Harry S. Truman, 1884–1972, 33d President of the United States, b. Lamar, Mo.
Early Life and Political Career
He grew up on a farm near Independence, Mo., worked at various jobs, and tended the family farm. He served as a captain of field artillery in France in World War I. On his return from the war he married (1919) Elizabeth (Bess) Virginia Wallace; they had one daughter, Mary Margaret. After a brief partnership in a haberdashery store, Truman turned to politics and, with support from the Democratic machine of Thomas J. Pendergast, was elected judge (1922–24) and president judge (1926–34) of Jackson co., Mo. He attended (1923–25) the Kansas City school of law.
In 1934 he was elected a U.S. Senator. In the Senate he was a firm supporter of the New Deal policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the administration was cool toward Truman because of his connection with Pendergast. By 1940 the Pendergast machine had been broken, and Truman had a hard fight for reelection. In his second term he achieved national prominence as chairman of a Senate committee to investigate government expenditures in World War II. His vigorous investigations revealed startling inefficiency and bungling on war contracts. Because he was acceptable both to the conservative Democrats and the New Dealers as well as to powerful labor leaders, Truman was nominated for Vice President in 1944 and was elected to office along with President Roosevelt.
On the death (Apr. 12, 1945) of Roosevelt, Truman succeeded to the presidency. He assumed power at a very critical time. He was immediately confronted with the problems of concluding the war and preparing for the difficulties of international postwar readjustment. The war in Europe ended with Germany's unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, and in July Truman attended the Potsdam Conference to discuss the postwar European settlement. To end the conflict with Japan, he authorized the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That action did bring the war to an immediate end, but the morality of it continues to be debated.
At home, inflation and demobilization were the chief worries of reconversion to a peacetime economy. Although Truman began quietly to eliminate the old New Dealers from the administration, his domestic policies were essentially a continuation of those of the New Deal. His program (later labeled the Fair Deal) called for guaranteed full employment, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee to end racial discrimination, an increased minimum wage and extended social security benefits, price and rent controls, public housing projects, and public health insurance. However, Congress, which was controlled by the Republicans after the 1946 elections, blocked most of these projects, while passing other legislation—notably the Taft-Hartley Labor Act (1947)—over Truman's veto.
In foreign affairs his chief adversary was the USSR. Relations with that country deteriorated rapidly after Potsdam. The two powers were unable to agree to feasible plans for the unification of Germany, general disarmament, or the establishment of a United Nations armed force. Truman took an increasingly tough stand against what he considered to be the threat of Communist expansion in S and W Europe. In 1947 he proposed a program of economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey, stating that it should be a principle of U.S. policy
"to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."
Enunciation of the so-called Truman Doctrine signaled the beginning of the policy of
of Communism. It was implemented by the adoption of the Marshall Plan (1947), designed to effect the economic reconstruction of Europe, by the Point Four program (1949) of technical aid to underdeveloped countries, and, above all, by the creation (1949) of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In 1948, Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces. As a result, a bloc of southern Democrats bolted the party and sponsored J. Strom Thurmond for President in the election of that year. Truman was also challenged on the left by Henry A. Wallace of the Progressive party, who opposed Truman's policy of confrontation with the Soviet Union. Although he won renomination, the President was thought to have little chance of reelection. But Truman embarked on a vigorous whistle-stop campaign across the country, blaming the Republican Congress for most of the nation's ills and highlighting its inactivity by calling a special session of Congress, at which he urged the Republicans to enact into law their own moderately liberal party platform. The campaign was a resounding success. Contrary to all the predictions, Truman defeated his Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, and Democratic majorities swept into the House and Senate.
In his second administration Truman made little progress with his Fair Deal programs, although he did secure passage of a housing act (1949). Domestic affairs were increasingly dominated by the fear of Communist subversion. Truman had instituted (1947) a loyalty program for civil servants, but the government came under increasing attack for loose security, particularly after the conviction of Alger Hiss. Truman dismissed the charges of internal subversion as a
; in 1950 the McCarran Internal Security Act, which provided for the registration of Communist and Communist-front organizations, was passsed over Truman's veto.
Overseas developments contributed considerably to the tide of fear within the United States. Truman's administration was blamed by many for the collapse of the regime of Chiang Kai-shek (toward which the administration had been cool) and the victory of the Communists in China (1949). The success of the Chinese Revolution was followed by the outbreak (1950) of the Korean War. Truman immediately sent U.S. troops to Korea under the aegis of the United Nations. In 1951 he raised the controversy that had been building up around American foreign policy to a new pitch of intensity when he dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur from his East Asian command for insubordination for attempting to involve the Chinese in the war and for publicly advocating an attack on China.
At home Truman became involved in further controversy when he seized (1952) the steel industry in order to prevent a strike. He claimed that the action was justified by the President's inherent powers in time of emergency, but the Supreme Court overruled him. Disclosures of corruption among federal officials were also politically damaging during this period. Truman declined renomination in 1952 and pressed the presidential candidacy of Adlai Stevenson, who was, however, overwhelmingly defeated by the Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Later Life and Legacy
Truman remained active in politics for many years after his retirement, campaigning around the country for Democratic candidates and commenting on national issues. He also contributed much time to the Harry S. Truman Library, which opened in 1957 in Independence, Mo. Truman died on Dec. 26, 1972.
Although Truman did not have great success with his domestic programs, many of his reform proposals were later enacted into law. Thrust into office largely ignorant of foreign affairs, he acted decisively in erecting the machinery of
against the threat of Communist expansion and committing the United States to a new internationalism. Some historians, however, have challenged the assumption of a Communist threat on which Truman's action were based. They argue that the cold war confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union could have been averted by a more conciliatory attitude on the part of the Truman administration. Although Truman's policies remain a subject of controversy, he has become a popular figure largely because of his feisty personality and his come-from-behind victory in 1948.
See his Year of Decisions (1955), Years of Trial and Hope (1956), and Mr. Citizen (1960). See also S. Neal, ed., Eleanor and Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman (2002); biographies by M. Truman (1972), D. McCullough (1992), A. L. Hamby (1995), and A. D. Donald (2012); R. Donovan, The Presidency of Harry S. Truman (2 vol., 1979–84); R. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency (1983); Z. Karabell, The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election (2000); W. D. Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War (2008); W. L. Miller, Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World (2012); R. S. Kirkendall, ed., Harry S. Truman Encyclopedia (1989).