President Harry S. Truman

In some ways, Harry S. Truman is one of those presidents that should never have had the job. He came into power in 1945 following the death of Roosevelt, was touted to lose his election campaign in 1948, and then dissuaded from running again in 1952.

It could have easily been someone else in charge for those 7 years. But it was Truman taking on the Japanese, Soviet Union, and the Koreans, as well as a few key domestic issues along the way.

Truman is brought in as president following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt

Truman had taken on the role of vice president during Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth campaign. However, just 82 days into this term, Roosevelt collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and died. Truman had been presiding over the Senate at the time and was called into the Whitehouse to learn of the death and his new role from Eleanor Roosevelt. It is reported that when Truman asked what he could do for the First Family, Eleanor replied,

“Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now!”

Harry S. Truman’s shock victory in 1948.

There wasn’t that much faith that Truman would continue in the Whitehouse beyond his time completing Roosevelt’s fourth term. He wasn’t seen as someone that the people would get behind. Yet, there was a surge in campaigning towards the end of the run and Thomas Dewey still had a fight on his hands.

On election night, the press began printing front-page news that Dewey defeated Truman, having taken a projection from telephone polls. However, the telephone polls were inaccurate as they didn’t reach many Truman supporters. Truman would win and begin his first full term as an elected president.

Few presidents have taken the US through war as Truman did.

A large part of the Harry S. Truman presidency relates to war efforts to some degree. The death of Roosevelt during the start of his 4th term plunged Truman straight into a role as not only President of the United States but as Commander in Chief during the end of World War II.

Then came tensions with the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and subsequent concerns over Communist threats. Later on, he would engage in the Korean War.

Truman’s efforts at the end of World War II

The Pearl Harbor attack of 1941 had stunned the nation and drove Roosevelt into declaring war on the Japanese. The Axis Forces would then make their own declaration.

Roosevelt also developed the Manhattan Project for the creation of nuclear weapons. On succeeding to the presidency, Truman would then inherit all of this at the tail-end of the war. He was thrown into the deep end from day one, learning about the full situation and now having responsibility for what came next.

Truman sent an ultimatum on July 26th, 1945 to the Japanese to surrender or face “utter devastation”.

He was now in full knowledge of the extent of the US nuclear powers and successful tests in New Mexico. If the Japanese didn’t agree, he would use the bomb. On August 76th, he ordered the bombing of Hiroshima, soon followed by the bombing of Nagasaki. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people died.

Harry S. Truman’s reasoning for the bombing was he had been advised that even more Americans would be killed if they were to invade Japan. The idea was to stop the country in its tracks, while also making a point about the new firepower of the US. Truman would state that the decision was actually to “spare the Japanese people from utter destruction”. He also spoke of the “rain of ruin from the air” and a “new era in man’s understanding of nature’s forces”. The decision was highly controversial and polarizing, bringing a lot of criticism as well as support. But, it wouldn’t be the last time that Truman would cause such an effect.

Truman and the Cold War.

The efforts against the Japanese in World War II were barely over when the Allied countries began to become warier of threat from the Soviet Union. Truman met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Missouri in 1946, where they would discuss the problems of the region.

Truman strengthened his allegiance to Churchill and the British as Churchill gave his Iron Curtain speech, which changed US foreign policy to a position of containing the power of the Soviet Union rather than cooperating with it.

The escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the further development of Hydrogen bombs. Truman’s simple reasoning here was that if the Soviet Union were as far forward as suspected in this arms race, the US needed to stay one step ahead. He couldn’t risk the Soviets creating a bomb that could destroy parts of the US without having something in response. So, he gave the go-ahead for H-bomb testing in the deserts of the US. The first successful test took place on October 31st, 1952, although it wasn’t officially announced until the following January.

Anti-communist sentiments and McCarthyism.

It wasn’t just the Soviet Union abroad that Truman had to worry about during this period. There were growing concerns about communists infiltrating the United States, and growing scaremongering of “reds under the bed”.

Senator McCarthy was a major player in the second Red Scare in the US, having accused the State Department of harboring communists. In 1948, 78% of the public are such to have believed McCarthy and there were fears about distrust of the Democratic Party. Truman would then go on to denounce communist leaders in the US as traitors.

Harry S. Truman and the Korean War.

There was a war in Korea. Around the time of these growing tensions and prospects for H-bomb tests, North Korean forces had entered South Korea in an attempt to seize the state.

As a communist nation on the attack, North Korea was a prime target for American retaliation and Truman did not hold back in his outrage. This is where the president carried out yet another highly controversial decision as Commander in Chief.

Truman did not take his plan to Congress in order for an official declaration of war. Instead, he directed US forces straight to South Korea to help them repel the invasion. It was a fast and direct response that showed precisely which side Truman was on.

The US was then locked into a devastating war that would continue after Truman left office. More than 33,000 American’s died in the Korean War and the fighting would have a major impact on both sides. There was declining support for the war at home due to the growing casualties and the length of the conflict.

Truman’s ratings in the opinion polls slumped significantly.

Truman’s presidency also led to major proposals on domestic politics.

While many of the talking points of the Truman presidency relate to foreign affairs and war efforts, there were also many important proposals on domestic policy. Still, many of these actions on US soil were influenced by war efforts.

Truman made an order as Commander in Chief to take control of a number of the nation’s steel mills in April 1952 and use the resources for the Korean war effort. The move was later deemed unconstitutional.

When Truman was elected, he set about working on his Fair Deal domestic reform program in 1949. The Fail Deal was a plan to improve the standards of living and opportunities for those living in the United States. The main proposals were for an expansion of public housing, better access to education, the federal protection of civil rights, a higher minimum wage, and national health insurance. As with many Democratic deals like this, the proposals did not resemble their original form once they had gone through the House and Senate. Those that did pass were stripped back.

Truman and civil rights.

The issue of Truman and civil rights is an interesting one.

On one side, you have the proposals to improve the lives of African-Americans, create a fairer society, and help African-American veterans returning from the war.

On the other, you have the fact that Truman also sat down to meet with the KKK and is reported to have used racist terms in informal conversations. There are also those that suggest his affiliation with the KKK may have gone further.

Truman would go on to work on the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the military, with the notion that the services should become racially integrated. There was also an Executive Order in 1948 making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race for those applying for civil service positions.

The failed assassination attempt during the Whitehouse renovations.

Normally, stories of assassinations and assassination attempts are commonly known and referenced in the media. Lincoln’s death at the theatre, Kennedy’s death in the motorcade, and Roosevelt continuing his speech all come to mind.

The story of the attempt on Truman’s life isn’t so well-known.

Truman had moved his family into the Blair House residence close to the West Wing after ordering renovations on the residence at the Whitehouse.

On November 1st, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists shot at the residence. One hit a policeman instead, causing a fatal injury. That shooter was shot and killed and the other shot and detained before he could enter the house. Although originally sentenced to death for murder in 1952, Truman commuted the sentence to life in prison.

Harry S. Truman withdraws from the 1952 election.

Originally, there were plans for Truman to include his name on the ballot for the 1952 election. He would have been eligible to do so under a grandfather clause on the 22nd Amendment. The amendment states that no vice president that takes over the presidency less than 2 years into a term may seek more than one additional term. His name was originally on the New Hampshire ballot but withdrawn under guidance from advisors. It was felt that a combination of poor approval rating, his age, and the fact he was not the man he was when he started, all went against him.

Truman’s life after the presidency.

And so, Truman would leave the office after the election and move back into life outside of politics. He would still continue to play his part now and then with endorsements and comments as needed. A notable example is a public statement coming out against the nomination of John F. Kennedy. He wasn’t happy with how Kennedy had gained the nomination, so decided to boycott the Democratic Convention that year.

Truman would live a simple life that often put him in financial difficulties.

He had refused to take a corporate job in fear of damaging the integrity of his position as a former president. He instead lived on his army pension.

During the later years of Truman’s life. Lyndon B. Johnson would bring in the Medicare Bill, something that Truman has been influential in getting off the ground with his views on health care initiatives.

Truman was in poor health at this time, having fallen at his home. Johnson made a point of signing the bill at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum and giving the first two Medicare cards to Harry and his wife.

Harry S. Truman dies at the age of 88.

In 1972, Truman developed pneumonia and was admitted to the hospital. He would then go on to suffer multiple organ failures and fall into a coma, eventually dying on December 26th.

Truman may not have been the most popular president during the end of his time at the Whitehouse, nor the candidate that the Democrats ever had much confidence to put forward as the face of the party, but he was impactful. Whatever your views on the events of the Second World War, Cold War, or Korean War, Truman wasn’t shy in reinforcing the position of the US on the world stage.

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