Truman was "almost wilfully obtuse" concerning the danger of American Communism.

Despite his imperfections, Truman has always fared well in polls ranking the Presidents. He has never been listed lower than ninth, and most recently seventh in a Wall Street Journal poll from 2005. Historical rankings of United States Presidents

By coincidence, Truman died during a time when the nation was consumed with crises in Vietnam and Watergate. Truman's death brought a new wave of attention to his political career at a time when the presidency itself happened to be in crisis.

In the early and middle Seventies, Truman captured the popular imagination much as he had in 1948, this time emerging (posthumously) as a kind of political folk hero, a president who was thought to exemplify an integrity and accountability lacking in the Nixon White House. James Whitmore was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Truman in the one-man show "Give 'em Hell, Harry!" and even the pop band Chicago wrote a song about the nation's former president. Among the lyrics:

We’d love to hear you speak your mind
In plain and simple ways
Call a spade a spade
Like you did back in the days
You would play piano
Each morning walk a mile
Speak of what was going down
With honesty and style
America’s calling
Harry Truman

Years later, Truman was the first figure mentioned in Billy Joel's history-themed stream-of-consciousness song " We Didn't Start the Fire". The bestselling David McCullough biography Truman further popularized the late President, as did the HBO miniseries loosely based upon it (and starring Gary Sinise).

The USS Harry S. Truman is named after the President. The ship is the eighth Nimitz-class supercarrier of the United States Navy. The keel was laid by Newport News Shipbuilding on November 29, 1993 and the ship was christened on September 7, 1996. HST was authorized as USS United States but her name was changed before the keel laying.

On July 1, 1996, Northeast Missouri State University, marking its transformation from a regional state teachers' college to a highly selective liberal arts university, became Truman State University, in honour of the only Missourian to become president.

Historic sites

  • Harry S. Truman National Historic Site includes the Wallace House at 219 Delaware in Independence and the family farmhouse at Grandview, Missouri (Truman sold most of the farm for Kansas City suburban development including the Truman Corners Shopping Centre)
  • Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site is the house where Truman was born and spent 11 months in Lamar, Missouri
  • Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum - The Presidential Library in Independence
  • Harry S. Truman Little White House - Truman's winter getaway at Key West, Florida

Truman's middle initial

Truman did not have a middle name, only a middle initial. It was a common practice in southern states, including Missouri, to use initials rather than names. In Truman's autobiography, he stated, "I was named for...Harrison Young. I was given the diminutive Harry and, so that I could have two initials in my given name, the letter S. was added. My Grandfather Truman's name was Anderson Shippe Truman and my Grandfather Young's name was Solomon Young, so I received the S for both of them." (Anderson's name was also spelled Shipp.) He once joked that the S was a name, not an initial, and it should not have a period, but official documents and his presidential library all use a period. Furthermore, the Harry S. Truman Library has numerous examples of the signature written at various times throughout Truman's lifetime where his own use of a period after the "S" is conspicuous. The Associated Press Stylebook has called for a period after the S since the early 1960s, when Truman indicated he had no preference. The use of a period after his middle initial is not universal, however; the official White House biography does not use a period after his name.

Truman's bare initial caused an unusual slip when he first became President and had to take the oath of office. At a meeting in the Cabinet Room, Chief Justice Harlan Stone began reading the oath by saying "I, Harry Shipp Truman, ..."! (Truman responded using his actual name: "I, Harry S. Truman, ...")


  • Bess Truman, Harry's wife, is thus far the longest living first lady. She died on the 18th of October 1982 at the age of 97.

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