Harry S. Truman

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Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), a politician from Missouri, was the Democratic 33rd President of the United States, 1945-1953. He dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan's surrender. Angered at the Soviet Union's seizure of eastern Europe, he moved away from détente to a policy of containment, reinforced by the Truman Plan (1947) to resist Communist subversion, the Marshall Plan (1948-51) to rebuild and modernize the west European economies, and the NATO military alliance of 1949. Initially ignoring Asia, he later saw America's close ally China fall to the anti-American Communists, whom he then fought in the stalemated Korean War. Truman fired his top general, Douglas MacArthur, during this conflict and saw his popularity plunge. The disruptions of reconverting the economy to a peacetime basis brought the conservative Republicans to power in 1946, and they passed labor laws that weakened Truman's main ally. Unable to pass any of his liberal Fair Deal program through Congress, he pursued civil rights through executive orders, especially a 1948 order to end racial discrimination in the military. Overshadowed at first by his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman established a reputation as a blunt, unsophisticated fighter for the common man, who took responsibility for his actions because, he said, "the buck stops here." His stunning reelection victory in 1948 baffled the experts and has inspired underdogs ever since. Truman's failures to deal with "Korea, Communism and Corruption" forced him to withdraw from reelection in 1952 and gave the Republicans an opportunity to crusade against him and elect Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Early career

Truman was born on a farm near Lamar, in western Missouri, and grew up on a farm near Independence, Missouri. His grandparents had been Confederate sympathizers who had been rounded up by the Union army in the Civil War.[1] After graduating from high school in Independence, with good skills in history and music, he decided against college and became a bank clerk in Kansas City. Always a joiner, he was active in the Missouri National Guard. From 1906 to 1917 he managed his father's 600-acre (243-hectare) farm at Grandview, Missouri. During World War I his National Guard regiment was mobilized in 1917, he entered the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, sailing for France in 1917 as a lieutenant. Truman was soon promoted to captain in Battery D, 129 Field Artillery Battalion, 35th Division, A.E.F., and returned to the United States a major in 1919, after combat at St. Mihiel and in the Argonne offensive. He married Elizabeth "Bess" Wallace on June 28, 1919; they had one daughter, Margaret, who married a New York Times editor. With an army buddy he invested his savings in a Kansas City haberdashery, but this venture was a failure.

Pendergast machine

Discouraged by his lack of business success and without funds, Truman sought the help of friends. His farm background, his war record, his Masonic connections, his Baptist Church affiliations, and his genial personality recommended him to Thomas J. Pendergast, the political boss of Kansas City and much of western Missouri. Pendergast controlled the Catholic vote and used Truman to reach out to Protestants, farmers and veterans. He made Truman the overseer of highways for Jackson County.

1922 election flier

In 1922 Truman was elected a county judge; needing some legal knowledge he studied nights for two years at Kansas City Law School. In 1924 he was defeated for reelection, but in 1926 he was returned to office as presiding judge of the court, the duties of which also involved administrative supervision of many county expenditures, including $60 million for public works. He almost joined the Ku Klux Klan, but withdrew his application when he realized his Irish Catholic allies bitterly opposed the group; Truman then campaigned against the Klan. In 1934 Pendergast enabled Truman's election United States Senator on the Democratic ticket. His first term in office was passive, except for a failed effort to prevent the renomination of Maurice Milligan for U.S. District Attorney for the Western District of Missouri; Milligan had obtained the conviction of 35 Pendergast "ward leaders" for vote frauds.

World War II

Reelected after a terrific battle in 1940, Truman emerged as the energetic and forthright chairman of the Senate committee investigating fraud and inefficiency in war contracts. Generally Truman supported the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and won widespread party favor for his attacks on business malfeasance in war production. He forced changes in the aircraft and ship construction programs, and worked well with other border state Democrats, especially Alben Barkley of Kentucky, the Majority Leader.

In 1944, after Vice-President Henry A. Wallace had been rejected by leading Democrats as too far to the left, Truman supported his friend former senator James F. Byrnes of South Carolina for that office. Catholics vetoed Byrnes, who had left that faith. Truman himself became Roosevelt's choice as a compromise vice presidential candidate, and the two were elected.


Upon the death of President Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, Truman was sworn in as the thirty-third president of the United States. Truman pledged that in office he would carry on the policies of his predecessor. On April 25 his telephoned speech opened the San Francisco Conference establishing the United Nations. A week later Germany surrendered, and from July 17 to August 2, 1945, Truman attended the Potsdam Conference with Britain's Winston Churchill (soon replaced by the new prime minister Clement Attlee) and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union.

Atomic bombs

Vice President Truman was unaware of the atomic bomb; he had little interest in military affairs and his chief military aide, General Harry Vaughan, was a drinking buddy likewise unfamiliar with what was happening in the war. Truman therefore relied entirely on his Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. At Potsdam he approved the atomic bomb targets selected by Stimson and, on the way home, he authorized the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later.

The decision to drop the atomic bomb has been the focus of one of the most heated debates among both scholars and the public since 1945. After 1945 the debate was dominated by "traditionalist" scholars, who argued that the U.S. had no choice but to drop the bomb as a way to bring World War II to an end. The traditionalists were succeeded in the 1960s by "revisionists," who asserted that the dropping of the bomb was done to intimidate Stalin, not end the war. The leading revisionist historians emerged from the "new left" movement of the 1960s and rejected any notion of the moral superiority of America or capitalism to the Soviet Union. They thought the Cold War and containment were poor policies and generally favored détente, along the lines proposed by Henry Wallace. They include Gar Alperovitz, Barton J. Bernstein, Kai Bird, Diane Shaver Clemens, Bruce Cumings, Richard Freeland, Lloyd Gardner, Gabriel Kolko, Walter LaFeber, Thomas Paterson, Harvard Sitkoff, Ronald Steel, Athan Theoharis, and William A. Williams (the leader of the "Wisconsin School"). The revisionists are not monolithic, but they usually agree that Truman and his advisers were wrong whether the issue is the Cold War, Korea, or the atomic bomb. Revisionists had argued that Truman's goal at Potsdam was to prevent Soviet entry into the war against Japan, and the atomic bomb was used to scare them off. However in 1983 archivists discovered a letter Truman wrote to his wife from Potsdam on July 18, 1945: "I've gotten what I came for-- Stalin goes to war August 15 with no strings on it . . . I'll say that we'll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won't be killed! That's the important thing."[2]

In the 1990s, a more nuanced historical approach emerged searching for a middle ground, offering a number of more credible studies, essentially arguing that neither the traditional nor the revisionist interpretations were entirely satisfactory.[3]

Reconversion of the economy to peacetime

The process of reconversion to peacetime was rocky. It was impossible to bring soldiers home fast enough, and they and their families protected loudly. All war contract were canceled, shutting down munitions plants and throwing millions of workers (many of them women) out of jobs, just as the 12 million service members were coming home. Truman sought to retain price controls against the vehement opposition of business but yielded somewhat in the face of bitter popular opposition. Large-scale strikes disrupted the economy, especially a coal miners strike and a threatened nationwide strike by railroad workers. He threatened to draft the railroad workers and the strike was called off; unions began to oppose him but he regained union support by his later attempts to veto or repeal the Taft-Hartley labor relations law. Truman's opposition to tax cuts, his insistence on price controls, and his lack of aggressive support of labor programs weakened his party. To voters frustrated with shortages and controls, Truman seemed indecisive and inconsistent; his efforts to deal with a postwar wave of strikes managed to alienate both organized labor and those who wanted more restraints on unions. Voters who normally supported liberal and labor candidates stayed home, resulted in a Republican landslide in 1946, giving the GOP a majority in both houses of Congress.

Moving left

Gradually Truman created his own administration, using the Fair Deal label to express its goals in domestic affairs. Truman systematically removed the Roosevelt cabinet and inner circle of advisors. The most dramatic episode was firing Henry A. Wallace in 1946 because of his outspoken criticism of the administration's foreign policy as too harsh on the Soviet Union. Liberals saw themselves in a struggle with conservatives for Truman's soul after the 1946 election. Linked to the President through top aide Clark Clifford, these liberals included Oscar Ewing, former party official and director of the Federal Security Agency, Leon Keyserling, member of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, and David Morse, assistant secretary of labor. They embraced the memo plotting 1948 campaign strategy written by former Roosevelt adviser James Rowe, which urged Truman to "move to the left and focus on building a coalition of groups that centered on organized labor, liberals, and northern urban African Americans."[4] Liberals had national support from the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), led by Walter Reuther, Eleanor Roosevelt, Joseph Rauh, James Rowe, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Hubert Humphrey, and Ronald Reagan. The ADA was hostile to the Soviet Union, battled American Communists and fellow travelers like Wallace, and supported the purge of Communists from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) labor unions. Truman agreed with the ADA and moved left after 1946.[5]

In 1947 Truman asked Congress for stand-by price controls, rationing, and bank and consumer credit control as parts of an anti-inflation program, but his ideas were ignored by the Republicans who controlled Congress. In his state of the union message of Jan. 7, 1948, Truman called for rent control, increased social security benefits, universal military training, national health insurance, and other social legislation. The next week he again asked for passage of his anti-inflation measures. In February 1948 he asked for civil-rights legislation, including a federal anti-lynching law, a federal fair employment practices commission, a permanent civil rights commission, and abolition of the poll tax--measures that enraged many Southern Democrats. None of his proposals became law. More successful was Truman's drive to increase the efficiency of the executive branch; he appointed a commission headed by former President Herbert Hoover which recommended numerous changes, including unification of the armed services.

Foreign policy: détente to containment

Truman had no knowledge or interest in foreign policy before becoming president, and depended on the State Department for foreign policy advice.[6] Truman shifted from FDR's détente to containment as soon as Dean Acheson convinced him the Soviet Union was a long-term threat to American interests. They viewed communism as a secular, millennial religion that informed the Kremlin's worldview and actions and made it the chief threat to American security, liberty, and world peace. They rejected the moral equivalence of democratic and Communist governments and concluded that until the regime in Moscow changed only American and Allied strength could curb the Soviets. Following Acheson's advice, Truman in 1947 announced the Truman Doctrine of containing Communist expansion by furnishing military and economic American aid to Europe and Asia, and particularly to Greece and Turkey. He followed up with the Marshall Plan, which was enacted into law as the European Recovery Program (ERP) and led ultimately to NATO, the North Atlantic Alliance for military defense, signed in 1949. On May 14, 1948, Truman announced recognition of the new state of Israel, making the United States the first major power to do so.

Civil Rights

Disgusted by violence against black veterans in the deep South, Truman called for the extension of the wartime FEPC program that called for fair employment practices, but Congress refused and it ended. He created the Presidential Commission on Civil Rights in 1946 by executive order (with no congressional approval needed); it recommended desegregation of local public facilities and the removal of restrictive covenants that prevented blacks and Jews from purchasing houses in restricted neighborhoods. The Commission generated attention but no action.[7] Indeed, Congress refused to pass any civil rights legislation before 1957. Truman therefore decided to use his executive powers, and focused on guaranteeing equal opportunity in the military and the civil service. The Army and Navy operated segregated units, and refused to be part of a "social experiment" in integration.[8] The Air Force, however, was much more willing. Between 1941 and 1951 it went from a segregated force to the first truly integrated service. Key generals became convinced that segregation was a drag on efficiency, and the Air Force decided to integrate in April 1948. before Truman issued his famous Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, calling for equal opportunity in all the armed services. It allowed segregation but called for "equality of treatment and opportunity." In the face of opposition from some high-ranking officers, the Air Force moved cautiously, but by 1951 the last black unit was dissolved and the Air Force was completely integrated.[9] Order 9981 created the Fahy Committee to implement the new policy. Truman's order did not actually integrate the Army--it used segregated units during the Korean War--but it opened the way for integration in the early 1950s.[10] Public opinion was generally favorable except in the deep South (which voted against Truman in 1948).

1948 election

As the presidential election of 1948 approached, no one though Truman could be reelected. Truman's policies had alienated left right and center, but the party had no real alternative. Neither Roosevelt nor Truman had groomed a likely successor. Party leaders considered asking Dwight D. Eisenhower to run, but he refused. Liberals led by Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota inserted a strong civil rights plank in the platform, causing a walkout of the deep South. Truman was renominated by default, with Barkley as the vice-presidential candidate. Truman thrilled the convention by announcing his plan to call the Republican-controlled Congress back into special session to "ask them to pass the laws to halt rising prices, to meet the housing crisis--which they say they are for in their platform." When this special session accomplished little, as Truman expected, it gave the president a chance to attack the "Do Nothing" Congress.

Both the left and right wings of the party split off and ran their own candidates. Henry Wallace, the candidate of the Progressive Party, was expected to divert labor, leftist and black votes, while J. Strom Thurmond was the "Dixiecrat" candidate whose supporters controlled the Democratic party in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.[11] Truman exploited his multiple opponents, driving a wedge between the liberals and the Communists who controlled the Wallace movement, and holding the line in the outer South. Most of all he exploited the difference between the conservative Republicans who controlled Congress, and the liberal Republican candidate Tom Dewey. Truman crusaded against the Republicans as evil rich men, blasting them as fascists and denouncing the 80th Congress for its failure to help the average citizen.[12] "Give 'em hell" fury delivered in 275 speeches over 21,928 train-miles had more impact that Truman's promises of more money for federal housing, higher social security and unemployment benefits, free medical care for everyone, the continued subsidy of farm prices, and a fair deal for minorities. The pollsters misjudged the election, as did all the traditional pundits. Truman rallied enough of the New Deal Coalition to win by 2.2 million votes, and carry in a Democratic Congress on his coattails. The key farm states of the farm states of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio that Dewey had carried in 1944 now switched to Truman, giving a solid victory in the electoral college of 303 for Truman, 189 for Dewey, 39 for Thurmond, and none for Wallace.[13]

Second Term: Fair Deal

During Truman's second term as president, he pressed for civil rights legislation, compulsory national health insurance, and other domestic measures that he called his "Fair Deal" program. Almost nothing was passed by Congress, which was controlled by the Conservative Coalition. His seizure of the steel industry to prevent a strike was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

In foreign affairs, Truman brought in Dean Acheson as Secretary of State, and promoted the Point Four program of aid to underdeveloped countries. The policy of containing Communism was operationalized by the creation, in 1949, of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to oversee the integration of the military forces of its member nations in Western Europe and North America. A further step was taken in 1951 with the establishment of the Mutual Security Agency to coordinate U.S. economic, technical and military aid abroad.


Truman won the farm vote in 1948 by charging the GOP shoved "a pitchfork in the farmer's back", but was unable to get new farm programs passed. His second secretary of agriculture, Charles F. Brannan promoted the Brannan Plan, intended to bring widespread changes to farm policy. Brannan proposed to replace market price supports with direct income payments to farmers. His plan set ceilings on the amount a farmer could receive and limited the program to farmers who did not exceed a set production mark. The Brannan Plan was supposed to foster the "family-sized farm" while providing affordable food for consumers. While Brannan could count on support from the left, especially the National Farmers Union (which was small), labor unions (which were powerful), and consumer groups (which were weak), he was opposed by leading farm economists and the national Farm Bureau (which was large) and the national Chamber of Commerce (representing business). The head of the Farm Bureau decried the plan as intrusive, a form of "creeping socialism," and expensive. The Farm Bureau, dominated by conservatives, resisted any curbs on full agricultural production. A bloc of Midwestern Republican and southern Democratic congressmen opposed replacing market mechanisms with outright government payments to farmers and setting limits on supports to individual farms. The Brannan Plan went nowhere and instead, the conservative farm bloc passed the Agricultural Act of 1949 with high price supports.[14]


Truman, a Southern Baptist, sought religious allies in the Cold War. He tried to unite the world's religions in a spiritual crusade against communism, sending his personal representative to Pope Pius XII to coordinate not only with the Vatican but also with the heads of the Anglican, Lutheran, and Greek Orthodox churches. "If I can mobilize the people who believe in a moral world against the Bolshevik materialists," Truman wrote in 1947, "we can win this fight." Since the Roman Catholic Church was his strongest religious ally in the moral battle against international communism, Truman put Rome first in his global strategy, even trying to confer formal diplomatic recognition on the Vatican. At home, he received solid support from Catholics, who were a major element of the New Deal Coalition, but overwhelming resistance from Protestants, especially Southern Baptists who rejected anything "popish." Truman's political-diplomatic effort to formalize a public, faith-driven, ecumenical international campaign failed.[15]

Korean War

The Korean War began at the end of June 1950 when North Korea, a Communist country, invaded South Korea, which was under U.S. protection. Without consulting Congress Truman ordered General Douglas MacArthur to use all American forces to resist the invasion. Truman then received approval from the United Nations, which the Soviets were boycotting. UN forces managed to cling to a toehold in Korea, as the North Koreans outran their supply system. A counterattack at Inchon destroyed the invasion army, and the UN forces captured most of North Korea on their way to the Yalu River, Korea's northern border with China. Truman defined the war goal as rollback of Communism and reunification of the country under UN auspices. China intervened unexpectedly, drove the UN forces all the way back to South Korea. The fighting stabilized close to the original 38th parallel that had divided North and South. MacArthur wanted to continue the rollback strategy but Truman arrived at a new policy of containment, allowing North Korea to persist. Truman's dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur in April 1951 sparked a violent debate on U.S. Far Eastern policy, as Truman took the blame for a high-cost stalemate with 37,000 Americans killed and over 100,000 wounded.

Truman fired his ineffective defense secretary Louis Johnson, and brought back George Marshall. The top-secret NSC-68 policy paper was the grounds for escalating the Cold War, especially in terms of spending on rearmament and building the hydrogen bomb. The integration of European defense was given new impetus by continued U.S. support of NATO, under the command of General Eisenhower.

1952 election

On the political front, revelation of scandals in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, in the Bureau of Internal Revenue and even the White House[16] opened the administration to attack.

Truman sought reelection in 1952 despite his dismal showing in the polls. He was defeated in the New Hampshire primary by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, and withdrew. Truman supported Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. Eisenhower won the GOP nomination and crusading against the Truman administration's failures regarding "Korea, Communism and Corruption," was elected in a landslide, ending 20 years of Democratic control of the presidency.


Truman returned to his home in Independence, Missouri. He devoted himself to founding the Truman Library, which was dedicated in July 1957 and is a part of the National Archives. With a staff of assistants he wrote his memoirs in two well-received volumes, gave many interviews, and intervened occasionally in Democratic national politics.


Truman's reputation has gone from very low when he left office, to high after 1990. He is now widely considered to have been a tough-minded, decisive, and effective leader who ably guided the nation through the perilous waters of the early Cold War and whose policy of containment essentially laid the foundations for American "victory" in that prolonged conflict in 1989. For many historians, the down-to-earth Midwesterner now merits consideration as one of the greatest American presidents. In recent years presidential aspirants of both parties have claimed Truman as their own, especially if their election chances seem as hopeless as Truman's did in 1948. His reputation has been bolstered by scholarly biographies by Ferrell (1994), Hamby (1995), and especially McCullough's Pulitzer prize-winning popular biography (1992). The in-depth analysis by Leffler (1992), cautiously praised the Truman administration's essential wisdom in handling a myriad of problems.

While Truman's public image was headed up, his reputation among scholars declined in the 1970s. Kirkendall concluded in 1974 that negative appraisals of Truman and his administration "may in fact have become the dominant interpretation, at least among the younger scholars."[17] In terms of foreign policy a strong negative view comes from Offner (2002) who argues that Truman was a "parochial nationalist" whose "uncritical belief in the superiority of American values and political-economic interests," conviction that "the Soviet Union and Communism were the root cause of international strife," and "inability to comprehend Asian politics and nationalism" intensified the postwar conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, precipitated the division of Europe, and set Sino-American relations on a path of long-term animosity. Rather than being a great statesman who carefully weighed various policy alternatives, Offner asserts that Truman's myopia "created a rigid framework in which the United States waged long-term, extremely costly global cold war". As his title suggests, the Cold War was at best a Pyrrhic victory for the United States.[18]

Truman became the model of the underdog who fights back and wins when the experts unanimously predict defeat. Gerald Ford, who had bitterly denounced Truman as a young Congressman proudly proclaimed the Missourian as his hero and conspicuously displayed a bust of Truman in the oval office after Ford became president in 1974. In the 1976 campaign both Ford and his Democratic rival, Jimmy Carter, outdid one another in claiming to be cast from the Truman mold. By 1980 when the Gallup Poll asked "Of all the Presidents we've ever had, who do you wish were President?", Harry Truman finished an impressive third behind Kennedy and FDR.


  1. His middle initial, S, does not stand for anything, but was chosen because his parents could not decide whether to name him for his grandfather Shippe or for his grandfather Solomon.
  2. New York Times March 14, 1983.
  3. J. Samuel Walker, "Recent Literature on Truman's Atomic Bomb Decision: a Search for Middle Ground." Diplomatic History 2005 29(2): 311-334. Issn: 0145-2096 Fulltext: Ebsco
  4. The memo until 1991 was mis-attributed to Clifford, who passed it along to Truman.
  5. Steven M. Gillon, Politics and Vision: the ADA and American Liberalism, 1947-1985 (1987).
  6. By 1946 he had two valuable aides Clark Clifford and George Elsey.
  7. Steven F. Lawson, ed. To Secure These Rights: The Report of Harry S. Truman's Committee on Civil Rights. (2004)
  8. Bernard C. Nalty, Strength For the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military (1986)
  9. Alan L. Gropman, The Air Force Integrates, 1945-1964. (2nd ed 1998) online edition.
  10. Richard M. Dalfiume, Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces: Fighting on Two Fronts, 1939-1953. (1969)
  11. Thurmond received only 15% of the vote in the other Southern states. Kari Frederickson, The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968. (2001)
  12. Time magazine reported that "His irresponsible implication that a vote for Thomas Dewey was a vote for fascism horrified his soberer followers." Time Jan 3, 1949 at [1]
  13. Harold I. Gullan, The Upset That Wasn't: Harry S. Truman and the Crucial Election of 1948 (1998); Gary A. Donaldson, Truman Defeats Dewey (1998)
  14. See Dean (2006)
  15. Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, "True Believers" Wilson Quarterly 2006 30(2): 40-44, 46-48. Issn: 0363-3276 Fulltext: Ebsco
  16. Truman's wife accepted an expensive deep freeze appliance in 1945; with General Vaughan as the fixer, the donor was given special privileges in Europe.
  17. Kirkendall, Truman Period as a Research Field: A Reappraisal 1972 (1974) p 6
  18. Arnold A. Offner (2002). Another Such Victory:President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953, First Edition. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-4774-1.  Quotes taken from page XII. Partially available online at Google Books