From Missouri farming stock, Harry S. Truman was at one time the least popular US president on record, yet is now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s more successful leaders. Truman never went to university, the last US President not to have done so. Nonetheless he was a widely read and largely self-taught man, modest in his demeanour and habits.
The ‘S’ in Harry S Truman actually stood for nothing, for he had no middle name, but, following the example of Franklin D Roosevelt (D for Delano), Truman felt the additional S gave his name a degree of gravitas or respectability.
After a series of menial jobs and work on his father’s farm, Harry S Truman went to the Western Front in the First World War as a member of the Missouri National Guard. He had cheated his way through the sight test, so anxious was he to go. The war brought out the leader in Truman, who was a popular and successful artillery officer.
In 1919 he married Bess Wallace, also from Missouri. Various business ventures came to nothing and the Trumans fell into debt. It was only through the sponsorship of a local contact that Truman found his niche in public office. Tom Pendergast, a wealthy ‘fixer’ for the Democratic Party, was to secure Truman’s nomination for minor elected roles and, in 1934, as a senator for the state. By this time he had become a keen advocate of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, befriending the President’s close advisor Harry Hopkins.
As a senator Truman kept a low profile until given the chairmanship of a committee of inquiry into military procurement. The ‘Truman Committee’ was to impress Roosevelt and help to propel Truman upwards. By the time of the 1944 presidential election, Roosevelt and his inner circle were aware that he might not live to see out his term. Truman had shown integrity, loyalty and skill; importantly, he bridged the left and the right within the party. Accordingly, Roosevelt arranged to have him on the ticket as his Vice President.
Only eighty-two days after the president’s fourth inauguration, Roosevelt died of a brain haemorrhage. A shocked Truman shrewdly decided to retain Roosevelt’s entire cabinet. The Second World War had yet to be won and he had not been fully immersed in presidential business. Within months of taking office, he was to represent the USA at the Potsdam Conference and authorize the atomic bombing of Japan.
Truman was to find his metier in foreign policy, in which he enjoyed support across Congress. Firm but careful leadership during the Berlin crisis, the independence of Israel and the outbreak of the Korean War was to win him widespread respect. He initiated the ‘Truman Doctrine’, designed to contain the USSR, as well as the vitally important Marshall Plan. He was an internationalist, instrumental in the early development of the United Nations.
At home, he faced stronger opposition. Following his re-election in 1948, Truman’s radical healthcare plans were effectively stopped by his own party. He struggled with inflation and economic difficulties, strikes and demonstrations. Notwithstanding this, Truman set in train the civil rights’ agenda and desegregated the US armed forces.
The dismissal of Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War saw Truman’s approval ratings plummet. On the back of this he was defeated in the first Primary for the 1952 election and withdrew at that stage. Unlike many before him and since, Truman absolutely refused to take company directorships or product endorsements after he left office. He felt such conduct to be improper. As a result, living modestly with his wife in Missouri, he often faced economic hardship. Harry S Truman died on Boxing Day, 1972. At his own request, he was buried quietly in a service limited to friends and family.