Harry S Truman never expected to be President. But he was suddenly handed the job upon the death of Franklin D Roosevelt.
Harry S Truman home in Independence MO
In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented fourth term as President. He had led the US through its two deadliest dangers of the 20th century (the Great Depression and the Second World War). Now, as the end of the war was approaching, he was making plans for the post-war world.
But it was already apparent to the people around him that Roosevelt’s health was declining rapidly, and there was a good chance he would not live to serve out another term in office. That made the office of Vice President crucial—and most Democratic Party officials did not like Roosevelt’s Vice President. Henry Wallace’s views on economics and social justice veered dangerously close to what many considered “socialism”, he was a staunch supporter of racial equality and desegregation (which was an unpopular view in 1944 America), and his personal views on mystical Eastern religion and philosophy were strange to many Americans. The party decided that Wallace had to go, and at the Convention they maneuvered his exit.
The man who was nominated to run as Vice President instead was a mostly-unknown Senator from Missouri, Harry S Truman. Truman had been elected to the Senate in 1934, re-elected in 1940, and had proven himself to be a reliable supporter of the New Deal program. During the war he had served as Chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, which sought to find and root out fraud and waste in wartime spending. Although Truman had not sought the VP nomination and didn’t do any lobbying or campaigning for it, the convention chose him because he was safe, reliable, and he wasn’t “Henry Wallace”. And so he became Vice President upon Roosevelt’s re-election.
As Vice President, Truman’s role was largely to drum up support for FDR’s proposals in the Senate. He was not a part of Roosevelt’s inner circle and was kept completely out of the loop on policy decisions.
Then, on April 12, 1945, Truman was abruptly asked to come to the White House, where he was told that President Roosevelt had died suddenly, and he was now President. He told one reporter, “I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
He was completely unprepared. Roosevelt’s policy team had not told him anything about any of the plans they were making, and now Truman suddenly found himself faced with a series of crucial decisions concerning issues that he knew nothing about. For the first time, he was told about the super-secret American project to build an atomic bomb. (He had actually been given a hint about it previously when, as Chair of the Senate committee he had heard about a tiny secret project that was spending fantastic sums of money and planned to investigate it, only to be quietly told by the White House that it was a matter of the highest national security and dropped his inquiry.)
Truman’s first test as President came at the Potsdam Conference, when he met with allies Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to work out plans for the occupation and postwar reconstruction of Europe, and to plan for the future end of the war against Japan. Roosevelt had no love for Stalin, but he had recognized that he needed the Soviets as an ally if he wanted to win the war. Truman was less charitable, and viewed Stalin as a danger that needed to be reigned in. The beginnings of the Cold War can be traced to the Potsdam Conference.
While at the Conference, Truman also received word that the American atomic bomb had been successfully tested, and that prompted another crucial decision. Plans were already being laid for an invasion of Japan to be launched in November 1945. Truman hoped that the atomic bombs would make a costly invasion unnecessary, and authorized their use. Japan surrendered in August 1945.
Almost immediately after the Second World War ended, however, the Cold War began. Stalin set up puppet governments across Eastern Europe and attempted to seize control of Berlin with a blockade (which the US countered with an airlift of supplies). Truman adopted a policy of “containment” to limit the expansion of the USSR. When the Communist regime in North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, Truman sent troops under the ostensible command of the newly-formed United Nations and carried on an undeclared and stalemated “limited war” over the next several years. During the war, Truman fired the popular American military commander, Douglas MacArthur, in a dispute about the direction the conflict in Korea should take. The Korean War only ended in 1953 after Truman’s successor Dwight Eisenhower took office.
On the domestic front, Truman, to everyone’s surprise, became an activist for African-American civil rights. He issued an Executive Order desegregating the US military and the civil service, and introduced a number of bills which guaranteed voting rights and equal treatment for African-Americans (all of which were blocked in Congress by a coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats). The US also faced economic difficulties as it transitioned from a wartime economy back to a consumer economy.
All of this made Truman unpopular (his approval rating dipped as low as 35%), and when he ran for re-election in 1948 it was widely assumed that he would lose to Republican challenger Thomas Dewey. (Segregationists in his own party campaigned against him.) Instead, Truman won a surprising victory, and newspaper photos showed a smiling President holding aloft newspaper headlines that read, “Dewey Defeats Truman”.
After serving out another term, Truman decided not to run again in 1952, re-establishing the previous Presidential tradition of only serving for two terms. He returned to his home town of Independence MO, moving into the modest house that he and his wife Bess shared with her mother. Here he became, as he said, “Mr Citizen”, and tried to lead an ordinary life of visitors, walks, and retirement. As a former Senator and President he received no pension (though Congress then passed a law establishing pensions and other benefits for former Presidents). He wrote his two-volume memoirs, and helped raise money to establish his Presidential Library there in Independence. Harry Truman died of pneumonia in 1972. Bess died ten years later. They are both buried at the Truman Library in Independence.
After Bess’s death, the house they shared was bequeathed to the US Government. It was remodeled to restore it to its appearance at the time ex-President Truman lived there, and is now the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service. There are Ranger-led tours of the house. It is a modest typical-50s house, not much different than my grandmom’s when I was a little kid. Not at all what one would expect from a former President, but that’s the way Truman was. He was an unpretentious “common man”.