Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman, to son of a farmer, was born in Lamar, Missouri, on 8th May, 1884. After an education in Independence, he farmed on his parents' land. In 1917, soon after the United States entered the First World War, he enlisted in the army. Truman served on the Western Front and achieved the rank of captain.

On returning from the war Truman ran an unsuccessful haberdashery before studying law in Kansas City. Truman became active in local politics. A great admirer of Woodrow Wilson, Truman joined the Democratic Party and in 1922 was elected county judge (1922-24). This was followed by eight years as presiding judge, a post he held until being elected to the Senate in 1934.

Truman loyally supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies, and in 1944 he was asked to replace Henry Wallace as his vice president. Truman only served 82 days as vice president when Roosevelt died on 12th April, 1945. In his first address to Congress he promised to continue Roosevelt's policies. In July he attended the Potsdam Conference and in August authorized the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima.

Henry Wallace, Secretary of Commerce, favoured co-operation with the Soviet Union. In private he disagreed with Truman about what he considered to be an aggressive foreign policy. Wallace went public about his fears at a meeting in New York City in September, 1946. As a result, Truman sacked Wallace from his administration.

On 12th March, 1947, Truman announced details to Congress of what eventually became known as the Truman Doctrine. In his speech he pledged American support for "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures". This was followed by the Marshall Plan, a proposal to offer American financial aid for a programme of European economic recovery.

Truman showed a stronger interest in civil rights than previous presidents. He was a proud defender of the Fair Employment Act that he had instigated during the war to prevent discrimination against African Americans, Jews and other minority groups. A supporter of the Wagner Act, he opposed the Taft-Hartley Bill which limited labour action, claiming it was bad for industry and workers alike. When Congress passed it he denounced it as a "slave-labor bill".

At the Democratic National Convention of 1948, Storm Thurmond led the opposition to Truman and his Fair Deal proposals that included legislation on civil rights, fair employment practices, opposition to lynching and improvements in existing public welfare laws. When Truman won the nomination, Southern Democrats formed the States' Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) and Thurmond was chosen as its presidential candidate.

It was thought that with two former Democrats, Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace standing, Truman would have difficulty defeating the Republican Party candidate, Thomas Dewey. However, both Thurmond and Wallace did badly and Truman defeated Dewey by 24,105,812 votes to 21,970,065.

Truman had difficulty getting Congress to pass his Fair Deal program and most of these measures were not enacted during his term in office. He was criticised for not doing more to halt the activities of Joe McCarthy. After losing power, Truman described McCarthyism as: "The use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism or security. It is the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spreading of fear and the destruction of faith in every level of society."

In 1950 group of Conservative senators, including Pat McCarran, John Wood, Karl Mundt and Richard Nixon sponsored a measure to deal with members of the Communist Party. Truman opposed the measure arguing that it "would betray our finest traditions" as it attempted to "curb the simple expression of opinion". He went on to argue that the "stifling of the free expression of opinion is a long step toward totalitarianism." Congress overrode Truman's veto by large margins: House of Representatives (248-48) and the Senate (57-10) and the Internal Security Act became law in 1950.

On 25th June, 1950, communist forces in North Korea invaded the Republic of South Korea, crossing the 38th parallel at several points. Truman immediately announced that he would use American forces for the defence of South Korea.

Truman upset conservative forces in the United States when he took the side of Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, in his dispute with General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. Acheson and Truman wanted to limit the war to Korea whereas MacArthur called for the extension of the war to China. Joe McCarthy once again led the attack on the administration: "With half a million Communists in Korea killing American men, Acheson says, 'Now let's be calm, let's do nothing'. It is like advising a man whose family is being killed not to take hasty action for fear he might alienate the affection of the murders."

In April 1951, Truman removed General Douglas MacArthur from his command of the United Nations forces in Korea. McCarthy called for Truman to be impeached and suggested that the president was drunk when he made the decision to fire MacArthur: "Truman is surrounded by the Jessups, the Achesons, the old Hiss crowd. Most of the tragic things are done at 1.30 and 2 o'clock in the morning when they've had time to get the President cheerful."

Dean Acheson was the main target of McCarthy's anger as he believed Truman was "essentially just as loyal as the average American". However, Truman was president "in name only because the Acheson group has almost hypnotic powers over him. We must impeach Acheson, the heart of the octopus."

In 1952 Truman decided not to stand again and retired to private life, publishing two volumes of Memoirs in 1955 and 1956.

Harry S. Truman died on 26th December, 1972.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Harry S. Truman, speech in Sedalia, Missouri (1940)

I believe in the brotherhood of man, not merely the brotherhood of white men but the brotherhood of all men before law. In the years past, lynching and mob violence, lack of schools and countless other unfair conditions hasten the progress of the Negro from the country to the city. They have been forced to live in segregated slums, neglected by the authorities. Negroes have been preyed upon by all types of exploiters. The majority of our Negro people find but cold comfort in shanties and tenements.

Cliff Berryman, Harry Truman and HenryWallace, Washington Evening Star (1944)
Cliff Berryman, Harry Truman and Henry
Wallace
, Washington Evening Star (1944)

(2) Harry S. Truman, memo on J. Edgar Hoover (12th May, 1945)

We want to Gestapo or Secret Police. FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex life scandals and plain blackmail when they should be catching criminals. They also have a habit of sneering at local law enforcement officers. This must stop. Cooperation is what we must have.

(3) Harry S. Truman, Year of Decisions (1955)

The task of creating the atomic bomb had been entrusted to a special unit of the Army Corps of Engineers, the so-called Manhattan District, headed by Major General Leslie R. Groves. The primary effort, however, had come from British and American scientists, working in laboratories and offices scattered throughout the nation.

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the distinguished physicist from the University of California, had set up the key establishment in the whole process at Los Alamos, New Mexico. More than any other one man, Oppenheimer is to be credited with the achievement of the completed bomb.

My own knowledge of these developments had come about only after I became President, when Secretary Stimson had given me the full story. He had told me at that time that the project was nearing completion and that a bomb could be expected within another four months. It was at his suggestion, too, that I had then set up a committee of top men and had asked them to study with great care the implications the new weapon might have for us.

At Potsdam, as elsewhere, the secret of the atomic bomb was kept closely guarded. We did not extend the very small circle of Americans who knew about it. Churchill naturally knew about the atomic bomb project from its very beginning, because it had involved the pooling of British and American technical skill.

On July 24th I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of special destructive force. The Russian Premier showed no unusual interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make "good use of it against the Japanese".

(4) Paul Tibbets was interviewed by Studs Terkel in the Guardian on 6th August 2002.

Studs Terkel: You came back, and you visited President Truman.

Paul Tibbets: We're talking 1948 now. I'm back in the Pentagon and I get notice from the chief of staff, Carl Spaatz, the first chief of staff of the air force. When we got to General Spaatz's office, General Doolittle was there, and a colonel named Dave Shillen. Spaatz said, "Gentlemen, I just got word from the president he wants us to go over to his office immediately." On the way over, Doolittle and Spaatz were doing some talking; I wasn't saying very much. When we got out of the car we were escorted right quick to the Oval Office. There was a black man there who always took care of Truman's needs and he said, "General Spaatz, will you please be facing the desk?" And now, facing the desk, Spaatz is on the right, Doolittle and Shillen. Of course, militarily speaking, that's the correct order: because Spaatz is senior, Doolittle has to sit to his left.

Then I was taken by this man and put in the chair that was right beside the president's desk, beside his left hand. Anyway, we got a cup of coffee and we got most of it consumed when Truman walked in and everybody stood on their feet. He said, "Sit down, please," and he had a big smile on his face and he said, "General Spaatz, I want to congratulate you on being first chief of the air force," because it was no longer the air corps. Spaatz said, "Thank you, sir, it's a great honour and I appreciate it." And he said to Doolittle: "That was a magnificent thing you pulled flying off of that carrier," and Doolittle said, "All in a day's work, Mr President." And he looked at Dave Shillen and said, "Colonel Shillen, I want to congratulate you on having the foresight to recognise the potential in aerial refuelling. We're gonna need it bad some day." And he said thank you very much.

Then he looked at me for 10 seconds and he didn't say anything. And when he finally did, he said, "What do you think?" I said, "Mr President, I think I did what I was told." He slapped his hand on the table and said: "You're damn right you did, and I'm the guy who sent you. If anybody gives you a hard time about it, refer them to me."

(5) President Truman, speech to Congress (12th March, 1947)

The gravity of the situation which confronts the world today necessitates my appearance before a joint session of the Congress. The foreign policy and the national security of this country are involved. One aspect of the present situation which I wish to present to you at this time for your consideration and decision concerns Greece and Turkey.

The United States has received from the Greek government an urgent appeal for financial and economic assistance. Preliminary reports from the American economic mission now in Greece and reports from the American ambassador in Greece corroborate the statement of the Greek government that assistance is imperative if Greece is to survive as a free nation.

I do not believe that the American people and the Congress wish to turn a deaf ear to the appeal of the Greek government. Greece is not a rich country. Lack of sufficient natural resources has always forced the Greek people to work hard to make both ends meet. Since 1940, this industrious and peace-loving country has suffered invasion, four years of cruel enemy occupation, and bitter internal strife.

When forces of liberation entered Greece they found that the retreating Germans had destroyed virtually all the railways, roads, port facilities, communications, and merchant marine. More than a thousand villages had been burned. Eighty-five percent of the children were tubercular. Livestock, poultry, and draft animals had almost disappeared. Inflation had wiped out practically all savings. As a result of these tragic conditions, a militant minority, exploiting human want and misery, was able to create political chaos which, until now, has made economic recovery impossible.

The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full potential when the hope of a people for a better life has died. We must keep that hope alive. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world - and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.

The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedom. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

(6) Harry S. Truman, speech (29th June, 1947)

We can no longer afford the luxury of a leisurely attack upon prejudice and discrimination. There is much that state and local governments can do in providing positive safeguards for civil rights. But we cannot, any longer, await the growth of a will to action in the slowest state or the most backward community. Our national government must show the way.

(7) Harry S. Truman, executive order (26th July, 1948)

Whereas it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense:

Now, Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States, and as Commander in Chief of the armed services, it is hereby ordered as follows:

(1) It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.

(2) There shall be created in the national military establishment an advisory committee to be known as the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, which shall be composed of seven members to be designated by the President.

(3) The committee is authorized on behalf of the President to examine into the rules, procedures, and practices of the armed services in order to determine in what respect such rules, procedures and practices may be altered or improved with a view to carrying out the policy of this order. The committee shall confer and advise with the secretary of defense, the secretary of the Army, the secretary of the Navy, and the secretary of the Air Force, and shall make such recommendations to the President and to said secretaries as in the judgment of the committee will effectuate the policy hereof.

(8) Harry S. Truman, speech (18th August, 1948)

The main difficulty with the south is that they are living eighty years behind the times and the sooner they come out of it the better it will be for the country and themselves. I am not asking for social equality, because no such thing exists, but I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings and, as long as I stay here, I am going to continue that fight.

When the mob gangs can take four people out and shoot them in the back, and everybody in the country is acquainted with who did the shooting and nothing is done about it, that country is in a pretty bad fix from a law enforcement standpoint.

When a mayor and a city marshal can take a Negro sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up and put out one of his eyes, and nothing is done about it by the state authorities, something is radically wrong with the system.

(9) Harry S. Truman, veto of the Internal Security Act (22nd September, 1950)

The idea of requiring Communist organizations to divulge information about themselves is a simple and attractive one. But it is about as practical as requiring thieves to register with the sheriff. Obviously, no such organization as the Communist Party is likely to register voluntarily.

The basic error of this bill is that it moves in the direction of suppressing opinion and belief. This would be very dangerous course to take, not because we have sympathy for Communist opinions, because any governmental stifling of the free expression of opinion is a long step toward totalitarianism.

We can and we will prevent espionage, sabotage, or other actions endangering our national security. But we would betray our finest traditions if we attempted, as this bill would attempt, to curb the simple expression of opinion. This we should never do, no matter how distasteful the opinion may be to the vast majority of our material. The course proposed by this bill would delight the Communists, for it would make a mockery of the Bill of Rights and of our claims to stand for freedom in the world.

(10) Harry S. Truman, New York Times (17th November, 1953)

It is now evident that the present Administration has fully embraced, for political advantage, McCarthyism. I am not referring to the Senator from Wisconsin. He is only important in that his name has taken on the dictionary meaning of the word. It is the corruption of truth, the abandonment of the due process law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism or security. It is the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spreading of fear and the destruction of faith in every level of society.

(11) Douglas Miller, The Fifties: The Way We Really Were (1977)

Though Truman would later complain of the "great wave of hysteria" sweeping the nation, his commitment to victory over communism, to completely safeguarding the United States from external and internal threats, was in large measure responsible for creating that very hysteria. Between the launching of his security program in March 1947 and December 1952, some 6.6 million persons were investigated. Not a single case of espionage was uncovered, though about 500 persons were dismissed in dubious cases of "questionable loyalty." All of this was conducted with secret evidence, secret and often paid informers, and neither judge nor jury. Despite the failure to find subversion, the broad scope of the official Red hunt gave popular credence to the notion that the government was riddled with spies. A conservative and fearful reaction coursed the country. Americans became convinced of the need for absolute security and the preservation of the established order.

(12) Harry S. Truman, Washington Post (21st December, 1963)

For some time I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the government... I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak-and-dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment that I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue and a subject for cold war enemy propaganda.