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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Thirty-Third President • 1945-1953
Harry Truman
Harry S Truman

Thrust into the Presidency by the sudden death of Roosevelt, Truman entered office at an extraordinary time: the complex and turbulent era ushered in by the conclusion of World War II. He employed the atomic bomb against Japan to terminate the war, contained the spread of Communism through collective security alliances and extensive economic aid to war-ravaged and developing countries, launched a massive airlift that defeated the Soviet Union's blockade of West Berlin, and militarily resisted North Korea's invasion of South Korea. Truman also helped guide the Nation's economy back into peacetime channels.

Born in 1884 at Lamar, Mo., Truman was the eldest of three children. In 1890 his father, a farmer and livestock dealer, moved his family from his father-in-law's farm at Grandview to the first of a series of residences in nearby Independence. From his earliest public school days, Truman wore thick eyeglasses, which restricted his participation in athletics. As a consequence, he learned to play the piano and became an avid reader, acquiring a lifelong interest in history and biography.

Financial problems kept Truman out of college, and his poor eyesight caused West Point to reject him. From 1901, when he graduated from high school, until 1906, mainly in Kansas City, he held a variety of clerical jobs: railroad timekeeper, newspaper mailroom worker, bank clerk, and bookkeeper.

In 1906 Truman, at the request of his father who was suffering financial difficulties, rejoined him at Grandview, where the family had returned 3 years earlier, and helped him work the farm. Harry continued to operate it after his father died in 1914.

Truman had joined the National Guard in 1905. After U.S. entry into World War I, in 1917, he was commissioned a first lieutenant in the field artillery and served with distinction in France. He took part in the Vosges, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne campaigns.

Elizabeth Truman
Elizabeth "Bess" Truman

Mustered out as a major in 1919, Truman returned to Independence and married Elizabeth V. ("Bess") Wallace, his childhood sweetheart. They moved into his widowed mother-in-law's home, which they were to maintain as their permanent residence for the rest of their married lives. Bess was to bear one daughter, (Mary) Margaret.

Just after his discharge, Truman and an Army friend opened a haberdashery in Kansas City, but it failed in 1922. Truman, however, avoided bankruptcy and insisted on paying off his debts.

Backed by fellow war veterans and endorsed by local politician Thomas J. Pendergast, Truman was elected as judge for the eastern district of Jackson County (1922-24), a post similar to that of county commissioner. He failed to win reelection partly because of Ku Klux Klan opposition. Meanwhile, in 1923-25, he had attended night classes at Kansas City Law School, but never graduated. From 1924 until 1926 he was a partner in a savings and loan association and also sold memberships for the Automobile Club of Missouri.

During the next 8 years, Truman held two 4-year terms as presiding judge of the Jackson County Court, where he earned repute for his honest and efficient administration. In 1934, endorsed by Pendergast, he won a U.S. Senate seat. Despite the exposure of corruption in the Pendergast organization, in 1940 Truman was reelected, though narrowly, partially on the strength of his personal integrity and loyalty to President Roosevelt's "New Deal." During Truman's second Senate term, his chairing of an investigation of war profiteering, military expenditures, and defense production brought him national recognition.

Following an intraparty fight, in 1944 Truman replaced Henry A. Wallace as Roosevelt's running mate. As Vice President after January 1945, Truman fulfilled mostly ceremonial duties and rarely enjoyed the opportunity to discuss crucial national matters with the President, who was away from the Capital much of the time or busily engaged in the war effort. When Roosevelt died in April, Truman was confronted with a series of major decisions that required extensive briefings on military strategy and peacemaking measures.

Ironically, it was in foreign affairs, the area where Truman enjoyed the least pre-Presidential experience, that he made an outstanding mark. V-E Day, on May 8, 1945, marked the end of fighting in Europe. Less than 2 months later, Truman witnessed the signing of the United Nations (U.N.) charter in San Francisco. That summer, he also met with Britain's Winston S. Churchill and Clement R. Attlee as well as the Soviet Union's Joseph V. Stalin at the Potsdam (Germany) Conference. Stalin's recalcitrance on postwar issues there helped lay the basis of the future Cold War.

During this meeting, Truman received a message that reported a secret U.S. test explosion of the first atomic bomb. Agreeing with his advisers that it would obviate the need for a long and bloody invasion of Japan to force her surrender, he authorized its use. Within a matter of days following destruction of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, World War II ended, on August 14, 1945 (V-J Day).

Truman and Stettinius, Jr.
Truman looks on as Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., signs the United Nations Charter at San Francisco in 1945. (National Archives.)

By 1947 the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which grew out of conflicts and misunderstandings that followed World War II, had begun. The "Truman Doctrine" advocated the containment of Communism through collective security alliances and direct military and economic aid to friendly nations.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), organized in 1949 with Truman's strong backing, solidified the military defense of Western Europe. Two years earlier, to counter Soviet threats to Turkey and Communist guerrilla activity in Greece, he had convinced Congress to extend aid to both countries. Later that same year, he backed Secretary of State George C. Marshall's imaginative and massive program (Marshall Plan) to underwrite the economic rebuilding of Western Europe. Truman's "Point Four" program was a multibillion dollar economic and technical aid program for developing nations.

Truman also faced two major military confrontations. He directed a massive airlift (1948-49) that broke a Russian blockade of West Berlin. In 1950 Communist North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea. Truman immediately undertook to thwart the attack. The United Nations, during a Russian boycott of its meetings, voted to join the United States in defending South Korea. Insisting on a limited police action to contain aggression but also seeking to prevent a broader war with China and possibly even the Soviet Union, in 1951 Truman removed Gen. Douglas MacArthur as military commander for disagreeing with this strategy. By the end of Truman's administration, the war had stalemated near the old demarcation line, but no permanent peace had been reached.

As early as 1946, Truman had proposed international control of atomic energy and U.N. supervision of bomb stockpiles. Inside of 3 years, the Russians tested a nuclear device. The President then ordered creation of the more powerful hydrogen bomb, which was first exploded in 1952.

Domestically, Truman quickly put his own stamp on Rooseveltian policies. Within a few months of his inauguration in 1945, he appointed six new Cabinet members. And, that fall, he initiated his "Fair Deal" program. Although it retained Roosevelt's social-welfare orientation, it emphasized the conversion of the economy from a wartime to peacetime basis—one of Truman's major problems.

Toward that end, in 1946 Truman signed a bill stating the Government's goal of "full employment" and creating a Council of Economic Advisers, which would counsel the President on economic matters and issue an annual economic report. That same year, he backed establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission, whose mission was the peaceful development of nuclear energy. Both business and labor blocked his efforts to continue anti-inflationary wartime price controls.

During a wave of strikes in 1946, though sympathetic to the cause of labor, Truman boldly intervened in railroad and coal-mining disputes—as he was also to do in 1952 during a steel strike. On the other hand, after the 1946 midterm congressional elections gave control of both Houses to the Republicans for the first time since 1930, Congress overrode Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted union powers.

In his "whistle-stop" campaign for reelection in 1948 against Republican Thomas E. Dewey, Truman doggedly stumped against the "inaction" of the 80th Congress. Upsetting the predictions of most pollsters and many members of his own party of his landslide defeat, he won the election, though by only a slight margin in several key States, and control of Congress. "Dixiecrat" J. Strom Thurmond, who reflected southern opposition to Truman's civil rights stance, and Progressive Henry A. Wallace drew just enough votes to deprive Truman of a popular majority.

Yet Congress still ignored or rejected many of Truman's "Fair Deal" recommendations, which included those to guarantee civil rights through a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee and to grant Federal funds for education and national health insurance.

Truman also issued an Executive order decreeing the end of segregation and racial discrimination in the Armed Forces, and encouraged or supported congressional appropriations or programs in the following areas; increase of the minimum wage, slum clearance, public housing, conservation, expansion of Social Security, and continuation of farm price supports. Furthermore, he supervised various governmental reorganizations, including those recommended by the Hoover Commission, and unification of the various armed services under a new Department of Defense.


Harry S Truman National Historic Site

In 1950 Truman escaped assassination when two Puerto Rican nationalists stormed Blair House, across from the White House, where he and his family were residing during the mansion's rehabilitation. He was spared injury, but guard Leslie Coffelt died and two others were wounded; one of the attackers died, and the other was wounded. Truman subsequently commuted the latter's death sentence to life imprisonment.

Following a series of trials of Communists and their sympathizers, in 1950 Congress passed the anti-Communist McCarran Internal Security Act. Truman vetoed it on the grounds that existing legislation was adequate for the purpose, but the measure passed. About that same time, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy accused the State Department and other bureaus of harboring a number of alleged Communists or their supporters, among whom he also included former Secretary of State Marshall. Truman and other leading Americans hotly contested these charges, but they nevertheless became campaign issues in 1952.

Truman was also criticized for the existence of corruption and maladministration among his appointees in several executive agencies and on the White House staff. Although he initially came to their defense, he discharged many of them and took other corrective measures.

In 1952 Truman decided against seeking another term, and backed the Democratic convention's choice, Adlai E. Stevenson. Retiring to Independence, Truman assumed the role of elder statesman, continued to participate in party affairs, wrote his memoirs, and helped establish the Truman Presidential Library. He died in 1972. His widow (now deceased) and married daughter, Margaret Daniels, survived him.

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Last Updated: 04-Feb-2004