Harry S. Truman (1884-1972)

Figure 1.--This image shows Harry at age 13 with the glasses he wore as a boy. he photograph was taken about 1897. Note the fairly standard suit with a high collar. Also note the bow tie.

Harry Truman was the 32nd President of the United States. He rose from poverty to the presidency. He came from a down on the luck Missouri farm family, failed as a businessman, served inFrance during World War I, and finally entered politics. He was selected for the vice-presidency because of Vice President Henry Wallace's left-wing leanings. World War II and the cold war posed challenges unprecedented in U.S. history. Truman was severly criticised by the Republicans and much underestimated by the press. In fact he is now regarded as one of the more important American presidents. He made the difficult decision to end the World War II by dropping the atomic bombs. He initiated the American effort to spread the expansion of Soviet imperialism. The immediate result was to save democratic givernmebts in Western Europe, but this policy, followed by suceeding presidents eventually led to the collapse of Soviet communism. Truman was the first president to adopt Frederal policies to undo racial segregation in America with steps like desegregating the military--in opposition to important military leaders like General Eisenhower. Truman's civil rights efforts are some of the most corageous of any American president. Once among the least popular presidents, he is now classified by most historians among the greatest of the American chief execultives.


Harry Trumn came from a down on the luck Missouri farm family. Harry's father was John Anderson Truman. His mother was Martha Ellen Young Truman. Harry's parents came from families that had fought for and supported the Confedercy in the Civil War, interesting in that it was President Truman who took the first major steps in the Civil Rights movement. Hi mother first noticed that Harry as a baby was not reponding correctly and looking up at the sky at fireworks. She took him to have his eyes examened.


Harry was born in Lamar, Missouri, in 1884. He was the oldest of three children. His birthplace was just south of the area into which his grandparents had moved from Kentucky four decades earlier. The letter "S" in his name was not an abbreviation. It reflected the family's reluctance to choose between his grandfathers--Anderson Shippe Truman and Solomon Young--in selecting his name. The Trumans moved to Independence, Mo. in 1890. Harry grew up in there. Historians vary somewhat on Harry's childhood. Some say he enjoyed a happy, carefree childhood. They see him as a leveheaded boy without major worries. Harry's thick glasses prevented him from joining in many boyhood activities. Encouraged by his mother, he turned to the piano and books. At the piano, he developed a talent that provided relaxation in later years. From books, he acquired some of the historical information that influenced his career. Others see difficulties that young Harry encountered that shaped him and affected his presidency. His father stressed a view of manhood extoling aggresive masculinity. Harry was a small boy and because of weak eyes wore glasses from an early age. These limitations made it difficult for Harry to live up to the defition of manhood that his father defined. The constraints of a lower-middleclass boyhood, the chores and need to work made it even more difficult to participate in sports and compete with other boys. Some authors believe this frustrationnhad a tremendous impact on Harry throughout his like. Beginining in his boyhood, a major obsession was a quest for respect. Harry had more limited boyhood relations with other children than many boys. Not only did he have less time to form boyhood frriendships than boys from more affluent backgrounds, but he had virtually no opportunity to meet girls. He later wrote, "I was always afraid of girls my age and older." Unable to pursue sports, Harry turned to books and music. Some say he would have preferred to have been athletic, but could not compete. Others say that his bookish boyhood was not thrust upon him, but reflected his mind bent and left not deepmpshic scars.

Figure 2.--This photograph shows Truman's graduating highschool class about 1902. Harry is in the back row. Can you spot him?


Truman did not attend college. His father's financial difficulties prevented him from doing so, and his poor eyesight dashed his hope of entering the U. S. Military Academy at West Point.

Early Life

Truman's circumstances did not allow him to go to college. He worked for a railroad and a bank in an effort to better himself and to escape from the drugery of farm life. Family circumstance required him to dutifully return home and work the family farm. He thus worked for 12 years as a Missouri farmer, helping his father but with mixed results. He hated the drugery, but saw it as a family duty. Working on a good farm in the "golden age" of American agriculture, he experienced a personality change, becoming less withdrawn, much more gregarious, much more confident in his relations with other people than before. He began to participate actively in DEMOCRATIC PARTY politics, and he joined several other organizations, including the Masons, that later helped him as a politician.

World War I

Truman saw it his patriotic duty to enlist in the Army after war was declared with Germany. He went to France during World War I as a captain in the Field Artillery. It was at that time he learned that he could lead men.


Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman, (1885-1982)

Bess Truman did not want her husband to be president and had no interest in being first lady. Yet this highly political president appeas to have tolerated a very non-political wife. The President during his 1948 whistle-stop campaign like to intriduce Bess as "The Boss" and Margaret as the "Boss' Boss". The crowds seem to like the sentiment. Whatever Truman's view of his wife, most historians rank her among the worst if not the worst First Lady in presidebtial history. Most historians do not fully explain the relationship between Truman and his wife. President Truman was forced to make difficult decesions was constantly criticised. But he received little support at home from his wifec and even less from his mother-in-law who always thought Margaret married beneath herself. Margaret ("Madge") Gates and David Wallace had a baby girl who they called Bess (1885). Harry moved to town 5v years later and as a boy was enchanted by the little girlwith the "golden curls" and "the most beautiful blue eyes." Harry was never interested in any other girl. Beginning in 5th grade they went to school together through high school. We know a good deal avout Bess; child hood because of a wonderful book by her daughter. Margaret describes "a marvelous athlete--the best third baseman in Independence, a superb tennis player, a tireless ice skater--and she was pretty besides." Bess was also very strong spoken. The courtship was well underway and they were engaged when Lieutenant Truman was sent to France in World war I. They married after the War when truman got home (June 1919). Truman had little money so they lived in the Wallace's home. That must have been a trial for Truman, but he endured it for several year. Mary Margaret was born there (1924). As Truman became active in politics, Bess did assist him. She traveled with him and was there behind hom on the speaking platforms. She followed him to Washington after his election to the Senate (1934), but attempted to stay out of the spotlight as her husband's prominance grew. President Roosevelt's death and her husband's rise to the presidency was a shock. And she did not at all like the attention that the White House brought. She did the bare minimum in the way of public functions. Although in fairness to her, the White House had to be rebuilt and the Truman's lived in Blair House. The Trumans returned to Independence after the presidency (1953). President Truman died (1972). Bess remained in the family home. There she was often visuited by Margaret and her family. Bess died 10 years later and was burried next to the President in the courtyard of the Harry S Truman Library (1982).


The Trumans had only one child, a daughter Mary Margaret (1924- ) who the President adored. President Truman who was quite acustomed to being criticised would get really upset when the press would say things about Maragaret. She was studing voice at George washington University when her father became president. She aspired of a career as a clasical opera singer, but was not successful. She did gain some success as a writer. She published well received biograhoes of her parents and other historical subjects. She also published a series of murder mysteries which proved very successful. Margaret married joirnlist E. Clifton Daniel Jr. who became the managing editor of The New York Times, perhaps the most important position in American journalism. They had four boys. She for many years served on the board of directors for the Truman Presidential Library. Cliften Truman Daniel, one of her sons, now represents the family.


Truman opened a haberdashery in Kansas City which failed.

Political Career

Active in the Democratic Party, Truman was elected a judge of the Jackson County Court (an administrative position) in 1922. He became a Senator in 1934. During World War II he headed the Senate war investigating committee, checking into waste and corruption and saving perhaps as much as $15 billion.

1944 Presidential Election

There was not doubt as to who the Democrats would nominate in 1944 with World War II still raging. Senator Truman was chosen as Vice President at the 1944 Democrtaic Convention, primarily because party bosses were concerned about left-leaning Vice President Henry Wallace. He was at the time relatively unknown to the American people. President Roosevelt allowed te Convention to choose his running mate.

Vice President

During his few weeks as Vice President, Harry S Truman scarcely saw President Roosevelt, and received no briefing on the development of the atomic bomb or the unfolding difficulties with Soviet Russia. Suddenly these and a host of other wartime problems became Truman's to solve when, on April 12, 1945, he became President. He told reporters, "I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."


As President, Truman made some of the most crucial decisions in history. Some of these wer pressed upon him by events. Others like Civil Rights werecourageous steps that he persued becuse of a sence of personal morality and are perhaps the most courageous of any American president. After inheriting the presidency in 1945, Truman waged his own campaign in 1948that all the pundits were convinced he would lose. He won in oneof themost stunning political victories in American history.

Atomic bombs

The United Stateshad began planning for an invasion of Japan--Operation Olympic. The horific casualties on Okinawac(April-May 1945), caused planners to rethink casualty figures. Soon after V-E Day, the war against Japan had reached its final stage. An urgent plea to Japan to surrender was rejected. Truman, after consultations with his advisers, ordered atomic bombs dropped on cities devoted to war work. Two were Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The reults were horific. Japanese surrender quickly followed saving countless lives. Here not only American military casualties were saved, but also thousands of POWs and internees clining to life in wretched Japanese concentration camps. And even larger numbers of Japanese lives were saved. Japan had a poor harvest and the transportation infrastructure had been destroyed. It was no longer possible to import food. Japanese civilians would have died in the millions diring a familne that would have occurred during the winter of 1945-46. And using Saipan and Okinawa as a guide, millions of civilians would have also died if the United States had been forced to invade Japzn.

United Nations

President Truman witnessed the signing of the charter of the United Nations, bringing President Roosevelt's dream into existence (June 1945). The record of the United Nations since 12945 has been uneven. There have been notable sucesses such as Korea and Kuwait. There have also been failures. One increasing problem is the number of non-democratic countries at the United Nations.

The Fair Deal

Truman fllowed many established policies of the Roosevlt Administration. His own Fair Deal program soon emerged. There wre notableadvances in social legislation despite Republican resistance. Truman presented a 21-point program to Congress proposing the expansion of Social Security, a full-employment program, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Act, and public housing and slum clearance. The program, Truman wrote, "symbolizes for me my assumption of the office of President in my own right." It became known as the Fair Deal.

The Cold War

The threat of Soviet Communism became abundantly clear soon after VE Day. The Soviets were intent upon installing puppet dictatorships in Eastern Europe, retaining the Baltic Republics they had seized in 1940 and using local Communist parties, guerilla insurgencies, and military threat to take control of Western Europe. The Soviets maintained a huge army even aftr most of the American Army was sent home a dmobilized. Only America could prevent this. Truman in a departure from American isolationism embarked on a policy to contain Soviet power which is today known as the Cold War. Militry and economic assistance prvented a Communist victory in Greece and the Marshall Plan played a major role in Europe's economic recovery. It was called the MNarshall Plan fter Truman's Secretary of State because it would be impossible to pass any thing called the Truman Plan through a Republican Congress, alhough it bcame known as the Truman Doctrine. The key to Europe was Germany. The future of Europe was essentially decided with the 1948 crisis over Berlin. The Soviets blockaded West Berlin which was surounded by thir occupation zone. Truman's decission to stay in Berlin and with Allied help t supply it by air evetually forced the Soviets to back down. The corno sone of American foreign policy was laid in 1949--the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This confirmied the American commitmnt to Europe. The Communist North Koreans backed by the Soviets in June 1950 attacked South Korea. Truman conferred promptly with his military advisers. There was, he wrote, "complete, almost unspoken acceptance on the part of everyone that whatever had to be done to meet this aggression had to be done. There was no suggestion from anyone that either the United Nations or the United States could back away from it." The North Korean invasion was stoped, but after the Chinese Communists intervened, the conflict stalemated which adversely affected the President's popularity.

Civil Rights

President Roosevelt hesitated to address civil rights as part of the New Deal because of the need for southern support in Congress. Truman was appauled by the seggregation of American society. It was attacks on returning black servicemen that convinced him that he must act. On vteran had an eye goughed out by a Southern sheriff. Ther was no public outcry here. Polls indicated that 85 percent of Americans sawo need for Federal action. Congressional approval for new laws was impossible because of Southern Congressional influence. Truman acted by Executive order, integrating both the military and the Federal Government which had been seggregated by President Wilson. He also formed a commission on civil rights. He also began appointingFederal judges that began to change the legal landscape in the United States, paving the way for the land-mark school deseggregation case--Brown vs. Topeka. [Gardner] Today these are accepted policies, but at the time they constituted an enormous political risk. No Democratic President since the Civil War had been elected without Southern support. At the Democratic 1948 Conention after a stirring speech by Hubert Humphry, Governor South Carolina Strom Thurmond walked out and ran as a Dixiecrat on a platform of seggregation. He carried four Southern states, but Truman still managed to win.


President Truman decided to vote for the partition of Palestine when it was considered by the United Nations General Assembly (1947). One historian see this as an example of courageous presidebrial leadership. I would have seen his support for Civil Rights as a better example of this. U.S, support was critical in gaining approval for the partition of palestine making the creation of Israel possible. The United States, however, did little more to support Israel at the time. This decesion is now seen as much more important than it was at the time. Secretary of State Marshall argued against it because of the stratehic importance of the Arabs. Some argue that Truman's decesion was designed to get Jewish support for the upcoming 1948 presidential election. The historical shows little evidence of this. It appears to have been a personal decision based on his moral judgement that after World War II, the Jews should have a homeland. Some now argue that this is why so many Arabs now hate the United States. There is no doubt that American support for Israel is an important factor explainng attitudes toward Israel. But the largest factor is surely that most Arab countries are failed states and unless they oil, disatrous economies. This is not because of Israel, but the Arabs thenselves and even without Israel the Arab abnd wider Muslim world would be going through the same political and social convulsions that we see today. Those that say that cutting off Israel would solve the problem have little knowlege of the underlying dynamic in the Middle East.

1948 Presidential Election

Vice-president Truman inherited the presidency from Presidnt Roosevelt in 1945. The problems of adjusting to peace caused many economic dislocations. Truman became very unpopular and many Americans blamed him for those probems. The campaign was fought at a time that the Cold War emerged as a result of Soviet imposition of Communist dictsaytorships in Western Rurope and the Presidents efforts to save Berlin with an Airlift. The Republicans renominated the urbane Govenor of New York--Tom Dewey. He had run a surprisingly strong campaign against President Roosevelt in 1944. Most delegates thought that they were nominating the next president. President Truman, despite the adverse polls, was determned to win the office on his own in 1948. The Democratic Convention in sharp contrast to the Republicans was listless. Few delegates thought President Truman could win reelection. Both the liberals led by former Vice-President Henry Wallace and the Dixiecrats led by South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond walked out on Truman and the Democratic Party. Walace despite the aggressive Soviet actions, argued for cooperation. Thurmond was outraged by Truman's Civil Rights Bill. After his nomination, Truman in the early morning hours gave a stem-wifing acceptance speech. He surprised the delegates by calling a special session of Congress and dared the Republicans to enact the proposals they made in theor convention platform. The Republicans smelled victory, no longer having to face Roosevelt. They renominated Governor Thomas E. Dewey. There seemed to be no way that the embattled President could win the election. All the pundits were convinced Truman would lose, most thought it would be a landslide for Dewey. THe Republicans counted on the traditionally Republican farm vote in the Mid-West for victory. President Truman took his campsaign into the Republican hearland and addressed their problems. He managed to win over many farmers in his feisty campaign. Dewey essenially ignored this Republican stronghold. Truman's success in the Mid-West enabled him to win the most stunning political upset in American history. And the Democrats not only won at the top of the ticket. The Democrats gained 75 House sears abnd 7 Senate seats and control of boyh Houses. While Republicans would win the White House in some years after 1948, the Democrats would diminate Congress until the Ginrich 1994 Revolution.

1952 Presidential Election

President Truman unexpectedluy won the 1948 election, but in part because of the stalemate in Korea, his popularity had declined sharply. He realized that he could not win another election. He tried to convince war hero General Dwight Eisenhower to run for president as a Democrat. Republican emissaries to his headquarters near Paris persuaded him to run for President as a Republican. He easily won the Republican nomination, sweeping aside luminaries in the party like Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. Eusenhower's conduct during this period lends little credit to him, his behavior toward President Truman and especially Secretary of State Marshall was less than horable. Especially his failure to come to Marshall's defense when anti-Comminist zealots made scandalous charges. The Democrats turned to Govenor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. Stevenson was a leading liberal figure in the party. The campaign was dominated by protracted Korean war, charges that the Democrats were "soft on communism". Eisenhower's strategy was the K1C2 formula-"Korea, Communism, and Corruption." He vowed to go to Korea to end the war. Eisenhower's running mate--California senator Richard Nixon--became an issue when it was discovered he used a fund created by California millionaires to pay for personal expenses. Nixon appeared on national television\, delivering his "Checkers" speech. Checkers was adog and his references to his daughters and his wife's Republican cloth coat resulted in a wave of public sympathy. Eisenhower proved enormously popular and an instant success with American voters. The slogan "I like Ike" and that irresistible smile appealed to voters. Eisenhower won a sweeping election victory in 1952.


President Truman's victory in the 1948 election was the greatest election upset in American history. The President's popularity in 1952 was a alob ebb. Charges of Communists in government and the continuing war in Korea were major factors which were exacerbated by a down-turn in the economy. Truman decided not to run again. It was clear that there would be no upset in 1952. He retired with Bess to Independence. At age 88, he died after a stubborn fight for life (December 26, 1972).

The White House

The White House after 140 years had bady deterirated. This was brought home to Truman when a leg of his beloved piano went through the floor. The building virtully had to be rebuilt. The major architectual change was what is now called the Truman balcony. The Trumans had to move out of the White House and lived in Blair House across the street.

Pesidential Assessments

Some presidents who were popular in office eank highly in the presidential rnking while others who were populr rank poorly. Few presidents were as unpopular as Harry Truman when he left the presidency, One poll showed only 22 percentg of Americans approved of his leadership. Historians have been much kinder. His ranking as an important president have steadily risen. [Donald] President Truman presided over the end of World war II and laif the foundation for America's resistance to Soviet expamnsion during the Cold war. He is probably best remembered for the decession tgo use the atmomic bomb. But his role in fashioning America's effort tohlt Soviet expanionism and also in fur\rthering the Civil Rights movement are surelyb of far greater importance, laying the foundation of the Civil Rights Best remenbered for the use of the atomic bomb.


Beschloss, Michael. Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1889 (Simon & Schuster, 2007), 430p.

Donald, Aida D. Citizen Soldier (2012), 288p.

Gardner, Michael. Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks.

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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Created: August 6, 1999
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