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Harry S Truman was short and resembled an owl with his thick round glasses. He spoke in the Midwesterner's flat, nasal tone. But he was definitely real, and established a reputation for speaking the truth. Born in Lamar, MO, on May 8, 1884, Truman was the oldest of three children of John Anderson and Martha Ellen (Young) Truman. His birthplace was just south of the area where his grandparents had moved from Kentucky four decades earlier. The letter "S" in his name was not an abbreviation. It because of the family's lack of the ability to decide which of his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young, names to use.
In 1890 the Truman's moved to Independence, MO. where Harry's thick glasses kept him from enjoying many of the things a little boy was supposed to do. His mother encouraged him to turn to piano and books. At the piano, he developed a talent that would help him relieve stress in later years.
Truman did not attend college because his family could not afford it and his bad eyesight kept him from entering the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. Many years of work for a railroad and two banks added more to Truman's experiences. Then, at the age of 22, he goes back to the work that he was raised in. He spent the next 11 years as a farmer, helping his father manage. Working on a good farm in the "golden age" of American agriculture, he experienced a personality change, becoming less quiet, more social, and much more confident in his relations with other people than before.
World War I provided new opportunities. Appointed by the National Guard, Captain Truman served in France in command of Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery, 35th Division, American Expeditionary Force, fighting in major battles late in the war. He discovered that he had talents as a leader, and after the war, he joined veterans organizations and the Army Reserve, rising to the rank of colonel.
After coming home in 1919, Truman married Elizabeth (Bess) Wallace, his childhood sweetheart, and established a clothing store in Kansas City. The marriage succeeded, but the store did not. Founded during the postwar boom, it collapsed in the postwar depression. Left with heavy debts, Truman was forced to think once again about his career.
Encouraged by the Kansas City political organization headed by Thomas Pendergast, Truman turned to politics. Truman was elected judge of the Jackson county court in 1922, failed to win reelection in 1924, became presiding judge of the court two years later, and was reelected in 1930. In 1934, Truman accepted Pendergast's request to run for a seat in the U. S. Senate. He won the primary and defeated an anti-New Deal Republican in the general election.
As a first-term senator, Truman supported the New Deal and worked hard on his committee assignments. As an active member of the Interstate Commerce Committee, he helped make the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and the Transportation Act of 1940. Pendergast had been sent to prison for income tax evasion, and Truman was criticized for his ties with the questionable organization.
Truman's new situation plus his ability to get along with everyone in his party made him a runner for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1944. He never thought he would be more than a senator. But Roosevelt, running for a fourth term, was ready to find a deputy who would help him dodge the trouble that Woodrow Wilson had faced in the Senate after World War I. The current vice president, Henry Wallace, was not popular with many party leaders. Truman defeated Wallace for the nomination on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention.
Truman's new position added little to his preparation for the presidency, because Roosevelt did not train him for it. When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Truman faced the major task of learning to be president by dealing with the problems that flowed in on him.
Trying to carry out Roosevelt's policies, Truman brought to end the plans for the unconditional surrender of Germany, which came on May 8, and the establishment of the United Nations. He attended the UN founding conference in San Francisco in late April. Truman made the decision to use atomic bombs against Japan, believing that they would end the war quickly, save lives, and place the United States in a position to transform Japanese life. Alternatives to the bomb, including a negotiated settlement, were available, but they were not as obvious then as they had become later, and they appeared likely to produce results slower and prevent changes in Japan. Two bombs were dropped, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki along with Russia's declaration of war against Japan, the war to an ended on August 14.
Some people have argued that Truman used the bomb to influence the Russians rather than the Japanese, but they have demonstrated only that he and some of his aides hoped that this new evidence of American power would restrain the Russians at the same time that it accomplished American objectives in Japan. By August 1945, Truman had become more critical of the Russians than Roosevelt had been, but not because the new president had brought to the White House a more hostile attitude toward them. The change in presidential behavior is explained chiefly by changes in the situation, not in personnel. As time passed in 1945, Russian efforts to dominate Eastern Europe became more obvious and alarming to American officials, and the need for Russian help, which had influenced Roosevelt so much, significantly declined as Germany and Japan were defeated and the United Nations was established.
The momentous new steps included the Truman Doctrine, which granted aid to Greece and Turkey and promised assistance to other nations threatened "by armed minorities or by outside pressure"; the Marshall Plan, which used American economic resources to stimulate the recovery of European economies outside the Soviet sphere; the Berlin airlift, designed to maintain the Western presence in that city, which was surrounded by the Russian-occupied zone of Germany; and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the nation's first peacetime military alliance. Truman's Point Four program helped new nations develop economically. These steps, which added up to a policy of "containment" of communism, represented a different kind of U.S. involvement in Europe during peacetime. Truman not only made the decisions but used all his power to get the policies accepted.
Truman accomplished less in domestic affairs, in part because he was so busy with international concerns. Beginning in September 1945, he fought to continue and expand the New Deal, soon labeling his program the Fair Deal. He faced the same group of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats that had frustrated Roosevelt all the time after 1936. This group successfully opposed Truman when the Democrats dominated Congress (19451946 and 19491956) not counting when the Republicans were in control (19471948).
In another area in which Truman made important contributionscivil rightshe had to rely chiefly on executive action, publicizing the question and desegregating the armed forces. But he failed to obtain passage of a law assuring equal job opportunities for blacks and ending poll taxes, lynchings, and discrimination on public transportation. His personal concern about the problems of black Americans, as well as his quest for the black vote, and his worry about the damage that American racial practices did to the nation's image in the world moved him to act. Nearly all Southerners opposed him, however, and Southern senators filibustered effectively against his legislative proposals.
In 1947, Congress overrode Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, which Truman said unfairly weakened the bargaining power of unions. Truman's frequent interventions in labor-management disputes were significant, because they expanded the role of the president in this area. The railroad and coal industries provided major occasions for action in 1946. Steel did in 1952. But the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the argument that the president has inherent powers to seize firms in emergencies. Faced with a steel strike during the Korean War, Truman had seized steel mills to keep them operating. Deciding not to run again, he retired to Independence; at age 88, he died December 26, 1972, after a stubborn fight for life.
The papers of Harry S. Truman are housed at the Truman Presidential Museum and Library in Independence, Mo.
Byrnes, Mark S., The Truman Years, 19451953 (Longman 2003).
Donovan, Robert J., Tumultuous Years: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 19491953 (Norton 1984).
Ferrell, Robert H., Harry S. Truman (CQ Press 2003).
Ferrell, Robert H., ed., Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 19101959 (Norton 1983).
Hamby, Alonzo L, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (Oxford 1995).
Hogan, Michael J., A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State (Cambridge 1998).
Jenkins, Roy, Truman (Harper 1986).
McCullough, David C., Truman (Simon & Schuster 1992).
Miller, Merle, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (1974; reprint, Berkeley Pub. 1986).
Moskin, J. Robert, Mr. Truman's War: The Final Victories of World War II and the Birth of the Postwar World (Random House 1996).
Offner, Arnold A., Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 19451953 (Stanford Univ. Press 2002).
Pierpaoli, Paul G., Jr., Truman and Korea: The Political Culture of the Early Cold War (Univ. of Mo. Press 1999).
Truman, Harry S., Memoirs, 2 vols. (Doubleday 19551956).
Truman, Margaret, Harry S. Truman (1973; reprint, Morrow 1984).
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