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.