Harry S. Truman

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Truman, Harry S.,

1884–1972, 33d President of the United States, b. Lamar, Mo.

Early Life and Political Career

He grew up on a farm near Independence, Mo., worked at various jobs, and tended the family farm. He served as a captain of field artillery in France in World War I. On his return from the war he married (1919) Elizabeth (Bess) Virginia Wallace; they had one daughter, Mary Margaret. After a brief partnership in a haberdashery store, Truman turned to politics and, with support from the Democratic machine of Thomas J. PendergastPendergast, Thomas Joseph,
1872–1945, American political boss, b. St. Joseph, Mo. After holding minor political offices (1899–1910) in Kansas City, Mo., he became the acknowledged Democratic leader in city and state. Harry S. Truman entered politics under his aegis.
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, was elected judge (1922–24) and president judge (1926–34) of Jackson co., Mo. He attended (1923–25) the Kansas City school of law.

In 1934 he was elected a U.S. Senator. In the Senate he was a firm supporter of the New Deal policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the administration was cool toward Truman because of his connection with Pendergast. By 1940 the Pendergast machine had been broken, and Truman had a hard fight for reelection. In his second term he achieved national prominence as chairman of a Senate committee to investigate government expenditures in World War II. His vigorous investigations revealed startling inefficiency and bungling on war contracts. Because he was acceptable both to the conservative Democrats and the New Dealers as well as to powerful labor leaders, Truman was nominated for Vice President in 1944 and was elected to office along with President Roosevelt.


On the death (Apr. 12, 1945) of Roosevelt, Truman succeeded to the presidency. He assumed power at a very critical time. He was immediately confronted with the problems of concluding the war and preparing for the difficulties of international postwar readjustment. The war in Europe ended with Germany's unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, and in July Truman attended the Potsdam ConferencePotsdam Conference,
meeting (July 17–Aug. 2, 1945) of the principal Allies in World War II (the United States, the USSR, and Great Britain) to clarify and implement agreements previously reached at the Yalta Conference.
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 to discuss the postwar European settlement. To end the conflict with Japan, he authorized the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That action did bring the war to an immediate end, but the morality of it continues to be debated.

First Term

At home, inflation and demobilization were the chief worries of reconversion to a peacetime economy. Although Truman began quietly to eliminate the old New Dealers from the administration, his domestic policies were essentially a continuation of those of the New Deal. His program (later labeled the Fair Deal) called for guaranteed full employment, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee to end racial discrimination, an increased minimum wage and extended social security benefits, price and rent controls, public housing projects, and public health insurance. However, Congress, which was controlled by the Republicans after the 1946 elections, blocked most of these projects, while passing other legislation—notably the Taft-Hartley Labor ActTaft-Hartley Labor Act,
1947, passed by the U.S. Congress, officially known as the Labor-Management Relations Act. Sponsored by Senator Robert Alphonso Taft and Representative Fred Allan Hartley, the act qualified or amended much of the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of
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 (1947)—over Truman's veto.

In foreign affairs his chief adversary was the USSR. Relations with that country deteriorated rapidly after Potsdam. The two powers were unable to agree to feasible plans for the unification of Germany, general disarmament, or the establishment of a United Nations armed force. Truman took an increasingly tough stand against what he considered to be the threat of Communist expansion in S and W Europe. In 1947 he proposed a program of economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey, stating that it should be a principle of U.S. policy "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Enunciation of the so-called Truman Doctrine signaled the beginning of the policy of "containment" of Communism. It was implemented by the adoption of the Marshall PlanMarshall Plan
or European Recovery Program,
project instituted at the Paris Economic Conference (July, 1947) to foster economic recovery in certain European countries after World War II. The Marshall Plan took form when U.S. Secretary of State George C.
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 (1947), designed to effect the economic reconstruction of Europe, by the Point Four programPoint Four program,
U.S. foreign aid project aimed at providing technological skills, knowledge, and equipment to poor nations throughout the world. The program also encouraged the flow of private investment capital to these nations.
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 (1949) of technical aid to underdeveloped countries, and, above all, by the creation (1949) of the North Atlantic Treaty OrganizationNorth Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO), established under the North Atlantic Treaty (Apr. 4, 1949) by Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United States.
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In 1948, Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces. As a result, a bloc of southern Democrats bolted the party and sponsored J. Strom ThurmondThurmond, Strom
(James Strom Thurmond) , 1902–2003, U.S. senator from South Carolina (1954–2003), b. Edgefield, S.C. He read law while teaching school (1923–29) and was admitted to the bar in 1930.
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 for President in the election of that year. Truman was also challenged on the left by Henry A. WallaceWallace, Henry Agard,
1888–1965, vice president of the United States (1941–45), b. Adair co., Iowa; grad. Iowa State Univ. He was (1910–24) associate editor of Wallaces' Farmer,
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 of the Progressive party, who opposed Truman's policy of confrontation with the Soviet Union. Although he won renomination, the President was thought to have little chance of reelection. But Truman embarked on a vigorous whistle-stop campaign across the country, blaming the Republican Congress for most of the nation's ills and highlighting its inactivity by calling a special session of Congress, at which he urged the Republicans to enact into law their own moderately liberal party platform. The campaign was a resounding success. Contrary to all the predictions, Truman defeated his Republican opponent, Thomas E. DeweyDewey, Thomas Edmund,
1902–71, American political figure, governor (1943–55) of New York, b. Owosso, Mich. Admitted (1925) to the bar, Dewey practiced law and in 1931 became chief assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
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, and Democratic majorities swept into the House and Senate.

Second Term

In his second administration Truman made little progress with his Fair Deal programs, although he did secure passage of a housing act (1949). Domestic affairs were increasingly dominated by the fear of Communist subversion. Truman had instituted (1947) a loyalty program for civil servants, but the government came under increasing attack for loose security, particularly after the conviction of Alger HissHiss, Alger
, 1904–96, American public official, b. Baltimore. After serving (1929–30) as secretary to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hiss practiced law in Boston and New York City.
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. Truman dismissed the charges of internal subversion as a "red herring"; in 1950 the McCarran Internal Security Act, which provided for the registration of Communist and Communist-front organizations, was passsed over Truman's veto.

Overseas developments contributed considerably to the tide of fear within the United States. Truman's administration was blamed by many for the collapse of the regime of Chiang Kai-shek (toward which the administration had been cool) and the victory of the Communists in China (1949). The success of the Chinese Revolution was followed by the outbreak (1950) of the Korean WarKorean War,
conflict between Communist and non-Communist forces in Korea from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953. At the end of World War II, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel into Soviet (North Korean) and U.S. (South Korean) zones of occupation.
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. Truman immediately sent U.S. troops to Korea under the aegis of the United Nations. In 1951 he raised the controversy that had been building up around American foreign policy to a new pitch of intensity when he dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthurMacArthur, Douglas,
1880–1964, American general, b. Little Rock, Ark.; son of Arthur MacArthur. Early Career

MacArthur was reared on army posts and attended military school in Texas.
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 from his East Asian command for insubordination for attempting to involve the Chinese in the war and for publicly advocating an attack on China.

At home Truman became involved in further controversy when he seized (1952) the steel industry in order to prevent a strike. He claimed that the action was justified by the President's inherent powers in time of emergency, but the Supreme Court overruled him. Disclosures of corruption among federal officials were also politically damaging during this period. Truman declined renomination in 1952 and pressed the presidential candidacy of Adlai Stevenson, who was, however, overwhelmingly defeated by the Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Later Life and Legacy

Truman remained active in politics for many years after his retirement, campaigning around the country for Democratic candidates and commenting on national issues. He also contributed much time to the Harry S. Truman Library, which opened in 1957 in Independence, Mo. Truman died on Dec. 26, 1972.

Although Truman did not have great success with his domestic programs, many of his reform proposals were later enacted into law. Thrust into office largely ignorant of foreign affairs, he acted decisively in erecting the machinery of "containment" against the threat of Communist expansion and committing the United States to a new internationalism. Some historians, however, have challenged the assumption of a Communist threat on which Truman's action were based. They argue that the cold war confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union could have been averted by a more conciliatory attitude on the part of the Truman administration. Although Truman's policies remain a subject of controversy, he has become a popular figure largely because of his feisty personality and his come-from-behind victory in 1948.


See his Year of Decisions (1955), Years of Trial and Hope (1956), and Mr. Citizen (1960). See also his selected correspondence with his wife, ed. by R. H. Ferrell (1983), and S. Neal, ed., Eleanor and Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman (2002); biographies by M. Truman (1972), D. McCullough (1992), R. H. Ferrell (1994), A. L. Hamby (1995), R. Dallek (2008), and A. D. Donald (2012); R. Donovan, The Presidency of Harry S. Truman (2 vol., 1979–84); R. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency (1983); Z. Karabell, The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election (2000); W. D. Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War (2008); W. L. Miller, Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World (2012); R. S. Kirkendall, ed., Harry S. Truman Encyclopedia (1989).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. www.cc.columbia.edu/cu/cup/

Truman, Harry S.

(1884–1972) presidential winner; photographed with Chicago Tribune headline announcing Dewey’s victory (1948). [Am. Hist.: Plain Speaking, 406]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Truman, Harry S.

(1884–1972) thirty-third president; born in Lamar, Mo. A farm boy, he could not afford college but he was commissioned a lieutenant with the National Guard when he went off to France to fight in World War I. He returned to help run a Kansas City, Mo., clothing store that proved unsuccessful. In the 1920s he joined the local Democratic Party machine, which put him in several county offices; although he never took a law degree, he read law and served as presiding judge on a county court (1926–34); this post did not involve judicial duties but was more like a county administrator. He then was elected to the U.S. Senate (1935–45). His personal integrity helped him get reelected in 1940 despite the exposure of the Missouri machine's corruption. He came to national attention heading what was called the Truman Committee, which investigated government wartime production and saved taxpayers millions. That prominence brought him to office as Franklin D. Roosevelt's new vice-president in 1944. When Roosevelt died the next April, Truman became president; he would go on to win a close election in 1948. This apparently colorless "everyday American" surprised everyone with his boldness in a troubled time: he dropped the first atom bonbs on Japan; authorized the Marshall Plan to aid postwar Europe; proposed the "Truman Doctrine" of Communist containment and support for free peoples; organized the Berlin Airlift (1948–49); ordered the desegregation of the armed forces (1948); established NATO (1949); sent U.S. troops to deal with the Communist invasion of South Korea in 1950; and dismissed the popular General MacArthur for insubordination in Korea. His visionary, Roosevelt-style social program, which he called the "Fair Deal," was largely stymied by a conservative Congress. Truman declined to run in 1952 and settled in Independence, Mo., for a long retirement of writing and speaking his mind. The motto of the man and the politician was on the plaque on his desk—"The buck stops here"—and with each passing decade, Truman has come to be regarded by both historians and ordinary Americans as one of their favorite and even greatest presidents.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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