Profiles in Greatness: Harry Truman

UPDATED: March 1, 2010
PUBLISHED: March 1, 2010

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.”

Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at and on Facebook.