Truman, Harry S. (1884-1972)

Photograph of President Harry S. Truman

Truman Library

Harry S. Truman was born on 8 May 1884 at Lamar, Missouri. Born into a poor farming family, he could not afford college and was rejected for West Point on account of his poor eyesight. However, he joined the National Guard in 1905 and became a captain in an artillery battery in France during the First World War.

Truman subsequently became involved in Democratic politics in Missouri and attended night law school in 1922-1924. During this time, he was associated with the Pendergast political machine. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1934, eventually shaking off his reputation "The Senator from Pendergast" and acquiring a reputation for honesty and as a fighting politician. In 1941 he became the chair of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program (the Truman Committee), which was a watchdog committee that sought to expose corruption in the defense industry, both on the part of management and labor. Truman was highly effective in this role, in part because he avoided publicly embarrassing defense contractors, preferring to work with them in private to force necessary reforms. His October 1942 essay in American Magazine, "We Can Lose the War in Washington," was not well received by Roosevelt, but Truman later apologized for taking so harsh a tone, and Roosevelt came to admire Truman's political skill.

In 1944 Truman was nominated as Roosevelt's Vice President. At this time, there was no particular tradition of the President being close to the Vice President during their terms in office, but Roosevelt's failure to keep Truman at all informed of international developments proved serious when Roosevelt died of a stroke on 12 April 1945. Those who had pushed Truman's nomination were aware of Roosevelt's rapidly deteriorating health and chose Truman with the succession in mind, which makes the failure to keep Truman in the loop all the more inexcusable. Roosevelt seems to have accepted Truman as his running mate only with great reluctance, personally preferring a more liberal politician, such as Jimmy Byrnes (head of the Office of War Management and sometimes spoken of as the assistant President), incumbent Vice President Henry Wallace, or even liberal Republican Wendell Wilkie. By the time of the Democratic convention, however, Roosevelt recognized political reality (in the form of a strong swing in public opinion back to the center) and roughly told the reluctant Truman by telephone that "if he wants to break up the Democratic Party in the middle of the war [by refusing the nomination], that's his responsibility" (Fleming 2001).

Upon Roosevelt's death, Truman was immediately sworn in as his successor and briefed by the Secretary of War on the nuclear weapons program, but he did not take a firm grip on the levers of power until the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, where he rejected the recommendation of the military that Lend-Lease to British forces end at once.

Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.

Truman took a significantly  harder line with the Russians at Potsdam than Roosevelt had at Yalta. Roosevelt's Secretary Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, who was something of a Russophile, resigned from the Cabinet when Truman refused to take him to Potsdam, and the influence of Russophiles in the new administration continued to drop thereafter. King was among the first to recognize Truman's leadership qualities, telling a British representative at Potsdam to "Watch the President. This is all new to him, but he can take it. He is a more typical American than Roosevelt, and he will do a good job, not only for the United States but for the whole world" (Larrabee 1987).

Truman's most momentous and controversial decision during the war was to employ nuclear weapons against Japan. Truman later claimed that the decision seemed obvious and straightforward at the time, but this claim has been challenged by historians who have examined Truman's correspondence. Truman's conduct throughout this period likely reflected the anxiety of a "decent, simple, impulsive man" (Hastings 2007) to appear strong and decisive.

Truman was elected to a second term as President in 1948 by a very narrow margin, but he declined to run for a third term in 1952. His time in office was marked by the beginnings of the Cold War, a time of diplomatic hostility and low-intensity proxy warfare between the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies. The Cold War periodically threatened to turn into a full-fledged "hot" war, and it did not come to an end until 1989, when the Soviet Union was on the verge of political and economic collapse.


Boatner (1996)

Fleming (2001)

Harry S. Truman Library and Museum (accessed 2008-6-21)

Hastings (2007)

Larrabee (1987)

Miscamble (2011)

Smith (1985)

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