Harry S. Truman

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 2002

“You, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization,” said Winston Churchill to Harry S. Truman in 1952. This tribute came at the end of Truman’s presidency, capping a career that began in the farmlands of the American Midwest and concluded at the pinnacle of world power during years of crisis.

Harry Truman was a Missouri boy, born in the town of Lamar on May 8, 1884, and raised in Independence, a county seat of about 6,000 people in the western part of the state near Kansas City.

Politics was meat-and-drink to the Truman clan. Harry’s father, John, was a fiery Democrat, 5-feet-4-inches tall, hot-tempered, ready to put up his dukes with any Republican who rubbed him the wrong way. Harry’s mother, Martha, shared much of John’s partisan fervor. (The boy’s middle initial “S” stood for two family names, Solomon and Shippe.)

Martha taught her son to believe he could be great. So, when he started taking piano lessons at age 11, he resolved to become a virtuoso. He climbed out of his warm bed every morning at 5 o’clock to practice for a couple of hours before school. His fingers probably felt like ice on certain winter mornings, but he kept at it.

Around age 15 he quit piano, feeling a need to be more like his dad – feisty, ready to rumble. Toughness didn’t come easily to young Harry, but he worked hard to add it to his persona and eventually succeeded. This psychological struggle cost him something, creating odd fissures in his soul. For the rest of his life his scrappiness occasionally boiled over into nastiness.

He got a fine education at Independence High School, developing what would be a lifelong love of history, seeing, with the help of good teachers, that the past was not necessarily dry and irrelevant but could be interesting and actually useful. (The same lesson was learned a few years earlier in England by young Winston S. Churchill.)

Graduating from high school in 1902, Harry got a job in the big city, Kansas City. Four years later, his father contacted him with an urgent query. The farm needed help, badly. Could he come home and lend a hand?

Yes, said Harry.

This sojourn on the old homestead turned into a longer commitment than he had expected. He spent most of his 20s laboring in the fields and barns, following a lot more orders than he might have liked.

So, as he entered his 30s, Harry Truman felt somewhat stuck. In some ways he was doing OK. He brimmed with energy and vinegar. He had lots of friends. He pursued a self-improvement program in the Masons. He looked back with pride on his service in the National Guard in his 20s. He dreamed of getting into politics. Maybe, he wrote, he could achieve the presidency of the United States (clearly his mother’s lessons about greatness had taken hold).

But in other ways he viewed his life as a disappointment. He had failed to get into West Point. He had failed to overcome a stubborn shyness. He had failed to make money at a couple of entrepreneurial business ventures, and above all, he had failed to convince the young woman he loved, Bess Wallace, to marry him. His life in his early 30s, writes historian Alonzo L. Hamby, was that of an “aging adolescent.”

Then came America’s decision in 1917 to get involved in the Great War. He grew up in a hurry.

“I was stirred in my heart and soul by the war messages of Woodrow Wilson,” said Truman years later, explaining his decision in 1917, at age 33, to rejoin the National Guard unit he had served from 1905 to 1911. He could have avoided military service – he was well past draft age – but his inner fire was roused by President Wilson’s call for America to assume a measure of responsibility in the world. Another consideration was the fact that he had no family of his own to worry about. Also, he probably wanted to get the heck away from the farm. Most importantly, perhaps, he was eager to prove himself by doing something great on the battlefield.

He was made captain of Artillery Battery D, known as “Dizzy D” for its rowdiness and lack of efficiency. Capt. Truman was petrified by the idea of telling these flinty-eyed mavericks and smirking goofballs what to do. “Never so scared in my life,” he recalled. But he tapped into a wellspring of guts and savvy and turned Dizzy D into a crackerjack unit.

Maybe, during these trying weeks and months, he took sustenance from his history studies, perhaps recalling that another farm boy, the 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln, signed up for a militia outfit in the Black Hawk War in 1832, was made captain of some rowdy fellows, and learned something about leadership. Lincoln regarded election to the militia captaincy as one of the most satisfying and important honors of his life. That would be the sort of historical fact Truman would remember as he swallowed hard and stood alone in front of his men.

Truman saw action in Europe in several campaigns of World War I and fought with distinction in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the autumn of 1918. He had a very good war. He came home brimming with confidence.

Bess Wallace saw something new in the cut of his jib and said “yes.” They wed in June of 1919. Their daughter Margaret would be born in 1924.

In 1922, after one more business failure (with a men’s clothing store in Kansas City) Harry Truman found his forte: politics.

In those days, the Democratic Party in the Kansas City area was largely controlled by patronage machines, one of which was run by the Pendergast family. Harry Truman became buddies with Jim Pendergast during the war. In 1922, the Pendergasts needed a candidate for a judgeship in the Independence area. Harry got picked. He won the election and became Judge Truman.

Getting chosen to run for the office was the first of several lightning bolts of good fortune that would help shape Truman’s political career. He was perhaps the luckiest major American politician of the 20th century. It must also be noted that he wouldn’t have gotten these breaks if he hadn’t been regarded by his patrons as a winner.

Truman’s judgeship was not so much judicial as administrative – he was essentially a county commissioner – so for the next decade he got roads fixed, watched budgets, responded to letters, rode around talking to constituents, and poked his head into offices to see what was going on.

By 1934, at age 50, he felt he had earned a chance to try for the U.S. House of Representatives. However, the Pendergasts informed him that they had someone else in mind for that slot. “What we really want,” Tom Pendergast said, “is for you to run for the U.S. Senate.”

“Don’t kid me.”

“I’m not kidding.”

So it came to pass that, after a tough campaign in the fall of 1934, Harry S. Truman took a seat as a United States senator. He felt insecure and unprepared, despite his 10 years of hands-on government service, despite experience in battle. “I am just a farmer boy,” he claimed. He carried armloads of books home from the Library of Congress (including lots of history books), read them, re-read them, and took notes. He learned how things got done by conversing with his cohorts, listening carefully, playing poker and drinking bourbon after hours in Senate hideaways. He cultivated an openness to experience and carved a record as a moderate-to-liberal New Dealer. In 1943 he made the cover of Time magazine by dint of his aggressive investigation of abuses in military spending.

Sen. Truman on the cover of Time, March 8, 1943.

Then came another bolt from the blue.

In the summer of 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, responding to pressure from party bosses and advisers, wanted a middle-of-the-road type to replace Henry Wallace as vice president. (Did FDR also sense, as he lay in bed at night pondering the future, that his vice president might very well become chief executive, and that a moderate with grit, rather than a left-winger with a mystical bent, would be the best man for the job in a tumultuous post-war world? Maybe so.)

Various names got batted around; intense discussions took place; Truman got more and more support from the bosses. Receiving FDR’s blessing, he was nominated on the convention’s second ballot.

Roosevelt was re-elected in November. He died five months later, on April 12, 1945. Harry S. Truman – “just a farmer boy” – became the 33rd President of the United States.

He was leader of the free world at an hour of peril. The Second World War was still being fought, the Russians were reneging on agreements reached at Yalta, and the international role of the United States was being radically redefined.

Truman, 60, was as ready for the presidency as he would ever be, as ready as anyone whom FDR might realistically have picked as running mate. He was plucky, hard-working, and straight-shooting. He was in the best of health, not least because he walked a brisk two miles every morning, showing the same discipline and enthusiasm that he had given his piano playing as a boy. He had a solid sense of history, a feel for justice, and an open mind. He had 20 years of political experience under his belt, including a decade at the federal level. He liked people and he liked getting things done.

On the other hand, he was too hot-tempered, as his father had been. He lacked deep knowledge of foreign affairs – he had never even met Churchill or Stalin. He was a mediocre public speaker. Plenty of folks compared him to FDR and found him lacking – “people were appalled,” recalls journalist Hugh Sidey about Truman’s assumption of the White House. But some observers looked at his grit, decency, experience, and passion for learning, and were reassured. “Truman is one of the finest men I know,” wrote the perceptive Washington observer Allen Drury in his diary that spring.

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now,” said President Harry S. Truman to a group of reporters on April 13, his first full day in office.

Almost immediately he began making decisions involving the fate of thousands of human beings.

He received a briefing about the atomic bomb. He had known essentially nothing about it despite being plugged into the loop of federal expenditures. In July he ordered the weapon to be dropped on Japanese cities.

On August 6, 1945, a bright, sunny day, at 8:15:17 a.m. local time, the Enola Gay, a specially-built B-29 of the U.S. Army Air Force, flying 31,060 feet over Hiroshima, Japan, dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy,” 10 feet long and weighing almost five tons, toward the city. The bomb exploded between 43 and 57 seconds later (accounts vary), at 1,890 feet, achieving 50 million degrees centigrade for an instant and heating the ground below it (the “hypocenter”) to more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A bright light filled the plane. “The end of the war,” thought Sgt. Joe Stiborik. “A peep into hell,” was the reaction of Sgt. George Caron. On the ground, 80,000 people were instantly killed or seriously wounded.

On August 9, a second A-bomb, delivered by the U.S. plane Bockscar, destroyed one-third of the city of Nagasaki, leaving casualties of 75,000. These two bombings were the first (and, so far, the only) uses of nuclear weapons on populated areas in warfare. Japan announced its intention to surrender on August 14, surrendered on the 15th, and signed the formal papers on September 2. The Second World War was over. Some 60 million people lay dead because of it.

Historians and observers debate the necessity for, and morality of, Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs on civilian populations. Historian Paul Kennedy in “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” (1987) notes the “mix of motives” which “pushed toward the decision” to drop the bomb, including the desire to avoid Allied casualties, scare Stalin, and justify the expenditures of the atomic project. The scholar Jessica Stern, in “The Ultimate Terrorists” (2001), insists that the deliberate bombing of civilians constitutes terrorism. See here for the opinion of journalist and historian Garry Wills on the question of using the Bomb.

Historian James T. Patterson in “Grand Expectations” (1996) suggests the complexities of the decision and the twists and turns of the on-going debate:

The decision to use the Bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was politically popular in the United States – no doubt of that. And it quickly ended the war. Amid the awful passions of the time, it is hardly surprising that Truman acted as he did. Still, revisionism persists. In retrospect, it seems clear (though this is debated) that he could have waited longer – to give the shaken and bewildered Japanese time to figure out what had happened at Hiroshima – before approving use of the Bomb that leveled Nagasaki. It also seems clear that he would have risked little by postponing the bombings in order to ascertain whether Japanese moderates in Tokyo might succeed in their efforts to reach a peace.

But would delay have done any good? Probably not, Patterson indicates:

Subsequent studies of official Japanese decision-making suggest that most top leaders in Tokyo adamantly opposed peace in August 1945: only the A-bombs, bringing on the intercession of Emperor Hirohito, finally forced the Japanese to surrender….The revisionist arguments, while understandable given the horror of nuclear weapons, command only partial acceptance among scholars of the subject.

For his part, Truman claimed he never looked back on the topic and never regretted what he had done. And he made an interesting observation in his diary:

I fear that machines are ahead of mortals….We are only termites on a planet and maybe when we bore too deeply into the planet there’ll (be) a reckoning – who knows?

A speculative essay on his decision is “No Bomb: No End” by historian Richard B. Frank included in the counterfactual history book “What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been” edited by Robert Cowley (2001).

As World War II ended the U.S. was caught up in a new conflict, the Cold War, which would become a 40-year struggle for influence between the West and Communism, one of the greatest challenges ever to confront the American government.

See Here for This Website’s Articles on the Cold War

Could Truman have avoided an increase in Cold War tensions by fully grasping the depth of Soviet insecurity after World War II? By offering concessions as urged by former Vice President Wallace and others? Historians debate the question. But, as scholar David Holloway writes, “All attempts to imagine alternative courses of postwar international relations run up against Stalin himself (and his) malevolent and suspicious personality.” Stalin, says Holloway, would have interpreted U.S. concessions as weakness or deceit. Truman presented an unambiguous firmness to the Kremlin that was probably the right tactic.

In 1945, ’46, and ’47 the people of Europe struggled to rebuild their ravaged countries. Germans, Italians, Greeks and others were hungry and cold; many people listened to the siren call of Communism, which, during these years in Europe, was dominated by the Soviets. U.S. officials thought it possible that all of continental Europe could come under Stalin’s influence. In June, 1947, the Truman Administration proposed creation of the European Recovery Program – a huge monetary grant courtesy of American taxpayers that would become known as the Marshall Plan, named for Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who announced and directed it. Marshall won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953; the Norwegian prize committee calling the plan “the most constructive, peaceful work we have seen in this century.” The program could have been named for Harry S. Truman.


In the 1948 presidential election, seeking a full four-year term, given virtually no chance by experts to defeat Republican Thomas E. Dewey, Truman conducted a national “give ’em hell” campaign (the hell was directed at Congress and Dewey), often speaking to crowds from a railroad car. His toughness occasionally spilled over into nastiness; he declared to a boisterous crowd in Chicago that a vote for Dewey was a vote for fascism. But for the most part his effort was a sound exercise in tough, hard-hitting politics; Dewey meanwhile was shockingly complacent. On November 5, 1948, Truman enjoyed one of the most unexpected election victories in presidential history, winning by 24,105,812 votes to 21,970,065.


In August, 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, causing a sharp ripple of fear in the United States. A few weeks later China became a Communist state. In June, 1950, the Cold War abruptly expanded beyond Europe and became global – North Korea, having received Stalin’s stamp of approval, attacked South Korea. The Communists were convinced the U.S. would not react to this aggression – exactly the same conclusion reached by the Japanese eight years earlier. Truman made what he would later call the most important decision of his presidency, sending U.S. troops to Korea under the aegis of the United Nations, with significant support from other Western powers. American intervention in Korea was necessary, and was popular at first, but Truman, under intense political pressure, made a serious mistake in October of ’50, sending U.S. troops across the 38th parallel, which brought China into the war against the UN force. (Truman had been warned of this possibility via diplomatic channels.) The war bogged down in stalemate and became widely disliked in the U.S.

During these years the American public developed deep angst about the specter of international Communism. The Soviet Union was seen as an implacable enemy. “War with Russia is inevitable,” wrote a man named Owen S. Payne in a letter to the editor published in Time magazine in March, 1950, reflecting a common feeling in the land. Sen. Joseph McCarthy cannily exploited the fear and mistrust, saying there was a high-level conspiracy in the U.S. government – in the offices and corridors of the State Department, the Capitol, and so on – to deliver America, Europe, China, Korea, etc., to the Communists. “This utterly preposterous theory almost tore the country apart,” writes historian Samuel Eliot Morison. “Nobody who did not live through that period will ever believe (the) sound and fury.” A related event of these years was the Rosenberg case.

Fear of Communism, and anger about Korea, were large factors in a slide in Truman’s approval rating that began in early 1949 and continued for three years, reaching 22 percent in a Gallup Poll of February, 1952, an all-time low for a president in the era of scientific polling, which began in the 1930s. (His approval numbers were also affected, for part of this period, by a bout of inflation because of the war and by a corruption scandal in the Internal Revenue Service.)

Fear of Communism, and anger about Korea, were large factors in a slide in Truman’s approval rating that began in early 1949 and continued for three years, reaching 22 percent in a Gallup Poll of February, 1952, an all-time low for a president in the era of scientific polling, which began in the 1930s. (His approval numbers were also affected, for part of this period, by a bout of inflation because of the war and by a corruption scandal in the Internal Revenue Service.)

The famous sign on the president’s desk said, “The Buck Stops Here.” Among Truman’s buck-stopping decisions:

* He proposed, and ushered to passage, the first significant federal civil rights legislation since the 19th century, and ordered desegregation of the armed services despite the military’s outraged opposition.

* He supported the creation of Israel in 1948 against the advice of his State Department.

* He established the CIA.

* He quietly encouraged a healthy skepticism of J. Edgar Hoover.

* He fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, a widely-criticized but essential act. (He wrote later, “If there is one basic element in our Constitution, it is civilian control of the military,” giving rather short shrift to freedom of speech and the press, but making a useful point.)

* He supervised with satisfaction a complete renovation of the White House. During this period, he lived in nearby Blair House; it was there, on November 1, 1950, that he was the target of an assassination attempt. Truman heard gunfire on the sidewalk and opened a window to see what was going on (perhaps reminding himself that he had survived combat in World War I). He thus came within 31 feet of Griselio Torresola, a Puerto Rican nationalist who was reloading a Luger with the hope of killing him. It’s not known if Torresola saw Truman; the assailant was killed a few seconds later by a mortally wounded security guard named Leslie W. Coffelt. Truman was not harmed.

* Whenever possible he made a point of saying precisely what was on his mind. Often, this was refreshing; sometimes, it did political damage. On several occasions he sent angry and impolitic letters to the Washington Post (which the paper declined to publish). One of these, in December, 1950, threatened the paper’s music critic, Paul Hume, with physical harm for daring to say that Truman’s daughter Margaret, a professional singer of modest talent, “cannot sing very well.” The bullying of Hume found its way onto the wire services and probably hurt Truman – Americans like their presidents to be tough, but reasoned.

Truman made plenty of mistakes in his nearly eight years as president. His administration over-reacted to the threat of domestic Communism. He tried to buy natonal security on the cheap, damaging the Navy. Most of his “Fair Deal” ideas, including national health insurance (first proposed during his administration) were left spinning their wheels in a politically damaging way because he failed to recognize a domestic shift toward conservatism; a limited health care proposal might have succeeded – something to build on, perhaps covering children and catastrophic cases. (If the cardinal task of a U.S. president is to gauge the national mood and tenor in order to sense what’s do-able, this was a profound failure, with consequences that would last for decades, damaging millions of lives.) Possibly he should not have ordered a vast expansion in the infrastructure for building nuclear weapons, a decision that paved the way for massive build-ups of nukes in subsequent years. (See here for Garry Wills on the expansion of the national security state in the post-World War II years.)

But he showed a capacity to learn from his mistakes. And he was triumphantly right on the main issue of the day, the threat of the Soviet Union. He used troops on the ground in Europe, alliances, and a lot of money to contain Stalin’s ambitions.

Truman was eligible to run for another term in 1952, but in March of that year, knowing full well the paltriness of his approval numbers, he announced he would not run. In November, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower swept to a landslide victory over Democrat Adlai Stevenson. In January of 1953, Harry and Bess climbed on a train in Washington and rode back to Independence, where they would live out their days.

Harry S. Truman died in a Kansas City hospital on December 26, 1972, at the age of 88. Bess died in 1982.

Truman left the White House under a cloud of disdain, but within a few years of his tenure, and continuing to this day, rankings by historians of American presidents put him in, or near, the front rank of chief executives, in the same ballpark as some of the men he read about and admired throughout his life. (The re-assessment of Truman’s presidency has provided psychological sustenance for more than one chief executive since then.)

Truman’s scholarly rehabilitation has been accompanied by admiring best-selling books including “Plain Speaking” by Merle Miller in 1974 and “Truman” by David McCullough in 1992. One of the best filmic portrayals of a U.S. president is offered by Gary Sinise in “Truman” (1995) based on the McCullough book.

“I have been associated with some extraordinary men,” said Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state, “but to me, of them all, Harry Truman was the most  remarkable, the most extraordinary.”