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Harry S. Truman (May 8, 1884-December 26, 1972) became the 33rd president of the United States following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. Not well known when he took office, Truman gained respect for his role in the development of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and for his leadership during the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War. He defended his controversial decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan as a necessity to end World War II.
Fast Facts: Harry S. Truman
- Known For: 33rd president of the United States
- Born: May 8, 1884 in Lamar, Missouri
- Parents: John Truman, Martha Young
- Died: Dec. 26, 1972 in Kansas City, Missouri
- Published Works: Year of Decisions, Years of Trial and Hope (memoirs)
- Spouse: Elizabeth “Bess” Truman
- Children: Margaret Truman Daniel
- Notable Quote: "An honest public servant can't become rich in politics. He can only attain greatness and satisfaction by service."
Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri to John Truman and Martha Young Truman. His middle name, simply the letter "S," was a compromise made between his parents, who couldn't agree upon which grandfather's name to use.
John Truman worked as a mule trader and later a farmer, frequently moving the family between small Missouri towns before settling in Independence when Truman was 6. It soon became apparent that young Harry needed glasses. Banned from sports and other activities that might break his glasses, he became a voracious reader.
After graduating from high school in 1901, Truman worked as a timekeeper for the railroad and later as a bank clerk. He had always hoped to go to college, but his family couldn't afford tuition. More disappointment came when Truman learned that he was ineligible for a scholarship to West Point because of his eyesight.
When his father needed help on the family farm, Truman quit his job and returned home. He worked on the farm from 1906 to 1917.
Moving back home had one benefit: proximity to childhood acquaintance Bess Wallace. Truman had first met Bess at age 6 and had been smitten from the start. Bess came from one of the wealthiest families in Independence and Truman, the son of a farmer, had never dared pursue her.
After a chance encounter in Independence, Truman and Bess began a courtship that lasted nine years. She finally accepted Truman's proposal in 1917, but before they could make wedding plans, World War I intervened. Truman enlisted in the Army, entering as a first lieutenant.
Shaped by War
Truman arrived in France in April 1918. He had a talent for leadership and was soon promoted to captain. Placed in charge of a group of rowdy artillery soldiers, Truman made it clear to them that he wouldn't tolerate misbehavior.
That firm, no-nonsense approach would become the trademark style of his presidency. The soldiers came to respect their tough commander, who steered them through the war without the loss of a single man. Truman returned to the U.S. in April 1919 and married Bess in June.
Makes a Living
Truman and his new wife moved into her mother's large home in Independence. Mrs. Wallace, who never approved of her daughter's marriage to "a farmer," would live with the couple until her death 33 years later.
Never fond of farming himself, Truman was determined to become a businessman. He opened a men's clothing store in nearby Kansas City with an Army buddy. The business was successful at first but failed after only three years. At 38, Truman had succeeded at few endeavors aside from his wartime service. Eager to find something he was good at, he looked to politics.
Truman successfully ran for Jackson County judge in 1922 and became well known for his honesty and strong work ethic on this administrative (not judicial) court. During his term, he became a father in 1924 when daughter Mary Margaret was born. He was defeated in his try for re-election but ran again two years later and won.
When his last term expired in 1934, Truman was courted by the Missouri Democratic Party to run for the U.S. Senate. He rose to the challenge, campaigning tirelessly across the state. Despite poor public speaking skills, he impressed voters with his folksy style and record as a soldier and judge, soundly defeating the Republican candidate.
Sen. Truman Becomes President Truman
Working in the Senate was the job Truman had waited for his entire life. He took a leading role in investigating wasteful spending by the War Department, earning the respect of fellow senators and impressing President Roosevelt. He was re-elected in 1940.
As the 1944 election drew near, Democratic leaders sought a replacement for Vice President Henry Wallace. Roosevelt himself requested Truman. FDR then won his fourth term with Truman on the ticket.
In poor health and suffering from exhaustion, Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, only three months into his last term, making Truman president of the United States. Thrust into the limelight, Truman faced some of the greatest challenges encountered by any 20th-century president. World War II was drawing to a close in Europe, but the war in the Pacific was far from over.
Truman learned in July 1945 that scientists working for the U.S. government had tested an atomic bomb in New Mexico. After much deliberation, Truman decided that the only way to end the war in the Pacific would be to drop the bomb on Japan.
Truman issued a warning to the Japanese demanding their surrender, but those demands weren't met. Two bombs were dropped, the first on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and the second three days later on Nagasaki. In the face of such utter destruction, the Japanese surrendered.
Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan
As European countries struggled financially following WWII, Truman recognized their need for economic and military aid. He knew that a weakened country would be more vulnerable to the threat of communism, so he pledged to support nations facing such a threat. Truman's plan was called the Truman Doctrine.
Truman's secretary of state, former Gen. George C. Marshall, believed that the struggling nations could survive only if the U.S. supplied the resources needed to return them to self-sufficiency. The Marshall Plan, passed by Congress in 1948, provided the materials needed to rebuild factories, homes, and farms.
Berlin Blockade and Re-Election in 1948
In the summer of 1948, the Soviet Union set up a blockade to keep supplies from entering West Berlin, the capital of democratic West Germany but located in Communist East Germany. The blockade of truck, train, and boat traffic was intended to force Berlin into dependence upon the communist regime. Truman stood firm against the Soviets, ordering that supplies be delivered by air. The Berlin Airlift continued for nearly a year, until the Soviets finally abandoned the blockade.
In the meantime, despite a poor showing in opinion polls, Truman was re-elected, surprising many by defeating popular Republican Thomas Dewey.
When Communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, Truman weighed his decision carefully. Korea was a small country, but Truman feared that communists, left unchecked, would invade other countries.
Within days, Truman had gained approval for U.N. troops to be ordered to the area. The Korean War began and it lasted until 1953, after Truman left office. The threat had been contained, but North Korea remained under communist control.
Back to Independence
Truman chose not to run for re-election in 1952, and he and Bess returned to their home in Independence in 1953. Truman enjoyed the return to private life and busied himself with writing his memoirs and planning his presidential library.
He died at the age of 88 on Dec. 26, 1972.
When Truman left office in 1953, the lengthy stalemate between North and South Korea had left him one of the most unpopular presidents in history. But that sentiment gradually changed over time as historians began to reassess his terms in office, crediting him with keeping South Korea independent from the communist neighbor to the north.
He began to be respected as a folksy straight shooter and "the ultimate common man" for his leadership in troubled times and his willingness to take responsibility, exemplified by the plaque on his presidential desk that read “The Buck Stops Here!”
- "Harry S. Truman: President of the United States." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- "Harry S Truman: 1945-1953." The White House Historical Association.