FootPrints, today, peruses the life and works and one of the most controversial leaders in the history of the United States of America; a man who held the reigns of the presidency during one of the most challenging periods of U.S history – Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), 33rd president of the United States of America (1945-1953). Truman initiated the foreign policy of containing Communism, a policy that was the hallmark of the Cold War. He continued the welfare policies established under his predecessor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman helped to centralize power in the executive branch, a trend begun under Roosevelt.
Harry S. Truman, the oldest of three children born to Martha Ellen Young Truman and John Anderson Truman, was born in his family’s small frame house in Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884. Truman had no middle name; his parents apparently gave him the middle initial S. to appease two family relatives whose names started with that letter.
When Truman was six years old, his family moved to Independence, Missouri, where he attended the Presbyterian Church Sunday school. There he met five-year-old Elizabeth Virginia (“Bess”) Wallace, with whom he was later to fall in love. Truman did not begin regular school until he was eight, and by then he was wearing thick glasses to correct extreme nearsightedness. His poor eyesight did not interfere with his two interests, music and reading. He got up each day at 5 am to practice the piano, and until he was 15, he went to the local music teacher twice a week. He read four or five histories or biographies a week and acquired an exhaustive knowledge of great military battles and of the lives of the world’s greatest leaders.
In 1901, when Truman graduated from high school, his future was uncertain. College had been ruled out by his family’s financial situation, and appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was eliminated by his poor eyesight. He began work as a timekeeper for the Santa Fe Railroad at $35 per month, and in his spare time he read histories and encyclopedias. He later moved to Kansas City, where he worked as a mail clerk for the Kansas City Star, then as a clerk for the National Bank of Commerce, and finally as a bookkeeper for the Union National Bank. In 1906 he was called home to help his parents run the large farm of Mrs. Truman’s widowed mother in Grandview, Missouri.
For the next ten years, Truman was a successful farmer. He joined Mike Pendergast’s Kansas City Tenth Ward Democratic Club, the local Democratic Party organization, and on his father’s death in 1914 he succeeded him as road overseer. An argument soon ended the job, but Truman became the Grandview postmaster. In 1915 he invested in lead mines in Missouri, lost his money, and then turned to the oil fields of Oklahoma. Two years later, just before the United States entered World War I, he sold his share in the oil business and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He trained at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, but returned to Missouri to help recruit others. He was elected first lieutenant by the men of Missouri’s Second Field Artillery.
World War I began in 1914 as a local European war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, when Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. Though U.S. President Woodrow Wilson tried to remain neutral, the United States was drawn into the war in April 1917.
Truman sailed for France on March 30, 1918, and as a recently promoted captain was given command of Battery D, a rowdy and unmanageable group known as the Dizzy D. Truman succeeded in taming his unit, and the Dizzy D distinguished itself in the battles of Saint-Mihiel and Argonne. In April 1919 Truman, then a major, returned home, and on June 28 he married Bess Wallace.
The following November, Truman and Eddie Jacobson opened a men’s clothing store in Kansas City. With the Dizzy D veterans as customers the store did a booming business, but in 1920, farm prices fell sharply and the business failed. In the winter of 1922 the store finally closed, but Truman refused to declare bankruptcy and eventually repaid his debts.
Truman turned to the Pendergasts for help. Jim Pendergast, Mike’s son, persuaded his father to give Truman permission to enter a four-way Democratic primary for an eastern Jackson County judgeship, which was actually a job to supervise county roads and buildings. Mike refused to support Truman. In addition, one of the other candidates was supported by the Ku Klux Klan, a semi-secret, often violent organization that championed white supremacy. Truman was advised to join the Klan, but when he objected to its discriminatory policies against blacks, Jews, and Roman Catholics, his entrance fee was returned. Nonetheless, by campaigning on his war record and Missouri background, Truman won the primary and the general election. In January 1923 he was sworn into his first public office. A year later the Trumans’ only child, Mary Margaret, was born.
As one of three county judges, Truman had little authority to repair the bad roads, the crumbling public buildings, or the depleted county treasury. Nevertheless, he reduced his inherited debt of more than $1,000,000 by $600,000, and he improved some of the roads. In his spare time he enrolled in the Kansas City Law School, participated in the local Masonic Lodge, and maintained his interest in the National Guard, eventually becoming a colonel.
As his two-year term drew to a close, Truman stood for renomination in the Democratic primary. By this time, however, the party was badly split, and the Ku Klux Klan helped bring about his only election defeat. For the next two years he sold automobile club memberships and ventured into the banking business.
Political machines, such as the Pendergast organization, were common to both parties in the 1920s. They were based on the spoils system, in which winning politicians gave government jobs to those loyal party members who had helped them get elected. Using government jobs as rewards, politicians created efficient (and often almost unstoppable) vote-getting “machines,” in which party loyalty was often more important than doing any work. Without local machine support a political career was extremely difficult. Political machines were especially powerful in Missouri. In 1926 Tom Pendergast, Mike’s other son, supported Truman for a four-year term as presiding judge of the county with full authority over county roads, buildings, and taxes. Although the Pendergast machine was strong, with his characteristic bluntness, Truman told Pendergast he would fire any man who failed to do an honest job. Finding the road system a shambles, the courthouse in ruins, and tax money in the pockets of Pendergast supporters, Truman began wholesale firings. He appointed an independent road commission, hired reputable workers, secured out-of-state bank loans at low interest rates, and ended graft in building contracts. He toured the country to find the best-designed courthouse. He found it in Shreveport, Louisiana, hired its architect, and floated a successful bond issue to pay for a similar building in Kansas City. In 1929 Mike Pendergast died, and his two sons replaced him. Truman’s influence was enhanced, and he was reelected to a second four-year term as presiding county judge.
By 1934 the Pendergast machine was the tool of gangsters who promoted gambling, vice rings, bootlegging, police bribes, and murder. Truman, plodding along on his honest road program and courthouse project, earned the respect of his constituents, who may have been impressed by the novelty of an honest official. However, a presiding judge was traditionally limited to two terms, and Truman appeared to have no hope of a political future until Tom Pendergast asked Truman to run for the U.S. Senate.
After a long, hard battle, Truman soundly defeated his Republican opponent. Truman capitalized on the popularity of the New Deal, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s innovative domestic legislation to counteract the effects of the Great Depression. On January 3, 1935, Truman was sworn in as the junior senator from Missouri.
Harry Truman’s arrival in Washington was met with disdain. His colleagues regarded him as a tool of the Pendergast machine, which the White House was already investigating. Roosevelt believed that Truman would probably be implicated. Fortunately, Truman’s common sense and knowledge of government and history impressed two of the Senate’s most influential men. One was vice president John Nance Garner, and the other was Arthur H. Vandenberg, Republican senator from Michigan. With their aid, Truman was named to two important committees, the Appropriations Committee and the Interstate Commerce Committee. Working on a subcommittee of the latter with Senator Warren Austin, he wrote the Truman-Austin bill that created the Civil Aeronautics Board.
Truman also joined the subcommittee on railroads, becoming vice-chairman and, later, acting chairman. Steeping himself in the history of the industry, he conducted hearings until early 1939. Despite pressures from powerful railroad companies, including the Missouri Pacific Railroad, he recommended major regulatory changes that were embodied in the Transportation Act of 1940.
The White House ignored Truman because he was a consistent New Deal senator whom Roosevelt did not have to coerce and because the Pendergast investigation was not completed, Truman was ignored by the White House. When the investigation ended, it disclosed widespread corruption and brutality, but it failed to reveal a single act of wrongdoing in Truman’s career. In the light of Roosevelt’s hatred of Pendergast, Truman could have seriously damaged his career when, learning of Pendergast’s indictment, he told a reporter, “Tom Pendergast has always been my friend, and I don’t desert a sinking ship.”
To no one’s surprise, the two Missouri Democrats who brought about Pendergast’s downfall challenged Truman for his Senate seat in the primary. One was Governor Lloyd Stark, whom Roosevelt supported, and the other was Maurice Milligan, whose nomination for a second term as U.S. district attorney Truman had opposed in the Senate. Truman began his primary fight with no political backing, no money, and two popular reformers as opponents. He traveled the state, making speeches about his record in short, simple language. He won the primary, and despite his Pendergast association, mentioned frequently by his Republican opponent, he won in November. His reelection was so unexpected that when he returned to the Senate, his colleagues gave him a standing ovation.
In 1941 the United States government was preparing for World War II, a conflict that had begun in Europe in 1939. The government was building army camps and issuing defense contracts. Even before his second term began, Truman’s constituents had written him about waste and confusion in the defense program. Truman toured the camps and defense plants and discovered appalling conditions. Back in the new Senate he denounced the defense program, demanded an investigation, and was named the head of the investigating committee.
During the next two years the Truman committee produced detailed reports on the defense programs. Committee members frequently visited defense installations to substantiate the testimony of contractors, engineers, and army and government personnel. Truman’s success in uncovering fraud and waste led the Senate in 1942 to give the committee $100,000, an increase of $85,000 over the first year. It was estimated that the Truman committee saved the country $15 billion and spent only $400,000.
The committee also put Truman on the national stage. With increasing frequency, leading Democrats mentioned Harry S. Truman as a potential 1944 vice-presidential candidate.
Before the Democratic National Convention opened in July 1944, it was assumed that Roosevelt would run for a fourth term, but his health became a matter of great concern to party leaders, whose most difficult task was to name his running mate. The current vice president was Henry A. Wallace, a strong proponent of using the federal government to regulate big businesses, protect the civil rights of minorities, and encourage labor unions. Wallace’s liberal views offended many of the more conservative leaders of the Democratic Party, and they encouraged Roosevelt to find someone more appealing to mainstream voters. Among the leading contenders were Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Senators Alben W. Barkley, James F. Byrnes, and Truman. Truman was nominated on the second ballot. After a whirlwind campaign and overwhelming victory, Truman took the oath of office as vice president on January 20, 1945.
Truman then engineered the Senate confirmation of Roosevelt’s appointment of Henry Wallace as secretary of commerce and Federal loan administrator, attended the funeral of Tom Pendergast despite wide criticism, and cast the tie-breaking Senate vote that ensured that the United States would continue delivering supplies to U.S. allies after the war was over. However, he saw very little of the president. Soon after the inauguration, Roosevelt left Washington for the month-long Yalta Conference, where the Allies discussed military strategy and political problems, including plans for governing Germany after the war.
When Roosevelt returned in March, he met with Truman in two short meetings. When Roosevelt left for Warm Springs, Georgia, on March 30, Roosevelt had still not informed his vice president about the conduct of the war or the plans for peace. Thirteen days later, Truman was summoned to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt told him, “Harry, the president is dead.”
At 7:09 PM on April 12, 1945, Harry S. Truman, who had been vice president of the United States for just 82 days, was sworn in as president by Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone. Truman’s first month in office was largely devoted to briefings by Roosevelt’s aides. He asked the founding conference of the United Nations to meet in San Francisco on April 25, as had been planned before Roosevelt’s death. When victory in Europe seemed certain, he insisted on unconditional German surrender, and on May 8, 1945, his 61st birthday, he proclaimed Victory-In-Europe Day (V-E Day).
Truman convinced the San Francisco conference delegation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) that the general assembly of the new world peace organization should have free discussions and should make recommendations to the security council. On June 26 he addressed the final conference session, and six days later he presented the United Nations Charter to the Senate for ratification.
From July 17 to August 2, 1945, Truman attended the Potsdam Conference in Germany, meeting with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Clement Attlee, Churchill’s successor as British prime minister. The conference discussed how to implement the decisions reached at the Yalta Conference. As presiding officer, Truman proposed the establishment of the council of foreign ministers to aid in peace negotiations, settlement of reparations claims, and conduct of war crimes trials. He also gained Stalin’s promise to enter the war against Japan. In this first meeting with the other Allied leaders, Truman confirmed his earlier favorable impression of Churchill, while he called the Soviets, in one of his typically blunt statements, “pigheaded people.”
On July 26, Truman issued the Potsdam Declaration, which called for Japan’s unconditional surrender and listed peace terms. He had already been informed of the successful detonation of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, ten days earlier. Military advisers had told Truman that a potential loss of about 500,000 American soldiers could be avoided if the bomb were used against Japan. When Japan rejected the ultimatum, Truman authorized use of the bomb. On August 6, 1945, at 9:15 am Tokyo time, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, virtually destroying the city. According to U.S. estimates about 60,000 to 70,000 people were killed or missing as a result of the bomb and many more were made homeless. Stalin sent troops into Manchuria and Korea on August 8, and the following day a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. About one-third of the city was destroyed, and according to U.S. estimates about 40,000 people were killed or injured. Japan sued for peace on August 14. The official Japanese surrender took place on September 2, 1945, aboard the U.S.S. Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay.
With the war ended, Truman turned to the problem of reconverting the country to peacetime production without causing the inflation and unemployment that followed World War I. His message to the Congress of the United States on September 6, 1945, requested a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission to aid blacks; wage, price, and rent controls to slow inflation; extended old-age benefits; public housing; a national health insurance program; and a higher minimum wage. His program was met with bitter opposition by congressional leaders who felt he wanted to move too far and too fast.