Truman's presidency was eventful in foreign affairs, starting with victory over Germany, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II, the founding of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the Truman Doctrine to contain Communism, the beginning of the Cold War, the creation of NATO, and the Korean War. The war became a frustrating stalemate, with over 30,000 Americans killed. After promising to "go to Korea" and highlighting what he referred to as the "mess in Washington," Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ended 20 years of Democratic rule in 1952 by defeating Adlai Stevenson, Truman's choice to lead his party's ticket. In retirement, Truman wrote his well-regarded Memoirs.
Truman, whose demeanor was very different from that of the patrician Roosevelt, was a folksy, unassuming president. He popularized such phrases as "The buck stops here" and "If you can't stand the heat, you better get out of the kitchen."He overcame the low expectations of many political observers who compared him (unfavorably) to his highly regarded predecessor. The last President not subject to term limits, Truman's name appeared on the ballot a third time in 1952, but Truman, who didn't campaign, was forced out of the 1952 race after losing the New Hampshire Primary. At one point in his second term, his public opinion ratings were the lowest on record, but many US scholars today rank him among the top ten Presidents. Truman's legendary upset victory in 1948 is routinely invoked by underdog presidential candidates.
Truman was born on May 8, 1884 in Lamar, Missouri, the second child of John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Young Truman. His parents chose his middle name as S, to please both of Harry's grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young. A brother, John Vivian (1886–1965), soon followed, along with sister Mary Jane Truman (1889–1978).
John Truman was a farmer and livestock dealer. The family lived in Lamar until Harry was 10 months old. They then moved to a farm near Harrisonville, then to Belton, and in 1887 to his grandparent's 600-acre (240 ha) farm in Grandview. When Truman was six years old, his parents moved the family to Independence, so he could attend the Presbyterian Church Sunday School. Truman did not attend a traditional school until he was eight.
As a young boy, Truman had three main interests: music, reading, and history, all encouraged by his mother. (Truman was very close to his mother for as long as she lived, and indeed solicited political as well as personal advice from her as president.) He got up at 5:00 every morning to practice the piano, and went to a local music teacher twice a week until he was fifteen. Truman also read a great deal of popular history. After graduating from Independence High School (now William Chrisman High School) in 1901, Truman worked for a while as a timekeeper on the Santa Fe Railroad, sleeping in "hobo camps" near the rail lines; he then worked at a series of clerical jobs. He returned to the Grandview farm in 1906 and stayed there until 1917 when he went into military service.
For the rest of his life, Truman would hearken back nostalgically to the years he spent as a farmer, often for theatrical effect. The years of physically demanding work he put in at Grandview were real, however, and they were a formative experience. During this period he courted Bess Wallace and even proposed to her in 1911. She turned him down. Truman said he wanted to make more money than a farmer before he proposed again. He did propose to her again -- successfully -- in 1918, after coming back as a Captain from World War I
He was the only president who served after 1870 not to earn a college degree: his poor eyesight prevented him from applying to West Point, his dream throughout his childhood, and financial constraints prevented him from securing a degree elsewhere. He did, however, study for two years toward a law degree at the Kansas City Law School (now the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law) in the early 1920s. He became an honorary member of the Lambda Chi Alpha international fraternity.
World War I
Truman had enlisted in the Missouri National Guard in 1905, and served until 1911. With the onset of American participation in World War I, he rejoined the Guard. At his physical in 1905, his eyesight had been an unacceptable 20/50 in the right eye and 20/400 in the left eye. Reportedly, he passed by secretly memorizing the eye chart.
Before heading to France, he was sent for training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He ran the camp canteen with a Jewish friend, Sergeant Edward Jacobson, who had experience in a Kansas City clothing store as a clerk. Another man he met at Ft. Sill who would help him after the war was Lieutenant James M. Pendergast, the nephew of Thomas Joseph (T.J.) Pendergast, a Kansas City politician.
Truman was chosen to be an officer, and then battery commander in an artillery regiment in France. His unit was Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 60th Brigade, 35th Infrantry Division, an outfit known for its irreverence and indifference to authority. During a sudden attack by the Germans in the Vosges Mountains, the battery started to disperse; Truman ordered them back into position using profanities that he had "learned while working on the Santa Fe railroad." Apparently shocked by the outburst, his men reassembled and followed him to safety. Under Captain Truman's command in France, the battery did not lose a single man. The Great War, as it was known at the time, was a transformative experience that brought out Truman's leadership qualities; he later rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the National Guard, and his war record made his later political career in Missouri possible.
Marriage and early business career
At the war's conclusion, Truman returned to Independence and married his longtime love interest, Bess Wallace, on June 28, 1919. The couple had one child, Margaret (born February 17, 1924).
A month before the wedding, banking on the success they had at Ft. Sill and overseas, the men's clothing store of Truman & Jacobson opened at 104 West 12th Street in downtown Kansas City. After a few successful years, the store went bankrupt during the recession of 1921, which greatly affected the farm economy. Lower prices for wheat and corn meant fewer sales of silk shirts, since farmers had less money to buy silk shirts. In 1919 wheat had been selling for $2.15 a bushel, but in 1922 it was down to a catastrophic 88 cents a bushel. Truman blamed the fall in farm prices on the policies of the Republicans; he worked for years to pay off the debts. He and his former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, were accepted together at Washington College in 1923. They would remain friends for the rest of their lives, and Jacobson's advice to Truman on the subject of Zionism would, decades later, play a critical role in the US government's decision to recognize the state of Israel.
Jackson County judge
In 1922, with the help of the Kansas City Democratic machine led by boss Tom Pendergast, Truman was elected as a judge of the County Court of the eastern district of Jackson County, Missouri — an administrative, not judicial, position similar to county commissioners elsewhere. Although he was defeated for reelection in 1924, he was elected in 1926 as the presiding judge for the court and reelected in 1930. Truman performed his duties in this office diligently and won personal acclaim for several popular public works projects, including an extensive series of roads for growing automobile traffic, the construction of a new County Court building, and the dedication of a series of 12 Maddonna of the Trail monuments honoring pioneer women. During his time in office, many of his fellow county officials would be charged with tax evasion, including Pendergast, who eventually went to federal prison; Truman, however, maintained a scrupulous personal honesty and refused to take bribes.
In 1922, Truman gave a friend $10 for an initiation fee for the Ku Klux Klan but later asked to get his money back; he was never initiated, never attended a meeting, and never claimed membership. Though Truman at times expressed anger towards Jews in his diaries, his business partner and close friend Edward Jacobson was Jewish. Truman's attitudes toward blacks were typical of white Missourians of his era, and were expressed in his casual use of terms like "nigger". Years later, another measure of his racial attitudes would come to the forefront: tales of the abuse, violence, and persecution suffered by many African-American veterans upon their return from World War II infuriated Truman, and were a major factor in his decision to back civil rights initiatives and desegregate the armed forces.
In the 1934 election Pendergast's machine selected Truman to run for Missouri's open United States Senate seat, and he campaigned successfully as a New Deal Democrat in support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Democratic primary, Truman defeated John J. Cochran and Tuck Milligan, the brother of federal prosecutor Maurice M. Milligan. (Maurice Milligan would eventually topple the Pendergast machine.) Truman then defeated the incumbent Republican Roscoe C. Patterson by nearly 20%.
Widely considered a puppet of the big Kansas City political boss, Truman assumed office under a cloud as "the senator from Pendergast." (Adding to the air of distrust was the disquieting fact that four people had been killed at the polls in Kansas City.) In the tradition of machine politicians before and since, Truman did indeed direct New Deal political patronage through Boss Pendergast — but he insisted that he was independent on his votes. Truman did have his standards, historian David McCullough later concluded, and he was willing to stand by them, even when pressured by the man who had emerged as the kingpin of Missouri politics.
Truman always defended his decisions to offer patronage to Pendergast by saying that by offering a little, he saved a lot. Truman also said that Pendergast had given him this advice when he first went to the Senate
During Truman's first Senate term, Milligan began a massive investigation into the 1936 Missouri gubernatorial election that elected Lloyd C. Stark; 259 convictions resulted. More importantly, Milligan discovered that Pendergast had not paid federal taxes between 1927 and 1937 and had conducted a fraudulent insurance scam. He went after Senator Truman's political patron. In 1939, Pendergast pled guilty and received a $10,000 fine and a 15-month sentence. Stark, who had received Pendergast's blessing in the 1936 election, turned against him in the investigation and eventually took control of federal New Deal funds from Truman and Pendergast.
Truman's prospects for re-election to the Senate looked bleak. In 1940, both Stark and Maurice Milligan challenged Truman in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Robert E. Hannegan, who controlled St. Louis Democratic politics, threw his support in the election to Truman. (Hannegan would go on to broker the 1944 deal that put Truman on the Vice Presidential ticket for Franklin Roosevelt.) Truman campaigned tirelessly and combatively. In the end, Stark and Milligan split the anti-Pendergast vote, and Truman won the election by a narrow margin. Truman thus won reelection in 1940 without the help of Pendergast and his machine, at a time when Pendergast was in prison for tax evasion. The successful 1940 Senate campaign is regarded by many biographers as a personal triumph and vindication for Truman, and as a precursor to the much more celebrated 1948 drive for the White House, another contest where he was badly underestimated. It was the turning point of his political career.
As a Senator, Truman preferred working on committees rather than delivering speeches on the floor. His early work came in the form of legislation involving transportation and interstate commerce. He was a supporter of the New Deal, and provided key support for many of its most important legislative initiatives: the Wagner Act, Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and even the unsuccessful "court-packing" bill, which attempted to refashion the Supreme Court to FDR's liking.
Defense policy and the Truman Committee
On June 23, 1941, the day after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Senator Truman declared: "If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. Neither of them thinks anything of their pledged word." The sentiment was in line with what many Americans felt at the time, but it would be repeated often by Truman's opponents as evidence of an inappropriate approach to foreign policy. The remark was the first in a long series of prominently inopportune off-the-cuff remarks by Truman to members of the national press corps.
He gained fame and respect when his preparedness committee (popularly known as the "Truman Committee") investigated the scandal of military wastefulness by exposing fraud and mismanagement. His advocacy of common-sense cost-saving measures for the military attracted much attention. Although some feared the Committee would hurt war morale, it was considered a success and is reported to have saved at least $11 billion. In 1943, his work as chairman earned Truman his first appearance on the cover of Time Magazine. (He would eventually appear on nine Time covers and be named the magazine's Man of the Year for the years 1945 and 1948.)
Truman's diligent, fair-minded, and notably nonpartisan work on the Senate committee that came to bear his name turned him into a national figure. It is unlikely that Roosevelt would have considered him for the vice-presidential spot in 1944 had the former "Senator from Pendergast" not earned a new reputation in the Senate — one for probity, hard work, and a willingness to ask powerful people tough questions.
After months of uncertainty over the President's preference for a running mate, Truman was selected as Roosevelt's vice presidential candidate in 1944 as the result of a deal worked out by Hannegan, who was Democratic National Chairman that year.
Roosevelt, increasingly frail, agreed to replace Henry Wallace as Vice President because Wallace was considered too liberal by the party establishment. The surviving evidence suggests that Roosevelt chose to leave the selection of a running mate unresolved well into the summer of 1944.James F. Byrnes of South Carolina was initially favored, but labor leaders opposed him. In addition, his status as a segregationist gave him problems with Northern liberals, and he was also vulnerable because of his conversion from Catholicism. Before the convention began, Roosevelt wrote a note saying he would accept either Truman or Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas; state and city party leaders preferred Truman. Truman himself appears not to have campaigned directly or indirectly that summer for the number two spot on the ticket, and in years to come would always maintain that he had not wanted the job of Vice President.
Truman's candidacy was humorously dubbed the Second "Missouri Compromise" at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as his appeal to the party center contrasted with the liberal Wallace and the too conservative Byrnes. The nomination was well received, and the Roosevelt-Truman team went on to score a 432-99 electoral-vote victory in the United States presidential election 1944 by defeating Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Governor John Bricker of Ohio. Truman was sworn in as Vice President on January 20, 1945, and served less than three months.
Truman's vice-presidency was relatively uneventful, and contact with the White House was minimal; he was not asked for advice nor informed of major decisions. Truman shocked many when he attended his disgraced patron Pendergast's funeral a few days after being sworn in. Truman was reportedly the only elected official who attended the funeral. Truman brushed aside the criticism, saying simply, "He was always my friend and I have always been his.
On April 12, 1945, Truman was urgently called to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt informed him that the President was dead, after suffering from a massive stroke. Truman's first concern was for Mrs. Roosevelt. He asked if there was anything he could do for her, to which the former First Lady replied, "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."
First Term (1945–1949)
Truman had been Vice President for only 82 days when President Roosevelt died. He had very little meaningful communication with Roosevelt about world affairs or domestic politics once he was sworn in as Vice President, and was completely unbriefed about major initiatives relating to the successful prosecution of the war — notably the top secret Manhattan Project, which was, at the time of FDR's passing, on the cusp of testing the world's first atomic bomb.
Shortly after taking the oath of office, Truman said to reporters:
- "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."
Furthermore, Roosevelt's shadow would be difficult for Truman -- or any Democrat, for that matter -- to escape. Truman lacked Roosevelt’s stature, charisma, and public-speaking skills. His accomplishments, while real, paled in comparison to Roosevelt's historic efforts (which remain unmatched by any president since). However, Truman did have other qualities that proved him suitable for the job as president. The public saw him as hard working and honest, which worked in his favor. Also, his experiences in Missouri politics, especially in the Senate, demonstrated a deep understanding of American politics.
A few days after his inaugural address, he wrote to his wife, Bess: "It won't be long until I can sit back and study the whole picture and...there'll be no more to this job than there was to running Jackson County and not anymore worry." The simplicity he had predicted, however, would prove difficult for Truman to find in the White House.
Organizing the White House
Truman asked FDR's cabinet to remain when he first assumed the presidency; however, by the spring of 1946, he had replaced many of those officials. Most notably, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath became involved in a corruption scandal which put a dent in Truman's public approval.
During the Truman years, the President’s staff continued to grow in size. Domestically, an important addition was the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). The Employment Act of 1946 created the CEA to help the President formulate economic policy. Liberal Democrats in Congress particularly wanted the CEA to be a preserve for progressives and liberal New Dealers; however, Truman staffed the CEA with both conservatives and liberals. Moreover, Truman treated the CEA as a set of presidential advisers, rather than as an independent body, and made sure that it remained under his control.
Atomic bomb use
Truman was quickly briefed on the Manhattan Project and authorized use of atomic weapons against the Japanese in August of 1945, after the Japanese Empire rejected the Potsdam Declaration. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first, and so far the only, use of nuclear warfare.
On the morning of August 6, 1945, the B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. A high estimate of 100,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed instantly. Two days later, hearing no word from the Japanese government, Truman let the U.S. military proceed with its plans to drop a second atomic bomb. On August 9, Nagasaki, Japan was hit. The Japanese agreed to surrender on August 14 and then formally on September 2. World War II was over.
The decision to use nuclear weapons was, on a political level, not controversial at the time, either in the U.S. or among its allies. (At the Potsdam Conference, Stalin was also aware of Truman having the A-bomb.) In the years since the bombings, however, questions about Truman's choice have become more pointed. Supporters of Truman's decision to use the bomb argue that it saved hundreds of thousands of lives that would have been lost in an invasion of mainland Japan. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke in support of this view when she said, in 1954, that Truman had "made the only decision he could," and that the bomb's use was necessary "to avoid tremendous sacrifice of American lives. Others, such as the atomic bomb historian Professor Gar Alperovitz, have argued that the use of nuclear weapons was unnecessary and inherently immoral.
Strikes and economic upheaval
The end of World War II was followed in the United States by uneasy and contentious conversion back to a peacetime economy. The President was faced with a sudden renewal of labor-management conflicts that had lain dormant during the war years, severe shortages in housing and consumer products, and widespread dissatisfaction with inflation, which at one point hit six percent in a single month. In this polarized environment, a wave of destabilizing strikes in major industries played out, and Truman's response to them was seen as generally ineffective. In the spring of 1946, a national railway strike — unprecedented in the nation's history — brought virtually all passenger and freight lines to a halt. The country literally ground to a standstill for over a month. When the railway workers turned down a proposed settlement, Truman announced that he would seize control of the railways and even threatened to draft striking workers into the armed forces. While delivering a speech before Congress requesting authority for this plan, Truman received word that the strike had been settled on his terms. He announced this development to Congress on the spot and received a tumultuous ovation that was replayed for weeks on newsreels. Although the resolution of the crippling railway strike made for stirring political theater, it actually cost Truman politically: his proposed solution was seen by many as high-handed, and labor voters, already wary of Truman's handling of workers' issues, were deeply alienated.
United Nations and Marshall Plan
As a Wilsonian internationalist, Truman strongly supported the creation of the United Nations, and included former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the delegation to the U.N.'s first General Assembly in order to meet the public desire for peace after the carnage of the Second World War. Faced with Communist abandonment of commitments to democracy made at the Potsdam Conference, and with Communist advances in Greece and Turkey that suggested a hunger for global domination, Truman and his foreign policy advisors concluded that the interests of the Soviet Union were quickly becoming incompatible with the interests of the United States. The Truman administration articulated an increasingly hard line against the Soviets.
Although he claimed no personal expertise on foreign matters, and the opposition Republicans controlled Congress, Truman was able to win bipartisan support for both the Truman Doctrine, which formalized a policy of containment, and the Marshall Plan, which aimed to help rebuild postwar Europe. To get Congress to spend the vast sums necessary to restart the moribund European economy, Truman used an ideological argument, arguing forcefully that Communism flourishes in economically deprived areas. His goal was to "scare the hell out of Congress." To strengthen the U.S during the cold war against Communism, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 and reorganized military forces by creating the Department of Defense, the CIA, the U.S. Air Force (separate from the U.S. Army), and the National Security Council.
Thus far, Truman had followed his predecessor's policies; however, he soon developed his own. He presented to Congress a 21-point program, proposing the expansion of Social Security, a full-employment program, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Act, and public housing and slum clearance. The program, Truman wrote, "symbolizes for me my assumption of the office of President in my own right." It became known as the Fair Deal.
After many years of Democratic majorities in Congress and two Democratic presidents, voter fatigue with the Democrats delivered a new Republican majority in the 1946 midterm elections, with the Republicans picking up 55 seats in the House of Representatives and several seats in the Senate. Although Truman cooperated closely with the Republican leaders on foreign policy, he fought them bitterly on domestic issues. He failed to prevent tax cuts and the removal of price controls. The power of the labor unions was significantly curtailed by the Taft-Hartley Act, which was enacted by overriding Truman's veto.
As he readied for the approaching 1948 election, Truman made clear his identity as a Democrat in the New Deal tradition, advocating universal health insurance, the repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, and an aggressive civil rights program. Taken together, it all constituted a broad legislative program that he called the "Fair Deal."
Truman's Fair Deal proposals made for potent campaign rhetoric, but they were not well received by Congress, even after Democratic gains in the 1948 election. Only one of the major Fair Deal bills, an initiative to expand unemployment benefits, was ever enacted.
Recognition of Israel
Truman was a key figure in the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
In 1946, an Angle-American Committee of Inquiry recommended the gradual establishment of two states in Palestine, with neither Jews nor Arabs dominating. However, there was little public support for the two-state proposal, and Britain, its empire in rapid decline, was under pressure to withdraw from Palestine quickly because of attacks on British forces by armed Zionist groups. At the urging of the British, a special U.N. committee recommended the immediate partitioning of Palestine into two states, and with Truman's support, this initiative was approved by the General Assembly in 1947.
The British announced that they would leave Palestine by May 15, 1948, and the Arab League Council nations began moving troops to Palestine's borders. The idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East was popular in the U.S., and particularly so among one of Truman's key constituencies, urban Jewish voters.
The State Department, however, was another matter. Secretary of State George Marshall, and most of the foreign service experts, strongly opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.Thus, when Truman agreed to meet with Chaim Weizmann, he found himself overruling his own Secretary of State. In the end, Marshall did not publicly dispute the President's decision, as Truman feared he might. Truman recognized the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, after it declared itself a nation.
On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blocked access to the three Western-held sectors of Berlin. The Allies had never negotiated a deal to guarantee supply of the sectors deep within the Soviet-occupied zone. The commander of the American occupation zone in Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, proposed sending a large armored column driving peacefully, as a moral right, down the Autobahn across the Soviet zone to West Berlin, with instructions to defend itself if it were stopped or attacked. Truman, however, following the consensus in Washington, believed this entailed an unacceptable risk of war. He endorsed a plan to supply the blockaded city by air. On June 25, the Allies initiated the Berlin Airlift, a campaign that delivered food and other supplies (such as coal) using military airplanes on a massive scale. Nothing remotely like it had ever been attempted before. The airlift worked; ground access was again granted on May 11, 1949. The airlift continued for several months after that.
The Berlin Airlift is considered one of Truman's great foreign policy successes as president; it significantly aided his election campaign in 1948.
Truman, Congress, and the Pentagon followed a strategy of rapid demobilization after World War II, mothballing ships and sending the veterans home. (Many voters complained that the members of the military were being released too slowly.) The reasons for this strategy, which persisted through Truman's first term and well into his second, were largely financial. In order to fund domestic spending requirements, Truman had advocated a policy of defense program cuts for the U.S. armed forces at the end of the war. The Republican majority in Congress, anxious to enact numerous tax cuts, approved of Truman's plan to "hold the line" on defense spending.In addition, Truman's experience in the Senate left him with lingering suspicions that large sums were being wasted in the Pentagon. In 1949, Truman appointed Louis A. Johnson as Secretary of Defense. Impressed by U.S. advances in atomic bomb development, Truman and Johnson initially believed that the atomic bomb rendered conventional forces largely irrelevant to the modern battlefield. (This assumption eventually had to be revisited, however, as the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic weapon in the same year.)
Nevertheless, reductions in force continued, adversely affecting U.S. conventional defense readiness. Both Truman and Johnson had a particular antipathy to Navy and Marine Corps budget requests.Truman had a well-known dislike of the Marines dating back to his service in World War I, and famously said "The Marine Corps is the Navy's police force, and as long as I am President that is what it will remain. They have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin's." Indeed, Truman had proposed disbanding the Marine Corps entirely as part of the 1948 defense reorganization plan, a plan that was abandoned only after a letter-writing campaign and the intervention of influential congressmen who were Marine veterans.
Under Truman defense budgets through FY 1950, many Navy ships were mothballed, sold to other countries, or scrapped. The U.S. Army, faced with high turnover of experienced personnel, cut back on training exercises, and eased recruitment standards. Usable equipment was scrapped or sold off instead of stored, and even ammunition stockpiles were cut. The Marine Corps, its budgets slashed, was reduced to hoarding surplus inventories of World War II era weapons and equipment.It was only after the invasion of South Korea by the North Koreans in 1950 that Truman ramped up his defense requests to Congress -- and initiated what might be considered the modern period of defense spending in the United States.
A 1947 report by the Truman administration entitled To Secure These Rights presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. In February 1948, the President submitted a civil rights agenda to Congress that proposed creating several federal offices devoted to issues such as voting rights and fair employment practices. This provoked a firestorm of criticism from Southern Democrats in the time leading up to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying: "My forbears were Confederates... But my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten."
The 1948 presidential election is best remembered for Truman's stunning come-from-behind victory.
In the spring of 1948, Truman's public approval rating stood at a dismal thirty-six percent, and the president was nearly universally regarded as incapable of winning the general election. The "New Deal" operatives within the party -- including FDR's son James -- tried to swing the Democratic nomination to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a wildly popular figure whose political views -- and party affiliation -- were totally unknown in 1948. Eisenhower emphatically refused to accept the nomination, and Truman outflanked the opponents to his nomination within his own party.
At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Truman attempted to calm turbulent domestic political waters by placing a tepid civil rights plank in the party platform; the aim was to assuage the internal conflicts between the northern and southern wings of his party. Events overtook the president's efforts at compromise, however. A sharp address given by Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey, Jr. of Minneapolis, Minnesota —as well as the local political interests of a number of urban bosses—convinced the convention to adopt a stronger civil rights plank, which Truman endorsed wholeheartedly. All of Alabama's delegates, and a portion of Mississippi's, walked out of the convention in protest.Unfazed, Truman delivered an aggressive acceptance speech attacking the 80th Congress and promising to win the election and "make these Republicans like it."
Within two weeks, he issued Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the U.S. Armed Services following World War II. Truman took considerable political risk in backing civil rights, and many seasoned Democrats were concerned that the loss of Dixiecrat support might destroy the Democratic Party. The fear seemed well justified -- Strom Thurmond declared his candidacy for the presidency and led a full-scale revolt of southern "states' rights" proponents against Truman's Democratic party. This revolt on the right was matched by a revolt on the left, this one led by former Vice President Henry Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket. Immediately after its first post-FDR convention, the Democratic Party found itself disintegrating. Victory in November seemed a remote possibility indeed, with the party not simply split but divided three ways.
There followed a remarkable 21,928-mile presidential odyssey, an unprecedented personal appeal to the nation. Truman and his staff crisscrossed the United States in the presidential train; his "whistlestop" tactic of giving brief speeches from the rear platform of the observation car Ferdinand Magellan became iconic of the entire campaign. His combative appearances, such as those at the town square of Harrisburg, Illinois, captured the popular imagination and drew huge crowds. (Six stops in Michigan drew a combined total of half a million people; a full million turned out for a New York City appearance.). The massive, mostly spontaneous gatherings at Truman's depot events were an important sign of a critical change in momentum in the campaign — but this shift went virtually unnoticed by the national press corps, which simply continued reporting Republican Thomas Dewey's (supposedly) impending victory as a certainty. One reason for the press's inaccurate projection was that they conducted these polls primarily by telephone during a time when many people, including much of Truman's populist base, did not own a telephone. This skewed the data to indicate a much stronger support base for Dewey, which contributed to the perception of Truman's bleak chances.
In the end, Truman held his Midwestern base of progressives, won most of the Southern states despite his civil rights plank, and squeaked through with narrow victories in a few critical "battleground" states, notably Ohio, California and Illinois. The final, astonishing tally showed that the president had secured 303 electoral votes, Dewey 189, and Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat candidate, only 39. The defining image of the campaign came after Election Day, when Truman held aloft the erroneous front page of the Chicago Tribune that featured a huge headline proclaiming "Dewey Defeats Truman".
Truman's no-holds-barred style of campaigning in the face of seemingly impossible odds became a campaign tactic that would be repeated by, and appealed to by, many presidential candidates in years to come, notably George H.W. Bush in 1992, another trailing incumbent who fought constantly with Congress.
Truman did not have a vice president in his first term. His running mate, and eventual Vice President for the term that began January 20, 1949, was Alben W. Barkley.
Second term (1949–1953)
Truman's second term was grueling, in large measure because of foreign policy challenges connected directly or indirectly to his policy of containment. For instance, he quickly had to come to terms with the end of the American nuclear monopoly. With information provided by its espionage networks in the United States, the Soviet Union developed an atomic bomb much faster than had been expected, and exploded its first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949. (On January 7, 1953, Truman announced the detonation of the first U.S. hydrogen bomb.)
Truman was a strong supporter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, which established a formal peacetime military alliance with Canada and the democratic European nations that had not fallen under Soviet control following World War II. The strategic (and historical) importance of this treaty, which Truman successfully guided through the Senate in 1949, is hard to overstate. It served as a check against Soviet expansion in Europe, and sent a clear message to Communist leaders that the world's democracies were willing and able to build new security structures in support of democratic ideals. The United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Iceland and Canada were the original treaty signatories; Greece and Turkey joined the alliance in 1952.
People's Republic of China
On December 21, 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist forces left the mainland for Taiwan in the face of successful attacks by Mao Zedong's Communists. In June 1950, Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet of the United States Navy into the Taiwan Strait to prevent further conflict between the PRC and the Republic of China on Taiwan. Truman also called for Taiwan to cease any further attacks on the mainland.
Soviet espionage and McCarthyism
Throughout his presidency, Truman had to deal with accusations that the federal government was harboring Soviet spies at the highest level. Testimony in Congress on this issue garnered national attention, and thousands of people were fired as security risks. An optimistic, patriotic man, Truman was dubious about reports of potential Communist or Soviet penetration of the U.S. government, and his oft-quoted response was to dismiss the allegations as a "red herring."
In August, 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former spy for the Soviets, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and presented a list of what he said were members of an underground Communist network working within the United States government in the 1930s. One of the names on that list wasalger Hiss, a senior State Department official. Hiss denied the accusations.
Chambers's revelations led to a crisis in American political culture, as Hiss was convicted of perjury. On February 9, 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy accused the State Department of having Communists on the payroll, and specifically claimed that Secretary of State Dean Acheson knew of, and was protecting, 205 communists within the State Department. At issue was whether Truman had discovered all the subversive agents that had entered the government during the Roosevelt years. Many on the right, such as McCarthy and congressman Richard Nixon, were insistent that he had not.
By spotlighting this issue and attacking Truman's administration, McCarthy quickly established himself as a national figure, and his explosive allegations dominated the headlines. His claims were short indeed on confirmable details, but they nevertheless transfixed a nation struggling to come to grips with frightening new realities: the Soviet Union's nuclear explosion, the loss of U.S. atom bomb secrets, the fall of China, and new revelations of Soviet intelligence penetration of other U.S. agencies, including the Treasury Department. Truman, a pragmatic man who had made allowances for the likes of Tom Pendergast and Stalin, quickly developed an unshakable loathing for Joseph McCarthy. He counterattacked, saying that "Americanism" itself was under attack by elements "who are loudly proclaiming that they are its chief defenders . . . They are trying to create fear and suspicion among us by the use of slander, unproved accusations and just plain lies . . . They are trying to get us to believe that our Government is riddled with Communism and corruption . . . These slandermongers are trying to get us so hysterical that no one will stand up to them for fear of being called a Communist. Now this is an old Communist trick in reverse . . . That is not fair play. That is not Americanism."Nevertheless Truman was never able to shake the image of being unable to purge his government of subversive influences.
On June 25, 1950 the North Korean People's Army under the command of dictator IM Il Sung invaded South Korea, precipitating the outbreak of the Korean War. Poorly trained and equipped, without tanks or air support, the South Korean Army was rapidly pushed backwards, quickly losing the capital, Seoul.
Stunned, Truman called for a naval blockade of Korea, which went into effect; while the U.S. Navy no longer possessed sufficient surface ships with which to enforce such a measure, no ships tried to challenge it. Truman promptly urged the United Nations to intervene; it did, authorizing armed defense for the first time in its history. (The Soviet Union was not in attendance at the Security Council vote that approved the measure.) Truman sent in the full military resources based in Japan. United Nations (primarily U.S.) forces under U.S. General Douglas MacArthur crushed the North Korean invasion in 90 days. However, Truman decided not to consult with Congress, an error that greatly weakened his position later in the conflict.
In the first four weeks the American infantry forces hastily deployed to Korea proved too few and were underequipped. The Eighth Army in Japan was forced to recondition World War II Sherman tanks from depots and monuments for use in Korea. By 60 days into the war Truman had sent a massive amount of military supplies into Korea, and UN forces outnumbered the invaders and had far more supplies, munitions, air supremacy and naval supremacy.
Responding to a firestorm of criticism over readiness, Truman fired his Secretary of Defense, Louis A. Johnson, replacing him with retired general George C. Marshall. Truman (with UN approval) decided on a roll-back policy—that is, conquest of North Korea. UN forces led by General Douglas MacArthur led the counterattack, scoring a stunning surprise victory with an amphibious landing at the Battle of Inchon that nearly trapped the invaders. UN forces then marched north, toward the Yalu River boundary with China, with the goal of reuniting Korea under UN auspices.
China surprised the UN forces by a large-scale invasion in November. The UN forces, heavily outnumbered in severe winter weather, were forced back to below the 38th parallel, then recovered and in early 1951 the war became a fierce stalemate at about the 38th parallel where it began. UN and U.S. casualties were heavy. Truman rejected MacArthur's request to attack Chinese supply bases north of the Yalu, but MacArthur promoted his plan to Republican House leader Joseph Martin. Truman was gravely concerned that further escalation of the war might draw the Soviet Union further into the conflict—it was already supplying weapons and providing warplanes (with Korean markings and Soviet fliers). On April 11, 1951, Truman fired MacArthur from all his commands in Korea and Japan.
Relieving MacArthur of his command was among the least politically popular decisions in presidential history. Truman's approval ratings plummeted, and he faced calls for his impeachment from, among others, Senator Robert Taft. The Chicago Tribune called for immediate impeachment proceedings against Truman: President Truman must be impeached and convicted. His hasty and vindictive removal of Gen. MacArthur is the culmination of series of acts which have shown that he is unfit, morally and mentally, for his high office...The American nation has never been in greater danger. It is led by a fool who is surrounded by knaves...
Fierce criticism from virtually all quarters accused Truman of refusing to shoulder the blame for a war gone sour and blaming his generals instead. MacArthur returned to the United States to a hero's welcome, and, after an address before Congress, was even rumored as a candidate for the presidency.
The war remained a stalemate for two years until a peace agreement restored borders and ended the conflict. In the interim, the difficulties in Korea and the popular outcry against Truman's sacking of MacArthur helped to make the president so unpopular that Democrats started turning to other candidates. In the New Hampshire Primary on March 11, 1952, Truman lost to Estes Kefauver, who won the preference poll 19,800 to 15,927 and all eight delegates. Truman was forced to cancel his reelection campaign.In February 1952, Truman's approval mark stood at 22% according to Gallup polls, the all-time lowest approval mark for an active American President.
United States' involvement in Vietnam began during the Truman administration. On V-J Day 1945, Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France, but the U.S. announced its support of restoring French power. In 1950, Ho again declared Vietnamese independence and was recognized by Communist China and the Soviet Union. He controlled some remote territory along the Chinese border, while France controlled the remainder. Truman's "containment policy" (calling for opposition to Communist expansion) led the U.S. to continue to recognize French rule and the French client government. In 1950, Truman authorized $10 million in aid to the French, sending 123 non-combat soldiers to help with supplies. In 1951, the amount escalated to $150 million. By 1953, the amount had risen to $1 billion (one third of U.S. foreign aid and 80 percent of the French cost). A basic dispute emerged: the Americans wanted a strong and independent Vietnam, while the French cared little about containing China, but instead wanted to suppress local nationalism and integrate Vietnam into the French system.
But at the same time it was becoming clear that the building, much of it over 130 years old, was in a dangerously dilapidated condition. That August a section of floor actually collapsed and Truman's own bedroom and bathroom were closed as they were unsafe. No public announcement was made until the election had been won, by which time Truman had been informed that his new balcony was the only part of the building that was sound. The Truman family moved into nearby Blair House; as the newer West Wing, including the Oval Office, remained open, Truman found himself walking to work across the street each morning and afternoon. In due course the decision was made to demolish and rebuild the whole interior of the main White House, as well as excavating new basement levels and underpinning the foundations. (The famous exterior of the structure, however, was buttressed and retained while the renovations proceeded inside.) The work lasted from December 1949 until March 1952.
On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo attempted to assassinate Truman at Blair House. On the street outside the residence, Torresola mortally wounded a White House policeman, Leslie Coffelt, who shot Torresola to death before expiring himself. Collazo, as a co-conspirator in a felony that turned into a homicide, was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to death in 1952. Truman later commuted his sentence to life in prison.
Acknowledging the importance of the question of Puerto Rican independence, Truman allowed for a genuinely democratic plebiscite in Puerto Rico to determine the status of its relationship to the United States.
The attack, which could easily have taken the president's life, drew new attention to security concerns surrounding his residence at Blair House. He had jumped up from his nap, and was watching the gunfight from his open bedroom window (which was exposed to the street) until a passerby shouted at him to take cover.
In 1950, the Senate, led by Estes Kefauver, investigated numerous charges of corruption among senior administration officials, some of whom received fur coats and deep freezers for favors. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was involved. In 1950, 166 IRS employees either resigned or were fired, and many were facing indictments from the Department of Justice on a variety of tax-fixing and bribery charges, including the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Tax Division. When Attorney General Howard McGrath fired the special prosecutor for being too zealous, Truman fired McGrath.Historians agree that Truman himself was innocent and unaware—with one exception. In 1945, Mrs. Truman became the recipient of a new, expensive, hard-to-get deep freezer. The businessman who provided the gift was the president of a perfume company and, thanks to Truman's aide and confidante General Harry Vaughan, received priority to fly to Europe days after the war ended, where he bought new perfumes. On the way back he "bumped" a wounded veteran being flown home. Disclosure of the episode in 1949 humiliated Truman, and he responded by vigorously defending Vaughan, who was involved in multiple influence peddling scandals from his White House office.
Charges that Soviet agents had infiltrated the government bedeviled the Truman administration and became a major campaign issue for Eisenhower in 1952. In 1947, Truman set up loyalty boards to investigate espionage among federal employees. Between 1947 and 1952, "about 20,000 government employees were investigated, some 2500 resigned “voluntarily,” and 400 were fired".Truman himself later asserted that the loyalty program was the biggest single mistake of his presidency.
In 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy and Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr. alleged that Truman had known Harry Dexter White was a Soviet spy when he, Truman, appointed him to the International Monetary Fund. However, this has now been refuted by declassified documents through the Freedom of Information Act which attest President Truman and the White House had not known of the existence of the Venona project.