Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman was the 33rd president (1945–53) of the United States at a time when momentous events were taking place around the globe. World War II was nearly over, and other wars loomed on the horizon, while the specter of Soviet communism haunted U.S. policy makers. It fell to Truman to take on these issues while attempting to guide the United States into its role as an emergent superpower.

Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, the eldest son of John and Martha Truman. Truman studied law at Kansas City Law School but did not earn a degree. His political career began in the year 1922, when he began his association with Thomas Pendergast, a leading Democrat of Kansas City.

Truman was elected a judge in Jackson County in the same year. In 1934 he became the Democratic senator from Missouri and supported most of the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945).

Truman became prominent due to his work on the Committee on Defense Expenditure, where he exposed corruption and profiteering. He was selected as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1944 and became president after the death of Roosevelt on April 12, 1945.

When Truman took office, World War II was not yet over. Germany capitulated on May 7, 1945, but the war against Japan in the Pacific continued with mounting casualties on both sides.

Still, the Allied forces pressed on, sending strategic bombing runs against Japanese cities from forward Pacific bases. Truman met British premier Clement Attlee (1883– 1967) and Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) at Potsdam, Berlin, from July 17 to August 2, 1945, to map out the post–World War II world.

To accelerate the end of the war, Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, and consequently, on August 6 and August 9, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki witnessed the devastating impact of nuclear weapons. On September 2 Japan surrendered formally on the USS Missouri in Tokyo harbor.

Immediately following the war, Truman was forced to take a hard-line approach against international communism, particularly with regard to events in Iran, Greece, and Turkey. In Iran the oil-rich province of Azerbaijan was a prize greatly desired by the Soviet Union; its moves were checked by Truman.

At the same time, Truman sent U.S. ships to the Mediterranean to prevent Soviet advances in Turkey. Greece, on the verge of a communist takeover after the withdrawal of British troops, was the subject of the Truman Doctrine issued on March 12, 1947.

With this, Truman proclaimed that the United States would continue to "support free peoples," a claim backed up with a $400-million aid package for both Turkey and Greece. The doctrine was further buttressed by U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan (1904–2005) with the Kennan Thesis, which called for the containment of Soviet designs.

To further prevent Soviet expansion in Europe, the Marshall Plan, created by secretary of state George C. Marshall, provided $12 billion in aid to various European countries, with the thought that American assistance might help reduce Soviet influence.

In response, the Soviet Union consolidated its hold on Eastern Europe and claimed that the U.S. was attempting to divide the world into two blocs, further intensifying the cold war rivalry between the two superpowers.

At home, Truman was faced with the massive reconstruction of the American economy following World War II. The transition to a peacetime economy was beset with many problems, including inflation, a shortage of consumer goods, and labor problems.

The efforts to stem the earlier depression now came under harsh criticism as both Republicans and conservative Democrats no longer saw the need for the government's involvement in the American economy.

In response, Truman presented the Fair Deal to Congress on September 6, 1945. This plan called for increased social security, full employment, public housing projects, the clearance of slums, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Act, and public works projects. It did not meet with congressional approval, and much of the plan was eliminated or reduced in scope.

Truman's agenda hit further snags when in the midterm elections, the Republican Party won control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The new Republican Congress failed to pass the proposal for education, social security, the minimum wage, and power projects.

Instead, Congress passed the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (also known as the Taft-Hartley Act), which restricted union activities and removed some restrictions on employers. Truman did not sign the bill.

It seemed that the president would not win a second term, but he curried favor with unions, African Americans, urban dwellers, and others. He initiated the civil rights bill in February 1948. Truman also racially integrated the armed forces by an executive order.

The Democratic Party was divided, and Truman, with much difficulty, won the nomination to face the Republican Party candidate, Thomas E. Dewey (1902–71). Truman launched a blistering attack on the Republicans and led a vigorous campaign. Few expected him to win, but he proved the predictions of political pundits wrong.

Second Term

In his second term, Truman faced serious crises in domestic and external affairs. The Fair Deal was presented once again. The 81st Congress was also not amenable to his reform agenda.

However, the president scored victories in raising the minimum wage from 40 to 75 cents, passing the National Housing Act of 1949 to build low-income houses, and establishing the Civil Rights Commission of 1948. Truman could not implement many of his preferred programs such as limiting discrimination in hiring due to opposition by some southern Democrats.

Truman's second term witnessed an anticommunist hysteria that swept the nation. The president was charged with being soft on communism. Persons from the movie industry, intellectuals, liberal Democrats, and scientists came under investigation for being suspected communists or communist sympathizers.

The Republican-controlled House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated persons with flimsy charges. Alger Hiss, a diplomat, was charged with espionage. Truman launched the Federal Loyalty Program to investigate the loyalty of federal employees.

Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act in 1950, which barred communists from working in defense plants, and registration of communist organizations became mandatory. J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director, and Republican senator Joseph McCarthy conducted the anticommunist crusade, initiating proceedings against alleged radicals and communist sympathizers.

Foreign Policy

Truman recognized the state of Israel in 1948, and it remained an ally of the United States during the cold war period. Formation of military alliances was another means to shore up the defenses of Western Europe against any future Soviet invasion, and the United States initiated the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April 1949. Article 5 of the treaty stated that an attack against one would mean an attack against all.

Meanwhile, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) proclaimed the Peoples Republic of China on October 1, 1959. Truman's containment policy was of no avail there, and international communism had expanded with the inclusion of the most populous nation of the world. The Soviet Union and China signed a formal treaty on February 14, 1950, cementing their friendship.

For Truman the task was to check the further onward march of communism. In Indochina a nationalist-communist battle was being waged against French colonialism in the first Indochina War (1946–54) under the guidance of Ho Chi Minh. It was the United States that supported 40 percent of France's military budget in the war and recognized the noncommunist associate state of South Vietnam in 1950.

During the Korean War, the world was on the brink of a global war. Truman faced a serious crisis when Communist North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet to move into the straits between China and Taiwan.

The United Nations army operation, which consisted of 90 percent U.S. and South Korean forces, was commanded by General Douglas MacArthur. In November the Chinese interfered, and MacArthur advocated invading mainland China.

He was relieved of his command amid much public outcry, and General Matthew Ridgway (1895–1993) retook the South Korean capital of Seoul from Sino–North Korean forces. The war dragged on until July 1953. Truman's popularity diminished, and he decided not to seek reelection in 1952.

He spent his time in Missouri after leaving Washington, writing his memoirs and addressing meetings. He died on December 26, 1972, due to medical complications.