Monday, May 08, 2006


Harry S. Truman, born on this day in 1884 in Lamar, Missouri, grew up as a farm boy who wanted to be a musician, but ended up as president of the United States -- the least pedigreed yet one of the most effective and personally-imprinting of 20th century U.S. presidents. Slight and hopelessly nearsighted, Truman was an introverted child who was content to read and practice piano. Encouraged by his teacher, he once had a piano lesson from Ignacy Paderewski -- but his family was poor, which foreclosed the possibility of either a musical career or a college education.

He went to work to help support his family, serving as an unassuming clerk or bookkeeper for a variety of employers. Still living at home at 33, Truman enlisted in the Army to fight in World War I, where he commanded a small artillery battery at the French front and rallied his group of Irish street toughs with his notoriously sharp tongue when their courage flagged under fire.

He set up a clothing store in Kansas City upon his return, but it soon failed. Just as his business closed, however, he was invited to run for Jackson County judge (the equivalent of a county exec position rather than an officer of the court) as the candidate of Big Tom Pendergast's Kansas City Democratic machine. Serving on and off throughout the 1920s, Truman earned a reputation as an honest budget-cutter, but his unflappable integrity made the Pendergast machine nervous. After three of Pendergast's choices declined to run for U.S. Senate in 1934, however, Pendergast reluctantly threw the machine's support to Truman, who narrowly won election.

During most of his term, Truman was probably the most invisible of U.S. senators, and when Pendergast went to prison for tax evasion in 1939, Truman found himself without a patron as he faced a Democratic challenger, Lloyd Stark, who was supported by President Roosevelt. Rather than quietly standing aside, however, Truman drove himself across the length and breadth of Missouri for votes, winning the election of 1940 in an upset and returning to Washington with a new issue on his mind. On his travels through the state, he was appalled by the inefficiency of the Army bases and munitions plants he visited, and after making an angry speech about it in the Senate, he was selected to chair a committee on the subject, through which he uncovered some significant headline-generating corruption and waste to the tune of $15 billion during the beginning years of World War II. A Washington correspondents poll named Truman as second only to Roosevelt for his contributions to the war effort, a fact which did not go unnoticed by Roosevelt as he looked for a replacement for Vice President Henry Wallace (deemed too far to the Left by the Democratic establishment) for his 4th campaign for president in 1944. Roosevelt also considered War Mobilization director James Byrnes and Justice William O. Douglas, but settled on Truman; Truman favored Byrnes, and refused at first to accept Roosevelt's nod, but upon being accused of trying to break up the Democratic Party during wartime, he relented, and rode with Roosevelt as he easily won the 1944 election.

Like Roosevelt's previous vice presidents, Truman was left in the dark, but all that would change when, while having a drink at Sam Rayburn's office on April 12, 1945, he was summoned to the White House and informed by Eleanor Roosevelt that the president had died. Truman's greatest immediate challenge was the ongoing World War, but a month after he took office, Germany surrendered to the Allies. The plain-speaking Truman found himself meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam a couple of months later discussing the fate of German-controlled Europe after the War, even as the Allies continued to battle the Japanese on the Pacific front.

At that time Truman first discovered the fact that Roosevelt had authorized the development of an atomic bomb. Although he feared its awesome power, Truman made a swift decision to use it against Japan in order to avoid suffering casualties in a full-on invasion of the country. He ordered the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, which resulted in the incineration or mortal exposure to radioactivity of over 250,000 people, mostly civilians; 3 days later, after the Japanese refused to surrender, Truman ordered the bombing of Nagasaki, which resulted in 70,000 more deaths. Japan surrendered shortly thereafter.

Truman then turned his attention toward the post-War world stage: he pushed for trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, to be conducted by an international panel led by Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson; led U.S. involvement in the United Nations and through it promoted the creation of the state of Israel; approved secretary of state George Marshall's $13 billion plan for rebuilding the European economy; and staked out an interventionist position to containing the spread of Communism. On this issue in particular, Truman showed the thin line between his personality and his policy: after a customarily earthy and direct verbal attack on Soviet foreign minister Molotov over the Soviet position on Poland during a meeting in Washington, Molotov retorted that he had never been talked to like this in his life, to which Truman replied, "Carry out your agreements and you won't get talked to like this." From stories such as these, one gets the impression that the Cold War was in part a product of Truman's mercuriality.

Back home, the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1946, and while Truman pursued his "Fair Deal" program expanding federal benefits and calling for the desegregation of the military, the Democrats (particularly in the South) began to withdraw support from him (their battle-cry was "We're just mild about Harry"). He won an uphill battle for nomination in his own right at the 1948 Democratic convention, waking up the delegates with a fiery 2 a.m. speech announcing that he would call a special session of Congress to force the "do-nothing" Republicans to pass the liberal entitlement programs they half-heartedly publicly favored. Faced with Democratic defections by the right-wing (Strom Thurmond and Dixiecrats) and the left (Henry Wallace and the Progressives), Truman's re-election prospects against Republican Thomas Dewey looked grim, but he ended up beating Dewey in a close race (24 million to 21 million votes, 28 states to 16).

After his re-election, his Doctrine of Communist containment led him into the Korean War under the auspices of the United Nations. Under the command of Douglas MacArthur, the UN forces were initially successful, but their success had the effect of drawing the Chinese into the conflict, who pushed MacArthur back. Truman and MacArthur clashed over MacArthur's freedom to wage all-out war (although some point out that MacArthur's public complaints about Truman were simply a way for MacArthur to avoid taking the blame for the UN setback). Truman sacked MacArthur for insubordination, again raising the ire of conservatives, and the UN eventually reached a detente with the Communists, creating a North and South Korea under a cease-fire declaration in 1953.

Truman chose not to run for re-election in 1952 after getting beaten in the New Hampshire primary by Estes Kefauver, supporting first Fred Vinson then Adlai Stevenson for the Democratic nomination that year; Averell Harriman in 1956; and Stuart Symington in 1960. In 1965 he hosted Lyndon Johnson in Independence, Missouri for the signing of the Medicare Act, at which Johnson hailed Truman as an early advocate of national health insurance. For his unadorned feistiness and support for federal programs directed at combating poverty, several generations of Democrats grew up emulating him by name as "Truman Democrats."

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