Harry S. Truman (May 8, 1884 – December 26, 1972) was the 33rd president of the United States from 1945 to 1953, succeeding upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt after serving as vice president. He implemented the Marshall Plan to rebuild the economy of Western Europe, and established the Truman Doctrine and NATO.
Truman grew up in Independence, Missouri, and during World War I was sent to France as a captain in the Field Artillery. Returning home, he opened a haberdashery in Kansas City, Missouri and was later elected as a Jackson County official in 1922. Truman was elected to the United States Senate from Missouri in 1934 and gained national prominence as chairman of the Truman Committee aimed at reducing waste and inefficiency in wartime contracts. Soon after succeeding to the presidency he authorized the first and only use of nuclear weapons in war. Truman’s administration engaged in an internationalist foreign policy and renounced isolationism. He rallied his New Deal coalition during the 1948 presidential election and won a surprise victory that secured his own presidential term.
Truman oversaw the Berlin Airlift of 1948. When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he gained United Nations approval to intervene in what became known as the Korean War. On domestic issues, bills endorsed by Truman faced opposition from a conservative Congress, but his administration successfully guided the U.S. economy through the post-war economic challenges. In 1948 he submitted the first comprehensive civil rights legislation and issued Executive Orders to start racial integration in the military and federal agencies.
Corruption in the Truman administration became a central campaign issue in the 1952 presidential election. After Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s electoral victory against Democrat Adlai Stevenson II, Truman went into a financially-difficult retirement, marked by the founding of his presidential library and the publication of his memoirs. When he left office, Truman’s presidency was criticized, but scholars rehabilitated his image in the 1960s and he is highly ranked by scholars.
He made use of his business college experience to obtain a job as a timekeeper on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, sleeping in hobo camps near the rail lines. He then took on a series of clerical jobs, and was employed briefly in the mail room of The Kansas City Star. Truman and his brother Vivian later worked as clerks at the National Bank of Commerce in Kansas City; one of their coworkers, who also lived in the same rooming house, was Arthur Eisenhower, the brother of Dwight and Milton.
He returned to the Grandview farm in 1906, where he lived until entering the army in 1917 after the beginning of the Great War. During this period, he courted Bess Wallace; he proposed in 1911, but she turned him down. Truman later said he intended to propose again, but he wanted to have a better income than that earned by a farmer. To that end, during his years on the farm and immediately after World War I, he became active in several business ventures, including a lead and zinc mine near Commerce, Oklahoma, a company that bought land and leased the oil drilling rights to prospectors, and speculation in Kansas City real estate. Truman occasionally derived some income from these enterprises, but none proved successful in the long term.
Truman is the only president since William McKinley (elected in 1896) who did not earn a college degree. In addition to having briefly attended business college, from 1923 to 1925 he took night courses toward an LL.B. at the Kansas City Law School (now the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law), but dropped out after losing reelection as county judge. He was informed by attorneys in the Kansas City area that his education and experience were probably sufficient to receive a license to practice law. However, he did not pursue it, because he won election as presiding judge.
While serving as president in 1947, Truman applied for a license to practice law. A friend who was an attorney began working out the arrangements, and informed Truman that his application had to be notarized. By the time Truman received this information he had changed his mind, so he never sought notarization. After rediscovery of Truman’s application, in 1996 the Missouri Supreme Court issued Truman a posthumous honorary law license.
World War I Military Service
Truman in uniform, ca. 1918
Because he lacked the funds for college, Truman considered attending the United States Military Academy at West Point, which had no tuition, but he was refused an appointment because of poor eyesight. He enlisted in the Missouri National Guard in 1905, and served until 1911 in the Kansas City-based Battery B, 2nd Missouri Field Artillery Regiment, in which he attained the rank of corporal. At his induction, his eyesight without glasses was an unacceptable 20/50 in the right eye and 20/400 in the left (past the standard for legal blindness). The second time he took the test, he passed by secretly memorizing the eye chart. He was described as 5 feet 10 inches tall, gray eyed, dark haired and of light complexion.
When the United States entered World War I, Truman rejoined Battery B, successfully recruiting new soldiers for the expanding unit, for which he was elected as their first lieutenant. Before deployment to France, Truman was sent for training to Camp Doniphan, Fort Sill, near Lawton, Oklahoma when his regiment was federalized as the 129th Field Artillery. The regimental commander during its training was Robert M. Danford, who later served as the Army’s Chief of Field Artillery. Truman later said he learned more practical, useful information from Danford in six weeks than from six months of formal Army instruction, and when Truman later served as an artillery instructor, he consciously patterned his approach on Danford’s.
Truman also ran the camp canteen with Edward Jacobson, a clothing store clerk he knew from Kansas City. Unlike most canteens funded by unit members, which usually lost money, the canteen operated by Truman and Jacobson turned a profit, returning each soldier’s initial $2 investment and $10,000 in dividends in six months. At Fort Sill, Truman met Lieutenant James M. Pendergast, nephew of Tom Pendergast, a Kansas City political boss, a connection which had a profound influence on Truman’s later life.
In mid-1918, about one million soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces were in France. Truman was promoted to captain in July 1918 and became commander of Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 35th Division. It was known for its discipline problems, and Truman was initially unpopular because of his efforts to restore order. Despite attempts by the men to intimidate him into quitting, Truman succeeded by making his corporals and sergeants accountable for discipline; he promised to back them up if they performed capably, and reduce them to private and return them to the ranks if they did not. In an event memorialized in battery lore as “The Battle of Who Run”, his soldiers began to flee during a sudden night attack by the Germans in the Vosges Mountains; Truman succeeded at ordering his men to stay and fight, using profanity from his railroad days. The men were so surprised to hear Truman use such language that they immediately obeyed.
Truman’s unit joined in a massive prearranged assault barrage on September 26, 1918, at the opening of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. They advanced with difficulty over pitted terrain to follow the infantry, and they set up an observation post west of Cheppy. On September 27, Truman saw through his binoculars an enemy artillery battery setting up across a river in a position allowing them to fire upon the neighboring 28th Division. Truman’s orders limited him to targets facing the 35th Division, but he ignored this and patiently waited until the Germans had walked their horses well away from their guns, ensuring they could not relocate out of range of Truman’s battery. He then ordered his men to open fire, and their attack destroyed the enemy battery. His actions were credited with saving the lives of 28th Division soldiers who otherwise would have come under fire from the Germans. Truman was given a dressing down by his regimental commander, Colonel Karl D. Klemm, who threatened to convene a court-martial, but Klemm never followed through, and Truman was not punished.
In other action during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Truman’s battery provided support for George S. Patton’s tank brigade, and fired some of the last shots of the war on November 11, 1918. Battery D did not lose any men while under Truman’s command in France. To show their appreciation of his leadership, his men presented him with a large loving cup upon their return to the United States after the war.
The war was a transformative experience by which Truman manifested his leadership qualities. He had entered the service in 1917 as a family farmer who had worked in clerical jobs that did not require the ability to motivate and direct others, but during the war he gained leadership experience and a record of success that greatly enhanced and supported his post-war political career in Missouri.
Truman was brought up in the Presbyterian and Baptist churches, but avoided revivals and sometimes ridiculed revivalist preachers. He rarely spoke about religion, which to him, primarily meant ethical behavior along traditional Protestant lines. Most of the soldiers he commanded in the war were Catholics, and one of his close friends was the 129th Field Artillery’s chaplain, Monsignor L. Curtis Tiernan. Tiernan remained friendly with Truman until his death in 1960, and served as chief chaplain in the European Theater during World War II. Developing leadership and interpersonal skills that later made him a successful politician helped Truman get along with his Catholic soldiers, as he did with soldiers of other Christian denominations and the unit’s Jewish members.
Officers’ Reserve Corps
Truman was honorably discharged from the Army as a captain on May 6, 1919. In 1920 he was appointed a major in the Officers’ Reserve Corps (ORC), a federal organization not connected to the Missouri National Guard. He became a lieutenant colonel in 1925 and a colonel in 1932. In the 1920s and 1930s he commanded 1st Battalion, 379th Field Artillery, 102d Infantry Division. After promotion to colonel, Truman advanced to command of the same regiment.
After his election to the U.S. Senate, Truman was transferred to the General Assignments Group, a holding unit for less active officers; he had not been consulted or notified in advance. Truman protested his reassignment, which led to his resumption of regimental command. He remained an active reservist until the early 1940s. Truman volunteered for active military service during World War II, but was not accepted, partly because of age, and partly because President Franklin D. Roosevelt desired Senators and Congressman who belonged to the military reserves to support the war effort by remaining in Congress, or by ending their active duty service and resuming their Congressional seats. He was an inactive reservist from the early 1940s until retiring as a colonel in the now redesignated U.S. Army Reserve on January 20, 1953.
Truman was awarded a World War I Victory Medal with two battle clasps (for St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne) and a Defensive Sector Clasp. He was also the recipient of two Armed Forces Reserve Medals.
Jackson County judge
Harry and Bess Truman on their wedding day, The couple had one child, Mary Margaret Truman.
Shortly before the wedding, Truman and Jacobson opened a haberdashery together at 104 West 12th Street in downtown Kansas City. After brief initial success, the store went bankrupt during the recession of 1921. Truman did not pay off the last of the debts from that venture until 1935, when he did so with the aid of banker William T. Kemper, who worked behind the scenes to enable Truman’s brother Vivian to buy Truman’s promissory note during the asset sale of a bank that had failed in the Great Depression. The note had risen and fallen in value as it was bought and sold, interest accumulated and Truman made payments, so by the time the last bank to hold it failed, it was worth nearly $9,000. Thanks to Kemper’s efforts, Vivian Truman was able to buy it for $1,000. Jacobson and Truman remained close friends even after their store failed, and Jacobson’s advice to Truman on Zionism later played a role in the U.S. Government’s decision to recognize Israel.
With the help of the Kansas City Democratic machine led by Tom Pendergast, Truman was elected in 1922 as County Court judge of Jackson County’s eastern districtJackson County’s three-judge court included judges from the western district (Kansas City), the eastern district (the county outside Kansas City), and a presiding judge elected countywide. This was an administrative rather than judicial court, similar to county commissioners in many other jurisdictions. Truman lost his 1924 reelection campaign in a Republican wave led by President Calvin Coolidge’s landslide election to a full term. Two years selling automobile club memberships convinced him that a public service career was safer for a family man approaching middle age, and he planned a run for presiding judge in 1926.
Truman won the job in 1926 with the support of the Pendergast machine, and he was re-elected in 1930. As presiding judge, Truman helped coordinate the Ten Year Plan, which transformed Jackson County and the Kansas City skyline with new public works projects, including an extensive series of roads and construction of a new Wight and Wight-designed County Court building. Also in 1926, he became president of the National Old Trails Road Association (NOTRA). He oversaw the dedication in the late 1920s of a series of 12 Madonna of the Trail monuments honoring pioneer women.
In 1933, Truman was named Missouri’s director for the Federal Re-Employment program (part of the Civil Works Administration) at the request of Postmaster General James Farley. This was payback to Pendergast for delivering the Kansas City vote to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. The appointment confirmed Pendergast’s control over federal patronage jobs in Missouri and marked the zenith of his power. It also created a relationship between Truman and Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins and assured Truman’s avid support for the New Deal.
U.S. Senator from Missouri
After serving as a county judge, Truman wanted to run for Governor or Congress, but Pendergast rejected these ideas. Truman then thought he might serve out his career in some well-paying county sinecure; circumstances changed when Pendergast reluctantly backed him as the machine’s fifth choice in the 1934 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. In the primary, Truman defeated Congressmen John J. Cochran and Jacob L. Milligan with the solid support of Jackson County, which was crucial to his candidacy. Also critical were the contacts he had made statewide in his capacity as a county official, member of the Masons, military reservist, and member of the American Legion. In the general election, Truman defeated incumbent Republican Roscoe C. Patterson by nearly 20 percentage points in a continuing wave of pro-New Deal Democrats elected following the Great Depression.
Truman assumed office with a reputation as “the Senator from Pendergast.” He referred patronage decisions to Pendergast, but maintained that he voted with his own conscience. He later defended the patronage decisions by saying that “by offering a little to the machine, saved a lot”. In his first term, Truman spoke out against corporate greed and the dangers of Wall Street speculators and other moneyed special interests attaining too much influence in national affairs. Though he served on the high-profile Appropriations and Interstate Commerce Committees, he was largely ignored by Democratic President Roosevelt and had trouble getting calls returned from the White House.
During the U.S. Senate election in 1940, United States Attorney Maurice Milligan (Jacob Milligan’s brother) and former governor Lloyd Stark both challenged Truman in the Democratic primary. Truman was politically weakened by Pendergast’s imprisonment for income tax evasion the previous year; the senator had remained loyal, having claimed that Republican judges (not the Roosevelt administration) were responsible for the boss’s downfall.St. Louis party leader Robert E. Hannegan’s support of Truman proved crucial; he later brokered the deal that put Truman on the national ticket. In the end, Stark and Milligan split the anti-Pendergast vote in the Senate Democratic primary and Truman won by a total of 8,000 votes. In the November election, Truman defeated Republican Manvel H. Davis by 51-49 percent. As Senator, Truman opposed both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. One week after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he said:
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.
In late 1940, Truman traveled to various military bases. The waste and profiteering he saw led him to use his chairmanship of the Committee on Military Affairs Subcommittee on War Mobilization to start investigations into abuses while the nation prepared for war. A new special committee was set up under Truman to conduct a formal investigation; the Roosevelt administration supported this plan rather than weather a more hostile probe by the House of Representatives. The main mission of the committee was to expose and fight waste and corruption in the gigantic government wartime contracts.
Truman’s initiative convinced Senate leaders of the necessity for the committee, which reflected his demands for honest and efficient administration and his distrust of big business and Wall Street. Truman managed the committee “with extraordinary skill” and usually achieved consensus, generating heavy media publicity that gave him a national reputation. Activities of the Truman Committee ranged from criticizing the “dollar-a-year men” hired by the government, many of whom proved ineffective, to investigating a shoddily built New Jersey housing project for war workers.
The committee reportedly saved as much as $15 billion (equivalent to $210 billion in 2019), and its activities put Truman on the cover of Time magazine. According to the Senate’s historical minutes, in leading the committee, “Truman erased his earlier public image as an errand-runner for Kansas City politicos”, and “no senator ever gained greater political benefits from chairing a special investigating committee than did Missouri’s Harry S. Truman.”
Vice Presidency (1945)
Vice President Henry Wallace was popular among Democratic voters, but he was viewed as too far to the left and too friendly to labor for some of Roosevelt’s advisers. The President and several of his confidantes wanted to replace Wallace with someone more acceptable to Democratic Party leaders and Roosevelt’s advisors, knowing that Roosevelt might not live out a fourth term. Outgoing Democratic National Committee chairman Frank C. Walker, incoming chairman Hannegan, party treasurer Edwin W. Pauley, Bronx party boss Ed Flynn, Chicago Mayor Edward Joseph Kelly, and lobbyist George E. Allen all wanted to keep Wallace off the ticket. Roosevelt told party leaders that he would accept either Truman or Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
State and city party leaders strongly preferred Truman, and Roosevelt agreed. Truman did not campaign for the Vice-Presidential spot, though he welcomed the attention as evidence that he had become more than the “Senator from Pendergast”. Truman’s nomination was dubbed the “Second Missouri Compromise” and was well received. The Roosevelt-Truman ticket achieved a 432-99 electoral-vote victory in the election, defeating the Republican ticket of Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York and running mate Governor John Bricker of Ohio. Truman was sworn in as vice president on January 20, 1945.
Truman’s brief vice-presidency was relatively uneventful. On April 10, 1945, Truman cast his only tie-breaking vote as president of the Senate, against a Robert A. Taft amendment that would have blocked the postwar delivery of Lend-Lease Act items contracted for during the war. Roosevelt rarely contacted him, even to inform him of major decisions; the president and vice president met alone together only twice during their time in office.
In one of his first acts as vice president, Truman created some controversy when he attended the disgraced Pendergast’s funeral. He brushed aside the criticism, saying simply, “He was always my friend and I have always been his.” He had rarely discussed world affairs or domestic politics with Roosevelt; he was uninformed about major initiatives relating to the war and the top-secret Manhattan Project, which was about to test the world’s first atomic bomb. In an event that generated negative publicity for Truman, he was photographed with actress Lauren Bacall sitting atop the piano at the National Press Club as he played for soldiers.
Truman had been vice president for 82 days when President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Truman, presiding over the Senate as usual, had just adjourned the session for the day and was preparing to have a drink in House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s office when he received an urgent message to go immediately to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt told him that her husband had died after a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Truman asked her if there was anything he could do for her; she replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now!” He was sworn in as president at 7:09 pm in the West Wing of the White House, by Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone.
Truman surrounded himself with his old friends, and appointed several to high positions that seemed well beyond their competence, including his two secretaries of the treasury, Fred Vinson and John Snyder. His closest friend in the White House was his military aide Harry H. Vaughan, who was criticized for trading access to the White House for expensive gifts. Truman loved to spend as much time as possible playing poker, telling stories and sipping bourbon. Alonzo Hamby notes that:
… to many in the general public, gambling and bourbon swilling, however low-key, were not quite presidential. Neither was the intemperant “give ’em hell” campaign style nor the occasional profane phrase uttered in public. Poker exemplified a larger problem: the tension between his attempts at an image of leadership necessarily a cut above the ordinary and an informality that at times appeared to verge on crudeness.
First term (1945-1949)
Assuming office and the atomic bomb
Shortly after taking the oath of office, Truman spoke to reporters: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
Upon assuming the presidency, Truman asked all the members of Roosevelt’s cabinet to remain in place, and told them he was open to their advice. He emphasized a central principle of his administration: he would be the one making decisions, and they were to support him. Although Truman was told briefly on the afternoon of April 12 that the Allies had a new, highly destructive weapon, it was not until April 25 that Secretary of War Henry Stimson told him the details. Truman benefited from a honeymoon period after Roosevelt’s death, and from the Allies’ success in Europe, ending the war against Nazi Germany. Truman was pleased to issue the proclamation of V-E Day on May 8, 1945, his 61st birthday.
We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.
Harry Truman, writing about the atomic bomb in his diary on July 25, 1945
In the wake of Allied victory, Truman journeyed to Europe for the Potsdam Conference. He was there when he learned the Trinity testthe first atomic bombon July 16 had been successful. He hinted to Joseph Stalin that the United States was about to use a new kind of weapon against the Japanese. Though this was the first time the Soviets had been officially given information about the atomic bomb, Stalin was already aware of the bomb projecthaving learned about it through atomic espionage long before Truman did.
In August, the Japanese government refused surrender demands as specifically outlined in the Potsdam Declaration. With the invasion of mainland Japan imminent, Truman approved the schedule for dropping the two available bombs. Truman always said attacking Japan with atomic bombs saved many lives on both sides; military estimates for the invasion of mainland Japan were that it could take a year and result in 250,000 to 500,000 U.S. casualties. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, and Nagasaki three days later, leaving 105,000 dead. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 9 and invaded Manchuria. Japan agreed to surrender the following day.
Truman announces Japan’s surrender, August 14, 1945
Supporters[c] of Truman’s decision argue that, given the tenacious Japanese defense of the outlying islands, the bombings saved hundreds of thousands of lives of prisoners, civilians, and combatants on both sides that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. Critics have argued that the use of nuclear weapons was unnecessary, given that conventional attacks or a demonstrative bombing of an uninhabited area would have forced Japan’s surrender and therefore assert that the attack constituted a crime of war. Truman defended his decision to use atomic bombs during the war:
As President of the United States, I had the fateful responsibility of deciding whether or not to use this weapon for the first time. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make. But the President cannot duck hard problemshe cannot pass the buck. I made the decision after discussions with the ablest men in our Government, and after long and prayerful consideration. I decided that the bomb should be used in order to end the war quickly and save countless livesJapanese as well as American.
Truman continued to strongly defend himself in his memoirs in 1955-1956, stating many lives could have been lost had the United States invaded mainland Japan without the atomic bombs. In 1963, he stood by his decision, telling a journalist “it was done to save 125,000 youngsters on the U.S. side and 125,000 on the Japanese side from getting killed and that is what it did. It probably also saved a half million youngsters on both sides from being maimed for life.”
Strikes and economic upheaval
The end of World War II was followed by an uneasy transition from war to a peacetime economy. The costs of the war effort had been enormous, and Truman was intent on diminishing military services as quickly as possible to curtail the government’s military expenditures. The effect of demobilization on the economy was unknown, proposals were met with skepticism and resistance, and fears existed that the nation would slide back into depression. In Roosevelt’s final years, Congress began to reassert legislative power and Truman faced a congressional body where Republicans and conservative southern Democrats formed a powerful voting bloc.
Dormant stressors during the war emerged as polarizing issues under Truman’s administration. Strikes and labor-management conflicts destabilized major industries while severe housing and consumer good shortages added to public stress over inflation which peaked at six percent in a single month.
Truman’s response to the widespread dissatisfaction and protest of U.S. citizens was generally seen as ineffective. The cost of consumer goods increased rapidly due to the removal of depression-era limits on the prices of everyday items while producers of the remaining price-controlled commodities struggled due to the artificially low prices of their goods. In 1945 and 1946, farmers refused to sell grain for months even though it was desperately needed in the United States and to stave off starvation in Europe. Similarly, industrial laborers sought wage increases. In January 1946 a steel strike involving 800,000 laborers became the largest in the nation’s history. It was followed by a coal strike in April and a rail strike in May; however, public opinion on labor action was mixed with one poll reporting a majority of the public in favor of a ban on strikes by public service workers and a year’s moratorium on labor actions.
When a national rail strike threatened in May 1946, Truman seized the railroads in an attempt to contain the issue, but two key railway unions struck anyway. The entire national railroad system was shut down, immobilizing 24,000 freight trains and 175,000 passenger trains a day. For two days, public anger mounted and Truman himself drafted an irate message to Congress that called on veterans to form a lynch mob and destroy the union leaders:
Every single one of the strikers and their demagogue leaders have been living in luxury … Now I want you who are my comrades in arms … to come with me and eliminate the Lewises, the Whitneys, the Johnstons, the Communist Bridges and the Russian Senators and Representatives … Let’s put transportation and production back to work, hang a few traitors and make our own country safe for democracy.
His staff was stunned, but top aide Clark Clifford revised the original draft and Truman delivered a toned down version of the speech to Congress. Truman called for a new law, where any railroad strikers would be drafted into the army. As he concluded his congressional address, he received a message that the strike had been settled on presidential terms; nevertheless, a few hours later, the House voted to draft the strikers. Taft killed the bill in the Senate.
After the settlement of the railway strike, labor action continued as an undercurrent of Truman’s presidency. The president’s approval rating dropped from 82 percent in the polls in January 1946 to 52 percent by June. This dissatisfaction with the Truman administration’s policies led to large Democratic losses in the 1946 midterm elections, and Republicans took control of Congress for the first time since 1930. The 80th Congress included Republican freshmen who would become prominent in U.S. politics in the years to come including Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and California Congressman Richard Nixon. When Truman dropped to 32 percent in the polls, Democratic Arkansas Senator William Fulbright suggested that Truman resign; the president said he did not care what Senator “Halfbright” said.
Truman cooperated closely with the Republican leaders on foreign policy, but fought them bitterly on domestic issues. The power of the labor unions was significantly curtailed by the Taft-Hartley Act which was enacted over Truman’s veto. Truman twice vetoed bills to lower income tax rates in 1947. Although the initial vetoes were sustained, Congress overrode his veto of a tax cut bill in 1948. In one notable instance of bipartisanship, Congress passed the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, which replaced the secretary of state with the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate as successor to the president after the vice president.
As he readied for the 1948 election, Truman made clear his identity as a Democrat in the New Deal tradition, advocating for national health insurance, and repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. He broke with the New Deal by initiating an aggressive civil rights program which he termed a moral priority. His economic and social vision constituted a broad legislative agenda that came to be called the “Fair Deal.” Truman’s proposals were not well received by Congress, even with renewed Democratic majorities in Congress after 1948. The Solid South rejected civil rights as those states still enforced segregation. Only one of the major Fair Deal bills, the Housing Act of 1949, was ever enacted. Many of the New Deal programs that persisted during Truman’s presidency have since received minor improvements and extensions.
Marshall Plan, Cold War, and China
Truman’s press secretary was his old friend Charles Griffith Ross. He had great integrity but, says Alonzo L. Hamby, as a senior White House aide he was, “A better newsman than news handler, he never established a policy of coordinating news releases throughout the executive branch, frequently bumbled details, never developed … a strategy for marketing the president’s image and failed to establish a strong press office.”
As a Wilsonian internationalist, Truman supported Roosevelt’s policy in favor of the creation of the United Nations and included Eleanor Roosevelt on the delegation to the UN’s first General Assembly. With the Soviet Union expanding its sphere of influence through Eastern Europe, Truman and his foreign policy advisors took a hard line against the USSR. In this, he matched U.S. public opinion which quickly came to believe the Soviets were intent upon world domination.
Although he had little personal expertise on foreign matters, Truman listened closely to his top advisors, especially George Marshall and Dean Acheson. The Republicans controlled Congress in 1947-1948, so he worked with their leaders, especially Senator Arthur H. Vandenburg, chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. He won bipartisan support for both the Truman Doctrine, which formalized a policy of Soviet containment, and the Marshall Plan, which aimed to help rebuild postwar Europe.
To get Congress to spend the vast sums necessary to restart the moribund European economy, Truman used an ideological argument, arguing that communism flourishes in economically deprived areas. As part of the U.S. Cold War strategy, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 and reorganized military forces by merging the Department of War and the Department of the Navy into the National Military Establishment (later the Department of Defense) and creating the U.S. Air Force. The act also created the CIA and the National Security Council. In 1952, Truman secretly consolidated and empowered the cryptologic elements of the United States by creating the National Security Agency (NSA).
Truman did not know what to do about China, where the nationalists and Communists were fighting a large-scale civil war. The nationalists had been major wartime allies and had large-scale popular support in the United States, along with a powerful lobby. General George Marshall spent most of 1946 in China trying to negotiate a compromise, but failed. He convinced Truman the nationalists would never win on their own and a very large-scale U.S. intervention to stop the Communists would significantly weaken U.S. opposition to the Soviets in Europe. By 1949, the Communists under Mao Zedong had won the civil war, the United States had a new enemy in Asia, and Truman came under fire from conservatives for “losing” China.
On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blocked access to the three Western-held sectors of Berlin. The Allies had not negotiated a deal to guarantee supply of the sectors deep within the Soviet-occupied zone. The commander of the U.S. occupation zone in Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, proposed sending a large armored column across the Soviet zone to West Berlin with instructions to defend itself if it were stopped or attacked. Truman believed this would entail an unacceptable risk of war. He approved Ernest Bevin’s plan to supply the blockaded city by air.
On June 25, the Allies initiated the Berlin Airlift, a campaign to deliver food, coal and other supplies using military aircraft on a massive scale. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before, and no single nation had the capability, either logistically or materially, to accomplish it. The airlift worked; ground access was again granted on May 11, 1949. Nevertheless, the airlift continued for several months after that. The Berlin Airlift was one of Truman’s great foreign policy successes; it significantly aided his election campaign in 1948.
Recognition of Israel
Truman had long taken an interest in the history of the Middle East, and was sympathetic to Jews who sought to re-establish their ancient homeland in Mandatory Palestine. As a senator, he announced support for Zionism; in 1943 he called for a homeland for those Jews who survived the Nazi regime. However, State Department officials were reluctant to offend the Arabs, who were opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state in the large region long populated and dominated culturally by Arabs. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal warned Truman of the importance of Saudi Arabian oil in another war; Truman replied he would decide his policy on the basis of justice, not oil. U.S. diplomats with experience in the region were opposed, but Truman told them he had few Arabs among his constituents.
Palestine was secondary to the goal of protecting the “Northern Tier” of Greece, Turkey, and Iran from communism, as promised by the Truman Doctrine. Weary of both the convoluted politics of the Middle East and pressure by Jewish leaders, Truman was undecided on his policy, and skeptical about how the Jewish “underdogs” would handle power. He later cited as decisive in his recognition of the Jewish state the advice of his former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, a non-religious Jew whom Truman absolutely trusted.
Truman decided to recognize Israel over the objections of Secretary of State George Marshall, who feared it would hurt relations with the populous Arab states. Marshall believed the paramount threat to the United States was the Soviet Union and feared Arab oil would be lost to the United States in the event of war; he warned Truman the United States was “playing with fire with nothing to put it out”. Truman recognized the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, eleven minutes after it declared itself a nation. Of his decision to recognize the Israeli state, Truman wrote in his memoirs: “Hitler had been murdering Jews right and left. I saw it, and I dream about it even to this day. The Jews needed some place where they could go. It is my attitude that the American government couldn’t stand idly by while the victims Hitler’s madness are not allowed to build new lives.”
The 1948 presidential election is remembered for Truman’s stunning come-from-behind victory. In the spring of 1948, Truman’s public approval rating stood at 36 percent, and the president was nearly universally regarded as incapable of winning the general election. The “New Deal” operatives within the partyincluding FDR’s son, James Roosevelttried to swing the Democratic nomination to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a highly popular figure whose political views and party affiliation were totally unknown. Eisenhower emphatically refused to accept, and Truman outflanked opponents to his own nomination.
At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Truman attempted to unify the party with a vague civil rights plank in the party platform. His intention was to assuage the internal conflicts between the northern and southern wings of his party. Events overtook his efforts. A sharp address given by Mayor Hubert Humphrey of Minneapolisas well as the local political interests of a number of urban bossesconvinced the convention to adopt a stronger civil rights plank, which Truman approved wholeheartedly. All of Alabama’s delegates, and a portion of Mississippi’s, walked out of the convention in protest. Unfazed, Truman delivered an aggressive acceptance speech attacking the 80th Congress, which Truman called the “Do Nothing Congress,” and promising to win the election and “make these Republicans like it.”
Republicans approve of the American farmer, but they are willing to help him go broke. They stand four-square for the American homebut not for housing. They are strong for laborbut they are stronger for restricting labor’s rights. They favor minimum wagethe smaller the minimum wage the better. They endorse educational opportunity for allbut they won’t spend money for teachers or for schools. They think modern medical care and hospitals are finefor people who can afford them … They think American standard of living is a fine thingso long as it doesn’t spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.
Harry S. Truman, October 13, 1948, St. Paul, Minnesota, Radio Broadcast
Within two weeks of the 1948 convention Truman issued Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the U.S. Armed Services and Executive Order 9980 to integrate federal agencies. Truman took a considerable political risk in backing civil rights, and many seasoned Democrats were concerned the loss of Dixiecrat support might destroy the Democratic Party. South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, a segregationist, declared his candidacy for the presidency on a Dixiecrat ticket and led a full-scale revolt of Southern “states’ rights” proponents. This rebellion on the right was matched by one on the left, led by Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket. Immediately after its first post-FDR convention, the Democratic Party seemed to be disintegrating. Victory in November seemed unlikely as the party was not simply split but divided three ways. For his running mate, Truman accepted Kentucky Senator Alben W. Barkley, though he really wanted Justice William O. Douglas, who turned down the nomination.
Truman’s political advisors described the political scene as “one unholy, confusing cacophony.” They told Truman to speak directly to the people, in a personal way. Campaign manager William J. Bray said Truman took this advice, and spoke personally and passionately, sometimes even setting aside his notes to talk to Americans “of everything that is in my heart and soul.”
The campaign was a 21,928-mile (35,290 km) presidential odyssey. In a personal appeal to the nation, Truman crisscrossed the United States by train; his “whistle stop” speeches from the rear platform of the observation car, Ferdinand Magellan, came to represent his campaign. His combative appearances captured the popular imagination and drew huge crowds. Six stops in Michigan drew a combined half-million people; a full million turned out for a New York City ticker-tape parade.
The large, mostly spontaneous gatherings at Truman’s whistle-stop events were an important sign of a change in momentum in the campaign, but this shift went virtually unnoticed by the national press corps. It continued reporting Republican Thomas Dewey’s apparent impending victory as a certainty. One reason for the press’s inaccurate projection was that polls were conducted primarily by telephone, but many people, including much of Truman’s populist base, did not yet own a telephone. This skewed the data to indicate a stronger support base for Dewey than existed. An unintended and undetected projection error may have contributed to the perception of Truman’s bleak chances. The three major polling organizations stopped polling well before the November 2 election dateRoper in September, and Crossley and Gallup in Octoberthus failing to measure the period when Truman appears to have surged past Dewey.
In the end, Truman held his progressive Midwestern base, won most of the Southern states despite the civil rights plank, and squeaked through with narrow victories in a few critical states, notably Ohio, California, and Illinois. The final tally showed the president had secured 303 electoral votes, Dewey 189, and Thurmond only 39. Henry Wallace got none. The defining image of the campaign came after Election Day, when an ecstatic Truman held aloft the erroneous front page of the Chicago Tribune with a huge headline proclaiming “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Full elected term (1949-1953)
Truman’s second inauguration was the first ever televised nationally. His second term was grueling as his opponents controlled Congress and his policy of rollback in Korea failed. The Soviet Union’s atomic bomb project progressed much faster than had been expected and they detonated their first bomb on August 29, 1949. In response, on January 7, 1953, Truman announced the detonation of the first U.S. hydrogen bomb, which was much more powerful than the Soviet Union’s atomic weapons.
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean army under Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War. In the early weeks of the war, the North Koreans easily pushed back their southern counterparts. Truman called for a naval blockade of Korea, only to learn that due to budget cutbacks, the U.S. Navy could not enforce such a measure. Truman promptly urged the United Nations to intervene; it did, authorizing troops under the UN flag led by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur. Truman decided he did not need formal authorization from Congress, believing that most legislators supported his position; this would come back to haunt him later, when the stalemated conflict was dubbed “Mr. Truman’s War” by legislators.
However, on July 3, 1950, Truman did give Senate Majority Leader Scott W. Lucas a draft resolution titled “Joint Resolution Expressing Approval of the Action Taken in Korea”. Lucas stated Congress supported the use of force, the formal resolution would pass but was unnecessary, and consensus in Congress was to acquiesce. Truman responded he did not want “to appear to be trying to get around Congress and use extra-Constitutional powers,” and added that it was “up to Congress whether such a resolution should be introduced.”
By August 1950, U.S. troops pouring into South Korea under UN auspices were able to stabilize the situation. Responding to criticism over readiness, Truman fired his secretary of defense, Louis A. Johnson, replacing him with the retired General Marshall. With UN approval, Truman decided on a “rollback” policyconquest of North Korea. UN forces led by General Douglas MacArthur led the counterattack, scoring a stunning surprise victory with an amphibious landing at the Battle of Inchon that nearly trapped the invaders. UN forces marched north, toward the Yalu River boundary with China, with the goal of reuniting Korea under UN auspices.
However, China surprised the UN forces with a large-scale invasion in November. The UN forces were forced back to below the 38th parallel, then recovered. By early 1951 the war became a fierce stalemate at about the 38th parallel where it had begun. Truman rejected MacArthur’s request to attack Chinese supply bases north of the Yalu, but MacArthur promoted his plan to Republican house leader Joseph Martin, who leaked it to the press. Truman was gravely concerned further escalation of the war might lead to open conflict with the Soviet Union, which was already supplying weapons and providing warplanes (with Korean markings and Soviet aircrew). Therefore, on April 11, 1951, Truman fired MacArthur from his commands.
Fierce criticism from virtually all quarters accused Truman of refusing to shoulder the blame for a war gone sour and blaming his generals instead. Others, including Eleanor Roosevelt, supported and applauded Truman’s decision. MacArthur meanwhile returned to the United States to a hero’s welcome, and addressed a joint session of Congress, a speech the president called “a bunch of damn bullshit.”
Truman and his generals considered the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese army, but ultimately chose not to escalate the war to a nuclear level. The war remained a frustrating stalemate for two years, with over 30,000 Americans killed, until an armistice ended the fighting in 1953. In February 1952, Truman’s approval mark stood at 22 percent according to Gallup polls, which is the all-time lowest approval mark for an active U.S. president, though it was matched by Richard Nixon in 1974.
The escalation of the Cold War was highlighted by Truman’s approval of NSC 68, a secret statement of foreign policy. It called for tripling the defense budget, and the globalization and militarization of containment policy whereby the United States and its NATO allies would respond militarily to actual Soviet expansion. The document was drafted by Paul Nitze, who consulted State and Defense officials, and was formally approved by President Truman as official national strategy after the war began in Korea. It called for partial mobilization of the U.S. economy to build armaments faster than the Soviets. The plan called for strengthening Europe, weakening the Soviet Union, and building up the United States both militarily and economically.
Truman was a strong supporter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which established a formal peacetime military alliance with Canada and democratic European nations not under Soviet control following World War II. The treaty establishing it was widely popular and easily passed the Senate in 1949; Truman appointed General Eisenhower as commander. NATO’s goals were to contain Soviet expansion in Europe and to send a clear message to communist leaders that the world’s democracies were willing and able to build new security structures in support of democratic ideals. The United States, Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Iceland, and Canada were the original treaty signatories. The alliance resulted in the Soviets establishing a similar alliance, called the Warsaw Pact.
General Marshall was Truman’s principal adviser on foreign policy matters, influencing such decisions as the U.S. choice against offering direct military aid to Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist Chinese forces in the Chinese Civil War against their communist opponents. Marshall’s opinion was contrary to the counsel of almost all of Truman’s other advisersMarshall thought propping up Chiang’s forces would drain U.S. resources necessary for Europe to deter the Soviets. When the communists took control of the mainland, establishing the People’s Republic of China and driving the nationalists to Taiwan, Truman would have been willing to maintain some relationship between the United States and the new government but Mao was unwilling. Truman announced on January 5, 1950 that the United States would not engage in any dispute involving the Taiwan Strait, and that he would not intervene in the event of an attack by the PRC.
On June 27, 1950, after the outbreak of fighting in Korea, Truman ordered the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to prevent further conflict between the communist government on the China mainland and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan.
Truman usually worked well with his top staffthe exceptions were Israel in 1948 and Spain 1945-1950. Truman was a very strong opponent of Francisco Franco, the right-wing dictator of Spain. He withdrew the American ambassador (but diplomatic relations were not formally broken), kept Spain out of the UN, and rejected any Marshall Plan financial aid to Spain. However, as the Cold War escalated, support for Spain was strong in Congress, the Pentagon, the business community and other influential elements especially Catholics and cotton growers.
Liberal opposition to Spain had faded after the Wallace element broke with the Democratic Party in 1948; the CIO became passive on the issue. As Secretary of State Acheson increased his pressure on Truman, the president, stood alone in his administration as his own top appointees wanted to normalize relations. When China entered the Korean War and pushed American forces back, the argument for allies became irresistible. Admitting he was “overruled and worn down,” Truman relented and sent an ambassador and made loans available. Military talks began and President Eisenhower brought Spain into NATO.
Soviet espionage and McCarthyism
In August 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former spy for the Soviets and a senior editor at Time magazine, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He said an underground communist network had worked inside the U.S. government during the 1930s, of which Chambers had been a member, along with Alger Hiss, until recently a senior State Department official. Chambers did not allege any spying during the Truman presidency. Although Hiss denied the allegations, he was convicted in January 1950 for perjury for denials under oath.
The Soviet Union’s success in exploding an atomic weapon in 1949 and the fall of the nationalist Chinese the same year led many Americans to conclude subversion by Soviet spies was responsible, and to demand that communists be rooted out from the government and other places of influence. However, Truman got himself into deeper trouble when he called the Hiss trial a “red herring”. Wisconsin Senator McCarthy accused the State Department of harboring communists and rode the controversy to political fame, leading to the Second Red Scare, also known as McCarthyism.
Charges that Soviet agents had infiltrated the government were believed by 78 percent of the people in 1946, and became a major campaign issue for Eisenhower in 1952. Truman was reluctant to take a more radical stance because he feared full disclosure of the extent of communist infiltration would reflect badly on the Democratic Party. In 1949, Truman described American communist leaders, whom his administration was prosecuting, as “traitors”, but in 1950 he vetoed the McCarran Internal Security Act. It was passed over his veto. Truman would later state in private conversations with friends that his creation of a loyalty program had been a “terrible” mistake.
Blair House and assassination attempt
In 1948, Truman ordered an addition to the exterior of the White House: a second-floor balcony in the south portico, which came to be known as the Truman Balcony. The addition was unpopular. Some said it spoiled the appearance of the south facade, but it gave the First Family more living space. The Truman family moved into nearby Blair House during the renovations. As the newer West Wing, including the Oval Office, remained open, Truman walked to and from his work across the street each morning and afternoon.
On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo attempted to assassinate Truman at Blair House. On the street outside the residence, Torresola mortally wounded a White House policeman, Leslie Coffelt. Before he died, the officer shot and killed Torresola. Collazo was wounded and stopped before he entered the house. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in 1952. Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison. To try to settle the question of Puerto Rican independence, Truman allowed a plebiscite in Puerto Rico in 1952 to determine the status of its relationship to the United States. Nearly 82 percent of the people voted in favor of a new constitution for the Estado Libre Asociado, a continued ‘associated free state.’
Steel and coal strikes
In response to a labor/management impasse arising from bitter disagreements over wage and price controls, Truman instructed his Secretary of Commerce, Charles W. Sawyer, to take control of a number of the nation’s steel mills in April 1952. Truman cited his authority as Commander in Chief and the need to maintain an uninterrupted supply of steel for munitions for the war in Korea. The Supreme Court found Truman’s actions unconstitutional, however, and reversed the order in a major separation-of-powers decision, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). The 6-3 decision, which held that Truman’s assertion of authority was too vague and was not rooted in any legislative action by Congress, was delivered by a Court composed entirely of Justices appointed by either Truman or Roosevelt. The high court’s reversal of Truman’s order was one of the notable defeats of his presidency.
Scandals and controversies
In 1950, the Senate, led by Estes Kefauver, investigated numerous charges of corruption among senior administration officials, some of whom received fur coats and deep freezers in exchange for favors. A large number of employees of the Internal Revenue Bureau (today the IRS) were accepting bribes; 166 employees either resigned or were fired in 1950, with many soon facing indictment. When Attorney General J. Howard McGrath fired the special prosecutor in early 1952 for being too zealous, Truman fired McGrath. Truman submitted a reorganization plan to reform the IRB; Congress passed it, but the corruption was a major issue in the 1952 presidential election.
On December 6, 1950, Washington Post music critic Paul Hume wrote a critical review of a concert by the president’s daughter Margaret Truman:
Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality … cannot sing very well … is flat a good deal of the timemore last night than at any time we have heard her in past years … has not improved in the years we have heard her … still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.
Truman wrote a scathing response:
I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an ‘eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.’ It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work. Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below! Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.
Truman was criticized by many for the letter. However, he pointed out that he wrote it as a loving father and not as the president. In 1951, William M. Boyle, Truman’s longtime friend and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was forced to resign after being charged with financial corruption.
A 1947 report by the Truman administration titled To Secure These Rights presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. Speaking about this report, international developments have to be taken into account, for with the UN-Charter being passed in 1945, the question whether international human rights law could be applicable also on an inner-land basis became crucial in the United States. Though the report acknowledged such a path was not free from controversy in the 1940s United States, it nevertheless raised the possibility for the UN-Charter to be used as a legal tool to combat racial discrimination in the United States.
In February 1948, the president 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 storm of criticism from southern Democrats in the runup to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying: “My forebears were Confederates … but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.”
Tales of the abuse, violence, and persecution suffered by many African-American veterans upon their return from World War II infuriated Truman, and were a major factor in his decision to issue Executive Order 9981, in July 1948, requiring equal opportunity in the armed forces. In the early 1950s after several years of planning, recommendations and revisions between Truman, the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity and the various branches of the military, the services became racially integrated.
Executive Order 9980, also in 1948, made it illegal to discriminate against persons applying for civil service positions based on race. A third, in 1951, established the Committee on Government Contract Compliance (CGCC). This committee ensured defense contractors did not discriminate because of race. In 1950 he vetoed the McCarran Internal Security Act. It was passed over his veto.
Administration and cabinet
Truman made five international trips during his presidency.
President Truman; Alabama Senator John J. Sparkman, vice presidential nominee; and Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, presidential nominee, in the Oval Office, 1952
In 1951, the United States ratified the 22nd Amendment, making a president ineligible for election to a third term or for election to a second full term after serving more than two remaining years of a term of a previously elected president. The latter clause would have applied to Truman’s situation in 1952 were it not for a grandfather clause excluding the amendment’s application to the incumbent president.
Nevertheless, he seriously considered running for another term in 1952, and left his name on the ballot in the New Hampshire primary. However all his close advisors, pointing to his age, his failing abilities, and his poor showing in the polls, talked him out of it. At the time of the 1952 New Hampshire primary, no candidate had won Truman’s backing. His first choice, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, had declined to run; Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson had also turned Truman down, Vice President Barkley was considered too old, and Truman distrusted and disliked Senator Kefauver, who had made a name for himself by his investigations of the Truman administration scandals.
Truman had hoped to recruit General Eisenhower as a Democratic candidate, but found him more interested in seeking the Republican nomination. Accordingly, Truman let his name be entered in the New Hampshire primary by supporters. The highly unpopular Truman was handily defeated by Kefauver; 18 days later the president formally announced he would not seek a second full term. Truman was eventually able to persuade Stevenson to run, and the governor gained the nomination at the 1952 Democratic National Convention.
Eisenhower gained the Republican nomination, with Senator Nixon as his running mate, and campaigned against what he denounced as Truman’s failures: “Korea, communism and corruption”. He pledged to clean up the “mess in Washington,” and promised to “go to Korea.” Eisenhower defeated Stevenson decisively in the general election, ending 20 years of Democratic presidents. While Truman and Eisenhower had previously been on good terms, Truman felt annoyed Eisenhower did not denounce Joseph McCarthy during the campaign. Similarly, Eisenhower was outraged when Truman accused the former general of disregarding “sinister forces … Anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-foreignism” within the Republican Party.
As a result, he faced financial challenges. Once Truman left the White House, his only income was his old army pension: $112.56 per month (equivalent to $1,076 in 2019). Former members of Congress and the federal courts received a federal retirement package; President Truman himself ensured that former servants of the executive branch of government received similar support. In 1953, however, there was no such benefit package for former presidents, and he received no pension for his Senate service.
Truman took out a personal loan from a Missouri bank shortly after leaving office, and then found a lucrative book deal for his memoirs. For the memoirs, Truman received a flat payment of $670,000, and had to pay two-thirds of that in tax; he calculated he got $37,000 after he paid his assistants. However, the memoirs were a commercial and critical success. They were published in two volumes: Memoirs by Harry S. Truman: Year of Decisions (1955) and Memoirs by Harry S. Truman: Years of Trial and Hope (1956).
The former president told House Majority Leader John McCormack in 1957, “Had it not been for the fact that I was able to sell some property that my brother, sister, and I inherited from our mother, I would practically be on relief, but with the sale of that property I am not financially embarrassed.” The following year, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, offering a $25,000 yearly pension to each former president, and it is likely that Truman’s financial status played a role in the law’s enactment. The only other living former president at the time, Herbert Hoover, also took the pension, even though he did not need the money; reportedly, he did so to avoid embarrassing Truman.
Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had organized his own presidential library, but legislation to enable future presidents to do something similar had not been enacted. Truman worked to garner private donations to build a presidential library, which he donated to the federal government to maintain and operatea practice adopted by his successors.
He testified before Congress to have money appropriated to have presidential papers copied and organized, and was proud of the bill’s passage in 1957. Max Skidmore, in his book on the life of former presidents, noted that Truman was a well-read man, especially in history. Skidmore added that the presidential papers legislation and the founding of his library “was the culmination of his interest in history. Together they constitute an enormous contribution to the United Statesone of the greatest of any former president.”
In late 1963, when Lyndon B. Johnson had just become president, Truman wrote a letter to the Washington Post calling for the CIA’s responsibilities to be scaled back significantly: “For some time I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas.”
Truman supported Adlai Stevenson’s second bid for the White House in 1956, although he had initially favored Democratic Governor W. Averell Harriman of New York. He continued to campaign for Democratic senatorial candidates for many years. Upon turning 80 in 1964, Truman was feted in Washington, and addressed the Senate, availing himself of a new rule that allowed former presidents to be granted privilege of the floor.
After a fall in his home in late 1964, his physical condition declined. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Medicare bill at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum and gave the first two Medicare cards to Truman and his wife Bess to honor the former president’s fight for government health care while in office. He voted in the 1972 U.S. presidential election via absentee ballot.
Wreath by Truman’s casket, December 27, 1972
On December 5, 1972, Truman was admitted to Kansas City’s Research Hospital and Medical Center with pneumonia. He developed multiple organ failure, fell into a coma, and died at 7:50 a.m. on December 26, at the age of 88.
Bess Truman opted for a simple private service at the library rather than a state funeral in Washington. A week after the funeral, foreign dignitaries and Washington officials attended a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral.
Bess died in 1982 and is buried next to Harry at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.
Tributes and Legacy
Biographer Robert Donovan has tried to capture Truman’s personality:
Vigorous, hard-working, simple, he had grown up close to the soil of the Midwest and understood the struggles of the people on the farms and in the small towns. … After 10 years in the Senate, he had risen above the Pendergast organization. Still, he had come from a world of two-bit politicians, and its aura was one that he never was able to shed entirely. And he did retain certain characteristics one often sees in machine-bred politicians: intense partisanship, stubborn loyalty, a certain insensitivity about the transgressions of political associates, and a disinclination for the companionship of intellectuals and artists.
Truman poses in 1959 at the recreation of the Truman Oval Office at the Truman Library in 1959, with the famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign on his desk. (The reverse of the sign says, “I’m From Missouri”.)
Citing continuing divisions within the Democratic Party, the ongoing Cold War, and the boom and bust cycle, journalist Samuel Lubell in 1952 stated: “After seven years of Truman’s hectic, even furious, activity the nation seemed to be about on the same general spot as when he first came to office … Nowhere in the whole Truman record can one point to a single, decisive break-through … All his skills and energiesand he was among our hardest-working Presidentswere directed to standing still.” When he left office in 1953, Truman was one of the most unpopular chief executives in history. His job approval rating of 22% in the Gallup Poll of February 1952 was lower than Richard Nixon’s 24% in August 1974, the month Nixon resigned, but matched by Nixon’s all-time low in January 1974.
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri
U.S. public feeling towards Truman grew steadily warmer with the passing years; as early as 1962, a poll of 75 historians conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. ranked Truman among the “near great” presidents. The period following his death consolidated a partial rehabilitation of his legacy among both historians and members of the public. Truman died when the nation was consumed with crises in Vietnam and Watergate, and his death brought a new wave of attention to his political career. In the early and mid-1970s, Truman captured the popular imagination much as he had in 1948, this time emerging as a kind of political folk hero, a president who was thought to exemplify an integrity and accountability which many observers felt was lacking in the Nixon White House. This public reassessment of Truman was aided by the popularity of a book of reminiscences Truman had recounted to journalist Merle Miller beginning in 1961, with the agreement that they would not be published until after Truman’s death.
Truman has had his latter-day critics as well. After a review of information available to Truman about the presence of espionage activities in the U.S. government, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that Truman was “almost wilfully obtuse” concerning the danger of U.S. communism. In 2010, historian Alonzo Hamby concluded that “Harry Truman remains a controversial president.” However, since leaving office, Truman has fared well in polls ranking the presidents. He has never been listed lower than ninth, and was ranked fifth in a C-SPAN poll in 2009.
The Dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused Truman advocates to claim vindication for his decisions in the postwar period. According to Truman biographer Robert Dallek, “His contribution to victory in the cold war without a devastating nuclear conflict elevated him to the stature of a great or near-great president.” The 1992 publication of David McCullough’s favorable biography of Truman further cemented the view of Truman as a highly regarded Chief Executive. According to historian Donald R. McCoy in his book on the Truman presidency:
Harry Truman himself gave a strong and far-from-incorrect impression of being a tough, concerned and direct leader. He was occasionally vulgar, often partisan, and usually nationalistic … On his own terms, Truman can be seen as having prevented the coming of a third world war and having preserved from Communist oppression much of what he called the free world. Yet clearly he largely failed to achieve his Wilsonian aim of securing perpetual peace, making the world safe for democracy, and advancing opportunities for individual development internationally.
Sites and honors
Stamp issued in 1973, following Truman’s death. Truman has been honored on five U.S. postage stamps, issued between 1973 and 1999.
In 1953, Truman received the Solomon Bublick Award of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.In 1956, Truman traveled to Europe with his wife. In England, he met with Churchill and received an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree from Oxford University. Across Britain he was hailed; London’s Daily Telegraph characterized Truman as the “Living and kicking symbol of everything that everybody likes best about the United States.” In 1959, he was given a 50-year award by the Masons, recognizing his longstanding involvement: he was initiated on February 9, 1909, into the Belton Masonic Lodge in Missouri. In 1911, he helped establish the Grandview Lodge, and he served as its first Worshipful Master. In September 1940, during his Senate re-election campaign, Truman was elected Grand Master of the Missouri Grand Lodge of Freemasonry; Truman said later that the Masonic election assured his victory in the general election. In 1945, he was made a 33 Sovereign Grand Inspector General and an Honorary Member of the supreme council at the Supreme Council A.A.S.R. Southern Jurisdiction Headquarters in Washington D.C. Truman was also a member of Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) and a card-carrying member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Two of his relatives were Confederate soldiers.
In 1975, the Truman Scholarship was created as a federal program to honor U.S. college students who exemplified dedication to public service and leadership in public policy. In 2004, the President Harry S. Truman Fellowship in National Security Science and Engineering was created as a distinguished postdoctoral three-year appointment at Sandia National Laboratories. In 2001, the University of Missouri established the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs to advance the study and practice of governance. The University of Missouri’s Missouri Tigers athletic programs have an official mascot named Truman the Tiger. On July 1, 1996, Northeast Missouri State University became Truman State Universityto mark its transformation from a teachers’ college to a highly selective liberal arts university and to honor the only Missourian to become president. A member institution of the City Colleges of Chicago, Harry S Truman College in Chicago, Illinois, is named in his honor for his dedication to public colleges and universities. In 2000, the headquarters for the State Department, built in the 1930s but never officially named, was dedicated as the Harry S Truman Building.
Despite Truman’s attempt to curtail the naval carrier arm, which led to the 1949 Revolt of the Admirals, an aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman, was named for him in February 1996. The 129th Field Artillery Regiment is designated “Truman’s Own” in recognition of Truman’s service as commander of its D Battery during World War I.
In 1984, Truman was posthumously awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal. In 1991, he was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians, and a bronze bust depicting him is on permanent display in the rotunda of the Missouri State Capitol.Other sites associated with Truman include:
- Harry S. Truman National Historic Site includes the Wallace House at 219 N. Delaware in Independence and the family farmhouse at Grandview, Missouri (Truman sold most of the farm for Kansas City suburban development including the Truman Corners Shopping Center).
- Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site is the house where Truman was born and spent 11 months in Lamar, Missouri.
- Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum – The Presidential library in Independence
- Harry S. Truman Little White House – Truman’s winter getaway at Key West, Florida
In Athens, Greece, a 12-foot-tall bronze statue of President Harry S. Truman, was erected in 1963 with donations from Greek-Americans.
On November 13, 2018, Truman was inducted into the Hall of Fame for the Command and General Staff College, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.