The Dewey Decimator
If you were alive on April 12, 1945 and learned that Harry S. Truman had become President of the United States after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, you likely would not have been filled with confidence.
Truman was a relatively unknown former Senator from Missouri. He was a product of a corrupt political machine in Kansas City. He did not have a college degree. He had not been overly successful in his private life.
In his first few months on the job, Truman had to figure out how to bring about a successful end to World War II, whether or not to unleash atomic weapons on the world, and deal with an ever-growing threat from the Soviet Union, a threat potentially more dangerous than the threat from Germany and Japan. Mao Tse-Tung was leading a Communist revolution in China.
Harry Truman seemed like he was ill-prepared to handle these challenges. His honeymoon from criticism barely lasted until the end of 1945. He was one of the least popular Presidents (in terms of approval ratings) in the 20th Century.
And yet, Truman pulled off one of the biggest upsets in American politics when he was elected in 1948. And after that, Truman’s popularity dropped even more.
Despite all of this, historians now rank Truman as one of the greatest Presidents not named Lincoln, Washington, or Roosevelt. How did Truman pull all this off? Robert Dallek, who appeared earlier here in a biography of John F. Kennedy, shows how Truman’s ability to quickly master the rapidly changing world situation, combined with an almost seeming disregard for what was politically popular, but confidence in knowing that he was doing what was best for the country, turned him into one of the most effective Presidents of the 20th Century.
On the other hand, Truman has to take responsibility for ordering the atomic bombs to be dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The nuclear arms race began while he was President. The United States fought a bloody war in Korea that is officially not over.
It was none other than Winston Churchill, who said of Truman, “The last time you and I sat across a conference table was at Potsdam. I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard. I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt. I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.”
Harry S. Truman (the S was not an initial it was just a letter as his parents could not agree which side of the family should be honored by the middle name) was born on May 8, 1884 in Lamar, Missouri. His parents moved around to various farms in Western Missouri before settling in Independence, just outside of Kansas City in 1890. Truman was a bright child, but did not get a chance to go to college for financial reasons. Truman worked in a series of odd jobs: mailroom clerk, railroad timekeeper, farm hand.
In 1917, Truman signed up with a Missouri National Guard unit that went to France to fight in World War I. (He had been a member earlier in his life, mainly in an attempt to meet more influential people.) Truman became an officer in the National Guard and won plaudits for his bravery in combat.
When Truman returned to the U.S., he felt comfortable enough with his station in life to marry his longtime sweetheart, Bess Wallace. That same year, Truman and a friend opened a haberdashery in Kansas City (I rarely ever see the word “haberdashery” written anywhere except Harry Truman biographies.) The business went bankrupt in 1921.
During his war service, Truman also became friends with the nephew of Kansas City’s political boss, Thomas Pendergast. Truman aspired to a career in politics. Pendergast was looking for someone who could run for a position as one of the judges of Jackson County, Missouri. (This was an administrative, not judicial position.) Jackson County is the largest of the four counties that make up Kansas City, Missouri.
Truman won the election in 1922, lost in 1924, and then was elected again in 1926, 1928, and 1930. Although Pendergast was a classic big city political boss who made his living on kickbacks, Truman worked hard and honestly at the job. He supervised road construction in the county. And, during the throes of the Great Depression, helped to coordinate aid to unemployed citizens as best he could.
By 1932, Truman wanted to run for higher office. He aspired to be governor of Missouri, or possibly win a seat in the House. But, Pendergast said no. It would not be until 1934, when fortune smiled upon Harry S. Truman.
Missouri had a Republican senator up for reelection in 1934. The leading Democratic challenger to him was a rival to Pendergast. So, Pendergast tapped on his friend Harry Truman to run in the primary. It turned out to be a three-way contest between Truman, the Kansas City candidate, a St. Louis-backed candidate, and a reform candidate both the St. Louis boss and Pendergast hated. Truman won the primary by 40,000 votes and had an easy win in the general election.
Truman was now going to Washington. At first, Truman felt overwhelmed by his new surroundings. But, he received a friendly bit of advice from Illinois Senator J. Hamilton Lewis, “For the first six months, you’ll wonder how the hell you got here, and after that, you’ll wonder how the hell the rest of us got here.” (Good words to live by if I don’t say so myself.)
The Democrats had a majority of 71 seats at one point during Truman’s first term. This was a problem for a freshman senator because it was hard to stand out when nearly every bill suggested by the White House sailed through the Senate easily. Truman would face a stiff primary challenge in his 1940 reelection bid by Missouri Governor Lloyd Stark. His patron, Tom Pendergast, was now serving a prison sentence for corruption.
Stark was considered a heavy favorite by political pundits in Missouri. However, Stark was also trying to get to be Franklin Roosevelt’s running mate in 1940. Truman jumped on this to point out that Stark was not fully committed to the people of Missouri. Also, Truman was able to portray himself as a strong defender of the New Deal. It proved to be just enough as Truman won the primary by 8000 votes. A general election victory followed.
World War II would give Truman a chance to show that he could be an effective senator. After touring numerous defense plants, Truman realized that the American war effort was hampered by widespread waste. Truman chaired a committee to investigate the matter.
Truman’s committee turned up millions of dollars wasted, contracts granted without bids, and price fixing. Publicly, Truman’s committee was a success because it managed to punish both labor and management.
In 1944, Roosevelt was going to run for a fourth term as President. His Vice President, Henry Wallace, was considered too liberal and too likely to run his mouth to be kept on the ticket. (The condition of Roosevelt’s health, which was very poor, did not seemingly enter into the decision.)
Roosevelt wanted a new VP, but he did not want to look like the bad guy. Wallace was sent off to visit China and Russia to be kept out of the picture. Roosevelt thought of asking two different Supreme Court justices, Thomas Byrnes and William O. Douglas, but both declined. Byrnes was also considered too conservative and Douglas too liberal.
In the end, Roosevelt and Democratic Party leaders settled on Truman. He was neither too liberal nor too conservative. He was considered loyal. He would do what he was told. And so Truman got the nomination.
Then came April 12, 1945. Truman said he felt as if “the moon, the stars, and the planets had all fallen on me.”
Truman now had to deal with the problem of ending World War II. About two weeks after taking office, Secretary of War Henry Stimson briefed Truman on the Manhattan Project and the nation’s ability to use the most devastating weapons ever known at the time.
World War II was coming to an end as Truman took office. The Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945, leaving Japan as the lone remaining enemy.
The fate of postwar Europe as well as how to end the war with Japan would be on the agenda at the conference. The day before the conference began, July 16, 1945, an atomic device was successfully tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Not only was Truman new to these conferences, but so was British Prime Minister Clement Atlee. Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party had been turned out of office while the conference was ongoing. Joseph Stalin, who did not have to worry about such matters as elections, was the third principal participant.
The attendees agreed to a partition of Germany, along with a plan to demilitarize the whole country. Poland, which was controlled by Soviet forces, had a pro-Soviet government installed. Also, Truman and the rest of the participants issued a declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan.
Truman hinted to Stalin that the United States had a weapon that could cause great destruction, ending the war quickly. Stalin did not seem to care, since he likely already knew what it was.
The United States kept planning for an invasion of Japan that would end the war. But, it would not be an easy task. The Battle of Okinawa showed that the Japanese were willing to suffer massive casualties in order to defend their homeland. Further complicating matters was the Soviet Union preparing to enter into the war in Asia. Also, the American public was hoping for a quick resolution to hostilities.
Truman had to decide if he wished to use atomic bombs on Japan in the hope of bringing about a quick surrender. Truman did not take the decision lightly, but he also fervently believed that using the atomic bomb was necessary. He did not wish to incur more American casualties. However, he was willing to inflict massive casualties among Japanese civilians. Dallek mentions that Winston Churchill (who was aware of the development of the A-Bomb) believed that no one who knew of the bomb’s existence imagined that it would NOT be used. The argument after the fact against the use of the atomic bomb was that Japan was in such a weakened state, that its surrender was inevitable.
On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later, Nagasaki experienced a similar horror. Over 150,000 people died immediately in the two attacks, with about another 100,000 dying later of radiation-related illnesses.
Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945. World War II was over. However, that just exchanged one set of problems for another.
China broke out in a civil war between the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Communist forces of Mao Tse-Tung. The Soviet Union moved troops into Iran.
Truman sent General George Marshall to China to try to bring an end to the hostilities. Marshall’s efforts would ultimately fail.
As for Iran, Truman threatened to use atomic weapons on Soviet troops in the area. The troops withdrew. And the nation of Iran never caused the united States trouble again!
Back at home, workers throughout the country went on strike as wages dropped. The changeover from a wartime to a peacetime economy was not smooth. Liberals felt that Truman was too quick to take management’s side in these disputes.
Truman also addressed Congress and asked for a national health insurance policy as part of his “Fair Deal” program. This enraged conservatives. Truman would remark that war wasn’t hell. Peace was.
In 1946, matters got worse for Truman. Thousands of American soldiers were still overseas. Getting the troops home proved to be harder than getting them there. Truman could not suddenly pull out all American forces though because of fears that the Soviet Union would encroach even further into Europe.
Inside his own Cabinet, Truman faced harsh criticism from Secretary of State Henry Wallace (the man who was Vice President before Truman) for his policies toward the Soviet Union. Wallace believed that Truman’s policy toward the Soviet Union were too harsh. After Wallace gave a speech at Madison Square Garden intimating that Truman was leading the country into a war with the Soviet Union, Truman fired Wallace. (Historians disagree over whether or not Truman allowed Wallace to make the speech, which Truman approved ahead of time, in order to have an excuse to fire Wallace.)
In the off-year elections, the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1930. Wisconsin elected Senator Joe McCarthy. California elected Representative Richard Nixon. The most notable Democrat elected was Representative John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Arkansas Representative William Fulbright suggested that Truman appoint Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan as Secretary of State, and then resign to allow Vandenberg to become President. Truman refused and dubbed Fulbright “Halfbright.”
The new Republican controlled Congress set about a variety of tasks that would make Truman’s life unpleasant. Investigations into the loyalty of government officials were stepped up. Communists were suspected to be hiding around every corner. In an effort to look like he was doing something, Truman started an Executive Branch office that looked into possible disloyalty problems. (No spies were turned up by these investigations, principally because the spies were much better at their jobs than people thought.)
Congress also passed a anti-labor bill known as the Taft-Hartley Act. It allowed the President to impose delays on a strike. It also prohibited unions from making political contributions, as well as guaranteeing right-to-work laws in each state. Truman vetoed the bill, although Congress would override him.
In February of 1947, Truman put the United States on a new course in foreign policy. The British had told Truman that they could no longer support the governments of Greece and Turkey from takeovers by Communist regimes. Truman asked Congress for $400 million in aid to support both governments. It was the beginning of what would be called “The Cold War.” Truman declared it would be the United States duty to uphold legitimate governments fighting against Communist insurgents sponsored by outside forces, aka “The Truman Doctrine.”
A few months later in June, Secretary of State George Marshall announced a plan to aid the economies of Western Europe through an ambitious program of grants. This would become known to history as the Marshall Plan. It would prove to be one of the most successful foreign policy initiatives of its era. Western Europe would rebound economically much faster than anyone expected.
Toward the end of 1947, Truman called for a Federal antilynching law. He also formed his own Committee on Civil Rights. Southern Democrats were enraged.
1948 looked like it would be the last full year of Truman’s Presidency. The Republicans, led by presumptive nominee Thomas Dewey, were polling huge leads over Truman. Henry Wallace was planning to run to the left of Truman as a third-party candidate. However, Truman was starting to more decisive actions.
Truman asked for more civil rights legislation in February of 1948. Later in the year, by executive order, Truman desegregated the military.
In June of 1948, the Soviet Union, objecting to an American plan to make a militarized West Germany the bulwark of a defense pact (that would become the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, aka NATO), put a blockade on the divided city of Berlin, cutting off supplies to residents of the areas controlled by the Americans, French, and British. Truman and his national security team opted to start an airlift that brought in thousands of tons of vital supplies. The airlift would be prove to be hugely successful.
In May of 1948, the United States became the first country to recognize the new nation of Israel. Some of Truman’s advisers feared that the action would lead to a break with Arab governments in the Middle East, endangering oil supplies.
Right before the Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey for President and California Governor Earl Warren for Vice President, Truman embarked on a cross-country railroad journey that served to start up his campaign. Truman would give speeches at stops along the trip, deriding the Republican Congress as a “do nothing” bunch. The Republicans though Truman was embarrassing himself; however, the public enjoyed Truman’s pugnacious style.
The Democrats would nominate Truman to run for President in 1948. (Alben Barkley of Kentucky was nominated for Vice President.) However, a group of Southerners, led by batshit crazy South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond, bolted the convention over the inclusion of a civil rights platform. Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey would make his debut on the national political stage deriding Thurmond and other segregationists with an impassioned speech stating that it was time for the Democratic Party “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
In Truman’s acceptance speech (which was televised to a very small group of viewers who could afford a set), the President decided to call the Republicans bluff on legislation that they wished to enact by calling for a special session of Congress to convene on July 26, or as Truman called it “Turnip Day.”
Republicans sensed that the special session was just a gimmick by Truman to show that they would not act. So, in a shrewd act of political miscalculation, the Republicans did just that. Nothing happened in the special session.
Truman constantly hammered home populist themes during his campaign. Dewey opted to look the part of a man who knew who was going to be elected. Wallace was supposed to draw off votes from the left. Thurmond was supposed to hamstring the Democrats in the South.
Polls showed Dewey to be a likely double-digit winner. However, nearly every poll stopped collecting data in October. Conventional wisdom was that voters did not change their minds late in the election cycle. But, in 1948, they did.
Truman won in stunning fashion, outpolling Dewey by two million votes and winning 303 electoral votes to 189 for Dewey. Thurmond would win just four states in the South. (The TV coverage was a bit different then.)
Although Truman brought Democratic majorities back to Congress with him, Truman’s first year as President in his own right would not be any easier than the previous four. The situation in China was worsening for the Nationalists, as Mao’s forces appeared to have the upper hand. A top State Department official, Alger Hiss (an admitted former Communist), was accused of espionage.
Hiss was a close friend of Truman’s choice to replace Marshall as Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. Acheson faced harsh opposition during his confirmation hearings, although he ultimately passed muster from the Senate.
In September of 1949, Truman told the American public that the Soviet Union had developed its own atomic bomb. The newly organized NATO forces in Western Europe took on even greater importance and faced even greater danger.
Truman’s national security advisers now debated whether or not authorize the development of an even more powerful bomb, the hydrogen bomb. These bombs would be 100 times more powerful than the one detonated in Hiroshima. Acheson argued in favor of it. Others, led by George Kennan, argued that the development of the “H-bomb” would lead to a costly and almost endless arms race that could only serve to end civilization as we know it. Acheson’s side would win this argument.
By the end of 1949, Mao’s Communists had driven the Nationalists off the mainland and on to the island of Taiwan. Republicans would now ask “Who lost China?” The answers were usually Truman, Marshall, and Acheson.
Early in 1950, Hiss was convicted of perjury for lying to Congress about passing government secrets to the Communists. Nixon and McCarthy decried Acheson for his refusal to disavow Hiss. In February of 1950, the British arrested a Manhattan Project scientist by the name of Klaus Fuchs for passing along information about the atomic bomb to the Soviets. McCarthy would announce in a speech that he had a list of 205 known Communists who worked for the State Department. The number would change later to 57 and then 81. The Senate called for hearings into the matter.
Around this time, Truman ordered his National Security Council to prepare a report on the Soviet threat. The report, called NSC-68, called for massive buildups in American military strength. And, it called for the development of the hydrogen bomb. The Cold War was getting very hot.
On June 25, 1950, Communist North Korean forces crossed the United Nations-mandated border of the 38th parallel to attack pro-Western South Korea. Truman and Acheson were not sure if the Korean Peninsula was in the United States sphere of influence.
Douglas MacArthur, the American commander in Asia, told Truman that North Korea would occupy the entire peninsula within a matter of weeks if no support came. Truman decided it was time to act. MacArthur was told to repel the North Koreans. By October of 1950, the North Koreans were driven back north of the 38th parallel.
The biggest fear for Truman was that the Chinese or Soviets would become involved in the hostilities, kicking off World War III. Truman met face-to-face with MacArthur at Wake Island to discuss the situation. The two men appeared to be of the same mind on the topic.
However, MacArthur felt it was essential for U.S. forces to move further north into Korea, close to the Chinese border. On November 5, the Chinese entered into the fray.
The 1950 off-year elections occurred on November 7. Fear over the situation in Korea created an atmosphere of fear in the country. Candidates ran as fervent anti-Communists. Nixon moved from the House to the Senate using that approach. Incumbent Democrat Millard Tydings of Maryland lost his reelection bid after McCarthy described him as being sympathetic to Communists. The Democrats barely held on to both houses of Congress.
Later in November, MacArthur asked Truman for permission to attack the Chinese in Manchuria, as well as getting Nationalist forces from Taiwan involved. Truman and Acheson refused MacArthur’s requests, fearing that the war would get out of hand. MacArthur loudly complained in public about the decision. Truman’s popularity among American voters plummeted.
Tensions between MacArthur and Truman reached a head on April 5, 1951 when House Minority Leader Joseph Martin released a letter from MacArthur where he demanded that Truman allow the Nationalist Chinese to attack the mainland as well as further expanding the U.S. activities into China. MacArthur felt that if Korea fell to the Communists, so would the rest of Asia as well as the rest of the Europe. Five days later, Truman relieved MacArthur of his command.
The public was in an uproar. MacArthur was a beloved war hero, who had been cast aside by a President who seemed to be incapable of stopping the menace of worldwide Communist domination.
MacArthur gave a speech before an adoring Congress. One member said, “We heard God speak here today, God in the flesh, the voice of God.” Truman called the speech “100 per cent bullshit.”
Truman’s approval rating dropped to 24 percent in the wake of the MacArthur dismissal. Truman did not care. He was convinced he had done the right thing.
Now, the was in Korea was entirely in the hands of Truman. And, the war was looking more and more like a stalemate. Peace talks stalled over the details of how to exchange POWs with China.
Truman began to face increasing criticism from Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy called many of Truman’s advisers, including George Marshall, conspirators in a vast plot to overthrow the country. Truman refused to make public comments about McCarthy.
Privately, Truman said that if you got too close to a skunk (like McCarthy) all you would get out of the encounter would be a bad smell.
Back at home, Truman’s administration faced Congressional investigations into corruption in various agencies. Truman also had to impose wage and price controls to put the economy back on a wartime footing. The public was extraordinarily dissatisfied.
The 22nd Amendment of the Constitution was put into effect in 1952, but it specifically exempted the incumbent President (Truman ) from its two-term limitations. However, Truman had decided late in 1951 to not run for another term.
His Administration was running into more problems with corruption. Attorney General Howard McGrath was fired amid charges of mismanagement in the Justice Department.
In April of 1952, steelworkers voted to go on strike. Defense Secretary Robert Lovett warned that a disruption in the steel supply would destroy the war effort. Truman decided that, as Commander in Chief, had to nationalize the steel industry in the interest of national security.
A group of steel industries filed suit in Federal court against Truman. The case quickly made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against Truman by a 6-3 margin. The Court believed that Truman had greatly overextended the authority of the executive branch. The Court, like many other Americans, feared that if President were allowed to nationalize any industry if he so choose, a dictatorship could result.
The rest of 1952 saw Truman fighting to preserve his legacy. He allowed his name to be floated as a candidate in the New Hampshire primary, but Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver badly beat him there. Truman knew for certain that he was done as a candidate.
At first, Truman tried to get Dwight Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat, but Eisenhower sided with the Republicans. Truman’s next choice was Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson.
Stevenson felt he had to run as far away from Truman as possible to have a chance of defeating Eisenhower. It did not work. Eisenhower won the 1952 election easily.
Truman and Eisenhower had only one icy meeting during the transition. Eisenhower was upset at remarks Truman made during the campaign, equating the Republicans with anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.
Harry and Bess Truman headed back to Independence, Missouri and retirement. In 1960, Truman was hesitant over Kennedy’s run for the Presidency, fearing that a Catholic could not win the office. Truman also worried about the influence of Joseph Kennedy on his son. However, Truman helped out in the campaign and grew to admire Kennedy.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson visited Truman in Independence to sign the bill that started Medicare. On December 26, 1972, Truman died in Kansas City.
At the time of his death, Truman was not a towering figure in American history. However, his historical reputation quickly shot up in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Although Truman’s Administration was filled with scandals, none of them were of the magnitude of Watergate. Also, the Vietnam War had made the Korean War seem like a small, intimate affair.
The American public had grown very suspicious of its leaders. Harry Truman was viewed as one leader who would tell the truth to the American public. Truman had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that read “The Buck Stops Here.” Would there be another leader who would take responsibility like that?
In a few years, there was a small boom in Harry Truman’s past. Playwright Samuel Gallu created a one-man play called “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry” that actor James Whitmore made his signature role (and won an Oscar nomination for it.) The group Chicago released a song called “Harry Truman.”
The fascination with Truman quickly dissipated. And yet, Truman’s stature among historians continues. Why?
Dallek sums up his work this way:
The ancient Greeks believed that fate is character. Truman’s current standings as an up-by-the-bootstraps American whose fortuitous elevation to the presidency and ultimate good sense and honesty in leading the nation through perilous times are a demonstration of how circumstances and human decency can ultimately produce a successful life — and a presidency that resonates as a model of how someone can acquit himself in the highest office. Truman’s life and public record give continuing hope that Lincoln’s view of America as the last best hope of earth may remain a viable standards by which the country can still aim to live.
Other stuff: Truman spent much of his retirement working on his library. It is located in Independence, Missouri. Harry and Bess Truman are buried on the site as well. Truman’s home in Independence is a National Historic Site. Truman’s birthplace is a Missouri state park.
Because Truman’s middle name is just S and nothing more, different sources decide whether or not to put a period after the letter. The National Park Service does not use a period because they do not believe the name is in an initial. Most newspapers of the day would use a period (as did the publisher of Dallek’s biography). The aircraft carrier named after Truman uses a period, U.S.S. Harry S. Truman. Here is the Truman Library’s take on the matter.