Harry S. Truman

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This article is about Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. For other Harry Trumans, please see: Harry Truman.

Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman
Term of office April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953
Preceded by Franklin D. Roosevelt
Succeeded by Dwight D. Eisenhower
Date of birth Thursday, May 8, 1884
Place of birth Lamar, Missouri
Spouse Bess Truman
Political party Democratic

Harry S. Truman (May 8, 1884December 26, 1972) was the thirty-fourth Vice President (1945) and the thirty-third President of the United States (194553), succeeding to the office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Truman's presidency was eventful, seeing the dropping of atomic bombs in Japan, the end of World War II, the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the beginning of the Cold War, the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces, the formation of the United Nations, the second red scare, and most of the Korean War. Truman was a folksy, unassuming president, and popularized phrases such as "The buck stops here" and "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." He exceeded the low expectations many had at the beginning of his administration, and developed a reputation as a strong, capable leader.


Early life

Truman in ca. 1908
Truman in ca. 1908

Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, the eldest child of John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Young Truman. A brother, John Vivian (18861965), soon followed, along with a sister, Mary Jane Truman (18891978). When Truman was six years of age, his parents moved the family to Independence, Missouri, and it was there that Truman would spend the bulk of his formative years. After graduating from high school in 1901, Truman worked at a series of clerical jobs before he decided to become a farmer in 1906, an occupation in which he remained for another ten years. He was the last president not to earn a college degree, although he studied for two years toward a law degree at the Kansas City Law School (currently the University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law) in the early 1920s and was a fellow classmate of future United States Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Whittaker.

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

With the onset of American participation in World War I, Truman enlisted in the National Guard, was chosen to be an officer, and then commanded a regimental battery in France. His unit was Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery, 60th Brigade, 35th Division. At his physical his eyesight was 20/50 in the right eye and 20/400 in the left eye. Before heading to France, Harry was sent for training at Fort Sill, near Lawton, Oklahoma. While at Ft. Sill he was given the additional duty of running the camp canteen (to provide candy, cigarettes, shoelaces, sodas, tobacco, writing paper, etc. to the soldiers). This position would mean that nearly every soldier there would come to know Lt. Truman, at least by sight, and his name. To help run the canteen, Harry enlisted the help of his Jewish friend Sergeant Edward Jacobson (Eddie), who had experience in a Kansas City clothing store as a clerk. Another man he would meet at Ft. Sill, who would pay dividends after the war, was Lt. James M. Pendergast, the nephew of Thomas Joseph (T.J.) Pendergast, a Kansas City politician.

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

In France, Captain Truman's battery performed very well under fire in the Vosges Mountains. Truman later rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the National Guard and always remained proud of his military background. Under his command the artillery battery, Battery D, did not lose a single man. At the war's conclusion, Truman returned to Independence and married his longtime love interest, Bess Wallace, on 28 June 1919. The couple had one child, Margaret (b. 24 February 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 St. in downtown Kansas City. The store went bankrupt in 1922 after being very successful the first couple of years, but then the bottom fell out of the grain market, and lower prices for wheat and corn meant less sales of silk shirts. What shirts and ties that they did manage to sell went mainly to former members of the 129th. It was simple economics: in 1919 wheat went for $2.15 a bushel, in 1922 it was 88 cents a bushel. Harry blamed the fall in farm prices on the policies of the Republicans, and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon in Washington, a factor that would influence his decision to become a Democrat. Truman worked for years to pay off the debts. He and Eddie Jacobson were friends for the rest of their lives, and it was to Eddie he turned for advice on the Zionist issue.

Political career

In 1922, with the help of the Kansas City Democratic machine led by boss Tom Pendergast, Truman was elected judge of the County Court of Jackson County, Missouri — an administrative, not judicial, position. Although he was defeated for reelection in 1924, he won back the office in 1926 and was reelected in 1930. Truman performed his duties in this office diligently, and won personal acclaim for several popular public works projects, including the series of 12 Madonna of the Trail monuments to pioneer women dedicated across the country in 1928 and 1929.

In 1924, at the urging of his friend Edgar Hinde, who said that it would be "good politics," Truman gave Hinde the $10 membership fee to join the Ku Klux Klan. The complicated evidence about, background for, and interpretation of this episode are discussed in detail in the article Notable Ku Klux Klan members in national politics. As a result of the intricate tactical twists and turns of machine politics, Truman emerged from this period decisively opposed to and opposed by the Klan. The Klan's enmity for him was increased even more during Truman's presidency, which marked the first significant improvement in the federal government's record on civil rights since the nadir of American race relations during the Wilson administration. In a similar paradox, Truman, who sometimes expressed negative views of Jews in his diaries, and referred to New York as "kike-town,"[1] also had a Jewish friend and business partner (Edward Jacobson), and later became one of the moving forces behind the creation of the state of Israel.

In the 1934 election the Pendergast machine selected him to run for Missouri's open Senate seat, and he ran as a New Dealer in support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Once elected, Truman supported the president on most issues and became a popular member of the Senate "club," and was even voted as one of the ten "best-dressed" senators, soon overcoming his initial reputation as a member of the Pendergast machine.

Having always taken a keen interest in foreign affairs, Truman first gained national prominence in his second term when his preparedness committee (popularly known as the "Truman Committee") made a scandal of military wastefulness by exposing fraud and mismanagement. His advocacy of common-sense cost-saving measures for the military gained him wide respect, and he emerged as a popular choice for the vice-presidential slot in 1944. He was barely installed as vice president when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, elevating him to the presidency.

A famous story says that when Truman was summoned to the White House on April 12, it was the now former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who informed him that the president was dead. Truman 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."


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

When Truman first took office, he was initially preoccupied with foreign policy: the Allied conference in Potsdam, the conclusion of the war in Europe, and then in August, with the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Truman was also one of the very few U.S. presidents to serve nearly an entire term without a vice president. It was not until Truman's second term, from 1949 to 1953, that he was joined by a vice president on his election ticket.

Realizing that the interests of the Soviet Union were quickly becoming incompatible with the interests of the United States government in the absence of a common enemy, Truman's administration articulated an increasingly hard line against the Soviets. That Truman would follow an anti-Soviet course was clear even before the end of World War II. On June 23, 1941, a day after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union Truman, then a Senator, publicly 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." (New York Times, June 24 1941) Nonetheless, as a Wilsonian internationalist, Truman initially 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 appease the public desire for peace after the carnage of the Second World War. Although some people were distrustful of his expertise on foreign matters, Truman was able to win broad support for the Marshall Plan, which was offered to the Eastern bloc countries and the Soviet Union, and then for the Truman Doctrine which sought to contain Soviet power in Europe. To get Congress to spend on the Marshall Plan, Truman used an ideological argument about averting Communism to get the funding; although, it is highly unlikely that he believed this because he offered Marshall Plan money to the Soviets, and U.S. ambassador George F. Kennan wrote a long message from Moscow known as "The Long Telegram," explaining how Russian policy had nothing to do with the expansion of Communism but was about traditional Russian fears of invasion.

Following many years of Democratic majorities in Congress and Democratic presidents, voter fatigue led to 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. Truman fought the Republican Congress in 1947 and 1948 to prevent any reduction in tax rates. Modest cuts were eventually enacted over his veto, but they were short-lived: the onset of the Korean conflict in 1950 once again required an increase in taxes.

Truman was widely expected to lose the 1948 election, as shown by this mistaken Chicago Tribune headline.
Truman was widely expected to lose the 1948 election, as shown by this mistaken Chicago Tribune headline.

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, and the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act in a broad legislative program that he called the "Fair Deal." While it was widely expected that Truman would lose, he campaigned furiously and managed to pull off one of the greatest upsets in presidential election history by defeating Thomas E. Dewey and earning a term in the White House in his own right.

Shortly after Truman's inauguration, he presented his Fair Deal program to Congress, but it was not well received and only one of its major bills was enacted. A few months later the nation's attention was focused solidly on foreign policy once again with the "fall of China" to Mao Zedong's Communists. The incident would prove to be catastrophic for the administration, because it signaled the end of the Democrats' ability to manage the early Cold War in the eyes of the American public. Within a year of Nationalist China's collapse, Alger Hiss was accused of being a Communist agent (accusation supported in 1996 by the VENONA project[2]), war had broken out between South Korea and North Korea, and Senator Joseph McCarthy had publicly accused the State Department of being riddled with Communists. The Hiss case damaged the Truman White House and Senator McCarthy initially commanded broad public support, but events at home took a backseat to the war in Korea where Douglas MacArthur had won the imagination of the American people. Following the Chinese intervention in early November 1950, MacArthur advocated extending the war into mainland China. When Truman disagreed with him, MacArthur publicly aired his views, and the president responded by relieving him of command.

In June 1950, President Truman issued the following statement[3] and ordered the Seventh Fleet of the United States Navy into the Strait of Formosa to prevent any conflict between the Republic of China and the PRC.

"The attack upon Korea makes it plain beyond all doubt that communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war. It has defied the orders of the Security Council of the United Nations issued to preserve international peace and security. In these circumstances the occupation of Formosa by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area and to United States forces performing their lawful and necessary functions in that area.
"Accordingly I have ordered the 7th Fleet to prevent any attack on Formosa. As a corollary of this action I am calling upon the Chinese Government on Formosa to cease all air and sea operations against the mainland. The 7th Fleet will see that this is done. The determination of the future status of Formosa must await the restoration of security in the Pacific, a peace settlement with Japan, or consideration by the United Nations."

Truman's dispute with MacArthur was a deeply unpopular action that seriously wounded Truman's credibility with the American people. His unpopularity grew even more pronounced as the military situation in Korea became increasingly stalemated. Realizing that his electoral chances were slim after losing a primary to Estes Kefauver, Truman withdrew his candidacy for the election of 1952. After the election on January 7, 1953, Truman announced the development of the hydrogen bomb.

Unlike other presidents, Truman lived in the White House very little during his term in office. Structural analysis of the building early in his term had shown the White House to be in danger of imminent collapse, partly due to problems with the walls and foundation that dated back to the burning of the building by the British during the War of 1812. While the White House was systematically dismantled to the foundations and rebuilt — a project that also added what is now known as the "Truman Balcony" to the curved portico of the White House — Truman was moved to Blair House nearby, which became his "White House." On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo attempted to assassinate Truman at Blair House. In response, Truman allowed for a genuinely democratic plebiscite in Puerto Rico to determine the status of its relationship to the United States. Truman also spent time on Little Torch Key in the Florida Keys during the White House reconstruction.


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 was under pressure to withdraw from Palestine quickly due to 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, it 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. There was significant disagreement between Truman and the State Department about how to handle the situation, and meanwhile, tensions were rising between the U.S. and Soviet Union. In the end, Truman, amid controversy both at home and abroad, recognized the State of Israel 11 minutes after it declared itself a nation.

Civil rights

After a hiatus that had lasted since Reconstruction, the Truman administration marked the federal government's first steps in the area of civil rights. A particularly savage 1946 lynching of two young black men and two young black women near Moore's Ford Bridge in Walton County, Georgia, was an important event that focused attention on civil rights,[4] and was one factor behind the issuing of a 1947 report by the Truman administration titled To Secure These Rights, which advocated, among other civil rights reforms, making lynching a federal crime. In 1948, he 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 learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of army trucks in Mississippi and beaten."[5] In the same year, he issued Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the U.S. Armed Services following World War II.[6]


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.

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

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:

Major legislation signed


In 1951, the U.S. ratified the 22nd Amendment, disqualifying presidents from running for a third term (or a second term, if they had served more than two years of another's term). The amendment did not apply to Truman, since he was president when it was passed. However, Truman withdrew his candidacy for the election of 1952 after losing the New Hampshire primary to Estes Kefauver. Truman had always maintained privately that he would not run for reelection in 1952. At the time of the New Hampshire primary, no candidate had elicited Truman's backing. Without a front-runner, and with no announcement that he would not run for reelection having been made, Truman's name was placed on the ballot. (In New Hampshire, interested individuals can nominate a person to be entered in the primary ballot without his or her consent.) By March 1952 Truman had announced his decision not to run, and pressure on Gov. Adlai Stevenson (D-Ill.) to run for the Democratic nomination increased.

Truman made the most of his post-presidential years, making speeches and writing his memoirs after he left Washington. He 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 government, which would then maintain it, a practice adopted by all his successors.

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.

Former members of Congress and the federal courts received a federal retirement package, and it was president Truman who ensured that servants of the other branches of government received similar privileges. Truman decided that he did not wish to be on any corporate payroll, which reflected his view that to take advantage of such a benefit would diminish the integrity of the nation's highest office. It cannot be said, however, that he foreswore all attempts to "cash in" after leaving office, as he received the then-record sum of $600,000 as an advance on the publication of his memoirs.

In 1956, Truman took a trip to Europe with his wife, and was a universal sensation. In Britain he received an honorary degree in Civic Law from Oxford University. 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 Gov. W. Averell Harriman (D-NY) for the nomination.

Upon turning eighty, Truman was feted in Washington and asked to address the United States Senate. His advanced age showed, because he was so emotionally overcome by his reception that he was unable to deliver his speech. He also campaigned for senatorial candidates. A bad bathroom fall 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 Center with lung congestion. He subsequently developed heart irregularities, kidney blockages, and digestive problems, and died at 7:50 a.m. on December 26 at the age of 88. He is buried at the Truman Library.

As Vietnam and in later years Watergate wrenched at the heart of the nation, Truman's reputation steadily rose, and even the band Chicago wrote a song about the nation's former president. Truman's longtime home (191972), the Wallace House at 219 North Delaware Street in Independence, Missouri, and his grandfather's farm nearby, are maintained as the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site. The headquarters building of the State Department in Washington, D.C., is named the Harry S. Truman Building in his honor.

Truman's middle initial

Truman did not have a middle name, but only a middle initial. It was a common practice in southern states, including Missouri, to use initials rather than names. Truman said the initial was a compromise between the names of his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp(e) Truman and Solomon Young. 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 very obvious.



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Part of this article was copied from: the National Parks Service: Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site Material which is in the public domain. The original authors of the article cite the following references:

  • American National Biography. Vol. 21. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 857–863. ISBN 0195206355
  • Black, Allida M. Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 51–85. ISBN 0231104057
  • Graff, Henry F., ed. The Presidents: A Reference History. 2nd ed. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996, 443–458. ISBN 0684804719
  • Lash, Joseph. Eleanor: The Years Alone. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1972, 23, 36–37, 142–145, 210, 214, 296. ISBN 0393073610
  • Truman, Margaret. Harry S. Truman. New York: William Morrow and Co. (1973).
  1. ^  quoted in 1974 pocket book edition, p. 429
  • Wade, Wyn Craig. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Simon and Schuster (1987).
    • Notes:
  1. ^  Wade, 1987, p. 196, gives essentially this version of the events, but implies that the meeting was a regular Klan meeting, rather than an individual meeting between Truman and a Klan organizer. An interview with Hinde at the Truman Library's web site (http://www.trumanlibrary.org/oralhist/hindeeg.htm, retrieved June 26, 2005) portrays it as a one-on-one meeting at the Hotel Baltimore with a Klan organizer named Jones. Truman's biography, written by his daughter (Truman, 1973), agrees with Hinde's version, but does not mention the $10 initiation fee; the same biography reproduces a telegram from O.L. Chrisman stating that reporters from the Hearst papers had questioned him about Truman's past with the Klan, and that he had seen Truman at a Klan meeting, but that "if he ever became a member of the Klan I did not know it."
  • Wexler, Laura. Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America, New York: Scribner, 2003.
    • Notes:
  1. ^  Wexler, 2003.

In addition, information was drawn from one of the most authoritative works on Harry S. Truman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography:

  1. ^  KKK: page 164–165


  1. ^  http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/trumandiary1.html, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A40678-2003Jul10&notFound=true, both retrieved July 1, 2005.
  2. ^  http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/integration/IAF-12.htm, retrieved June 30, 2005.

Preceded by:
Roscoe C. Patterson
U.S. Senator from Missouri
Succeeded by:
Frank P. Briggs
Preceded by:
Henry A. Wallace
Democratic Party vice presidential candidate
1944 (won)
Succeeded by:
Alben W. Barkley
Preceded by:
Henry A. Wallace
Vice President of the United States
January 20, 1945April 12, 1945
Succeeded by:
Alben W. Barkley
Preceded by:
Franklin D. Roosevelt
President of the United States
April 12, 1945January 20, 1953
Succeeded by:
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Preceded by:
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Democratic Party presidential candidate
1948 (won)
Succeeded by:
Adlai Stevenson
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