Truman, Harry S.
- (1884-1972)34th vice president and 30th president of the United States. Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri. The “S” was added to his name to appease both paternal and maternal grandfathers, Anderson Shippe Truman and Solomon Young. The family moved to Independence, Missouri, in 1890. Truman finished high school in 1901 and had a number of jobs, including timekeeper and bank clerk. He served in a National Guard artillery unit in Kansas City, Missouri, and when the United States entered World War I, he rose from lieutenant to captain in charge of a battery in the 129th Artillery Regiment. He saw action in France during the Argonne offensive.After the war, Truman married Bess Wallace and opened a haberdashery store in Kansas City. He lost this business and a farm in the recession of 1920 through 1922. A member of the Democratic Party, in 1922 he was elected district court judge with the support of Kansas City “Boss” Tom Pendergast. Truman advocated economy and efficiency and improved rural roads, and he also looked after the interests of his political backers. Nonetheless, he was defeated in 1924 but elected presiding judge of the county court in 1926 and again in 1930. In 1934, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.As senator, Truman supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and served on the Interstate Commerce Committee, where he built strong relations with the railway unions. He was reelected in 1940 and in 1941 was appointed chair of a select committee investigating defense production. The committee was critical of waste and inefficiency in war contracts, and Truman made a reputation as a defender of small businesses.In 1944, Truman was chosen as a compromise candidate for the vice presidency over Henry A. Wallace. Successfully elected, he had little personal contact with the president before Roosevelt’s death on 12 April 1945 propelled him into the White House. As president, Truman had to provide the leadership in bringing World War II to a successful conclusion and ensure a lasting peace settlement. While the German armies were already beaten and surrendered on 7 May, it was Truman who made the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a move that finally ensured Japan’s agreement to surrender on 14 August 1945.Truman set a new tone in relations with the Soviet Union in his first meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in April when the president addressed him in very strong terms about the Soviet failure to honor agreements in Eastern Europe. Truman met with the other Allied leaders, British prime minister Winston Churchill (replaced following his defeat by Clement Attlee) and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, at the last major wartime conference in Potsdam in Germany in July 1945. Although agreement was reached on a number of issues, including Soviet entry into the war against Japan, relations were less cordial than had previously been the case. As relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated, Truman endorsed the policy of containment when he announced the TrumanDoctrine in his speech on 12 March 1947 asking Congress to approve aid to Greece and Turkey. This was followed on 3 April 1948 by the creation of the Marshall Plan to provide aid to Europe. As the Cold War between East and West developed, Truman approved the National Defense Act in 1947 reorganizing the armed forces and creating the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Council. When faced with the Berlin blockade in June 1948, Truman opted against the use of military force and instead ordered the airlift of supplies that continued until May 1949 when the blockade was lifted. However, Truman approved U.S. involvement in North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April 1949 as a further defensive measure against the perceived threat of communism in Europe. At home, Truman had to see the country through reconversion from wartime to peacetime production. The ending of wartime controls with the demise of the Office of Price Administration in November 1946 was followed by inflation and a wave of industrial unrest. In 1946, more than 4.6 million workers were involved in almost 5,000 strikes, including a coal strike in March and a rail strike in May. Truman, whose desktop motto was “The Buck Stops Here,” responded on 17 May by seizing the railroads and mines on 21 May. He followed the act on 25 May with a speech to Congress that was highly critical of trade unions and included a threat to draft strikers, if necessary. When the miners, led by John L. Lewis, ignored a court order and again began a strike in 1946, Truman’s public opinion ratings fell from 87 percent in June 1945 to 32 percent. Although he took the mine union to court and forced them back to work, the damage was done, and in the congressional elections the Republicans captured both houses of Congress for the first time since 1930. Truman regained some of his standing with the unions when he vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, but it was still passed over his veto. Truman won support from one section of the population while losing it from another. Appalled by the violence suffered by returning African American G.I.s, Truman became the first president to publicly speak out against such acts when he addressed the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in a national broadcast from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on 29 June 1947. Having failed to establish a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee, the president established a Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. Its report, To Secure These Rights, published in 1947, called for an end to discrimination in employment, housing, transportation, and public accommodation and also called for an end to discrimination in the federal civil service and armed forces, as well as antilynching legislation and protection for voting rights. On 26 July 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981 directing the beginning of desegregation in the armed forces. Another order called for an end to discrimination in the federal civil service. Truman’s stand on race alienated large numbers of southern Democrats, many of whom bolted the party to support Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats in the 1948 elections. Some liberals also left the party to support Wallace’s Progressive Party. To many observers it seemed that Truman’s defeat was inevitable. However, faced by a lackluster campaign from the Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey, and a barnstorming performance from Truman in a “whistle-stop” tour across the country, the result was an upset victory for the president and a return to Democratic control in Congress. In his inaugural address on 5 January 1949, Truman promised a “Fair Deal” for “every segment of our population and every individual.” However his program of reform was largely blocked by an alliance of conservative Democrats and Republicans and because of the impact of the Cold War on domestic politics.In the area of foreign policy, the United States faced major setbacks when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb on 29 August 1949, ending the U.S. monopoly. On 21 December 1949, Chiang Kai-shek was forced to leave mainland China for Taiwan by the communist forces led by Mao Zedong. These developments were seen as defeats by Republican critics who blamed communist sympathizers within the government, particularly the State Department.Truman responded to such charges by establishing the Federal Loyalty Program in 1947, but this merely provided ammunition for his critics. Their suspicions appeared to be confirmed by the revelations made by Whittaker Chambers before the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1948 and the subsequent trial of Alger Hiss and his conviction for perjury in 1950. This provided the backdrop for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that unleashed the further accusations and investigations, or “witch hunt,” known as McCarthyism. The Internal Security Act of 1950, also known as the McCarran Act or McCarran-Wood Act, intended to deal with suspected communist infiltration, was passed over Truman’s veto.Events overseas strengthened McCarthy’s position. Truman responded to the invasion of South Korea by the North on 25 June 1950 by calling for a United Nations’ (UN) police action and announcing that U.S. military forces would be led by General Douglas MacArthur on behalf of the UN. When communist China sided with North Korea in October 1950, MacArthur recommended attacking China and using atomic bombs. Truman refused, and after MacArthur’s forces were pushed back, the general openly criticized the president’s decision and was called home. The war, now a stalemate, ended on 27 July 1953. Elsewhere in Asia, Truman made what turned out to be a fateful decision in 1950 when he recognized French rule in Vietnam and approved a substantial aid package to assist the French in their war against the procommunist nationalist forces led by Ho Chi Minh. The Korean War, the president’s public differences with MacArthur, and several scandals involving minor members of the administration—particularly in the Internal Revenue Service—led to a drop in Truman’s popularity to the lowest levels ever recorded. This was exacerbated by his seizure of the steel mills on 8 April 1952 in an industrial dispute in which the employers rejected a raise approved by the Wage Stabilization Board. The president was viewed as being too sympathetic to the labor unions for not using the Taft-Hartley Act to delay the strike. The Supreme Court ruled the seizure unconstitutional in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer on 2 June 1952.After losing in the New Hampshire primary to Estes Kefauver in March, Truman announced his decision not to stand for reelection. He and Bess Truman returned to their home in Independence, Missouri, where he worked on his Memoirs, published in 1955 and 1956, and established the Truman Library. He toured Europe in 1956 and was given an honorary degree by the University of Oxford. In 1964, he was honored by Congress, and in 1965 he was present at the White House for the signing of the Medicare bill. Truman’s reputation has improved since his death because of his lack of pretension, forthright manner, and honesty.
Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . Neil A. Wynn . 2015.
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