Harry S. Truman by Robert Dallek

President #33, C-SPAN Historians ranking #5

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.” Continue reading

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