Harry S. Truman

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: As president of the United States from 1945 to 1953, Truman defended and institutionalized the New Deal reform program of Franklin D. Roosevelt and established the doctrine of containment that guided American policymakers in the Cold War era.

Early Life

Harry S. Truman, whose career enhanced Missouri’s reputation for producing tough and stubborn individuals, was born in the southwestern part of that state on May 8, 1884, but grew up in rural Jackson County, in and around Independence. His parents, John Anderson and Martha Ellen Truman, were prominent, well-connected citizens of the area, and Harry looked back on his childhood years as happy, secure ones. He was captivated by the world of books, however, which revealed to him that there was a bigger, more rewarding realm within his reach. Success in that realm could be attained, he believed, by strictly adhering to the work ethic taught by his parents and by developing his ability to manipulate people by learning what motivated and pleased them. His parents also taught him a Victorian set of moral absolutes, a tendency to see the world in black and white terms, that later influenced his decision making.

When he was graduated from high school in 1901, his father’s “entangled” finances prevented young Truman from going to college. He held several unsatisfying jobs in the next few years and then farmed until 1917, when he served in the army during World War I. After a small business firm he had opened in Kansas City failed in 1922, Truman, whose restless ambition had always left him with an edge of frustration, finally found the career that brought him fulfillment. He entered county politics with the backing of Thomas J. Pendergast, the “boss” of the Kansas City Democratic Party machine.

In 1934, after great success in local politics, Truman, with Pendergast’s support, won election to the United States Senate. He strongly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program and then gained national recognition during World War II as head of a committee investigating defense contracts and mobilization bottlenecks.

In 1944, a number of Democratic Party leaders plotted to remove liberal Henry A. Wallace as vice president. Truman surfaced as one of the few prominent individuals acceptable to these bosses and to all the wings of the party. Roosevelt and the convention concurred, and the ticket won the 1944 election.

Life’s Work

President Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, gave Truman an opportunity to join the heroes who had enlivened his bookish world. The public initially responded favorably to the plainspoken Missourian, and the honeymoon continued as World War II ended, with Germany surrendering on May 7, 1945, and Japan on August 14. The end of the war brought reconversion problems, however, that would have challenged a political magician such as Roosevelt. They overwhelmed Truman. While searching for a chimerical formula that would allow him to please business, labor, consumers, and citizens hungry for scarce meat, Truman stumbled from policy to policy, convincing people that he was a bewildered throttlebottom.

Amid this turmoil, the beleaguered president formulated his domestic program. Operating within the reform legacy of the New Deal, he revealed to Congress on September 6, 1945, what later became the Fair Deal. His legislative requests included legislation requiring the government to maintain full employment, improved unemployment compensation benefits and minimum wages, major housing reforms, assistance to small business, and continued farm price supports. Later additions to the Fair Deal slate included national compulsory health insurance, federal ownership of atomic energy resources and development, aid to education, and civil rights legislation for blacks. Congressional response was disappointing. It gave Truman the watered-down Employment Act and created the Atomic Energy Commission under civilian control. Through executive orders, Truman forbade discrimination against blacks in the civil service and began to desegregate the armed forces. In his second term, Congress passed a housing act.

Perhaps his greatest reform contribution came when the Republicans won both houses of Congress in 1946 and set out to destroy much of the New Deal reform legacy. This allowed Truman to assume his most effective role: defender of the common man from the forces of reaction. He continued this role in the 1948 election, and further protected the New Deal by his upset victory over Republican New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. No major New Deal program fell before the conservative onslaught, although the Taft-Hartley Act placed some restrictions on labor.

In foreign policy, Truman left a more perilous legacy. By 1947, the Cold War had started. Soviet leaders believed that since the birth of the Communist government in 1917, Western capitalist nations had been intent on destroying it. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin intended to use his nation’s great military strength, which had destroyed German dictator Adolf Hitler’s armies, to build a buffer zone against these hostile Western powers. He hoped to work cooperatively with the West and cautiously refrained from meddling in areas the Western powers considered vital, but caution also compelled him to establish his nation’s own sphere of dominance in Eastern Europe.

Truman was poorly suited to deal with the complexities of this situation. He had never been much interested in foreign affairs, and he held a black-and-white view of the world. He quickly came to two conclusions on which he based policy toward the Soviet Union: that Soviet leaders were breaking all of their wartime agreements, making future negotiations senseless, and that the only thing the Russians understood was force. Once committed to these propositions, he ignored all evidence to the contrary. He believed that he could...

(The entire section is 2436 words.)