Harry S. Truman (1884-1972)

Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri. When Truman was six years old, his parents moved the family to Independence, Missouri, where Truman spent the bulk of his formative years. After graduating from high school in 1901, Truman worked at a series of clerical jobs before he decided to become a farmer in 1906, an occupation in which he remained for another ten years.

With the onset of American participation in World War I, Truman enlisted in the National Guard, was chosen to be an officer, and then commanded a regimental battery in France. At the war's conclusion, Truman returned to Independence and married his long-time love interest, Bess Wallace, and they had one child, Margaret, shortly thereafter.

In 1922, Truman was elected to local office with the help of the Kansas City Democratic machine, led by Boss Tom Pendergast, and, although he was defeated for reelection in 1924, he easily won in 1926 and then again in 1930. Truman performed his duties in this office diligently, and won personal acclaim for several popular public works projects. In 1934, the Pendergast machine selected him to run for Missouri's open Senate seat, and he ran as a New Dealer in support of President Roosevelt. Once elected, Truman supported the president on most issues and became a popular member of the Senate club.

Having always taken a keen interest in foreign affairs, Truman first gained national prominence in his second term when his preparedness committee made a scandal of military wastefulness by exposing fraud and mismanagement. His advocacy of common-sense, cost-saving measures for the military gained him wide respect, and he emerged as a popular choice for the vice-presidential slot in 1944. Yet he was barely installed as vice-president when FDR died on April 12, 1945, elevating him to the presidency.

Quite naturally, Truman was initially preoccupied with foreign policy: the Allied conference in Potsdam, the conclusion of the war in Europe, and then in August, with the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan. Realizing that the interests of the Soviet Union were quickly becoming incompatible with the interests of the United States in the absence of a common enemy, Truman's administration articulated an increasingly hard line against the Soviets. Nonetheless, as a Wilsonian internationalist, Truman strongly supported the creation of the United Nations, and he sent a distinguished American delegation to the UN's first General Assembly that included former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Although some people were distrustful of his expertise on foreign matters, Truman was able to win broad support for the Marshall Plan, and then for the Truman Doctrine, which sought to contain Soviet power in Europe.

As he readied for the approaching 1948 election, Truman made clear his identity as a Democrat in the New Deal tradition, advocating universal health insurance, modest civil rights legislation, and the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act in a broad legislative program that he called the "Fair Deal." While it was widely expected that Truman would lose, he campaigned furiously and managed to pull off one of the greatest upsets in presidential election history by defeating Thomas Dewey and earning a term in the White House in his own right.

Shortly after Truman's inauguration, he presented his Fair Deal program to Congress, but it was not well received and only one of its major bills was enacted. A few months later the nation's attention was focused solidly on foreign policy once again with the fall of China to Mao Zedong's Communists. The incident would prove to be catastrophic for the administration, because it signaled the end of the Democrats' ability to manage the early Cold War in the eyes of the American public. Within a year of Nationalist China's collapse, Alger Hiss had been exposed as a former Communist, North Korea had invaded South Korea, and Senator Joseph McCarthy had publicly accused the State Department of being riddled with communists. The Hiss case damaged the Truman White House and Senator McCarthy initially commanded broad public support, but events at home took a backseat to the war in Korea where General Douglas MacArthur had won the imagination of the American people. MacArthur advocated extending the war into China, but when Truman disagreed with him MacArthur publicly aired his views and the president retaliated by relieving him of command. It was a deeply unpopular action that seriously wounded Truman's credibility with the American people. His unpopularity grew even more pronounced as the military situation in Korea became increasingly stalemated. Realizing that in all probability he could not be reelected, Truman declined to run and instead retired to Independence in January of 1953.

Truman's years were hardly behind him, however. He would live until 1972, during which time he wrote his memoirs, remained active in politics, and occasionally commented on political and public policy issues. By the time of his death in December 1972, Truman's presidential image had been significantly rehabilitated by the longer view of history and he had come to be regarded as a genuinely great American president.

Throughout their long association with one another, ER's relationship with President Truman was complex, yet affectionate. Although she was initially concerned that a Truman White House would be significantly more conservative than her husband's administration, ER soon found herself supporting most of the president's initiatives. She drew fire from some liberals for supporting the Korean War and for backing the Truman Doctrine, yet it was clear to any astute observer that ER was willing to break with the administration over public policy issues on which they disagreed. When it appeared as if the president would refuse to recognize the state of Israel, ER threatened to resign rather than remain in the service of his administration. He frequently sought her advice on a wide variety of issues, and largely relied on her to ensure the success of American participation at the UN. Despite their mutual respect, however, ER agonized over whether to endorse his candidacy in 1948 because she disapproved of his cabinet choices and felt that he had behaved like a "weak and vacillating person."

Nonetheless, ER eventually came out in support of Truman, and his reelection ensured that she would continue to represent the United States at the UN.

After Truman left the White House in 1953, he and ER continued to exert their influence over Democratic politics. Both addressed the 1956 Democratic National Convention and both maneuvered behind-the-scenes on behalf of their respective candidates. Truman tried to swing the convention in favor of Averell Harriman, while ER continued to support her old friend Adlai Stevenson—Stevenson won the nomination. Despite this occasional rivalry, however, Truman and ER always remained grateful for, and respectful of one another's accomplishments. ER's biographer, Joseph Lash, noted that for Truman, ER always was the "First Lady of the World."


American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 857-863.

Black, Allida M. Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 51-85.

Graff, Henry F., ed. The Presidents: A Reference History. 2nd ed. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996, 443-458.

Lash, Joseph. Eleanor: The Years Alone. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1972, 23, 36-37, 142-145, 210, 214, 296.