Flashback Friday – Harry S. Truman
President Harry S. Truman, a man who for much of his life felt like a failure more than anything else, but who worked hard and never gave up, rose to become one of the most well respected presidents in American history. While the specific position varies, Truman is consistently ranked in the top ten of the best presidents the country has seen. So how did a small town man from Missouri achieve such success, while inheriting one of the most difficult presidencies under less than ideal circumstances?
Truman lived the majority of his life in Independence, Missouri. Born to a hard working farm family, Truman was given the middle initial “S” to satisfy both sides of his family. Both of his grandfathers had middle names starting with “S”, so rather than favour one over the other, Truman was given just the initial. Truman was an extremely hard worker, enjoying piano and history. Upon graduation he served during WWI. The only way that Truman could enlist was to memorize the eye chart, as his vision was terrible. He wore thick glasses all throughout his life, something which came to be a signature of his look and personality. While serving during the war, Truman developed a reputation as an excellent leader, despite his meek appearance. During his time as leader of Battery D, not a single man was lost.
After returning to Independence, Truman worked in many different jobs. He farmed, opened his own haberdashery, and eventually became involved in local politics. He married Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace in 1919. He had been smitten with Bess ever since he met her, and despite a long courtship and her own mother’s disapproval, the couple finally married. Bess is a fascinating woman, and how Truman put up with her is a mystery. Harry was head over heels for his wife though, as is evident through the numerous letters he sent her while in Washington.
After failing as a farmer and business owner, Truman was elected to Missouri politics, but largely due to the corrupt Democratic boss that controlled politics at the time. It was not until he was elected to the Senate in 1934, that he really began to make a name for himself. In his first term, Truman struggled with patronage to the Missouri Democratic boss who was largely responsible for his election. However, during his second term, Truman became known for his work on a committee to investigate waste and corruption during WWII. It eventually became known as the “Truman Committee” and was noticed by the White House.
The election of 1944 was a turning point for the country, although it was not known at the time. President Roosevelt was embarking upon his fourth term. With his health deteriorating, it was known that whoever joined Roosevelt on the ticket would likely become President. Looking back it seems incredibly irresponsible of the Democratic party to nominate a president who did not have the health to finish their term. But Roosevelt was seen as the best individual in the job during the war, sick or not. Thus Harry Truman replaced Henry Wallace as Roosevelt’s running mate. Wallace was seen as an unacceptable option for president. It was good old Harry Truman, a man few could dislike, that got the position. Only months into his new position, the inevitable happened and Truman became president.
The story of how Truman received the news has been told many times. He was advised to come to the White House quickly and discreetly. Upon arrival, he was told by Eleanor Roosevelt that the president had died. Truman’s first response was to ask Eleanor if there was anything he could do for her. In that moment, Mrs. Roosevelt likely understood how dire the situation for Truman was when she replied, asking instead if there was anything she could do for him. I can not even imagine how overwhelmed Truman must have been on that April day in 1945. He had been vice president for a few months, and during that time was told literally nothing! Roosevelt and his close circle of advisors never let Truman in on any of the decisions or helped him become knowledgeable on the crisis which had enveloped the world. He was now president, and had no idea what was going on.
Never the less, he was forced to jump into the position right away. He first had to deal with asserting himself as president while standing in the shadow of the mighty FDR, who even in death was a powerful figure for the country. He immediately dismissed the Roosevelt cabinet, bringing in his own people, whom he could trust. This was a very good decision. Only months into office, Truman was advised about the atomic bomb. A decision he likely did not make lightly, Truman decided to use the new weapon as it could put an end to the war. He was correct in that it did end the war, but the cost of human lives lost has fuelled debate over whether it was a justified decision.
With the war over, Truman had many problems to deal with. He had a country which had to convert itself back to a peacetime economy, something it had not experienced in many years. Memories of the Great Depression were still fresh in the minds of many. He also had to deal with the Soviet Union, once an ally, now becoming a foe. His plans to help rebuild Europe following WWII were seen as an enormous success. Truman saw this aide to Europe essential to stop the spread of communism. In 1948, Truman put his name forward for reelection. His Republican opponent Thomas Dewey was more than confident he would be moving into the White House following the election. Truman meanwhile, embarked upon a whistlestop train campaign travelling the entire country, speaking to as many people as possible. While Truman made upward of 60 speeches, Dewey made barely two dozen. In an underdog victory for the record books, Truman won in 1948, with thin support across much of the country. The happiest moment for Truman was holding up the Chicago Tribune, which sported the headline of “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
If Truman knew the second term he would have to endure, he might not have sought election in 1948. The focus of his last four years in office was largely on foreign policy, as he dealt with a world of constant communist threat. His decision to pursue containment is viewed by some as a mistake, as it set the troubling course the United States was forced to take for the duration of the Cold War. With his popularity extremely low, Truman wisely decided not to run again in 1952. Likely the happiest day for Bess Truman, in all her time as First Lady, was the day that Harry announced he was not running again. For the first time, she had a smile on her face as he made the announcement.
Bess Truman spent every possible minute she could back home in Independence. She was terribly uncomfortable in the public spotlight and wished none of the attention her husband’s position gave her. She worried that her father’s suicide would be brought up by the media, and upon Truman’s succession as president, she burned many family documents to prevent anything coming to light. It is impossible to think that today a First Lady could be as distant as Bess Truman was. While she conducted the necessary ceremonial duties as required, she greatly reduced the role of First Lady, which had been expanded by her predecessor. Her time away from Washington was particularly damaging for the president, who often felt extremely lonely and wished to see her more. One credit to Mrs. Truman was her role in the preservation of the White House, which underwent a substantial renovation during Truman’s presidency. She advocated for a restoration, realizing the historical significance of the building and how devastating it would be to lose a landmark.
Back to the earlier question now, what makes Harry Truman one of the most well respected presidents? His popularity upon leaving office was dangerously low. Of course, this is never used as a sign of a successful president, but there was no question he struggled. But I think his overall high regard can be attributed to his effective management of the ending of the war and the policies which he initiated to rebuild Europe. He is also remembered for being an important individual in the civil rights movement. He supported many radical civil rights proposals, regardless of the backlash from southern Democrats.
Another important reason I believe Truman is remembered is how he managed to be more than an extension of FDR. Truman defined his own terms as president, and despite his weak exterior, he did not allow anyone to push him around. He proved to be a a great leader, despite following one of the country’s most iconic presidents. I think for this reason, the failed haberdasher with the thick round glasses which made his eyes look five times their size, surprised everyone…including himself and should be remembered as an excellent president.
Ironically, his mother-in-law, who never liked him, always thought he was never good enough for Bess. Even as president, she thought Bess had married down and was never afraid to tell Harry she thought he was a failure. The man should get an award for not only being a good president, but putting up with his wife and mother-in-law for so many years.