HARRY S. TRUMAN was born on May 8, 1884 in Lamar, Missouri, the oldest of the
three children of John Anderson and Martha Ellen Young. He was not given a
middle name, just the initial “S”, reflecting his parents unwillingness to
choose between his grandfathers – Anderson Shippe Truman and Solomon Young. In
1890, at the age of 6, the Trumans moved to Independence, Missouri. Young Truman
attended the Presbyterian Church Sunday school, where he met five-year-old
Elizabeth Virginia (“Bess”) Wallace, who would later become his wife. He did not
begin attending the local school until he was eight and by that time he was
wearing extremely thick glasses to correct his nearsightedness. Because he could
not join in many of the boyhood activities due to his poor eyesight, he turned
to the piano and books for entertainment. He got up each day at 5 to practice
the piano and he took piano lessons twice a week until he was 15. He read four
or five books each week, being especially interested in the history of great
military battles and the biographies of world leaders.
Truman graduated from high school in 1901 and because of his father’s
financial difficulties, college was not an option, and an appointment to the
U.S. Military Academy at West Point was eliminated because of his eyesight. He
started working for the Santa Fe Railroad as a timekeeper for $35 a month. He
then moved to Kansas City, where he accepted employment as a mail clerk for the
Kansas City Star and joined the Missouri National Guard. A while later, he
accepted a position as a clerk for the National Bank of Commerce and then as a
bookkeeper for the Union National Bank, adding more to his experiences than to
his finances or sense of accomplishment. In 1906, at the age of 22, he was
called home to help his father manage the Young farm in Grandview after his
maternal grandfather’s death.
He spent the next 10 years as a successful farmer, in the “golden age” of
American agriculture. He became more confident and gregarious than he had ever
been before, doing the work into which he had been born. He joined Mike
Pendergast’s Kansas City Tenth Ward Democratic Club and the Masons. He began to
actively participate in politics, and on his father’s death in 1914, he
succeeded him as road overseer, and in 1915 he became the Grandview postmaster.
In 1917, just before the United States entered World War I, he enlisted in
the U.S. Army, training at Camp Doniphan in Oklahoma. He returned to Missouri
and was elected first lieutenant by the men of Missouri’s Second Field
Artillery. Truman was commissioned a captain and on March 30, 1918, he sailed
for France in command of Battery D, the “Dizzy D”, of the 129th Field Artillery,
35th Division, American Expeditionary Force, taming his unit. They distinguished
themselves in the battles of Saint-Mihiel and Argonne, and Truman never lost a
man. He discovered he had talents as a leader and gained the esteem and
affection of his men. In April 1919, he returned home a major and a hero, and of
June 28th he married Bess Wallace, his childhood sweetheart. The couple had one
daughter, Mary Margaret Truman who was born in 1924. In the fall of 1919 he
established a men’s clothing store in Kansas City with a partner, Eddie
Jacobson, an army buddy from training camp. The Dizzy D veterans were big
customers and the store did a booming business after the war. But when the
postwar depression hit, farm prices fell sharply and the business failed,
finally closing in 1922. Left with heavy debts, Truman refused to declare
bankruptcy and eventually repaid his creditors.
Encouraged by Jim Pendergast, who was Mike’s son and also an army friend,
Truman turned to politics. He entered a four-way Democratic primary for an
eastern Jackson County judgeship and based on his war record and his Missouri
background, he won the primary and the general election. He was sworn into his
first public office in January 1923. He failed to win reelection in 1924 and
spent the next two years selling automotive club memberships and entered into a
banking venture. He was elected the presiding judge of the court two years later
and reelected to that post in 1930. These positions were administrative rather
than judicial and they enabled Truman to earn the respect of his constituents by
being an honest official, firing any man who failed to do an honest job.
In 1929, Mike Pendergast had died and his two sons, Jim and Tom, replaced him
as head of the Kansas City Democratic Political machine. By 1934, the Pendergast
machine was a tool for gangsters promoting vice rings, bootlegging, bribes,
gambling and murder. Truman was eager to move higher in politics, and when Tom
Pendergast approached him in 1934 to run for the U.S. Senate, he accepted.
Truman campaigned vigorously, capitalizing on the popularity of President
Roosevelt and his own political record. Truman soundly defeated his Republican
opponent, but not without help from the Pendergast machine.
Truman was sworn in as the junior senator from Missouri on January 3, 1935.
He arrived in Washington facing the resentment of fellow Senators regarding his
association with the Pendergast machine. The White House was already
investigating the Pendergasts and Roosevelt felt Truman would probably be
implicated. When the Pendergast investigation ended, it revealed widespread
corruption and brutality but it failed to implicate Truman in a single act of
wrongdoing. Pendergast was sent to prison for income tax evasion and Truman was
criticized for his ties with the organization.
Despite his Pendergast ties, Truman won an unexpected reelection in 1940, and
received a standing ovation when he returned to the Senate. He was named the
head of an investigation committee into the waste and confusion in the defense
program and The Truman Committee put him on the national stage. Roosevelt’s
health was a great concern to party leaders who assumed he would fun for a
fourth term. They were eager to find a vice president who would be more
appealing to mainstream voters and who would not be as liberal as the current
vice president Henry A. Wallace, who offended many conservative leaders of the
Democratic Party. Roosevelt persuaded Truman to run with him and Truman defeated
Wallace for the nomination on the second ballot at the Democratic National
Convention. The ticket was overwhelmingly elected and Truman took the oath of
office as vice president on January 20, 1945.
Truman saw very little of the President after the inauguration. Roosevelt
left Washington for the Yalta Conference and when he returned in March, he met
with Truman only two times for short meetings, and had not informed him abut the
conduct of the war or the plans for peace. Thirteen days later, on April 12,
1945, Truman was summoned to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt told him,
“Harry, the president is dead.”
Truman faced the awesome task of President by dealing with the problems as
they emerged, his first month largely devoted to briefings by Roosevelt’s aides.
When victory in Europe seemed certain, he insisted on the unconditional German
surrender. On May 8, 1945, his 61st birthday, he proclaimed Victory-In-Europe
Day (V-E Day). He continued to carry out Roosevelt’s policies with the
establishment of the United Nations and attended the founding conference in late
April. When Japan vowed to continue fighting after Germany surrendered, he
authorized the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki on
August 8, 1945, bringing the war to an end quickly.
Truman was noted for his candor and wit and he originated the line, “The buck
stops here.” He was elected to a second term contrary to the projections of
newspapers and polltakers. They had almost unanimously predicted his defeat.
Popular vote: Truman, 24,105,812; Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, the
Republican candidate, 21,970,065; Governor J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina
running on the States Rights (Dixiecrat) ticket, 1,169,021; and Henry A. Wallace
of New York, the Progressive party candidate, 1,157,172. Electoral vote: Truman,
303; Dewey, 189; Thurmond, 39.
Truman’s second term saw him strengthening his liberal “Fair Deal” program.
He stood firm against the Soviets and he carried out a policy of Communist
“containment” and the support for free peoples in Greece, Turkey, West Berlin
and South Korea. He ordered desegregation of the armed forces, established NATO
and dismissed the very popular General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination in
Korea. His “Fair Deal” was obstructed by a conservative, largely Republican,
congress. His predisposition toward callous expression when critics angered him
increased his difficulties, as did inflation and charges of corruption.
In March 1952, Truman declared he would not seek reelection. When the
Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower was inaugurated, Truman retired to his home in
Independence, Missouri. He was 67 years old. He remained active in politics,
loyally supporting his party’s nominees and campaigned throughout the country
for Democrats seeking state and federal offices. He published his memoirs in
1955 and 1956, reflecting his strong interest in history and a desire to present
his own view of his years in government. In 1957 he dedicated the Truman Library
Truman died on December 26, 1972 in Kansas City, Missouri.
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