Harry Truman

Harry Truman

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On January 20, 1949, beginning his second term, President Harry Truman denounces communism and presents a program for peace in his inaugural address.

Harry Truman

Harry Truman (1884-1972) was president of the United States from the final weeks of World War II to January 1953.

Truman, the son of a cattle farmer, was raised in rural Missouri. He received a rudimentary education, starting school at age eight and graduating from high school in 1901 he is the last US president not to have held a college degree.

Truman worked on railways and in clerical jobs, before joining the army in 1917. He served as an artillery captain in World War I, seeing extensive combat on the Western Front. Truman settled in Kansas after the war, before returning to his native Missouri. During the 1920s, Truman ran a clothing store (which went bankrupt), sold automobile club memberships and held a series of public offices.

In 1934, Truman was elected to the US Senate. Ten years later, Truman was selected as president Franklin Roosevelt’s running mate. In November 1944 Truman, who by his own admission had an unremarkable political record, was elected vice president of the United States.

Truman had been vice-president for less than three months when Roosevelt died in April 1945. Despite his inexperience in foreign policy, Truman soon proved himself to be a strong-willed and astute operator. He oversaw the final months of World War II and gave orders for the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japan.

Truman despised communism and distrusted communist leaders, particularly Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. He was the first US president to accept the Domino Theory and take steps to contain communist expansion.

In 1947, Truman promised American help for other nations resisting communist aggression and infiltration. This position, later called the Truman Doctrine, would underpin US foreign policy during the Cold War.

With regard to Vietnam, Truman’s government refused to recognise Ho Chi Minh’s 1945 declaration of Vietnamese independence. Instead, in February 1950 Truman recognised a self-governing Vietnam still under French sovereignty. In May 1950, he committed $US10 million in military aid and established the Defence Attaché Office in Saigon, with the purpose of supporting anti-communist forces in Vietnam. More US military assistance and advisors were sent to Vietnam in 1951-52.

Truman’s aid to Vietnam was modest when compared to that of subsequent presidents, however, it established an American commitment to the region that would shape future policy. Truman left office in January 1953 and died in 1972, aged 88.

Harry Truman in World War 1

The following article is an excerpt from H.W Crocker III’s The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Harry Truman was the only American president to have seen action in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy, and Dwight Eisenhower was an Army training officer, a brevet lieutenant colonel but neither saw action overseas. Truman did. He went to war feeling like he was “Galahad after the Grail. . . . I rather felt we owed France something for Lafayette.”

The thirty-three-year-old man who held such notions was born on a farm in southern Missouri. The metropolis to which his family moved when he was six was Independence, a city of unpaved roads and no public water supply or electricity but six thousand people. The Trumans moved there for the schools, as young Harry, though he had weak eyes and needed glasses, read constantly (the Bible from start to finish twice), and his mother had ambitions for her young son.

As an elder statesman who reveled in his reputation for hard drinking and hard swearing, he confessed, “I was never popular. The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists. I was never like that. Without my glasses I was blind as a bat, and to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy.” Actually, his peers thought him more “serious” than a “sissy”—an arbitrator who could straighten out their history when they were playacting as Jesse James or the Dalton brothers a boy they would trust to umpire a baseball game. He was a good student at a school that taught a traditional, classical curriculum, an avid reader in a home that was well stocked with books, a boy who preferred train-watching or playing the piano to rough-and-tumble sports (where his glasses might get broken) and who kept himself neat and clean. He enjoyed, as he remembered it, a blissful small-town boyhood.

His mother was well read and doted on Harry, the eldest of her three surviving children. His father was industrious, a dealmaker, a successful livestock trader, a respected man—though with an easily ignited, nasty temper—who maintained the family in relative comfort until Harry finished high school. Then some bad land investments put the family in straitened circumstances. The family’s heritage was Southern, and Harry’s boyhood heroes included Robert E. Lee (venerated by his mother) and Andrew Jackson. He often daydreamed of becoming a general (he hoped to go to West Point until he realized his eyesight disqualified him)—or, given the hours he practiced, a pianist.


After high school he took courses at a commercial college, eventually seemed to have found his niche, at least temporarily, as a bank clerk, and in 1905 found an outlet for his military interests by enlisting in a National Guard artillery unit (memorizing the eye chart so his eyesight would not disqualify him). In 1906, he heeded a call from his father and took up work on a family farm—to which the family had retired—where he spent the next eleven years working the soil, an occupation he did not like, and reading or playing the piano in his few leisure hours. In 1911, after two three-year enlistments with the National Guard, he decided he could not justify the time away from the farm. That changed after April 1917, when he decided it was time to pay his debt to Lafayette.

There were other factors too. He had enjoyed his military service, he was a patriot, and, as an active Democrat who had won a couple of minor political appointments, he knew that spending time in uniform could advance his political career. He reenlisted in the National Guard, sneaking past the eye test again, was elected a first lieutenant, and showed, as he had in all his jobs, that he was a dutiful and dedicated soul. Before his unit had finished its training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he had been recommended for promotion to captain. By April 1918 he was in France and attending Advanced Artillery School. The curriculum’s intellectual demands, long hours (seven in the morning to nine-thirty at night), and hard physical training prompted Truman to write, “When I come home I’ll be a surveyor, a mathematician, a mechanical draftsman, a horse doctor, a crack shot, and a tough citizen if they keep me here long. We have periods of lectures and exams and everything just like West Point . . . and they sure give us thunder if we are late.” He graduated from the school, received his official promotion to captain, and was given command of a notoriously undisciplined artillery battery. “Give ’em hell Harry” got his start here, busting miscreants, promoting high performers, and surprising even himself with his success at managing and training a difficult lot of men: “Can you imagine me being a hardboiled captain of a tough Irish battery?” he wrote his girlfriend (and future wife), Bess Wallace.

Having come to pay his debt to Lafayette, Truman didn’t particularly care for France or the French. Typical was his frustration with the dining habits of French officers: “It takes them so long to serve a meal that I’m always hungrier when I get done than I ever was before.” He was a diligent tourist when on leave, but flinty in his patriotism and utterly convinced of the superiority of Missouri to La Belle France, Kansas City to the City of Lights, and everything American to everything French.

He saw his first action in August 1918, amid the mud and mire of the Vosges mountain range in Alsace-Lorraine, firing an artillery barrage and being fired on in return. The captain stood his ground. Many of his men did not. He cursed them for it, and won their respect.

Forced marches in cold, bitter rain brought them to the Argonne Forest and the enormous offensive that would end the war. Truman remembered that the opening barrage, to which his battery contributed, belched out “more noise than human ears could stand. Men serving the guns became deaf for weeks after. I was deaf as a post from the noise. It looked as though every gun in France was turned loose and the sky was red from one end to the other from the artillery flashes.” The artillery followed the infantry, and at the end of it all, with the armistice in November, only one man in Truman’s battery, Battery D, had been killed in action and only two others had been wounded, all of them while detailed to another command. He had performed exceptionally well. The war was the making of him.

With the war over, he wanted to go home, but he joked about his loyalty and affection for his artillery pieces: “If the government would let me have one of them, I’d pay for it and pay the transportation home just to let it sit in my front yard and rust. Men you know—gunners and section chiefs especially—become very much attached to their guns. . . . It’s like parting with old friends who’ve stood by me through thick and thin.” Bess Wallace had stood by him through thick and thin too. She married Captain Truman on 28 June 1919.

Truman entered politics uplon returning home. Over the next several decades he rose through the ranks of the Democratic party due to his staunch support of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. He eventually earned him a spot on the party’s Vice Presidential ticket in 1944.


Truman was vice president for only eighty-two days. Summoned to the White House on 12 April 1945, he was greeted by Eleanor Roosevelt. With her hand on his shoulder, she announced, “Harry, the president is dead.”

After a moment of stunned silence, Truman replied, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

The president’s widow responded, “Is there anything we can do for you, Harry? For you are the one in trouble now.”

General Patton, in Europe, thought it was America that was in trouble now. He said of Truman, “It seems very unfortunate that in order to secure political preference, people are made Vice President who are never intended, neither by Party nor by the Lord to be Presidents.” In deeper trouble, however, were the Axis Powers. In less than a month, Germany surrendered. Japan had no hope for victory in the Pacific but was instead girding itself to make unconditional victory for the Allies extraordinarily costly.

In Truman’s arsenal was one weapon of which he had known nothing when he was vice president: the atomic bomb. Another weapon that he hoped to use against Japan was Soviet military power. Truman met the Soviet leader, Marshal Joseph Stalin, at the Potsdam Conference on 17 July 1945. He liked him (he thought him a Slavic version of Tom Pendergast) and was convinced he could work with him, even as he regarded the Soviet Union as a police state and was bluntly opposed—in principle if not in force—to the export of Communism into Eastern Europe.

It took the dropping of two atomic bombs—one on Hiroshima on 6 August and one on Nagasaki on 9 August (the same day that the Soviet Union declared war and invaded Japanese-held Manchuria)—and a massive conventional air raid on Tokyo on 13 August before the Japanese issued a formal statement of surrender on 14 August. Truman had calculated that by dropping the atomic bombs he could end the war swiftly—and by ending it, save hundreds of thousands of lives.

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Truman Revisted: Historian Says Harry Gave ’Em Racism

NEW YORK (AP) _ Harry Truman, who made civil rights a federal priority for the first time since Reconstruction, expressed strong racist sentiments before, during and after his presidency, a historian said Thursday.

Although Truman toned down his racist expressions after entering the White House, he continued to use racial slurs in private conversation for the rest of his life, according to William Leuchtenburg, president of the American Historical Association.

Leuchtenburg, a University of North Carolina professor, is writing a book on Truman.

In 1911, the year he turned 27, Truman wrote to his future wife, Bess: ″I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a nigger from mud, then He threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman.″

″(Uncle Will) does hate Chinese and Japs,″ Truman continued. ″So do I. It is race prejudice, I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia and white men in Europe and America.″

More than 25 years later, then-Senator Truman wrote a letter to his daughter describing waiters at The White House as ″an army of coons.″ In a letter to his wife in 1939 he referred to ″nigger picnic day.″

In 1941, in a letter to his daughter, he wrote of the Civil War: ″I feel as your old country grandmother has expressed it - ’What a pity a white man like Lee had to surrender to old Grant.‴

In a telephone interview Thursday, Leuchtenburg said some scholars have known about Truman’s racist utterances since his letters were opened. ″But somehow,″ Leuchtenburg said, ″this has not permeated the public consciousness.″

Liz Safly, a librarian at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., agreed that Truman’s remarks were familiar to scholars. The ″Uncle Will″ quotation, she said, was contained in a volume of letters published in 1983.

Truman’s attitudes toward race were shaped by his youth in Missouri. His grandparents had owned slaves his mother was interned by Union troops during the Civil War, and remained ″violently unreconstructed″ for the rest of her life. Young Harry developed ″an abiding belief in white supremacy,″ Leuchtenburg said.

But after succeeding Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman rose above his prejudices. In 1946, when told of assaults on black World War II veterans in the South, he exclaimed, ″My God 3/8 I had no idea it was as terrible as that. We’ve got to do something 3/8″

″Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as president I know this is bad,″ he said. ″I shall fight to end evils like this.″

The president appointed a committee to study civil rights abuses and later supported the panel’s call for anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation. He also ordered the desegregation of the armed forces and became the first president to campaign in Harlem. As a result, he was pilloried by his old Southern Democratic allies.

″He was pulled in two directions on race,″ Leuchtenburg said. ″There was always the tension between being a son of the Confederacy, and a proud American.″

Some of Truman’s racist attitudes endured into the 1950s and 1960s, Leuchtenburg said. The former president continued to use racial slurs and not only opposed the 1960s sit-ins, but said they might be Communist-inspired. He called Northerners who went on Freedom Rides meddlers and The Rev. Luther King Jr. a troublemaker.

Leuchtenburg said he found evidence of Truman’s racism in the former president’s published and unpublished letters and in oral histories and other documents at the Truman Library.

He presented his views in a speech at Louisiana State University in April, and summarized them in the November issue of American Heritage magazine.

Harry S. Truman: Life Before the Presidency

Harry S. Truman was born in the small town of Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884. In 1890, Harry's parents, John and Martha, moved the family (which included Harry's brother Vivian and sister Mary Jane) to Independence, Missouri, a county-seat town of just 6,000 people. Located ten miles east of Kansas City, Independence had links to both the American West and South. The town, in which wagon trains picked up the Oregon and Sante Fe trails, was a gateway to America's western frontier. Most residents of Independence had migrated from the states of the Upper South, however, bringing with them many southern cultural and social mores. As in many other southern towns—and quite a few northern ones as well—black residents lived in a segregated part of town.

Harry's childhood and young adulthood were at times quite trying. He worked hard at making friends, but was uncomfortable in the company of girls his age or older. He was born with poor vision and required glasses, a solution that separated him from many of his peers. Moreover, Truman's mother, to whom he was very attached, directed him to avoid rough-housing with his peers. Harry instead developed keen interests in reading and music. He became a fine piano player and even considered for a short while pursuing a career as a concert pianist. Like other boys his age, he also dreamed of becoming a great soldier.

Harry was a solid and hard-working student who graduated from high school in 1901. He wanted to attend West Point, but his poor eyesight foreclosed the possibility of a commission. Moreover, his father's financial problems, which began in the early 1900s, prevented Harry from attending a four-year college. Instead, he attended a business college in Kansas City for a semester but, with his family's finances increasingly dire, dropped out of school and took a job in the mailroom of the Kansas City Star in the summer of 1902. Truman subsequently worked for a construction company and as a bank clerk.

In 1906, Truman left his position at the bank and went to work on the family farm in Grandview, Missouri, with his father and his brother Vivian. Truman spent most of the next decade on the farm, though the farm itself rarely made much of a profit. Harry kept the books and did his share of manual labor, neither of which he enjoyed. He did, however, find satisfaction in two other pursuits. In 1905, Truman joined the National Guard, which offered a chance to escape the farm and provided him with masculine companionship for the next six years. In 1910, Truman began courting Bess Wallace, with whom he had graduated high school. Bess refused a marriage proposal in 1911, but they continued their romance nonetheless.

Truman's father died in 1914, an event which caused Harry much heartache. John Truman's passing, however, did allow Harry to ease away from the farm. He spent the next few years trying to earn a living as an owner and operator of a small mining company and as a partner in an oil business. Neither enterprise met with much success. In 1917, with the United States on the verge of entering World War I, he rejoined his National Guard unit. After it was federalized, Harry Truman became a member of the 129th Artillery Regiment.

A Military Career and Marriage

The soldiering life suited Truman. He rose to the rank of captain and ran the regiment's only successful canteen. More impressive, he turned his battery—which had a reputation for unruliness and ineffectiveness—into a top-notch unit. In March 1918, his regiment shipped out to France. Truman and his men saw their first action in the Vosges mountains (August 1918) and then in the Argonnes campaign (September and October 1918), the last major engagement of the war.

Truman's service during World War I had a profound effect upon his life. His ability to lead a group of men under the most trying of circumstances boosted his self-confidence his men, in turn, respected his leadership. Truman established close friendships with some of his fellow soldiers. Eddie Jacobson, Truman's right-hand man at the canteen, became his business partner in the early 1920s. Harry Vaughn, though not in Truman's battery, would serve as an aide throughout Truman's political life. Finally, Truman's service in the war—and the friends and acquaintances he made - would eventually provide him a political power base in the Kansas City area.

Before departing for training with his regiment in 1917, Bess Wallace had tearfully told Truman that she wanted to get married. Truman asked her to wait until he returned from the war, writing "I don't think it would be right for me to ask you to tie yourself to a prospective cripple—or a sentiment." But he made clear his feelings in a letter to her, writing, "I'm crazy about you." On June 28, 1919, following Truman's return home one month earlier, Harry and Bess married in Independence. Four years later, the couple had their first and only child, Mary Margaret.

Help from the Democratic Boss

A few months after his wedding, Truman and war buddy Eddie Jacobson opened a haberdashery (a store that sold men's clothing and accessories) in Kansas City. Truman and Jacobson took out a number of loans to get the store up and running, and initially business was quite good. The enterprise, however, could not survive the nation's acute economic downturn of the early 1920s. The clothing shop closed its doors in September 1922, leaving Truman nearly bankrupt and heavily in debt.

Even though the store failed financially, it brought Truman distinct social benefits. He kept up with his network of friends and acquaintances from the National Guard, many of whom often stopped by the shop. As a respected businessman, he joined several civic organizations, like the Triangle Club (a group of businessmen dedicated to improving the city), and actively participated in veterans groups like the American Legion and the Reserve Officers Association.

In 1922, Thomas J. Pendergast, the Democratic boss of Kansas City and uncle of one of Truman's war buddies, asked Harry to run for a judgeship on the county court of the eastern district of Jackson County. (Jackson County encompassed Kansas City in the west and Independence and other smaller towns and communities in the east.) Pendergast believed that Truman's reputation for honesty and hard-work would attract independent-minded voters and, just as important, that Truman's fellow veterans would support him at the polls. Truman won a tight, five candidate Democratic primary, then easily beat his Republican challenger in November.

As eastern district judge, Truman served essentially as a county commissioner. His main concerns were the county's budget and roads, and the distribution of patronage positions and contracts to Pendergast supporters. Truman lost his re-election bid in 1924 when a feud in the county Democratic Party cost him votes. In 1926, though, he was elected (again with the help of the Pendergast machine) as presiding judge of the county court he easily won re-election in 1930. As presiding judge, he skillfully guided a major rebuilding and modernization of Jackson county's road system, presided over several significant construction projects, and managed the county's finances during the early years of the Great Depression.

While Truman could not escape the taint of corruption that came from his association with Pendergast, he did establish a reputation for personal integrity, honesty, and efficiency. As part of the Pendergast machine, Truman certainly rewarded the machine's allies he would not have remained in Pendergast's good graces had he done otherwise. But he also genuinely strove to make local governance as efficient and effective as possible. Indeed, his reputation for scrupulousness benefited Pendergast, who could point to the honest judge as an example of good, clean government. Just as important, Truman during these years proved to be a politician who could win support from both urban—including black and ethnic minorities—and rural constituencies.

Senator Truman

In 1934, Truman asked Pendergast to support his run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Though the details of this episode are murky, Pendergast supposedly agreed initially but then changed his mind: he wanted Truman to run for the U.S. Senate. Following a bruising Democratic primary that featured widespread ballot-box stuffing by Truman's (and his main competitor's) supporters, Truman captured the Democratic nomination. He then easily defeated his Republican opponent in November. On December 31, 1934, Senator-elect Truman, his wife Bess, and daughter Margaret arrived in Washington, D.C.

Truman's first term as senator was largely unremarkable. He enjoyed his life in the Senate, especially the male camaraderie and "old boys" network that characterized the institution. The long hours and time away from Bess and Margaret tried his family life, however. Politically, Truman emerged as a reliable ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs and built especially strong ties with labor unions. He made his mark on transportation issues as a member of the Appropriations Committee and the Interstate Commerce Committee. He helped write (with Democratic Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana) the Transportation Act of 1940, which tried to bring some order to the tangle of regulations affecting transportation industries. Truman also helped design the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which laid the groundwork for the growth of the airline industry over the next four decades.

Truman faced a tough re-election campaign in 1940. The Democratic machine that had powered him to victory in 1934 had collapsed during the intervening years. Pendergast was ill and in prison as the election cycle approached. As in 1934, Truman's largest challenge was winning the Democratic nomination. He managed to defeat Governor Lloyd Stark by only 8,000 votes Truman overcame Stark's support from rural voters by running up large margins in urban Kansas City and St. Louis. According to Truman biographer Alonzo Hamby, the 1940 election showed Truman to be a "candidate of the cities, an urban liberal."Truman began his second term in the Senate in 1941 as the United States prepared for war. During the last six months of 1940, Congress had appropriated more than ten billion dollars for defense and military spending. Truman convinced the Senate leadership and the Roosevelt administration to make him head of a special Senate investigative committee—which became known as the Truman committee—charged with uncovering and stopping wasteful defense spending. He described the committee's work as protecting the "little man" from the greedy predations of big labor and big business. While moderately successful on this score, he did garner both popularity and recognition.

The coming of World War II forced Truman to clarify and crystallize his thinking about American foreign policy. In the mid-1930s, Truman voted for the Neutrality Acts, but this support was politically motivated—his constituents were mildly isolationist—rather than indicative of a deeply-ingrained isolationism. Indeed, Truman had warned publicly of the threats posed by Germany and Japan and of the need for increased American military preparedness. After the outbreak of hostilities in August 1939, Truman supported initiatives like the "cash-and-carry" and Lend-Lease policies designed to succor American allies in their time of need. He also supported American rearmament efforts and the Selective Service Act. Truman explained his evolving position in early 1941, writing to a Missouri voter, "We are facing a bunch of thugs, and the only theory a thug understands is a gun and a bayonet."

Vice President Truman

In 1944, President Roosevelt decided to drop Henry A. Wallace, his sitting vice president, from the Democratic ticket in the upcoming general election. Wallace's liberal political views and somewhat bizarre mysticism offended party professionals and conservative Democrats whose support the President needed. After a set of complicated behind-the-scenes maneuvers orchestrated by Democratic party officials, Truman emerged as the consensus choice for the vice-presidential slot and performed admirably, if not flawlessly, during the national campaign. The Democratic ticket defeated Republican challengers Thomas Dewey and John Bricker by a comfortable margin in the November general election.

As vice president, Truman functioned as a "pipeline" between the White House and the Senate, over which he presided. He also cast the tie-breaking votes to confirm former Vice President Wallace as secretary of commerce and to prevent passage of the Taft lend-lease amendment, which would have forbade the use of lend-lease agreements for post-war relief. Truman, however, was not a major player in the Roosevelt administration and had a superficial relationship with the President.

Truman served only eighty-two days in the vice presidency. On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, he was summoned to the White House. Upon arrival, Eleanor Roosevelt approached him and said, "Harry, the president is dead." Within hours, Harry S. Truman took the oath of office to become the thirty-third President of the United States.

Capt. Harry S. Truman

On June 14, 1905, the man who would become America's 33rd president enlisted in Light Battery B of the Missouri National Guard. The 21-year-old Harry S. Truman was so proud of his new uniform that he promptly went to a photographer's studio and had a series of portraits made. However, his pride was dashed at home when his grandmother, a staunch supporter of the late Confederacy, told him that she wouldn't have a blue uniform in the house.

Nevertheless, young Truman remained a member of Battery B and served as its clerk until he was discharged as a corporal in 1906. When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Truman was a farmer of 33 who could easily have avoided service. He chose to re-enlist with the National Guard, where he was elected first lieutenant. On Aug. 5, 1917, the 2nd Missouri Field Artillery was sworn into the regular Army as the 128th Field Artillery of the 35th Division. The unit was sent in 1918 to France, where Capt. Truman took command of Battery D on July 11.

Battery D had been organized in Kansas City and was a burly group of first-generation Irish and German Catholics. Truman felt he would have to work very hard to gain their acceptance and approval. By the end of the summer, he had developed his battery into a tight combat unit. They won regimental records for firing accuracy and range assembly speed, and participated with distinction in the Vosges, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne campaigns.

Truman won something greater — his men's confidence, support, and respect. At war's end, Battery D presented its commander with an engraved silver loving cup as a token of that respect. In turn, Truman told them, "Right now, I'm where I want to be — in command of this battery. I'd rather be here than president of the United States."

Articles Featuring Harry S. Truman From History Net Magazines

Few people believed that President Harry S. Truman had a chance of winning the 1948 presidential election. The three great national polling organizations all predicted that Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, his Republican opponent, would win by a wide margin. The press was equally certain of a Dewey victory, for the odds against the incumbent seemed insurmountable. Truman’s own party had split, with Democrat Strom Thurmond running in the South as a ‘Dixiecrat’ and former vice president Henry Wallace running as the candidate of the newly formed Progressive Party. It was expected that Wallace would drain vitally needed liberal votes away from the president. Among Democratic politicians and his own campaign staff, it seemed that the only person who thought Truman could win was the candidate himself.

Of course, there were many who wondered how Harry Truman had ever made it into the White House in the first place. The son of a Missouri mule-trader-turned-farmer, Truman differed markedly from his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Truman, who had served as a captain of artillery in World War I, was a failed businessman whose haberdashery in Kansas City had closed during a recession in 1922. While overseas, however, Truman had met Jim Pendergast, whose family was a Democratic political dynasty in Kansas City. With the support of less-than-reputable political boss Tom Pendergast, Truman was elected eastern judge of Jackson County and then, in 1934, United States Senator. Though Truman himself was a person of impeccable personal honesty and political integrity, many in Washington looked down on him as ‘the Senator from Pendergast.’ Only during his second term in the Senate, when he headed a committee investigating the national defense program, did he gain a reputation for hard work and diligence and the respect of his fellow senators.

In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt picked Truman as his running mate to replace Vice President Henry Wallace, whose extreme liberal views were far out of alignment which those of Democratic party leaders. When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Truman became president. It was not a job he had ever aspired to, and he confided to his diary and in letters to his family his doubts about his abilities.

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By 1948, however, Harry Truman had grown with the job and was determined to seek a full term in his own right. He also sought vindication for the rebuff his party had suffered at the polls in the 1946 congressional elections, when the Republicans gained an overwhelming majority in both the House and the Senate.

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The Republicans had selected Truman’s opponent, Thomas Dewey, in June on the third ballot at their convention at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall. For his running mate, Dewey picked California governor Earl Warren. Roosevelt had defeated Dewey in 1944, but Truman’s hopes looked slim. ‘Barring a political miracle, it was the kind of ticket that could not fail to sweep the Republican Party back into power,’ Time magazine proclaimed.

The Democratic convention opened on July 12 in the same Philadelphia hall the Republicans had used, but the mood in the building had darkened. The decorative flags and bunting had not been changed and now looked bedraggled and shop-worn. The Associated Press noted that ‘The Democrats act as though they have accepted an invitation to a funeral.’ Until a few days before the convention there had been an active movement to deny the nomination to Truman. A diverse group of party leaders, headed by James Roosevelt, son of the former president, had pushed hard for General Dwight Eisenhower. The Eisenhower boom ended only when the general stated unequivocally that he would not accept the nomination if it was offered.

The Democrats were further fractured when a coalition of liberals led by Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota inserted a strong civil rights plank, modeled after Truman’s own proposals to Congress, in the platform. Delegates from the conservative South, intent on maintaining segregation there, were adamantly opposed to the plank. Before the nominating process even began, Alabama’s Handy Ellis announced that his state’s presidential electors were ‘never to cast a vote for Harry Truman, and never to cast their vote for any candidate with a civil rights program such as adopted by the convention.’ Half of the Alabama delegation and the entire Mississippi contingent walked out. Two days later, disaffected southern Democrats met in Birmingham, Alabama, to nominate Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for president. The new party officially called itself the States’ Rights Democrats the press dubbed them ‘Dixiecrats,’ and the name stuck. The ‘Solid South’–a traditional Democratic stronghold–seemed lost to Truman. Meanwhile, on July 27, the Progressive Party nominated Henry Wallace for president.

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Truman, who picked Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky as his running mate, was undeterred by the defections from his party. For his convention acceptance speech, the president used only an outline written in short, punchy sentences. He electrified the audience when he said, ‘Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make the Republicans like it–don’t you forget it.’ It was the first time during the convention that anyone had spoken of actually winning. Truman then praised the higher wages, higher farm income, and greater benefits for Americans he claimed as Democratic accomplishments, and went on to condemn the Republican Congress. He spoke with scorn of the recently adopted Republican platform, contrasting the programs it contained with congressional inaction on similar programs he had proposed.

Truman roused the convention to a standing ovation when he announced his intention to call 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 did convene it accomplished little, as Truman expected, but it gave the president a campaign issue. The country’s woes, he asserted, were the result of the ‘do-nothing’ Republican Congress.

This article was written by Michael D. Haydock and originally published in the December 2000 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!

Oral History Project

Jimmy Carter with Bess Truman's nurses at the Truman Home, August 1980. Carter was interviewed in 1991.

The oral history project at Harry S Truman NHS began in 1983. When the National Park Service began tours of the home in 1984, little was known about the Truman family's private life and activities in the community. Early oral history interviews focused on the personal information critical to properly interpret, furnish, and preserve the home in a manner that accurately reflected the occupation of the Truman family.

For more than 30 years the program has preserved important information about the Truman family's home life and community ties in Independence and Grandview, Missouri. One Hundred thirty taped interviews have been conducted, totaling over 200 hours. The completed interviews allow the park to document the stories of family, friends and neighbors associated with Harry Truman and his family during their residence at 219 North Delaware in Independence and on the Truman farm in Grandview. Oral history informants included neighbors, secret service agents, medical personnel, shopkeepers, relatives, friends, household staff and other Truman contemporaries. The broad range of people interviewed helps paint a more complete picture of the Truman family's life.

Click on the alphabetical links below to browse the oral histories. Oral history transcripts in PDF format are accessible for many of the informants listed. Park staff and volunteers are working on finalizing recent interviews and these oral histories will be posted as they become available.




To search the oral histories by the informants' relationship with the Truman family, visit Oral History Informants by Association.

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library has conducted interviews related to Truman's political life. Click here to visit the Truman Library's oral history page.

Today in History: Harry S. Truman is Born (1884)

On this day in 1884, one of the most influential presidents in American history was born in Lamar, Missouri. Harry S. Truman is most well-known for how he ended World War II, but there was more to his life and his presidency than meets the eye.

When someone asks &ldquoWhat do you know about Harry Truman,&rdquo most people would answer, &ldquoHe authorized the use of nuclear weapons to end World War II.&rdquo Ask them what else they know, and if they aren&rsquot history majors, they probably wouldn&rsquot have an answer.

His presidency might be the most pivotal in American history if you look at the sheer amount of things he did or was first at.

Truman&rsquos career as a politician started in 1922 as a county clerk, and grew from there. By 1934, he was a member of the U.S. Senate. He gained influence quickly, and in March 1941 he formed the Truman Committee, which was widely publicized. Its mission was to root out waste and inefficiency in wartime contracts.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose Truman to be his Vice President, and he took up that office in January 1945, just four months before Roosevelt died in office.

During this time, the world was embroiled in World War II. Nazi Germany was on its last dregs, and would surrender just a month or so after Truman took up the Presidency, but Japan was still very strong.

Military experts at the time predicted that the war in the Pacific could rage on for at least another year, and would likely cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. The reason it would be so costly is due to the spread out nature of the Japanese islands, and Japan&rsquos military strength at the time. In order to save those lives, Truman did the one thing no other American (or anyone else for that matter) has ever done: he ordered the use of nuclear weapons on Japan, and on August 6 and on August 9, 1945, his orders were carried out.

Aftermath of the nuclear bomb in Japan. DailyMail

That decision may be the most controversial one ever to be made by a sitting U.S. president, and is still hotly debated to this day. Right or wrong, however, it is seen as the catalyst to Japan&rsquos unconditional surrender.

That&rsquos what most people know about Harry S. Truman. But that happened at the beginning of his time in office, and there is much more to his presidency. Because of World War II, Truman oversaw one of the greatest economic booms in the country&rsquos history. Despite this, there was a lot of strife in the economy as the United States struggled to transition from a wartime economy. Labor conflicts flared up, and several large-scale strikes took place after the war.

For example, in January 1946, 800,000 steel workers went on strike. A lot of this had to do with the economy at large as inflation was a real issue, and shortages in housing and consumer products were plaguing the nation. Labor relations would be a constant struggle for Truman during his presidency.

Harry S. Truman. History Channel

Most of Truman&rsquos accomplishments during his presidency happened in the foreign arena. He instigated the Marshall Plan, which sent money to war-torn Europe, and he was the president who was in office in the opening salvos of the Cold War, a struggle that would last nearly 45 years. He created the Truman Doctrine to help prevent the spread of Soviet and Chinese communism.

Harry S Truman (1884-1972)

Harry S Truman, June 1956 © Truman was the 33rd president of the United States who oversaw the end of World War Two, including the atomic bombing of Japan, and the new challenges of the Cold War.

Harry Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, on 8 May 1884. After leaving school he held a series of clerical positions, as well as farming. In 1917, he joined the US Army and fought in World War One. He returned home in 1919 and married Bess Wallace. They had one daughter.

In 1923, he was appointed a judge in Jackson County, a mainly administrative position, and in his spare time studied at Kansas City Law School. He became active in Democrat politics in Missouri and was elected to the senate in 1934 and re-elected in 1940. In 1941, he headed the Truman Committee investigating waste and fraud in the US defence programme. It was estimated to have saved around $15 billion and made Truman a national figure.

Franklin Roosevelt selected Truman as vice president in 1944. In April 1945, with the end of World War Two in sight, Roosevelt died and Truman became president. With very little preparation he faced huge responsibilities in the final months of the war, including authorising the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, and planning the post-war world. Two months after taking office he witnessed the signing of United Nations Charter.

Truman was unable to achieve many of his immediate post-war domestic aims because of opposition within his own party and the Republican Party regaining control of congress. In foreign policy, he responded to the growing threat from the Soviet Union. He issued the Truman Doctrine, justifying support for any country the US believed to be threatened by communism. He introduced the Marshall Plan, which spent more than $13 billion in rebuilding Europe. When the Soviets blockaded the western sectors of Berlin in the summer of 1948, Truman authorised a massive airlift of supplies until the Soviets backed down. The fear of the spread of communism in Europe led to the establishment in 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a defence alliance between Western European countries, Canada and the US.

Truman expected to lose the 1948 presidential election as his pro-civil rights actions had alienated many southern Democrats. Nonetheless, he won and foreign policy again dominated in his second term. In the summer of 1950, he authorised US military involvement in the Korean War.

Truman retired from politics in 1952 and died in Kansas City on 26 December 1972.

Watch the video: Truman Doctrine Speech to Congress - 250011-14. Footage Farm Ltd