Posted by Zia Shah
It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.
|Harry S. Truman|
|33rd President of the United States|
April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953
|Preceded by||Franklin D. Roosevelt|
|Succeeded by||Dwight D. Eisenhower|
|34th Vice President of the United States|
January 20, 1945 – April 12, 1945
|President||Franklin D. Roosevelt|
|Preceded by||Henry A. Wallace|
|Succeeded by||Alben W. Barkley|
|United States Senator
January 3, 1935 – January 17, 1945
|Preceded by||Roscoe Patterson|
|Succeeded by||Frank Briggs|
|Born||May 8, 1884
Lamar, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||December 26, 1972 (aged 88)
Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.
|Resting place||Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum
|Years of service||
|Commands||Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 60th Brigade, 35th Infantry Division|
|Battles/wars||World War I
• Western Front
Harry S. Truman (May 8, 1884 – December 26, 1972) was the 33rd President of the United States (1945–1953). The final running mate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, Truman succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when Roosevelt died after months of declining health. Under Truman, a Democrat, the U.S. successfully concluded World War II; in the aftermath of the conflict, tensions with the Soviet Union increased, the start of the Cold War.
Truman was born in Missouri, and spent most of his youth as a farmer. During World War I, Truman served in combat in France as an artillery officer in his National Guard unit. After the war, he joined the Democratic Party political machine of Tom Pendergast in Kansas City, Missouri. He was elected a county official and in 1934 U.S. senator. He gained national prominence as head of the wartime Truman Committee, which exposed waste, fraud and corruption in wartime contracts.
Truman’s presidency was a turning point in foreign affairs, as the nation supported an internationalist foreign policy, in conjunction with European allies. Germany surrendered a few weeks after Truman took office, but the war with Japan was expected to last another year or more. Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan led to a speedy end of the war but remains controversial. Working closely with Congress, Truman assisted in the founding of the United Nations, issued the Truman Doctrine to contain communism, and passed the $12 billion Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. Wartime alliance with the Soviet Union became peacetime opposition, and the Cold War began. He oversaw the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and the creation of NATO in 1949. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he immediately sent in U.S. troops and gained UN approval for the Korean War. After initial success, the UN forces were thrown back by Chinese intervention and the conflict was stalemated through the final years of Truman’s presidency.
Corruption in Truman’s administration, which was linked to certain members in the cabinet and senior White House staff, was a central issue in the 1952 presidential campaign which Adlai Stevenson, Truman’s successor as Democratic nominee, lost to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. Popular and scholarly assessments of his presidency were initially negative, but eventually became more positive after his retirement from politics. Truman’s 1948 election upset for his full term as president is routinely invoked by underdog candidates.
Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884 in Lamar, Missouri, the oldest child of John Anderson Truman (1851–1914) and Martha Ellen Young Truman (1852–1947). His parents chose the name Harry after his mother’s brother, Harrison “Harry” Young (1846–1916). His parents chose “S” as his middle initial to please both his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young. The S did not stand for anything, which was a common practice among the Scots-Irish. A brother, John Vivian (1886–1965), was born soon after Harry; they had one sister, Mary Jane (1889–1978).
John Truman was a farmer and livestock dealer. The family lived in Lamar until Harry was ten months old, when they moved to a farm near Harrisonville. The family soon moved to Belton, and in 1887 to his grandparents’ 600-acre (240-ha) farm in Grandview. When Truman was six, his parents moved the family to Independence, so he could attend the Presbyterian Church Sunday School. Truman did not attend a traditional school until he was eight.
As a young boy, Truman had three main interests: music, reading, and history, all encouraged by his mother, to whom he was very close—as president, he solicited political as well as personal advice from her. In his youth, he got up at five every morning to practice the piano, which he studied twice a week until he was fifteen. Truman was a page at the 1900 Democratic National Convention at Convention Hall in Kansas City.
After graduating from Independence High School (now William Chrisman High School) in 1901, Truman worked as a timekeeper on the Santa Fe Railroad, sleeping in hobo camps near the rail lines; he then worked at a series of clerical jobs. He was employed briefly in the mailroom of the Kansas City Star. He returned to the Grandview farm in 1906 where he remained until entering the army in 1917. During this period, he courted Bess Wallace and proposed to her in 1911. She turned him down. Truman said that before he proposed again, he wanted to be earning more money than a farmer did.
Truman was the last president of the U.S. without a college degree: poor eyesight prevented him from seeking appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point (his childhood dream). When his high school friends went off to the state university in 1901, Truman instead enrolled in Spalding’s Commercial College, a Kansas City business school, but only remained a semester. In 1923–25 he took night courses toward a law degree at the Kansas City Law School (now the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law), but dropped out after losing his government job.
Truman had enlisted in the Missouri Army National Guard in 1905, serving until 1911. At his induction, his eyesight had been an unacceptable 20/50 in the right eye and 20/40 in the left. He had been turned down for West Point because of poor eyesight; this time, he passed by secretly memorizing the eye chart.
With the onset of American participation in World War I, Truman rejoined the Guard. Before going to France, he was sent to Camp Doniphan, near Lawton, Oklahoma for training. He ran the camp canteen with Edward Jacobson, a Jewish clothing store clerk also from Kansas City. At Fort Sill he also met Lieutenant James M. Pendergast, nephew of Thomas Joseph (T.J.) Pendergast, a Kansas City politician, a connection which was to have a profound influence on Truman’s later life.
Truman became an officer, and then battery commander in an artillery regiment in France. His unit was Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 60th Brigade, 35th Infantry Division, known for its discipline problems. During a sudden attack by the Germans in the Vosges Mountains, members started to run away; Truman got them to obey orders using profanities that he had “learned while working on the Santa Fe railroad.” Under Captain Truman’s command in France, the battery did not lose a single man. His battery also provided support for George S. Patton‘s tank brigade during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. On November 11, 1918, Truman’s artillery unit fired some of the last shots of World War I towards German positions before the armistice took effect at 11 am. The war was a transformative experience that brought out Truman’s leadership qualities, and his war record made possible his political career in Missouri.
At the war’s conclusion, Truman was mustered out as a captain; he returned to Independence and married his girlfriend, Bess Wallace, on June 28, 1919. The couple had one child, Mary Margaret (February 17, 1924 – January 29, 2008).
Shortly before Truman’s marriage, he and Jacobson had opened a haberdashery 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 1934, when he did so with the aid of a supporter. Jacobson and Truman remained close friends, and Jacobson’s advice to Truman on Zionism later played a role in the U.S. government’s decision to recognize Israel. In 1922, with the help of the Kansas City Democratic machine led by boss Tom Pendergast, Truman was elected as a judge of the County Court of the eastern district of Jackson County—an administrative, not judicial, position similar to county commissioners elsewhere.
Truman was not reelected in 1924, losing in a Republican wave led by President Calvin Coolidge. His two years in the political wilderness selling automobile club memberships convinced him that a public service career was safer for a man approaching middle age who had never been successful in the private sector. With the support of the Pendergast machine, Truman in 1926 was elected the presiding judge for the court, and was reelected in 1930. Truman coordinated the “Ten Year Plan,” which transformed Jackson County and the Kansas City skyline with new public works projects, including an extensive series of roads, construction of a new Wight and Wight-designed County Court building, and the dedication 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 was also to create a relationship between Truman and Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins and assure avid Truman support for the New Deal.
After serving as judge, Truman wanted to run for Governor or Congress, but Pendergast rejected these ideas. Truman thought that he would serve out his career in some well-paying sinecure at the county level. Instead, after four men turned him down, Pendergast reluctantly backed Truman as a Democratic candidate for the 1934 U.S. Senate election for Missouri. During the Democratic primary, Truman defeated two congressmen, John J. Cochran and Jacob L. Milligan, with the solid support of Jackson County crucial to the candidacy, as were the contacts he had made statewide as a county official. Truman then defeated the incumbent Republican, Roscoe C. Patterson, by nearly 20%.
Truman assumed office with a reputation as “the senator from Pendergast.” He gave patronage decisions to Pendergast but always maintained he voted his conscience. Truman later defended the patronage decisions by saying that by offering a little to the machine, he saved a lot. In his first term as a U.S. Senator, 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. He was largely ignored by President Roosevelt, who did not take him seriously at this stage, and the senator had difficulty getting calls to the White House returned.
In 1940, both United States Attorney Maurice Milligan and former governor Lloyd Stark 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, claiming 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 would later broker 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 8,000 votes. In the November election, Truman defeated Republican Manvel H. Davis by 51% to 49%.
Late in 1940, Truman traveled to a number of military bases. The waste and profiteering he saw caused him to use his subcommittee chairmanship in the Committee on Military Affairs to begin investigations into abuses as the nation prepared for war. A separate committee to conduct a formal investigation was set up under Truman; a proposal supported by the administration rather than risk a more hostile probe by the House of Representatives. Chairmanship of what came to be known as the “Truman Committee” made him a national figure. 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 is reported to have saved as much as $15 billion and thousands of lives; its activities put Truman on the cover of Time magazine.
Vice President Henry Wallace, though popular among Democratic voters, was too far to the left and too friendly to labor for some of Roosevelt’s advisers. Well knowing that Roosevelt might not live out a fourth term, both the President and several of his confidantes moved to replace Wallace. These included outgoing Democratic National Committee chairman Frank C. Walker, incoming chairman Hannegan, party treasurer Edwin W. Pauley, strategist Ed Flynn, Chicago Mayor Edward Joseph Kelly and lobbyist George E. Allen wanted to keep Wallace off the ticket. Roosevelt told party leaders he would accept either Truman or Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. State and city party leaders strongly preferred Truman, and Roosevelt agreed. Truman himself did not campaign for the number two spot though he welcomed the attention as evidence that he had become more than the “Senator from Prendergast”.
Truman’s nomination, dubbed the “Second Missouri Compromise“, was well received, and the Roosevelt–Truman ticket went on to a 432–99 electoral-vote victory in the election, defeating Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Governor John Bricker of Ohio. Truman was sworn in as vice president on January 20, 1945.
Truman’s brief vice-presidency was relatively uneventful. Roosevelt rarely contacted him, even to inform him of major decisions; the President and Vice President met alone together only twice during their joint tenures. Truman was not told of the ongoing development of the atomic bomb. In one of his first acts as vice president, Truman created some controversy when he attended the disgraced Pendergast’s funeral. He brushed the criticism aside, saying simply, “He was always my friend and I have always been his.”
On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, Truman presided over the Senate as usual. He 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. Truman assumed that President Roosevelt wanted to meet with him, but Eleanor Roosevelt informed him that her husband had died after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Truman’s first concern was for Mrs. Roosevelt. He asked if there was anything he could do for her, to which she replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? You are the one in trouble now!”
Truman had been vice president for only 82 days when President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. He had rarely discussed world affairs or domestic politics with Roosevelt and 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.
Shortly after taking the oath of office, Truman said to reporters:
Upon assuming the presidency, Truman asked all the members of FDR’s cabinet to remain in place, told them that he was open to their advice, but laid down 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 benefitted from a honeymoon period in the aftermath of Roosevelt’s death, and from the Allies’ success in Europe, wrapping up the war there. Truman was pleased to be able 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.
In the wake of Allied victory, Truman journeyed to Europe for the Potsdam Conference, where he learned that the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb on July 16 had been successful. He hinted to Joseph Stalin that the U.S. 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 project, having learned about it (through espionage) long before Truman himself did.
In August, after the Imperial government refused surrender demands, Truman authorized the atomic bombing of Japan. Although it was not known how devastating the explosions and the aftermath would be, Truman, like most Americans, were not inclined to be merciful towards the Japanese in the wake of the long years of war. Truman always stated that his decision to bomb Japan saved life on both sides; military estimates for an invasion of the Japanese home islands were that it might take a year, and result in 250,000 to 500,000 American casualties. He was also cognizant of the fact that the program had been pressed by Roosevelt at a cost of $2 billion, and was not inclined to forgo what might quickly end the war. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6 and Nagasaki on the 9th. When the Japanese were slow to surrender after that, Truman ordered a massive conventional air raid on Tokyo for August 13; Japan agreed to surrender the following day.
Supporters of Truman’s decision argue that, given the tenacious Japanese defense of the outlying islands, the bombings saved hundreds of thousands of lives that would have been lost invading mainland Japan. In 1954, Eleanor Roosevelt said that Truman had “made the only decision he could,” and that the bomb’s use was necessary “to avoid tremendous sacrifice of American lives.” Others have argued that the use of nuclear weapons was unnecessary and inherently immoral. Truman wrote, later in life, that, “I knew what I was doing when I stopped the war … I have no regrets and, under the same circumstances, I would do it again.”
The end of World War II was followed by an uneasy transition from war to a peacetime economy. Little planning had taken place on this point, with officials assuming that it would take a year to beat Japan once war in Europe ceased, giving them time to make proposals. With the war’s sudden end and the immediate clamoring for demobilization, little work had been done to plan how best to transition to peacetime production of goods, while avoiding mass unemployment of the new civilians. Roosevelt had not paid attention to Congress in his final years, and his successor faced a body in which the combination of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats formed a powerful voting bloc. In addition, there was no consensus among government officials as to what economic course the postwar U.S. should steer.
The president was faced with the renewal of labor-management conflicts that had lain dormant during the war years, severe shortages in housing and consumer products, and widespread dissatisfaction with inflation, which at one point hit 6% in a single month. In this polarized environment, there was a wave of destabilizing strikes in major industries, and Truman’s response to them was generally seen as ineffective. The rapid increase in costs was fueled by the release of price controls on most items, and labor sought wage increases. A serious steel strike in January 1946 involving 800,000 workers—the largest in the nation’s history—was followed by a coal strike in April and a rail strike in May. The public was incensed over the matter, with a majority in polls favoring a ban on strikes by public service workers, and a year’s moratorium on labor actions. Truman proposed legislation to draft striking workers into the Armed Forces, and in a dramatic personal appearance before Congress, was able to announce settlement of the rail strike. His proposal passed the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate. Where price controls remained, producers were often unwilling to sell at artificially low prices: Farmers refused to sell grain for months in 1945 and 1946 until payments were significantly increased. At the time, grain was desperately needed, not only for domestic use, but to stave off starvation in Europe.
Although labor strife became more muted after the settlement of the railway strike, it continued through Truman’s presidency. The President dropped from 82% in the polls in January 1946 to 52% in June. Dissatisfaction with the Truman administration’s policies led to large Democratic losses in the 1946 midterm elections, as Republicans took control for the first time since 1930. The 80th Congress included Republican freshmen who would become prominent in the years to come, including Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and California Congressman Richard Nixon. With Truman at 32% in the polls, Democratic Arkansas Senator William Fulbright suggested that Truman resign; the President in response indicated that he did not care what Senator “Halfbright” said.
Truman cooperated closely with the Republican leaders on foreign policy, though he 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. The parties did cooperate on some issues; Congress passed the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, making the Speaker of the House rather than the Secretary of State next in line to the presidency 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 national health insurance, the repeal of the Taft–Hartley Act, and an aggressive civil rights program. Taken together, it all 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. Only one of the major Fair Deal bills, the Housing Act of 1949, was ever enacted. On the other hand, the major New Deal programs still in operation were not repealed, and there were minor improvements and extensions in many of them.
As a Wilsonian internationalist, Truman strongly supported 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 American public opinion, which quickly came to view the Soviets as intent upon world domination.
Although he claimed no personal expertise on foreign matters, Truman won bipartisan support for both the Truman Doctrine, which formalized a policy of 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.
On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blocked access to the three Western-held sectors of Berlin. The Allies had never negotiated a deal to guarantee supply of the sectors deep within the Soviet-occupied zone. The commander of the American 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 a plan to supply the blockaded city by air. On June 25, the Allies initiated the Berlin Airlift, a campaign that delivered food and other supplies, such as coal, 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 have accomplished 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.
Truman had always taken an interest in the history of the Middle East, and was sympathetic to those who sought a Jewish homeland in Mandatory Palestine. However, he saw no obvious solution to the turmoil there in the wake of the war, and sought to avoid U.S. involvement. The State Department was anxious to placate the Arabs by giving them the territory; nevertheless, Truman supported United Nations plans for the partition of Palestine. Against the desires of the British, Truman supported the immigration of 100,000 Jews into Palestine from as early as September 1945. This is one point, among others, of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry (or “Morrison-Grady plan”), that Truman agreed with. One of the points of that plan Truman did not agree with was the creation of a Jewish enclave of just 1,500 square miles (3,900 km2). He was, however, annoyed at considerable lobbying by Jewish-Americans.
American policy makers in 1947–48 agreed that the highest foreign policy objective was containment of Soviet expansion as the Cold War unfolded. From the perspective of many officials, Palestine was secondary to the goal of protecting the “Northern Tier” of Greece, Turkey, and Iran from Communism, as promised by the Truman Doctrine. Truman made the decision to recognize Israel over the objections of Secretary of State George Marshall, who feared it would hurt relations with the Arab states. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal warned about the perils of arousing Arab hostility, which might result in denial of access to petroleum resources in the area, and about “the impact of this question on the security of the United States;” Truman responded that he had to do “what is right”. Truman recognized the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, eleven minutes after it declared itself a nation .
Truman later wrote:
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 [of] 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%, and the president was nearly universally regarded as incapable of winning the general election. The “New Deal” operatives within the party—including FDR’s son James—tried 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 nomination.
Truman was so widely expected to lose the 1948 election that the Chicago Tribune ran this incorrect headline.
At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Truman attempted to unify the party by placing a vague civil rights plank in the party platform; the aim was to assuage the internal conflicts between the northern and southern wings of his party. Events overtook the president’s efforts at compromise, however. A sharp address given by Mayor Hubert Humphrey of Minneapolis—as well as the local political interests of a number of urban bosses—convinced 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.”
Within two weeks of the convention, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the U.S. Armed Services. Truman took considerable political risk in backing civil rights, and many seasoned Democrats were concerned that the loss of Dixiecrat support might destroy the Democratic Party. The fear seemed well justified—South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond 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 found itself disintegrating. Victory in November seemed a remote possibility indeed, with the party not simply split but divided three ways. As vice-presidential candidate, Truman accepted Kentucky Senator Alben W. Barkley, though he really wanted Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who turned down the nomination.
There followed a remarkable 21,928-mile (35,290 km) presidential odyssey. In a personal appeal to the nation, Truman crisscrossed the U.S. by train; his “whistlestop” speeches from the rear platform of the observation car Ferdinand Magellan came to represent his campaign. His combative appearances, such as those at the town square of Harrisburg, Illinois, 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 railcar events were an important sign of a change in momentum in the campaign, but this shift went virtually unnoticed by the national press corps, which continued reporting Republican Thomas Dewey‘s apparent impending victory as a certainty. One reason for the press’ inaccurate projection was polls conducted primarily by telephone in a time when many people, including much of Truman’s populist base, did not own a telephone. This skewed the data to indicate a stronger support base for Dewey than existed, resulting in an unintended and undetected projection error that may have contributed to the perception of Truman’s bleak chances. The three major polling organizations also stopped polling well before the November 2 election date—Roper in September, and Crossley and Gallup in October—thus 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 that 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.”
Truman’s inauguration was the first ever televised nationally. His second term was grueling, in large measure because of foreign policy challenges connected directly or indirectly to his policy of containment. He quickly had to come to terms with the end of the American nuclear monopoly. With information provided by its espionage networks in the U.S., the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb project progressed much faster than had been expected and they exploded their first bomb on August 29, 1949. On January 7, 1953, Truman announced the detonation of the first U.S. hydrogen bomb.
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army under the command of 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. However, Truman decided not to consult with Congress, believing that most legislators supported his position; this would come back to haunt him later on, when the stalemated conflict was dubbed “Mr. Truman’s War” by legislators.
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 retired General George Marshall. Truman (with UN approval) decided on a rollback policy—that is, conquest of North Korea. UN forces led by General 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 then 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 that 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 fliers). On April 11, 1951, Truman fired MacArthur from his commands.
I fired him [MacArthur] because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President … I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.
The Dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur was among the least politically popular decisions in presidential history. Truman’s approval ratings plummeted, and he faced calls for his impeachment from, among others, Senator Robert Taft. 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 U.S. to a hero’s welcome, and addressed a joint session of Congress, a speech which the President called “a bunch of damn bullshit.”
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% according to Gallup polls, which was, until George W. Bush in 2008, the all-time lowest approval mark for an active American president.
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 U.S. and its NATO allies would respond militarily to actual Soviet expansion. The document was drafted by Paul Nitze, who consulted State and Defense officials; it 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 for building up the U.S. both militarily and economically. One tragedy, early in Truman’s second term, came with the death of Secretary of Defense Forrestal, soon after his retirement. Forrestal had burned himself out through years of hard labor during and after the war, and began to suffer mental issues. He retired in March 1949; soon after, he was hospitalized and committed suicide in May.
Truman was a strong supporter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which established a formal peacetime military alliance with Canada and many of the democratic European nations that had not fallen 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 U.S., 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 not to offer 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 advisers—he saw that even propping up Chaing’s forces would drain U.S. resources in Europe needed to deter the Soviets. On December 21, 1949, Chiang and his National Revolutionary Army left mainland China, fleeing to Taiwan in the face of successful attacks by Mao Zedong‘s communist army; Mao’s forces established the People’s Republic of China. In June 1950, 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 on Taiwan. Truman also called for the ROC not to make any further attacks on the mainland.
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) and stated that an underground communist network had been working within the U.S. government since the 1930s, of which Chambers had been a member, along with Alger Hiss, until recently a senior State Department official. Although Hiss denied the allegations, he was convicted in January 1950 for perjury for his 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 that subversion by Soviet spies was responsible, and to demand that communists be rooted out from the government and other places of influence.
Following Hiss’s conviction, Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced that he stood by him. This and other events, such as the revelation that British atomic bomb scientist Klaus Fuchs was a spy, led current and former members of HUAC, such as Congressman Nixon of California and Karl Mundt of South Dakota to decry Truman and his administration, especially the State Department, as soft on communism. Wisconsin Senator McCarthy used a Lincoln Day speech in Wheeling, West Virginia to accuse the State Department of harboring communists, and rode the controversy to political fame. In the following years, Republicans used Hiss’ conviction to castigate the Democrats for harboring communists in government; Congressman Nixon gained election to the Senate in 1950 on an anti-communist platform, defeating the liberal Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom he called “the Pink Lady”.
Charges that Soviet agents had infiltrated the government were believed by 78% of the people in 1946, and would become a major campaign issue for Eisenhower in 1952. Truman tried to steer a middle course, both seeking to show that he was concerned with internal security, but fearing that innocents would be harmed and government activities disrupted. In 1949, he called American communist leaders, whom his administration was prosecuting, “traitors”; in 1950, he vetoed the McCarran Internal Security Act, though 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.
In 1948, Truman ordered a controversial addition to the exterior of the White House: a second-floor balcony in the south portico that came to be known as the “Truman Balcony.” The addition was unpopular; some stated it spoiled the appearance of the south facade, but it gave the First Family more living space.  The work uncovered structural faults which led engineering experts to conclude that the building, much of it over 130 years old, was in a dangerously dilapidated condition. That August, a section of floor collapsed and Truman’s own bedroom and bathroom were closed as unsafe. No public announcement about the serious structural problems of the White House was made until after the 1948 election had been won, by which time Truman had been informed that his new balcony was the only part of the building that was sound. The Truman family moved into nearby Blair House. As the newer West Wing, including the Oval Office, remained open, Truman found himself walking to work across the street each morning and afternoon. In due course, the decision was made to demolish and rebuild the whole interior of the main White House, as well as excavate new basement levels and underpin the foundations. The famous exterior of the structure, however, was buttressed and retained while the renovations proceeded inside. The work lasted from December 1949 until March 1952.
|Newsreel scenes in English of the assassination attempt on U.S. President Harry S Truman|
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, as a co-conspirator in a felony that turned into a homicide, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in 1952. Truman later commuted his sentence to life in prison. Acknowledging the importance of the question of Puerto Rican independence, Truman allowed for a plebiscite in Puerto Rico to determine the status of its relationship to the U.S. The attack, which could easily have taken the president’s life, drew new attention to security concerns surrounding his residence at Blair House. He had jumped up from his nap, and was watching the gunfight from his open bedroom window until a passerby shouted at him to take cover.
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 to be used in 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. 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.
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 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 in early 1952 fired the special prosecutor for being too zealous, Truman fired McGrath. Truman submitted a reorganization plan to reform the IRB; Congress passed it, but the issue of the corruption was a major issue in the 1952 presidential election.
On December 6, 1950, music critic Paul Hume wrote a critical review of a concert by Margaret Truman:
Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality … [she] cannot sing very well … is flat a good deal of the time—more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years … has not improved in the years we have heard her … [and] still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.
Harry 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.
A 1947 report by the Truman administration titled To Secure These Rights presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. 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 run up 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, desegregating and requiring equal opportunity in the Armed Forces. 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, Army units became racially integrated.
Another executive order, 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 that defense contractors did not discriminate because of race.
All of the cabinet members when Truman became president in 1945 had been appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
|The Truman Cabinet|
|President||Harry S. Truman||1945–1953|
|Alben W. Barkley||1949–1953|
|Secretary of State||Edward R. Stettinius, Jr.||1945|
|James F. Byrnes||1945–1947|
|George C. Marshall||1947–1949|
|Dean G. Acheson||1949–1953|
|Secretary of Treasury||Henry Morgenthau, Jr.||1945|
|Fred M. Vinson||1945–1946|
|John W. Snyder||1946–1953|
|Secretary of War||Henry L. Stimson||1945|
|Robert P. Patterson||1945–1947|
|Kenneth C. Royall||1947|
|Secretary of Defense||James V. Forrestal||1947–1949|
|Louis A. Johnson||1949–1950|
|George C. Marshall||1950–1951|
|Robert A. Lovett||1951–1953|
|Attorney General||Francis Biddle||1945|
|Tom C. Clark||1945–1949|
|J. Howard McGrath||1949–1952|
|James P. McGranery||1952–1953|
|Postmaster General||Frank C. Walker||1945|
|Robert E. Hannegan||1945–1947|
|Jesse M. Donaldson||1947–1953|
|Secretary of the Navy||James V. Forrestal||1945–1947|
|Secretary of the Interior||Harold L. Ickes||1945–1946|
|Julius A. Krug||1946–1949|
|Oscar L. Chapman||1949–1953|
|Secretary of Agriculture||Claude R. Wickard||1945|
|Clinton P. Anderson||1945–1948|
|Charles F. Brannan||1948–1953|
|Secretary of Commerce||Henry A. Wallace||1945–1946|
|W. Averell Harriman||1946–1948|
|Charles W. Sawyer||1948–1953|
|Secretary of Labor||Frances Perkins||1945|
|Lewis B. Schwellenbach||1945–1948|
|Maurice J. Tobin||1948–1953|
Truman appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court:
Truman’s judicial appointments have been called by critics “inexcusable.” A former Truman aide confided that it was the weakest aspect of Truman’s presidency. The New York Times condemned the appointments of Tom C. Clark and Sherman Minton in particular as examples of cronyism and favoritism for unqualified candidates.
The four justices appointed by Truman joined with Justices Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson, and Stanley Reed to create a substantial seven-member conservative bloc on the Supreme Court. This returned the court for a time to the conservatism of the 1920s.
In 1951, the U.S. ratified the 22nd Amendment, making a president ineligible to be elected for a third time, or to be elected for a second time after having served more than two years of a previous president’s term. The latter clause would have applied to Truman in 1952, except that a grandfather clause in the amendment explicitly excluded the current president from this provision.
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 Tennessee Senator Estes 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 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.
Harry S. Truman’s speech on leaving office, and returning home to Independence, Missouri. (January 15, 1953)
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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 rule. While Truman and Eisenhower had previously been good friends, Truman felt betrayed that Eisenhower did not denounce Joseph McCarthy during the campaign. Similarly, Eisenhower was outraged when Truman, who made a whistlestop tour in support of Stevenson, accused the former general of disregarding “sinister forces … Anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-foreignism” within the Republican Party. Eisenhower was so outraged he threatened not to make the customary ride down Pennsylvania Avenue with the departing president before the inauguration, but to meet Truman at the steps to the Capitol, where the swearing-in takes place.
Truman returned to Independence, Missouri, to live at the Wallace home he and Bess had shared for years with her mother.
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 operate—a 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, notes that Truman was a well-read man, especially in history. Skidmore notes 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 States—one of the greatest of any former president.”
Once out of office, Truman quickly decided that he did not wish to be on any corporate payroll, believing that taking advantage of such financial opportunities would diminish the integrity of the nation’s highest office. He also turned down numerous offers for commercial endorsements. Since his earlier business ventures had proved unsuccessful, he had no personal savings. 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. 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 set about establishing another precedent for future former chief executives: a book deal for his memoirs of his time in office. Ulysses S. Grant had overcome similar financial issues with his own memoirs, but the book had been published posthumously, and he had declined to write about life in the White House in any detail. For the memoirs, Truman received only 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 in 1955 and 1956 by Doubleday (Garden City, N.Y) and Hodder & Stoughton (London): Memoirs by Harry S. Truman: Year of Decisions and Memoirs by Harry S. Truman: Years of Trial and Hope.
The former president was quoted in 1957 as saying to then-House Majority Leader John McCormack, “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 one 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.
In 1956, Truman traveled to Europe with his wife. In Britain, he received an honorary degree in Civic Law from Oxford University and met with Winston Churchill. On returning to the U.S., he supported Adlai Stevenson’s second bid for the White House, although he had initially favored Democratic Governor W. Averell Harriman of New York.
Upon turning 80, 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. He continued to campaign for Democratic senatorial candidates. 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 Library & Museum and gave the first two Medicare cards to Truman and his wife Bess to honor his fight for government health care as president.
On December 5, 1972, Harry Truman was admitted to Kansas City‘s Research Hospital and Medical Center with lung congestion from pneumonia. He developed multiple organ failure and died at 7:50 am on December 26 at the age of 88. Bess Truman opted for a simple private service at the library for her husband rather than a state funeral in Washington. A week after the funeral, foreign dignitaries and official Washington attended a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral. Bess Truman died in 1982; they are buried at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, in Independence.
On February 9, 1909, Harry Truman was initiated into Freemasonry in the Belton Lodge, 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. In 1959, he was awarded the 50-year award. Truman was 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. MU’s Missouri Tigers athletics programs have an official mascot named Truman the Tiger. On July 1, 1996, Northeast Missouri State University became Truman State University—to 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 is named after him. The USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) was christened on September 7, 1996.  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. Because of Truman’s critical role in the U.S. government’s decision to recognize Israel, the Israeli village of Beit Harel was renamed Kfar Truman.
In 1991, Truman 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. In 2006, Thomas Daniel, grandson of the Trumans accepted a star on the Missouri Walk of Fame to honor his late grandfather. In 2007, John Truman, Truman’s nephew, accepted a star for Bess Truman. The Walk of Fame is in Marshfield, Missouri, a city Truman visited in 1948. Among the sites associated with Truman are:
Former President Harry Truman with “The Buck Stops Here” sign on a recreation of his Oval Office desk
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 was in August 1974 at 24%, the month that Nixon resigned. American public feeling toward Truman grew steadily warmer with the passing years, and the period shortly after his death consolidated a partial rehabilitation among both historians and members of the public. As early as 1962, a poll of 75 distinguished historians conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. ranked Truman among the “near great” presidents. Since leaving office, Truman has fared well in polls ranking the presidents among Americans. He has never been listed lower than ninth, and most recently was fifth in a C-SPAN poll in 2009.
He also had his critics. After a review of information available to Truman on the presence of espionage activities in the U.S. government, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that Truman was “almost willfully obtuse” concerning the danger of American communism. In 2010, historian Alonzo Hamby concluded that “Harry Truman remains a controversial president.” 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 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 which Truman had told to journalist Merle Miller beginning in 1961, with the agreement that they would not be published until after Truman’s death.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused Truman advocates to claim vindication for Truman’s 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 McCollough‘s favorable biography of Truman further cemented the view of Truman as a highly regarded Chief Executive. According to historian Daniel 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.
The Washington Post
Harry S. Truman Library & Museum
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