- Personal Development
- Entrepreneurial Toolkit
- The Store
Harry S. Truman didn’t plan to become president of the United States on April 12, 1945. But despite the enormous challenges facing him, he did what he did best: took the lead. Today, Truman is ranked among the best U.S. presidents, and his life is an example of what honesty, high ideals and courage can accomplish in the face of overwhelming opposition.
“When a high-explosive shell bursts [with]in 15 feet and does you no damage, you can bet your sweet life you bear a charmed life and no mistake.”
Truman was born on May 8, 1884, and grew up in Independence, Mo. His father was a farmer, and Truman was a good student who dreamt of becoming a soldier. But his family could not afford college and his poor eyesight kept him out of West Point. In 1917, he memorized the eye chart and joined the Army to aid its World War I effort. After shipping out to France, the young captain excelled in turning an unruly group of young men into a respected unit, eventually leading them through the horrific Battle of the Argonne. Truman discovered in battle a previously untapped well of courage and fortitude.
During the war, he corresponded with Elizabeth Virginia “Bess” Wallace. When he returned home in 1919, they married and, in 1924, had their only child, Mary Margaret.
“I never gave anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”
When he returned, Truman tried his hand at entrepreneurship— he had attempted a mining company that failed before he left for France. This time, he opened a men’s clothing and accessories store in Kansas City, but it, too, failed. In 1922, he ran for a judgeship in Jackson County, and by 1926, he served as presiding judge, managing the county’s finances as it entered the Great Depression. His head for business, his leadership experience during the war and his reputation for honesty garnered the respect of his constituency, and he held the same office for eight years.
After Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934, he supported New Deal policies, serving Missouri as a Democrat. As World War II began, he formed a committee to investigate defense spending. Truman initiated several public works campaigns during his time in the Senate and later referred to these as his “happiest 10 years.”
In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose Truman as his presidential running mate, and the duo won the election by a good margin. However, happy days for Truman were nearing a temporary end.
On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt died, and after only 82 days as vice president, Truman became the president of the United States. He was utterly unprepared. Roosevelt had not included Truman in foreign policy briefings or in meetings about the new atomic weapon under development. “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me,” Truman said later.
“I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb. Its production and its use were not lightly undertaken by this government.”
A few weeks after Truman took office, the Allies declared victory in Europe. But the Japanese refused to surrender. So in August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, initially killing over 100,000 people, with thousands more dying later from radiation poisoning. The Japanese surrendered, and World War II ended only four months into Truman’s presidency.
Despite criticism for his approval of atomic weaponry, Truman accepted a leadership role and stood by his decision. “We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war,” he said, “in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”
“No government is perfect. One of the chief virtues of a democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible, and under democratic processes, can be pointed out and corrected.”
Truman faced other international challenges during his first term as president, as relations between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated and the Cold War began. He initiated the Truman Doctrine by sending support to Turkey and Greece in the face of Soviet subversion. And he negotiated a military alliance to protect Western nations, later established as NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Truman maintained a hard line in his support of democratic policies and a market economy in his work to rebuild the nation’s economy after years of deprivation for the war effort. He defended his beliefs and strategies in eloquent and often-witty rebuttals. He also worked for African-American civil rights, eventually desegregating the armed forces.
“It isn’t important who is ahead at one time or another in either an election or horse race. It’s the horse that comes in first at the finish line that counts.”
When Truman accepted his party’s reluctant nomination for president in 1948, nearly every public opinion poll, pundit and newspaper predicted that he would lose. The opposing Republican Party had control of Congress and some liberal Democrats had split off to support the Progressive party, further decreasing Truman’s support.
In contrast to Republican Thomas E. Dewey’s bland speeches, Truman took to the rails and conducted a blistering, partisan campaign across the country. He criticized Dewey and the Republican Congress’s lack of progress, promising to improve the economy and enact civil-rights legislation. Crowds responded to his fiery speeches with shouts of, “Give ’em hell, Harry!”
When he was warned by advisors that his civil-rights program would surely lose him the election, he said if he lost for that reason, it would be worth it. His principles mattered more to him than his political gains.
Despite his aggressive campaigning, experts continued to tout Dewey as a sure-win. Even Truman’s staff believed their exhaustive efforts on the campaign trail were futile. Truman himself was the only person who consistently predicted his victory. The night before the election that has come to be known as the greatest upset in American history, the Chicago Daily Tribune and other newspapers printed headlines declaring Dewey the new president. But the next morning, Truman was the victor, laughing for the cameras as he held up the inaccurate front-page headline.
“Today, America has become one of the most powerful forces for good on earth. We must keep it so.”
Truman immediately pushed for legislation that raised the minimum wage and expanded Social Security, kicking off a period of economic expansion during the 1950s and ’60s. In 1950, he sent troops into South Korea to defend the U.S. ally against an invasion by communist North Korea.
Truman left the White House in January 1953 and returned to Independence, Mo. He spent his final years enjoying music with Bess and Margaret, who had established a singing career. He wrote his memoirs, traveled, aided in the creation of the Truman Library and served occasionally as an elder statesman. Although he passed away the day after Christmas 1972, his legacy of patriotism lives on: “May we Americans all live up to our glorious heritage. In that way, America may well lead the world to peace and prosperity.”