Harry S. Truman: A Quiet Legacy
Harry S. Truman did not have presidential aspirations when he first took office in 1945. He was the Vice President under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a huge supporter of the Roosevelt office. When Roosevelt died suddenly in 1945, Truman took the office with a heavy heart. In his time as President, Truman made decisions that changed the course of history and were very controversial with the public. Though he was not the loudest president or first to come to mind, he left a quiet, strong legacy of a man who fought to make the world a better place.
Birth and Early Years
Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri on May 18, 1884 to John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Truman. His parents owned a farm in Independence, Missouri on which they raised their three children and later left to Harry as a part of his inheritance. John was a farmer and livestock trader who taught Harry the value of hard work and how to run a successful farm.
Upon the birth of their first child, John and Martha decided to name him Harry after his uncle Harrison Young. They could not decide on a middle name as they wished to name him for both of his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young. As a compromise, they determined to leave his middle name as simply "S" to honor both.
The family moved around Missouri until they settled in Independence when Harry was six years old. When he turned eight, he began attending a traditional school. He had very poor eyesight which prevented him from playing sports as he wore glasses with very thick lenses, but led to his love of music and reading. He played the piano and was proud to say that he had read every book in the Independence Public Library.
Harry graduated from Independence High School in 1901. He wished to go on to college at West Point, but his parents could not afford it and he could not be admitted due to his eyesight. Instead he began to work as a timekeeper for the railroad. He then moved onto clerical work and briefly worked in a mail room until he returned to the family farm.
When World War I broke out, Harry decided to volunteer at age 33. He was two years past the draft age and was exempt from duty due to being a farmer, but Harry wished to serve his country. He was eventually promoted to captain and quickly gained the respect of his men. During this time he was courting Bess Wallace and stayed in contact with her through letters.
Upon his return, he and Bess were married and had one child, a daughter named Mary Margaret. To support his family, he opened a haberdashery (men's clothing store) with a friend from the Army and tried his hand at investments. Unfortunately his entrepreneurship was unsuccessful as were his investments.
Political Career (Early Years)
After his failed business attempts, Truman owed $20,000 to creditors and refused to declare bankruptcy. Instead he insisted upon paying in full which took a total of 15 years. Tom Pendergast knew of Truman's difficulties and hired him to work as an overseer of the local highways.
Pendergast knew of Truman's popularity with his former unit and convinced him to run as a part of the Democratic Party for administrative county judge. He won and served the county until 1926 when he lost his reelection and instead was elected presiding county judge for two consecutive terms. In 1934, he ran for the senate and won.
Years as Senator
He held his own as Senator of Missouri and during his first two years spoke out against corporate greed and Wall Street having too much influence in national affairs. He was a part of the Appropriations Committee and the Interstate Commerce Committee. During his first term as Senator, he worked with Senator Burton Wheeler investigating the railroads. He initiated legislation that asserted firm regulations for the railroads. This showed the country his integrity which was crucial in his second bid for Senate.
In 1940, Truman was up for reelection. Unfortunately, Tom Pendergast, the man who first backed Truman, had been arrested for tax evasion and fraud. This arrest, while not directly related to Truman, cast a paltry shadow on his campaign and almost cost him the election. Because of the integrity that Truman showed, he won a second term by a slim margin. It was during this term that he began to come into the public eye.
Truman was appointed chair of a committee that became known as the Truman Committee. They investigated the National Defense Program to prevent profiteering and wasteful spending in the defense industry. Because of his practical recommendations and reports Truman became well known not only among the political community, but to the public as well. He earned the respect and admiration of his peers as well as the attention of President Roosevelt.
Years as Vice President
President Roosevelt's former vice president had earned a negative reputation among the Democratic Party and it was apparent that due to health issues Roosevelt may not survive a full term. This meant the choice of Vice President was extremely important. After his success with the Truman Committee, Truman's reputation had grown so much that Roosevelt picked him for his running mate for his fourth term.
The Vice Presidency was something that was not in Truman's plans. He was reluctant at first, but when he was nominated he began to establish a strong campaign. Roosevelt and Truman were elected in November 1944.
During Truman's Vice Presidency, he was really contacted about decisions and only met with the President twice. He did initiate some controversy by attending the funeral of Tom Pendergast, but brushed it off relatively quickly.
Eighty two days after Truman was sworn in as Vice President, Roosevelt succumbed to his illness and Truman found himself taking the Presidential Oath.
Vice Presidency and First Term of Presidency
When Truman was sworn into office, he was thrown into World War II as commander in chief. He was faced with the massive task of ending a war and filling the shoes of the much loved Roosevelt. When interviewed by reporters about how he was feeling and he replied that "I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me."
World War II
The country was concerned when Truman took the office as a green president during a time of war. He kept on all of FDR's cabinet, but made it clear that he had the final say in the decisions. He jumped right in to get a handle on things and learned quickly.
During his first two months he ended the war with Europe. He then went to conferences to negotiate the terms of Germany's surrender, the rebuilding of Europe and ending the war with Japan. He was also a signatory on the charter of the United Nations.
After Europe's fate was decided at Potsdam, Truman was faced with ending the war that still raged with Japan. He was not aware of a weapon that was being developed that had the potential to effectively end the war. On April 25, he was made aware of the existence of the atomic bomb. The war still raged and Truman was faced with a difficult decision. He could continue the war or use the newly created nuclear weaponry.
Truman knew that Japan had already refused surrender once and was not inclined to any terms with which they were presented. This meant more than a year of continued fighting, the loss of 250,000-500,000 lives and $2 billion dollars. No one knew what the explosions or aftermath would be like, but few, including Truman, were inclined to be lenient and show the Japanese mercy.
On August 6, Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshema and on the 9, Nagasaki. The Japanese were devastated yet still were being rather slow to surrender. Truman ordered a massive air raid which did end the war with Japan. These decisions are still controversial and debated today. Supporters say that hundreds of thousands of lives were saved because of what it would have taken to invade Japan. Those who did not agree with the decision say that the atomic bomb was inhumane and wrong to use. Truman stated that he knew what he was doing when he stopped the war and if he had to under the same circumstances, he would make the same decision again.
Aftermath and Reconstruction
Transition from a wartime economy to an economy of peace is always difficult and Truman was faced with a huge task. Truman focused on cost reduction of the military to regain stability in the economy. He was faced with a Congress who were an extremely strong body with whom he had to contend. There were many fears about the loss of employment and that the nation would slide back into another depression.
Truman proposed a 21 point program to combat the possibility of an economic crash. He suggested the expansion of Social Security, full employment program, etc. This became known as the Fair Deal and was Truman's first mark legislatively during his first term.
The Cold War
With the creation of the United Nations came plans to rebuild Europe. It became public opinion that the Soviets were not going to vacate and were seeking world domination. He created the Marshall Plan to rebuild and the Truman Doctrine to contain the Soviets. In light of the circumstances, Truman also merged branches of the military that are known now as the Department of Defense. During this time, the CIA and National Security Counsel were also created.
To keep Germany from becoming a united country, the Soviets built a blockade to deter the delivery of all goods to Germany. To combat this move, Truman and Great Britain ordered an airlift take food and other supplies to be dropped into Germany for use. During this time, he was working to acknowledge Israel a state. This finally occurred in 1948 much the chagrin of Secretary of State George Marshall.
Second Term of Presidency
1948: A Second Term
When election time rolled around, Truman decided that he would run for office. He had been fast losing his footing and re-election looked like a long shot. He was opposed by Thomas Dewey, who was said to be an easy win. In fact, an all Republican Congress had been elected and Truman's policies did not seem to stand the test of time.
While campaigning took place, Truman made the controversial decision to uphold the Civil Rights by integrating the nation's troops. This lost the Southern supporting states and even entered a third candidate from the South. With the votes split three ways, winning did not look likely for Truman. In fact, everyone was so sure that Truman would not win that the Chicago Tribune printed the paper to say DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN before all the polls were counted.
The day of the announcement dawned and Truman received notice that he would be president for another term. When he saw the paper, he held it up, beaming at the crowds. This picture is iconic today.
Truman's second term brought many new challenges. He continued on with the values he promoted during his first term and regained his popularity until his term was up.
The Fair Deal
Within the first few months of his second term, Truman attempted to continue to expand on Roosevelt's New Deal by proposing what he called the Fair Deal. It included universal health care, an increased minimum wage, additional funding for the education system and a guarantee for all humans' civil rights. Some of the Fair Deal passed and was successful such as making racial discrimination illegal in the hiring process. However, some things, like national health insurance, did not make the cut.
Despite this positive progress in this country, overseas the Korean War had broken out. Truman sent troops to assist the South Koreans as he was convinced that the invasion was possibly a push for the expansion of Communism. The public briefly supported the President's decision, however, upon the dismissal of General MacArthur, Truman's ratings plummeted again.
The original strategy was to eliminate Communism in the North, but when China sent assistance, the objective changed. Truman sought to simply contain the North and eliminate them from the South. When Truman made this decision, General MacArthur openly opposed. The difference was so great that MacArthur was dismissed.
In March of 1952, President Truman announced that he would not be running for a third term.
Life After Presidency, Death and Funeral
After President Truman left the White House, he and Bess moved back to Independence to live. Upon the completion of his term, he refused any financial assistance from the government and instead chose to live on his army pension of $112 per month. In order to survive, he had to sell family property and take out loans. At this time there was no automatic pension for a president. In 1958 the Former Presidents' Act was passed ensuring each president leaving office to $25,000 pension.
Truman loved being "Mr. Citizen" and busied himself with reading, writing and walking outdoors. He founded and supported the Truman Library in Kansas of which he was particularly proud. He also donated his papers to other scholars and opened others to his life and career.
Unfortunately, Harry and Bess' health began to decline. In 1965, President Johnson passed the Medicare bill. To thank Harry Truman for his fight for health care, he and Bess were awarded the first two cards.
On December 5, 1972 Harry was admitted to Kansas City's Research Hospital with pneumonia and died December 26 at 7:50 am. He was 88 years old. Bess opted for a small private service at the Truman library rather than a state funeral. Both he and Bess are buried next to each other at the Truman Library.
Impact and Influence
Truman faced incredibly difficult decisions and situations during his time as President. He tried to do the best he could by the country and make the best decisions possible. He was faced with many of the same issues the government struggles with today such as universal health care. Truman set a fantastic example for future generations to follow and helped shape the world. He will always be controversial, but he there is no denying that he was a good man and a great president.