Who Was Harry S. Truman? Information About the Life and Political Career of the 33rd President of America


What is the detailed life story, biography of Harry S. Truman? Information on Harry S. Truman youth, career, presidency and death.

Harry S. Truman; (1884-1972), 33d president of the United States. Most Americans in the 1950’s did not expect that Harry Truman would become one of their most highly regarded presidents. By 1952, just before he announced his decision not to run again, only 25% of the people thought he was doing a good job. Within a decade, however, most American historians regarded him as one of the nation’s greatest presidents. To be sure, a “revisionist” view developed that attacked his record at home and abroad, picturing him as ineffective in some areas, oppressive in others, and as the architect of the Cold War. Yet the favorable appraisal seemed to be the dominant American view.

Appraisals of presidents depend on the observer’s assumptions concerning what leaders should try to accomplish and what they are capable of accomplishing. Obviously, Truman was not so effective in domestic affairs as his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, had been in the 1930’s, but Truman’s opportunities were smaller. He might have accomplished more had he pressed his proposals more boldly, yet his appraisal of political realities persuaded him that e could not do so. He was unable to gain acceptance for many new domestic proposals in such areas as health and education, but he provided publicity for them. He expanded and improved established programs and defended them against attempts by their foes to weaken them. And he worked harder on behalf of civil rights than any of his predecessors.

Truman’s record in foreign affairs, while also flawed, was more significant. He effectively developed a larger role for the nation in world affairs than it had played before World War II. Prewar policies had not kept the American people out of major wars. Truman’s policies did not accomplish their objectives in some places, such as eastern Europe, and they did not avert a war in Korea. But they promoted the recovery and reconstruction of western Europe and Japan.

Short and rather owlish behind thick glasses, Truman was not imposing in appearance. He spoke in the Midwesterner’s flat, nasal tone. But he was scrupulously honest, and he established a reputation for speaking the truth.


Harry S. Truman


Born in Lamar, Mo., on May 8, 1884, Truman was the oldest of three children of John Anderson and Martha Ellen (Young) Truman. His birthplace was just south of the area into which his grandparents had moved from Kentucky four decades earlier. The letter “S” in his name was not an abbreviation. It reflected the family’s reluctance to choose between his grandfathers-Anderson Shippe Truman and Solomon Young— in selecting his name.

In 1890 the Trumans moved to Independence, Mo. There, Harry’s thick glasses prevented him from joining in many boyhood activities. Encouraged by his mother, he turned to the piano and books. At the piano, he developed a talent that provided relaxation in later years. From books, he acquired some of the historical information that influenced his career.

Truman did not attend college. His father’s financial difficulties prevented him from doing so, and his poor eyesight dashed his hope of entering the U. S. Military Academy at West Point.

Several years of work for a railroad and two banks added more to Truman’s experiences than to his finances or sense of accomplishment. Then, at the age of 22, he returned to the rural work into which he had been born. He spent the next 11 years as a farmer, helping his father manage the Young farm in Grandview, Mo. Working on a good farm in the “golden age” of American agriculture, he experienced a personality change, becoming less withdrawn, much more gregarious, much more confident in his relations with other people than before. He began to participate actively in Democratic party politics, and he joined several other organizations, including the Masons, that later helped him as a politician.

World War I provided new opportunities. Commissioned by the National Guard, Captain Truman served in France in command of Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery, 35th Division, American Expeditionary Force, fighting in major battles late in the war. He discovered that he had talents as a leader, and he gained the affection and esteem of a group of men who voted for him later. After the war, he joined veterans organizations and the Army Reserve, rising to the rank of colonel.

After returning home in 1919, Truman married Elizabeth (Bess) Wallace, his childhood sweetheart, and established a clothing store in Kansas City. The marriage succeeded, but the store did not. Founded during the postwar boom, it collapsed in the postwar depression. Left with heavy debts, Truman was forced to think once again about his career.


Entry into Politics.

Encouraged by the Kansas City political organization headed by Thomas Pendergast, Truman turned to politics. As years passed, the machine proved to be both a help and a handicap. It supplied essential votes in Kansas City but acquired a bad reputation that alienated many voters elsewhere. While Truman avoided the corrupt side of the organization and handled his own offices honestly and efficiently, he remained loyal to Pendergast and defended machines as necessary, though dangerous, features of democratic politics.

Truman was elected judge of the Jackson county court in 1922, failed to win reelection in 1924, became presiding judge of the court two years later, and was reelected in 1930. These positions, administrative rather than judicial, enabled him to accomplish much, especially as a builder of roads.

In 1934, eager to move higher in politics, Truman accepted Pendergast’s request that he run for a seat in the U. S. Senate. He campaigned vigorously, with help from the machine. His own record, his many friends throughout the state, and his endorsement of President Roosevelt and his popular New Deal policies were also important assets. He won the primary and defeated an anti-New Deal Republican in the general election.

In the Senate.

As a first-term senator, Truman supported the New Deal and worked hard on his committee assignments. As an active member of the Interstate Commerce Committee, he helped to produce the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and the Transportation Act of 1940. In spite of his record, he came close to defeat in 1940, narrowly winning reelection. Pendergast had been sent to prison for income tax evasion, and Truman was criticized for his ties with the discredited organization.

After his reelection, Truman began a series of Senate investigations that brought him fame and saved the taxpayers billions of dollars. As head of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, he promoted economy and efficiency among defense contractors.

As a senator he supported Franklin Roosevelt in foreign as well as domestic affairs. Truman’s thinking was influenced by his experiences during World War I and as a veteran and reserve officer after the war. He considered military power to be of great importance, worked for a stronger armed force, and, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, blamed the “pacifists” and the “isolationists.” During the war, he worked for the creation of an international organization to preserve peace. He favored the use of American economic power in the Lend-Lease program as another means of influencing international affairs.

Vice President.

Truman’s new prestige plus his ability to get along with all factions in his party made him a contender for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1944. His own ambitions did not reach beyond the Senate. But Roosevelt, running for a fourth term, was eager to find a lieutenant who would help him avoid the difficulties that Woodrow Wilson had encountered in the Senate after World War I. The incumbent vice president, Henry Wallace, was not popular with many party leaders. Prodded by one of Truman’s associates, Robert Hannegan, a St. Louis politician and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Roosevelt persuaded Truman to run with him. Truman defeated Wallace for the nomination on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention. The ticket was elected.


Truman’s new position added little to his preparation for the presidency, because Roosevelt made no effort to train him. Consequently, when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Truman faced the tremendous task of learning to be president by dealing with the problems that flowed in upon him.

First Term: International Relations.

Seeking to carry out Roosevelt’s policies, Truman brought to fruition the plans for the unconditional surrender of Germany, which came on May 8, and the establishment of the United Nations. He attended the UN founding conference in San Francisco in late April. Truman made the decision to use atomic bombs against Japan, believing that they would end the war quickly, save lives, and place the United States in a position to revolutionize Japanese life. Alternatives to the bomb, including a negotiated settlement, were available, but they were not as apparent then as they would seem later, and they appeared likely to produce results more slowly and restrict opportunities for change in Japan. Two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, coupled with Russia’s declaration of war against Japan, brought the war to an end on August 14.

Some persons have argued that Truman used the bomb to influence the Russians rather than the Japanese, but they have demonstrated only that he and some of his aides hoped that this new evidence of American power would restrain the Russians at the same time that it accomplished American objectives in Japan. By August 1945, Truman had become more critical of the Russians than Roosevelt had been, but not because the new president had brought to the White House a more hostile attitude toward them. The change in presidential behavior is explained chiefly by changes in the situation, not in personnel. As time passed in 1945, Russian efforts to dominate eastern Europe became more obvious and alarming to American officials, and the need for Russian help, which had influenced Roosevelt so much, significantly declined as Germany and Japan were defeated and the United Nations was established.

Truman did bring to the job convictions as to how expanding nations should be treated. His thinking on foreign policy was dominated by political considerations. It included a theory of power that emphasized both the importance of power and the limits on it. He was determined to avoid what he regarded as the errors of the American past: military weakness and a reluctance to get involved in international problems.


Thus Truman could be expected to protest Soviet expansion in eastern Europe. He did so, soon adopting a policy of “toughness” in his dealings with Moscow. He found it impossible, however, to do more than protest, because U. S. military power was declining rapidly under the pressures for demobilization, and neither he nor anyone else was eager to provoke another war. Henry Wallace, now secretary of commerce, held on to the wartime hope for cooperation with the Russians, and in September 1946 he publicly criticized the “get tough” policy. The president, regarding Wallace as a “pacifist” and a “dreamer,” the type of person who had caused trouble in the past, obtained his resignation so as to clarify administration policy and the relationships between the president and his lieutenants.

Perhaps Truman should have offered no objections to Russian behavior and recognized it as merely an expression of concern for national security. Years later, it did seem that the administration had overestimated the Russian threat to the West. Russia, after all, had been severely damaged by the war. Yet the security interest of the Russians conflicted with the interests of the people of eastern Europe, and they too deserved consideration from American officials—and inevitably received it because of American hopes for national self-determination and unhampered commercial relationships.

Given the Russian military presence and determination in eastern Europe, Truman had little opportunity to be effective there, but he found larger opportunities in southern and western Europe. Economic and political weaknesses seemed to give the Russians a chance to extend their influence into the region, but a series of American moves from 1947 to 1949 promoted economic improvements, strengthened non-Communist governments, and contributed to the frustration of Communist groups, especially in Greece, Italy, and France.

The momentous new steps included the Truman Doctrine, which granted aid to Greece and Turkey and promised assistance to other nations threatened “by armed minorities or by outside pressure”; the Marshall Plan, which used American economic resources to stimulate the recovery of European economies outside the Soviet sphere; the Berlin airlift, designed to maintain the Western presence in that city, which was surrounded by the Russian-occupied zone of Germany; and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the nation’s first peacetime military alliance. Truman’s Point Four program helped new nations develop economically.

These steps, which added up to a policy of “containment” of communism, constituted unprecedented U. S. involvement in Europe during peacetime. Truman not only made the decisions but used all his power to get the policies accepted. His success also owed much to a bipartisan group in which a Republican, Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg (Mich.), played a key role.

Harry S. Truman-1945-1953

Harry S. Truman-1945-1953

Domestic Affairs.

Truman accomplished less in domestic affairs, in part because he was so busy with international concerns. Beginning in September 1945, he fought to continue and expand the New Deal, soon labeling his program the Fair Deal. He encountered the same coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats that had frustrated Roosevelt frequently after 1936. This coalition effectively opposed Truman when the Democrats dominated Congress (1945-1946 and 1949-1956) as well as when the Republicans were in control (1947-1948). One of his few domestic victories was the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, which included a provision for public housing.

In another area in which Truman made important contributions—civil rights—he had to rely chiefly on executive action, publicizing the question and desegregating the armed forces. But he failed to obtain passage of a law assuring equal job opportunities for blacks and ending poll taxes, lynchings, and discrimination on public transportation. His personal concern about the problems of black Americans, as well as his quest for the black vote, and his worry about the damage that American racial practices did to the nation’s image in the world moved him to act. Nearly all Southerners opposed him, however, and Southern senators filibustered effectively against his legislative proposals.

In 1947, Congress overrode Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, which Truman said unfairly weakened the bargaining power of unions. Truman’s frequent interventions in labor-management disputes were significant, because they expanded the role of the president in this area. The railroad and coal industries provided major occasions for action in 1946. Steel did in 1952. But the U. S. Supreme Court rejected the argument that the president has inherent powers to seize firms in emergencies. Faced with a steel strike during the Korean War, Truman had seized steel mills to keep them operating.


The election of 1948 presented Truman with one of his most spectacular challenges. He faced a confident Republican party, headed by its presidential nominee. Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York. Furthermore, groups on the left and right wings of his own party deserted him to form the Progressive and States’ Rights parties. In this situation, the pollsters predicted a Republican landslide, but Truman campaigned vigorously, traveling thousands of miles and speaking hundreds of times, often extemporaneously. His objective was to persuade the members of the old Roosevelt coalition that they should vote for him to protect the programs that had been especially beneficial to them. Employing a “give ’em hell” technique, he denounced the 80th Congress as a “do-nothing” body dominated by men with “a dangerous lust for power and privilege,” and he contrasted this with his own program. He often introduced his wife and daughter and chatted informally with the people who clustered about his campaign train. The style of his campaign illustrated his conception of himself as a common man and his conception of the president as champion of the people.

The result was an upset, although by a small margin in a “low turnout” election. He received fewer than half of all of the popular votes but outpolled Dewey 24,104,030 to 21,971,004, and secured 303 electoral votes to 189 for the Republican candidate.

Second Term.

Truman soon encountered major problems in Asia, a part of the world the administration regarded as less important than western Europe and less capable of using American aid effectively. He had tried since 1945 to get the Chinese Nationalists and Communists to work together in one government. He hoped thereby that Chiang Kaishek, the Nationalist leader, would find time to deal with China’s problems. The policy failed, and the Communists drove their foes from the mainland in 1949.


Korea was the next area of crisis in Asia, partly out of shortcomings in U. S. military policy. American policy was dominated by confidence in air power and the atomic bomb, a popular desire to keep Americans out of uniform, and fear of heavy government spending. Some of these considerations influenced Truman himself, and Congress rejected his departures from them, such as his advocacy of universal military training. One result was a small Army. This fact, along with North Korean ambitions and concern about those of South Korea, Communist fears of American plans for Japan, and the obvious American reluctance to get involved militarily on the Asian mainland, probably influenced the North Korean decision to invade South Korea on June 25, 1950.

In spite of military weaknesses, Truman decided to act boldly to repel the aggressors. First he won passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution recommending that member states furnish aid to South Korea. Truman then authorized U. S. military intervention. Recalling events of the 1930’s, such as the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Truman was determined to avoid the mistakes he believed had been made then. Furthermore, he could not believe that the Constitution prevented him from acting quickly and forcefully. A few critics argued that only Congress could authorize sweeping military action of the sort he had ordered, but Truman’s defenders emphasized his authority as commander in chief and cited many occasions when presidents had acted independently. Two decades later, after subsequent presidents had intervened in Vietnam, Truman’s action would seem even to some of his earlier defenders to have provided a dangerous precedent.

The decision to intervene militarily in Korea led to other American moves. One was protection for Chiang Kaishek, who had retreated to Formosa. Another was increased support for the French in their battle against revolution in Southeast Asia. A third was a sharp increase in the size, cost, and complexity of American armed forces and in the number stationed in Europe. The administration also carried out plans for a peace treaty and an alliance with Japan.

Truman still recognized that American power had limits. Nevertheless, he authorized his forces to pursue the enemy into North Korea after the North Koreans had been pushed back into their own territory, and he changed the goal of the war from containment to liberation. China, however, quickly entered the war and pushed the anti-Communist forces back to South Korea.

Truman then retreated to his original goal. His commander in the Far East, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, advocated an expansion of military operations so as to defeat the Chinese and unify Korea, but Truman feared that the general’s suggestions would tie down American forces in Asia, give Russia new opportunities in Europe, and ead to a world war. When MacArthur publicly criticized administration policies, Truman removed him from command on April 11, 1951, thereby reaffirming the principle of the subordination of the military to civilian officials as well as the theory of limited power.

While MacArthur did not force Truman to change his policy, the controversy did weaken his authority. The general’s argument obscured what had been accomplished in the Korean War. It suggested that the United States had failed because it had not unified the Korean peninsula. The criticism neglected the fact that a Communist effort to expand had been checked without kindling World War III.

The Truman-MacArthur clash contributed to the growing protests against the administration. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) charged that the country was “losing on every front” and pinned the blame on disloyal men, especially in the U. S. State Department.

Truman seemed incapable of curbing the growing discontent. He argued that McCarthy and others were “chipping away our basic freedoms as insidiously and far more effectively than the Communists have ever been able to do” and creating “such a wave of fear and uncertainty that their attacks upon our liberties go almost unchallenged.” Such arguments failed to rally the public behind the president, perhaps because he and his aides had talked so often of the dangers posed by Communists, and, in line with their rhetoric, had developed a loyalty-security program that alarmed civil libertarians and had prosecuted the leaders of the U. S. Communist party. On the other hand, Truman had vetoed the Internal Security Act in 1950. Truman’s tendency to express himself harshly when angered by critics added to his difficulties, as did inflation and charges of corruption in government.

Deciding not to run again, Truman saw power slip from his grasp and from the grasp of his party. The Republicans, led by a popular military hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, returned to the White House in 1953.


Returning to Independence and benefiting from good health most of the time, Truman enjoyed his retirement. He traveled widely and spoke frequently, often to groups of young people about their civic responsibilities. He remained active in politics, criticizing the Republicans, seeking unsuccessfully to influence the choice of the Democratic presidential candidate in 1956 and 1960, and joining in campaigns. Reflecting his strong interest in history and a desire to present his own view of his years in Washington, he published his memoirs in 1955 and 1956. In 1957 the Truman Library was dedicated in Independence. After Truman’s death in Kansas City, Mo., on Dec. 26, 1972, he was buried on the grounds of the library.



Leave A Reply