Born on May 8, 1888, in Lamar, Missouri, Harry was the first of three children born to John Anderson Truman, a farmer and mule trader, and his wife, Martha Ellen Truman. When his parents chose his name, they decided on “Harry,” to honor his maternal uncle, Harrison Young, but could not decide on a middle name. After more than a month of discussion, they settled on an initial, instead of a second name. “S” was a tribute to both his maternal grandfather, Solomon Young, and his paternal grandfather, Anderson Shipp Truman. A shy, bespectacled Truman grew up a farm in Independence, Missouri. He entered a Kansas City business college after graduating high school -- his second choice because poor eyesight precluded a chance for a commission to West Point Military Academy. Finances forced him to drop out after only one semester, and he took up a number of jobs to help the family. He first was a timekeeper for a railroad construction company, and then a clerk and a bookkeeper at two separate banks in Kansas City.
From Shy Child to Confident Soldier
After five years, he unhappily returned to the farm as its bookkeeper. As a child, an overbearing mother kept Harry from becoming friends with other boys. Seeking male camaraderie, he joined the National Guard and found himself well-liked and respected. He found time amidst it all to court Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace, a high school classmate. She refused to marry him, but they continued their courtship.
|Harry Truman, WWI|
via Wikimedia Commons
When the war ended in 1918, Truman returned home to Bess. When he was sent off to France, she had realized that there was no man for her but Harry. However, he refused to marry her before he left, fearing the war would leave her a widow. They were married in 1919, and their only child, daughter Mary Margaret, was born four years later. That same year, he and a military buddy, Eddie Jacobson, set up a haberdashery shop in Kansas City. However, when the business failed in 1922, Truman owed $20,000 to creditors. A man who believed in never taking the easy way refused to declare bankruptcy and insisted on paying back all the money he borrowed. It took him over fifteen years to fully repay the debt.
A Political Career
While looking for a new job after his menswear shop closed, he was approached by Democratic boss Thomas Prendergast. They had a mutual connection through Prendergast’s nephew James, who had served with Truman during the war. Pendergast appointed Truman to a position as an overseer of highways, and after a year, chose him to run for one of three county judge positions in Jackson County. Truman was elected to an administrative judge position but was defeated when he ran for a second term. Undaunted, Truman ran again in 1926 and was elected as a presiding judge, a position he held until he was elected to the United States Senate in 1934.
|Truman's campaign "sound" car, 1934|
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
By the time Truman was up for reelection in 1940, Thomas Pendergast had been convicted of tax evasion and associated with voter fraud. Many predicted Truman’s connection to Pendergast would result in defeat. However, Truman didn’t try to hide or distort his relationship with Pendergast. His reputation as a frank and ethical man helped him win reelection. In his second term, Truman chaired a special committee to investigate the National Defense Program. With World War II waging in Europe, Franklin Roosevelt was quietly beefing up the military, and Truman’s committee’s role was to prevent war profiteering and wasteful spending in defense industries. He gained public support and recognition for his straightforward reports and practical recommendations, and again his lack of pretense earned him the respect of his colleagues.
Path to the White House
In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term. FDR deemed his acting vice president, Henry Wallace, unacceptable. Instead of a figurehead, FDR wanted to revolutionize the office and staff it with someone who could truly be second in command. Though Wallace was committed to FDR’s New Deal principles, he was too socially liberal and politically insensitive to gain congressional support. However, to replace Wallace, FDR had to find a steady leader who would be a stronger ticket mate.
Truman’s popularity, as well as his reputation as a fiscally responsible man and a defender of citizens’ rights, made him FDR’s choice. Truman had represented his constituents’ wishes in voting for isolationism, but he personally realized that US involvement in WWII was inevitable. A simple man, even after his time in Washington, he spoke of his evolving position, saying, “ We are facing a bunch of thugs, and the only theory a thug understands is a gun and bayonet.”
|President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vice-President-elect Harry S. Truman, and Vice-President Henry Wallace|
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Truman was initially reluctant to accept the candidacy, preferring the modest job of Senator. However, true to his character, he took the nomination seriously and campaigned vigorously. Roosevelt and Truman were elected in November of 1944, and Truman took the oath of office on January 20, 1945. He served as vice president just 82 days before FDR suffered a massive stroke and died. An urgent summons brought him to the White House, where he was greeted by the newly widowed Eleanor Roosevelt, who broke the news by saying, “Harry, the President is dead.” The once-reluctant vice president was sworn in as the thirty-third president on April 12, 1945. With no prior experience in foreign policy, Truman was thrust into the role of Commander-in-Chief. In the first six months of his term, he announced the Germans’ surrender, dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II, and signed the charter ratifying the United Nations.
In spite of these early successes, Truman’s diplomatic situation was beset with challenges. The Soviet Union had been a powerful ally to the United States during the war, but international relations deteriorated quickly when it became apparent that the Soviets intended to remain in control of Eastern European nations. These countries were expected to be returned to their pre-Hitler governments, and in response to these actions, the USSR was excluded from both NATO and from profiting in the reconstruction of Asia, beginning the Cold War. Republicans won both houses of Congress in 1946, which was seen as a judgment of President Truman’s policies, and polls indicated that reelection in 1948 was all but impossible. Polls were so lopsided that there was little reason to believe that New York Governor Thomas Dewey would not win the general election. The Chicago Tribune famously went to press with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” before the final votes were counted. The early polls were wrong; the final outcome was a win for Truman with 49.5 percent of the vote. Seventy years later, this is still considered one of the greatest upsets in the history of American elections.
|"Dewey Defeats Truman"|
By Museum claims ownership [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
The Little White House
In November 1946, President Truman had finished 19 months in office but was physically exhausted. His doctor ordered a rest in a warm climate. In 1912, President William Howard Taft used Key West, Florida’s naval base as a layover en route to Central America to inspect construction of the Panama Canal. Recalling this, Truman decided to decamp to there for the winter. Despite the distance, Bess, who abhorred the public eye and the scrutiny given to the First Lady, stayed behind in Missouri.
|The Little White House, Key West, Florida|
He continued to visit after his presidency ended in 1953. To date, six American presidents have used it as the functioning White House of America and as a retreat and summit meeting location. The house remains on standby for Presidential use to this day.
A Third Administration?
During his second administration (first elected) as president, Truman announced his domestic policy initiative, the “Fair Deal” program, in his 1949 State of the Union address. Building on Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” it included universal health care, an increase in the minimum wage, more funding for education and a guarantee of equal rights under the law for all citizens. The program was not an independent success. In 1948, racial discrimination had been banned in federal government hiring practices, the military was desegregated, and the minimum wage had gone up. National health insurance was rejected, as was more money for education.
|President Truman initiating Korean involvement|
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Truman’s challenges were not limited to international affairs. On the home front, he was struggling to manage a labor dispute between the United Steel Workers of America and the major steel mills. The union demanded a wage increase, but the mill owners refused to grant it unless the government allowed them to increase the prices of their consumer goods, which had been capped by the Wage Stabilization Board. Unable to broker an agreement and unwilling to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed in spite of his veto in 1947 and would have allowed him to seek an injunction that prevented the union from striking, Truman seized the steel mills in the name of the government. The steel companies responded by filing a suit against the government, and the case, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Sawyer (sometimes referred to as "The Steel Seizure Case") went before the Supreme Court. The Court found for the steel mills and forced Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to give the mills back to the owners. Truman's handling of this dispute further tarnished his reputation with the American people. In March of 1952, Truman announced that he would not run for reelection.
A quiet and simple man, Harry S. Truman’s childhood was not very indicative of who he’d become as an adult. He believed in hard work, keeping promises, and taking responsibility; while his nickname was Truman the Human, he’s more famously quoted as saying, “The Buck Stops Here.” A reluctant vice president, he steered the country and the world through the end of World War II and its aftermath, and after handing over the reigns to President Eisenhower in January of 1953, Truman returned to Bess and a quiet life in Independence, Missouri. There he wrote his memoirs and oversaw the construction of his presidential library. He died on December 26, 1972, and is buried in the courtyard of the Truman Library.
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