Harry S. Truman. ”Early Life 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, in 1884. Truman had no middle name; his parents apparently gave him the middle initial S. because two family relatives 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. Early Career 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 World War I began in 1914 as a local European war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. 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. Entrance Into Politics 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. Truman was advised to join the Klan, but he objected to its discriminatory policies against blacks, Jews, and Roman Catholics. Nonetheless, by campaigning on his war record and Missouri background, Truman won the primary and in 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. United States Senator After a long, hard battle, Truman soundly defeated his Republican opponent. On January 3, 1935, Truman was sworn in as the junior senator from Missouri. 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. Truman also joined the subcommittee on railroads, becoming vice-chairman and, later, acting chairman. 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. 1940 Election To no one’s surprise, two Missouri Democrats 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.
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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. Second Term 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. The Truman 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. Vice President of the United States 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.” President of the United States Wartime President 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. The Supreme Allied Headquarters reported that 129,558 people were killed, injured, or missing and 176,987 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 about 66,000 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. Domestic Affairs Reconversion 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. Congress’s price control bill was so weak that on June 19, 1946, Truman vetoed it, saying it gave a choice “between inflation with a statute and inflation without one.” When he finally signed a bill the following month, prices had already risen 25 percent, and basic commodities had risen 35 percent. Mounting Opposition Demobilization had proceeded smoothly, but increased prices led to strikes for higher wages, particularly in basic industries. Truman had always been on the side of labor, but he would not allow strikes to paralyze the nation. He used executive orders and court injunctions to end the strikes, offending labor unions in the process. Truman was the central figure in three controversial issues concerning the military. First, he insisted on transferring control and development of nuclear energy from the military to the civilian Atomic Energy Commission and on placing authority to use the bomb solely with the president. Second, he persuaded Congress to unify the armed forces under a civilian secretary of defense. Third, Truman ordered the armed forces of the United States desegregated after Congress refused to do so. This decision, plus the military requirements of the Korean War, ended most discrimination in the U.S. Army and gave black men an opportunity for economic advancement denied them in many other areas. Truman had at first retained Roosevelt’s Cabinet, but he soon felt uncomfortable with it. By September 1946 only Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal remained.
New Deal supporters particularly objected to the removal of Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace, although he had publicly criticized Truman’s foreign policy, including its increasingly hostile attitude toward the USSR. Congressional Election of 1946 As the congressional campaigns began, even Democrats were divorcing themselves from Truman’s programs. By using the Democratic discontent and the issues of rising inflation, scarcity of meat, and labor unrest, the Republicans scored a resounding victory, capturing both houses of Congress. In his 1947 State of the Union message, Truman requested a law to strengthen the Department of Labor, establish a labor-management relations commission, and end jurisdictional and secondary strikes. Instead, Congress presented him with its Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act that greatly weakened the position of labor unions. The act outlawed union-only workplaces; prohibited certain union tactics like secondary boycotts; forbade unions to contribute to political campaigns; established loyalty oaths for union leaders; and allowed court orders to halt strikes that could affect national health or safety. Truman vetoed the bill, but on June 23, 1947, the bill was passed over his veto. Instead of writing anti-inflation legislation, Congress voted a tax-cut bill giving 40 percent of the relief to those with incomes in excess of $5000. The bill became law over Truman’s veto. The president once again failed to gather support for his employment, national health, or social security measures. Foreign Policy Truman Doctrine Although the United States and the USSR had been allies against Germany during the war, this alliance began to dissolve after the end of the war, when Stalin, seeking Soviet security, began using the Soviet Army to control much of Eastern Europe. Truman opposed Stalin’s moves. Mistrust grew as both sides broke wartime agreements. Stalin failed to honor pledges to hold free elections in Eastern Europe. Truman refused to honor promises to send reparations from the defeated Germany to help rebuild the war-devastated USSR. This hostility became known as the Cold War. In 1947 British Prime Minister Attlee told Truman that a British financial crisis was forcing Great Britain to end its aid to Greece. At the time the USSR was demanding naval stations on the Bosporus from Turkey, and Greece was engaged in a civil war with Communist-dominated rebels. The president proposed what was called the Truman Doctrine, which had two objectives: to send U.S. aid to anti-Communist forces in Greece and Turkey, and to create a public consensus so Americans would be willing to fight the Cold War. Truman told Congress that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Congress fulfilled his request for $250 million for Greece and $150 million for Turkey. Marshall Plan Truman’s trip to Potsdam and reports from former President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), who headed a postwar food commission, gave him an intimate knowledge of the problems of war-torn Europe. With General George C. Marshall, who was now secretary of state, Truman drew up the European Recovery Plan for the economic rehabilitation of free Europe. This act, also known as the Marshall Plan, was designed to rebuild the European market, which would benefit U.S. trade, and to strengthen democratic governments in Western Europe. The United States wanted to counter the influence of the USSR, which it was beginning to see as its main rival. The U.S. government also believed that West Germany, the zone occupied by U.S., British, and French forces, would have to be rebuilt and integrated into a larger Europe. After careful planning, Marshall announced in June 1947 that if Europe devised a cooperative, long-term rebuilding program, the United States would provide funds.
When the USSR learned that the United States insisted on Soviet cooperation with the capitalist societies of Western Europe and an open accounting of how funds were used, the USSR established its own plan to integrate Communist states in Eastern Europe. Under the Marshall Plan, the United States spent more than $12.5 billion over a four-year period. Berlin Airlift The Marshall Plan and the amazing postwar recovery of West Germany highlighted the Soviet Union’s failure to stabilize the economy of the zone it occupied, East Germany. To embarrass the Allies the Soviets closed off all Allied access to the city of Berlin, which was surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany but the western part of which was under Allied control. Truman recognized that an accessible Berlin was vital for European confidence in the United States. On June 26, 1948, he ordered a full-scale airlift of essential products into the city that continued until May 12, 1949, when the blockade was lifted. Israel Since his early days in the White House, Truman supported the British Balfour Declaration of 1917, which had promised the Jews support for a national homeland in Palestine. He sympathized with the Jewish survivors of Nazi Germany, and in November 1947 he supported the UN plan to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. In the face of sustained pressure from pro-Arab delegations and from those who feared the loss of Arabian oil, Truman recognized the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. Presidential Election of 1948 When Truman decided to run for a full term, he was faced with a major split in the Democratic Party. In 1948 Truman had asked for an end to Jim Crow laws, which maintained segregation in the South. He also proposed laws to punish those responsible for the hanging of blacks without trials, called lynching; laws to protect the voting rights of blacks; and a fair employment practices commission to end job discrimination. All of these angered Southern Democrats. When Northern Democrats inserted these positions into the 1948 Democratic Party platform, a group of Southerners led by Governor J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina left the party and formed the States’ Rights Democrats, or Dixiecrats. Henry Wallace and his supporters had also left to form the Progressive Party, and in addition, some influential Democrats thought victory would be possible only if the popular General Dwight D. Eisenhower could be drafted. The prospects were dim as Truman and his running mate, Senator Alben W. Barkley, set out on their campaign.
Truman received the Democratic Party nomination, and in his acceptance speech, he told the convention he would reconvene Congress on July 26 to give the Republicans a chance to carry out their party’s platform pledges. When the special session ended without passing any important legislation, Truman had his campaign weapon. He embarked on a cross-country whistle-stop tour, defending his record and blasting the “do-nothing Republican 80th Congress.” No one knows who first shouted, “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” but the phrase became the campaign slogan of 1948. While thousands publicly and privately conceded the election to the Republican candidate, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, Truman continued to campaign, making as many as 16 speeches in one day. A few hours after the polls closed on November 2, the Chicago Tribune issued an early edition with the headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, but when the ballots were counted, Truman beat Dewey by more than 2 million votes. Second Term as President Foreign Affairs Truman’s inaugural address proposed four points of action. The first was support of the United Nations, the second was a continuation of the Marshall Plan, the third was collective defense against Communist aggression, and the fourth was aid to underdeveloped countries. North Atlantic Treaty Organization Truman’s third point was developed into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a regional defense alliance, created by the North Atlantic Treaty signed on April 4, 1949. NATO’s purpose was to enhance the stability, well-being, and freedom of its members by means of a system of collective security. The defense plan was greeted warmly by Western Europe, which saw Stalin tighten the USSR’s grip on the countries of Eastern Europe and threaten the rest of Europe. The Senate ratified the treaty, but only after debating it at length. Truman then placed Eisenhower in command of the defense organization. Korea At the end of World War II Korea was divided, and a Communist regime was established in North Korea and an anti-Communist one in the South. Considerable civil strife in the South and growing opposition to South Korea’s president, Syngman Rhee, persuaded the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, that he would be welcomed by many South Koreans as a liberator intent on reuniting the two Koreas. At the same time, Kim would also undermine ongoing opposition to his own regime in North Korea. A war began on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean army, equipped mainly by the USSR, crossed the border and invaded South Korea. The United States immediately sent supplies to Korea and quickly broadened its commitment in the conflict. On June 27 the UN Security Council, with the Soviet Union voluntarily absent, passed a resolution sponsored by the United States calling for military sanctions against North Korea. Three days later, President Truman ordered U.S. troops stationed in Japan to Korea. American forces, those of South Korea, and, ultimately, combat contingents from 15 other nations were placed under United Nations command. The action was unique because neither the UN, nor its predecessor, the League of Nations, had ever used military measures to repel an aggressor. The UN forces were commanded by the U.S. commander in chief in East Asia, General Douglas MacArthur. Although the official policy of the United States and the United Nations was to limit the war to Korea to prevent the entrance of the USSR, early sucA war began on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean army, equipped mainly by the USSR, crossed the border and invaded South Korea. The United States immediately sent supplies to cesses persuaded Truman to move troops into North Korea. As UN soldiers approached the Chinese border, however, China, after several warnings to the United States, crossed into North Korea and began driving UN forces back toward the South. In response, MacArthur publicly requested an extension of the war into Communist China itself, but now Truman abandoned the idea of reunifying Korea by force and returned to the original goal of stopping the invasion of South Korea. When MacArthur then publicly attacked this policy, Truman relieved MacArthur of his command in April 1951 and replaced him with Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway. Until July 1953 UN forces mostly engaged in a series of probing actions known as the active defense. Point Four Truman’s Point Four—aid to underdeveloped countries—stemmed from his belief “that we should make available to peace-loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life.” Congress debated Point Four for nearly 18 months before approving it on June 5, 1950. By offering technical and scientific aid to those who requested it, Point Four helped reduce famine, disease, and the economic hardships of 35 African and Asian nations by 1953. Domestic Affairs Fair Deal Although he had a Democratic Congress, Truman’s Fair Deal domestic program again met stiff opposition. Congress approved his public housing bill, expanded social security coverage, increased minimum wages and passed stronger farm price support bills, as well as flood-control, rural electrification, and public power measures. However, the legislators rejected his request to have the Taft-Hartley Act repealed, his plans for agricultural stabilization, for construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, and for the creation of public hydroelectric companies in the Missouri Valley and Columbia Valley. They also rejected his civil rights proposals. However, he strengthened the civil rights section of the Justice Department by executive orders, and he appointed blacks to a few high offices. Cold War at Home There was also a Cold War at home. Some of Truman’s opponents considered MacArthur’s removal to be evidence that the administration was lenient on Communism. This was despite the fact that Truman had begun investigating applicants for government jobs in 1946; that he had led the fight to aid Greece and Turkey when the British could no longer do so; and that Truman had used that issue to create new security and intelligence agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council. Some Republicans nevertheless believed that Truman had not done enough. In 1948 American writer and editor Whittaker Chambers testified before Representative Richard Nixon and the House Committee on Un-American Activities that he had been a Communist in the 1920s and 1930s and a courier in transmitting secret information to Soviet agents. He charged that State Department member Alger Hiss was also a Communist, and that he had turned classified documents over to Chambers to be sent to the Soviet Union. Hiss denied the charges but Chambers produced microfilm copies of documents that were later identified as classified papers belonging to the Departments of State, Navy, and War, some apparently annotated by Hiss in his own handwriting. The Department of Justice conducted its own investigation, and Hiss was indicted for perjury, or lying under oath. The jury failed to reach a verdict, but Hiss was convicted after a second trial in January 1950 (see Hiss Case). In China the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, which had been supported by the United States, was unable to withstand the advance of Communist forces under Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). By the end of 1949 government troops had been overwhelmingly defeated, and Chiang led his forces into exile on Taiwan. The triumphant Mao formed the People’s Republic of China.
Truman critics charged that the administration had failed to support Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists. Many people were also alarmed in September 1949, when Truman announced that the USSR had developed an atomic bomb. In February 1950 Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy charged in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that the State Department knowingly employed 205 Communists. He later reduced the number to 57, and after an investigation all of the charges were found to be false. McCarthy continued to accuse other officials of Communist sympathies. Without any evidence, he was eventually discredited, and the word McCarthyism came to refer to accusations of subversive activities without any evidence. These incidents and others convinced Congress to pass the Internal Security Act of 1950, called the McCarran Act, over Truman’s veto. The act forced the registration of all Communist organizations, allowed the government to intern Communists during any national emergencies, and prohibited Communists from doing any defense work. The act also prohibited the entrance into the United States of anyone who was a member of a “totalitarian” organization. Seizure of the Steel Mills Despite the administration’s efforts to prevent a strike that would close the country’s steel mills, a strike date was set for early April 9, 1952. Just hours before the scheduled strike, before a nationwide radio audience, Truman directed Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to seize the mills to ensure their production to support the war efforts. However, on June 2, 1952, the Supreme Court of the United States in a 6 to 3 decision on Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer declared the seizure unconstitutional.