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Truman, Harry

(08 May 1884–26 December 1972)

Truman, Harry

(08 May 1884–26 December 1972)
  • Alonzo L. Hamby

Harry Truman.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-117122 DLC).

Truman, Harry S. (08 May 1884–26 December 1972), thirty-third president of the United States, was born in Lamar, Missouri, the son of John Anderson Truman, a farmer and livestock trader, and Martha Ellen Young. The “S.” after his given name was a compromise designed to appease his maternal grandfather, Solomon Young, and his paternal grandfather, Anderson Shippe Truman. Although it could be said to stand for nothing, Truman customarily placed a period after it, thus tacitly recognizing it as the dual-purpose abbreviation his parents had intended. In 1890 the family moved to Independence, Missouri, approximately ten miles from Kansas City. Afflicted with myopic vision from birth, Truman appears to have had an awkward childhood in which he worked hard to relate to other boys and, as he put it in his Memoirs, was “always afraid of the girls my age and older.” Instructed to avoid rough games and fights, he was closer to his mother than to his two-fisted father. He learned to play the piano and for a time aspired to a career as a concert pianist. Yet, wanting a more masculine identity, he also venerated great soldiers.

A bookish but not outstanding student, he (unlike most teenage boys of that time) completed high school, graduating in 1901. Perhaps because his father was beginning to have financial problems, he seems never to have considered a university education. (In 1923 and 1924 he took some night classes at the Kansas City School of Law.)

After studying briefly at a Kansas City business college, he went to work at low-paying jobs as a construction timekeeper and then a bank clerk. In 1906 he joined his parents and siblings in managing a large 600-acre farm owned by his grandmother, Harriet Louisa Young, and his uncle, Harrison Young. He might have been motivated to try farming because of a desire to win his father’s approval or because of the realization that he stood to inherit a portion of this valuable property. For the next ten years, he was a farmer. The hard manual labor may have left him more confident of his masculinity and strengthened his relationship with his father, but he heartily disliked it.

Truman was no isolated hayseed. He joined the Masonic order and numerous other fraternal organizations, dabbled in local politics, visited Kansas City frequently, and served in a National Guard artillery battery based there (1905–1911). Sometime toward the end of 1910, he began to court Bess Wallace (Bess Truman). She appears to have been the only serious romantic interest of his life.

After the death of his father in November 1914, Truman’s activities began to move away from the farm. With two partners, he made a disastrous investment in an Oklahoma lead and zinc mine; after six months, each had lost $5,000 and exhausted his funds. The death of his Uncle Harrison in 1916 gave him an additional share of the farm, which he converted into equity for an oil exploration venture (1917–1919) that ultimately did little more than return his original investment.

Service in World War I

When the United States moved toward war in 1917, Truman rejoined the National Guard and participated in a drive to expand the Kansas City and Independence batteries into an artillery regiment. Elected a lieutenant by the newly formed 129th Artillery Regiment, he became an outstanding junior officer in army training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, won praise for managing the only successful regimental canteen, and was selected for advanced artillery school in France.

In July 1918 Truman, now a captain, was given command of the regiment’s Battery D. Although his men had a reputation for unruliness, he led them firmly through the war, won the affection of most of them, and emerged with pride in his leadership. The battery saw combat action in the Vosges and provided close support to American infantry in the bloody Argonne offensive. After returning home in 1919, Truman married Bess Wallace. They had one child, a daughter named Margaret.

In partnership with an army comrade, Eddie Jacobson, Truman opened a haberdashery shop in downtown Kansas City. Active in civic affairs, he was a leading figure in the Reserve Officers Association, the American Legion, and the Triangle Club, a downtown improvement group. A few years later, he served as president of the National Old Trails Association, a good roads and historical commemoration group. Although he achieved a degree of public prominence, his business, caught in the severe economic downturn of 1920–1922, fared badly. Heavily in debt, it closed its doors in September 1922. Truman also lost a Kansas farm he had acquired as a real estate investment. For years he was saddled with debts and periodically harassed by some of his creditors. He paid off many of his obligations a bit at a time.

Early Political Career

Truman found a new start in politics. In 1922 he was elected Eastern District judge of the county court, an administrative position akin to that of county commissioner. While he enjoyed considerable independent support, his most important backing came from Boss Tom Pendergast’s Kansas City machine, with which he had long been loosely affiliated. His wide connections and good reputation made him a valuable candidate for the organization, which was attempting to extend its influence into the rural–small town districts of Jackson County.

During his two-year term, Truman established himself as an advocate of economy, efficiency, and better rural roads. Like every serious politician in the county, he also distributed patronage to his own party faction and awarded county contracts to “pet” suppliers. He routinely cast a blind eye toward the ballot box stuffing, thuggery, and other illegal activities of his own backers, while condemning the lesser sins of good-government types. Nevertheless, he won wide respect as a personally honest machine man.

Defeated for reelection in 1924 because of an intraparty conflict, Truman supported himself as membership director of the local auto club; he also helped establish a savings and loan association. In 1926, with the Democratic party reunited and under firm Pendergast domination, he easily won election as presiding judge of the county court; he was reelected in 1930.

A shrewd practitioner of coalition politics, Truman moved easily from a homogenous rural–small town base to a metropolitan setting. He worked well with diverse groups, including blacks, who had become increasingly important as a machine constituency. Advocating numerous administrative reforms, he also added to his standing with antimachine forces while continuing the routine patronage and contract politics that the machine required. He won special acclaim for the building of a modern county road system and a downtown Kansas City courthouse without any of the corruption commonly associated with such projects.

The Great Depression made Truman’s second term difficult. He instituted sharp salary and job reductions; by 1934 the county was in effect operating in a state of bankruptcy. Still, he received little blame for what was widely understood to be a catastrophe beyond his control. He briefly assayed a race for governor of Missouri but, unable to develop the requisite backing, turned his attention to seeking a seat in Congress.

Election to the U.S. Senate (1934)

Instead, in 1934 the machine slotted him for the U.S. Senate. Truman waged an exhausting personal campaign in the Democratic primary; ultimately, he owed his victory to the Kansas City organization, which turned out an enormous vote for him and influenced the state administration to use its patronage in his behalf. He easily won the general election.

Throughout his senatorial career, Truman was a reliable supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, although until World War II he received little recognition from the White House. His association with the Pendergast machine tarnished him in the eyes of some liberals; nonetheless, he was widely popular among his fellow senators, who appreciated his modesty, hard work, and amiability.

During his first term in the Senate, Truman was most prominent for his engagement with transportation issues. As a member of the Interstate Commerce Committee, he worked closely with its chairman, Burton K. Wheeler, on an investigation of railroad financing and advocated a major overhaul of the Interstate Commerce Act. The inquiry demonstrated the neopopulistic distrust of big business and finance that Truman shared with older “insurgent” progressives like Wheeler. It also gave him a chance to establish ties with the railway unions. The ultimate outcome, the Transportation Act of 1940, gave some assistance to the railroads by subjecting inland water carriers to federal regulation. Truman also played a role in developing the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938; by the end of the decade, he had won recognition as one of civil aviation’s more effective promoters in Washington.

Truman took a strong interest in foreign policy, establishing himself as an advocate of military preparedness to meet the Axis challenge. Writing to a constituent in February 1941, he declared, “We are facing a bunch of thugs, and the only theory a thug understands is a gun and a bayonet.” By that time, he had supported the Selective Service Act of 1940 and was preparing to vote for the Lend-Lease Bill. A devoted Wilsonian, he would establish himself as an important advocate of postwar global involvement and a strong United Nations.

Truman had sought reelection in 1940, although Boss Pendergast was in prison and his organization in tatters. His chief opponent in the primary was Governor Lloyd Stark, a one-time friend who had joined the anti-Pendergast movement. Waging a hard campaign that capitalized heavily on his military expertise and the record of his first term, Truman drew important support from the railway unions, blacks (drawn by his public support of civil rights bills), his Senate colleague Bennett Clark (who saw Stark as a rival for leadership of the state Democratic party), and from a network of friends and professional politicians. Carrying both Kansas City and St. Louis, he overcame a solid outstate plurality for Stark and won the primary by fewer than 8,000 votes. In November he narrowly defeated his Republican opponent.

In 1941 Truman got authorization for a select committee to investigate defense production. The “Truman Committee” emerged as a major force on Capitol Hill, exposing waste and extravagance in military construction, faulty equipment choices by military bureaucrats, fraudulent practices by contractors, and abuses by labor unions. It also made recommendations on the rubber shortage that became the basis for administration policy, advocated stronger civilian control of the economic war effort, criticized excessive military claims on production, pressed the case of small business for war contracts, and unsuccessfully backed an early reconversion to a civilian economy. Although it had little impact on the course of the war and frequently failed to stop military waste, the committee attracted praise because it established itself as a guardian of the interests of ordinary Americans against the military brass, big business, big labor, and the politicians.

Assumption of the Presidency (1945)

In 1944 Truman, popular among both liberal and conservative Democratic leaders, was a natural compromise choice for the vice presidential nomination. Elected with Roosevelt that November, he assumed office on 20 January 1945, replacing Henry A. Wallace, who became secretary of commerce. Roosevelt, frequently out of Washington, rarely saw Truman before his sudden death on 12 April 1945.

In contrast to his predecessor, Truman believed in neat, well-defined lines of authority and deplored conflict among his subordinates. While willing to delegate responsibility freely, he jealously guarded his ultimate authority. Acting as his own chief of staff, he met on a daily basis with his key aides and largely saw to congressional relations himself. The White House staff consisted of a few immediate aides, supplemented by personnel from agencies that operated as part of the Executive Office of the President, including the Bureau of the Budget. In all, this assistance was inadequate for the responsibilities that the modern presidency had taken on by 1945. It rarely provided much White House input into important policy decisions and was never effective at congressional liaison.

At his best, Truman could appear crisp and decisive, at his worst impetuous and not in control of events. Handicapped by poor eyesight, he had trouble reading typescripts and was often a poor speaker. He carried a lot of latent, unfocused anger within himself as a result of his business failures and the many attacks made on him for his alliance with a corrupt machine. He distrusted the press, especially large publishers and opinionated columnists, whom he felt had unfairly vilified him or his family. As had been his practice throughout his career, he worked very hard. Stress was a frequent problem during his years in the White House, reinforcing a tendency toward ill-tempered and unpresidential outbursts.

Truman neither avoided crucial decisions nor made them lightly. On such matters as the atomic bomb, the decision to intervene in Korea, and the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur, he engaged in wide and time-consuming consultations before acting. Priding himself on mastery of detail, he knew the structure of the federal budget as well as any twentieth-century president. An experienced, professional politician, he was an above average party leader ultimately successful in holding the Democratic coalition together despite intense centrifugal forces. He could be a surprisingly effective campaigner who channeled his anger into attacks on the opposition. Having spent years in the practice of grass-roots politics, he possessed a common touch that had considerable charm and effectiveness; many ordinary Americans instinctively identified with him.

The Beginning of the Cold War

Truman immediately had to cope with momentous international events. On 8 May 1945 (his sixty-first birthday) Germany surrendered, thus ending World War II in Europe. In the Pacific, however, the savage battle of Okinawa (1 Apr.–21 June 1945) was in midcourse. Yet, as urgent as they were, military operations took a backseat to deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union.

In order to obtain Soviet consent for a workable United Nations, Truman agreed to Russian hegemony in Poland. Privately, he was willing to concede a Soviet sphere of influence throughout Eastern Europe, so long as the USSR behaved circumspectly. The Soviet decision to exclude all Western influences there eventually made such a solution impossible.

In July Truman met with Soviet and British leaders at Potsdam, Germany, to discuss a wide range of postwar issues. He left optimistic, feeling that he had achieved a good personal relationship with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Actually, the lack of any real accomplishment demonstrated the unyielding character of Soviet-Western differences.

At Potsdam the United States and Britain issued an ultimatum to Japan, demanding unconditional surrender. The Japanese government, deadlocked between peace and war parties, responded with a curt dismissal. On 6 August a U.S. atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima; on 9 August another destroyed Nagasaki. On 14 August Japan capitulated. The most fateful of all of Truman’s acts, the employment of the newly developed atomic weapon came easily in the context of the bloody and bitter Pacific war. The decision to use it and the strategy of implementation were the work of a prestigious committee dominated by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Major General Leslie R. Groves, military director of the bomb project. Truman saw no reason to reverse them, although he appears subsequently to have been shocked by the horrendous loss of life and determined to avoid use of the weapon in the future.

The postwar world soon was dominated by a “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Strong diplomatic representations contributed to a Soviet decision to withdraw troops from Iran. Steady support of Turkey forestalled Soviet demands for control of the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. In Eastern Europe, however, the administration was essentially helpless.

Although still intermittently believing he could deal with Stalin, Truman concluded that the Soviet system was hopelessly intransigent. Increasingly, American diplomacy concentrated on the containment of Soviet power. In September 1946, after an embarrassing public controversy, Truman dismissed Wallace for his opposition to this policy.

Postwar Domestic Problems

In the fall of 1945 Truman presented to Congress a broad reform program in the tradition of Roosevelt’s New Deal. He got little of it. Instead, he was seriously wounded politically by his management of the economic transition from war to peace. The goal—a smooth changeover to civilian production while avoiding both a new depression and a dangerous inflationary boom—was practically impossible to achieve. The close Democratic relationship to organized labor also led to an untenable effort to continue wartime controls on prices but not wages. In the end, although avoiding depression, Truman made himself the focus of discontent over an inflationary surge.

Labor unions, capitalizing on the decision to allow them to seek wage increases, made demands that business would not accept without price concessions; the labor unions therefore called strikes against key segments of American industry. In order to settle the stoppages, the administration invariably had to allow “bulges in the price line.” Anxious to bring industrial production to full capacity, Truman angered labor leaders in a number of ways. He suggested compulsory mediation and arbitration, threatened to draft railway strikers, and prosecuted the United Mine Workers for defying government orders.

Truman’s approval rating fell from 87 percent in June 1945 to 32 percent in September 1946. The public perceived him as unable to handle his domestic responsibilities. The dominant labor-liberal wing of the Democratic party was alienated from him, thanks to both the economic mess and the firing of Wallace. On election day, the Republicans swept control of both houses of Congress.

Truman found that a Congress controlled by the opposition was politically better for him than one that was Democratic but cool to his initiatives. It also helped that the worst disruptions of economic reconversion were over. However, he still had to establish himself as a forceful leader and build a platform on which to campaign for reelection. Above all, he had to rally a Democratic presidential core constituency that included the labor movement, ethno-religious minorities, blacks, and liberal activists.

In June 1947 Truman made a symbolic demonstration of sympathy for labor’s legitimate objectives by vetoing the restrictive Taft-Hartley Act. Although Congress overrode the veto, it brought most of organized labor behind him. His alignment with labor and backing of social welfare programs had natural appeal to working-class groups. Catholics in general, and those of Eastern European descent in particular, liked his anti-Communist foreign policies. Many Jews approved of his liberalism and his decision, after considerable confusion about his Palestine policy, to recognize the new state of Israel. Blacks welcomed his proposal for sweeping civil rights legislation—an issue he had soft-pedaled while trying to achieve other objectives in 1945 and 1946.

Truman’s Domestic Program and Cold War Policies

Liberal activists responded positively to Truman’s domestic program. A substantial minority initially opposed his Cold War policies, but most were won over by the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction. Yet, exemplifying the continuing appeal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, they continued to doubt that Truman possessed the personal qualities needed in the presidency.

By mid-1948 Truman had committed himself to a program that included repeal of Taft-Hartley, civil rights, public housing for the poor, price supports for farmers, tax relief for the low-bracket “common man,” federal aid to education, and national health insurance. He had developed a new and effective extemporaneous speaking style, and, most important, he was prepared to engage in an all-out rhetorical offensive against the Republican Eightieth Congress.

In 1947 Truman also formally committed the United States to the containment of Soviet expansionism in Europe. Speaking to a joint session of Congress on 12 March 1947, he proposed $250 million in aid to Greece, a country fighting a Communist insurgency, and $150 million to Turkey, still under Soviet pressure. In a declaration that appeared more universalist than he intended and became known as the “Truman doctrine,” he asserted, “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.” The proposal drew opposition from right-wing isolationists and left-wing liberals. However, Truman and his national security officials worked effectively with internationally minded Republicans, persuaded the broad center of the political spectrum, and got congressional approval by large majorities.

The administration quickly followed with the Marshall Plan, named for then secretary of state George Marshall (1880–1959), which was a comprehensive plan for European reconstruction that invited Soviet participation. Soviet rejection of it (June 1947), the pro-Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia (Feb. 1948), and the beginnings of the Berlin blockade (June 1948–May 1949) assured its passage by Congress in 1948. Both the isolationists and the pro-Soviet left had become insignificant in American politics.

The next step in containment, the North Atlantic Treaty, was urged by the Western European democracies. Ratified in 1949 by an overwhelming margin in the U.S. Senate, it committed the United States to defend Western Europe and established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Large-scale military aid to the Europeans followed.

By mid-1948 it was manifest that Truman’s foreign policy had historic implications and was likely to be successful. Moreover, he had moved far toward rebuilding the Democratic presidential coalition and was in a position to make inaction on his domestic program a campaign issue. Still, few observers thought Truman could win election in his own right. Wallace had declared his candidacy on a Progressive party ticket. After the Democratic convention adopted a strong civil rights plank, southern conservatives formed the States’ Rights (“Dixiecrat”) party with South Carolina governor J. Strom Thurmond as its candidate. Thurmond seemed likely to carry much of the normally Democratic South. Truman responded with a long-sought objective of civil rights groups—an executive order mandating a policy of equal opportunity in the U.S. armed forces; over the next several years, the military became the most integrated institution in American life.

Truman’s major opponent was the Republican governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey. The president’s strategy was less to attack Dewey than to bash the Republican Congress as determined to repeal the New Deal. To dramatize the alleged danger, he called Congress into special session and presented it with his entire legislative program, secure in the knowledge that it would do nothing.

Reelection in 1948

That fall, he crisscrossed the country in his campaign train, displaying both a folksy, “ordinary fellow” personality and the belligerence of a bareknuckle fighter. Tailoring his talks to the dominant interests at any given stop, he reminded audiences of specific benefits they had received from the Democrats under Roosevelt, then expressed his determination to defend these against the Republicans. Dewey, persuaded that he had the election won, confined himself to bland generalizations. The Wallace campaign, which had once seemed strong in key urban states, lost momentum in the inhospitable Cold War atmosphere. Thurmond was a factor only in a few southern states. On election day Truman surprised the country, defeating Dewey by a margin of 49.5 percent to 45.1 percent with Wallace and Thurmond each receiving a meager 2.4 percent. He also carried with him substantial Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

In 1949 Truman asked Congress for an ambitious domestic program that he called the Fair Deal: civil rights legislation, repeal of Taft-Hartley, the Brannan Plan for farmers, federal aid to education, an omnibus housing bill, and national health insurance. It ran into one roadblock after another in a Congress still run by ideological conservatives. In the end, only the housing bill passed, although the administration was successful in enlarging many established New Deal programs. Truman and his advisers had misread the mandate of the election as one for an increased social welfare state rather than for consolidation and protection of the status quo. An economic recession in 1949 was also politically damaging. Still, with the economy moving back up by the beginning of 1950, the president hoped to build a liberal majority.

Truman and Leon Keyserling, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, stressed economic growth, not just social welfare, as a goal of liberalism. Truman hoped to build a farmer-labor coalition around Secretary of Agriculture Charles Brannan’s agricultural program. The Brannan Plan proposed to pay direct income subsidies to family farms while letting the price of agricultural commodities drop to market levels. By mid-1950, however, American politics had become focused not on domestic reform, but on reverses in the Cold War, which had given birth to a virulent politics of anticommunism. Containment in Western Europe, one of the most impressive accomplishments in the history of American statecraft, was beginning to be overshadowed by Communist gains elsewhere. In the summer of 1949, mainland China fell to the Communist insurgency of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). Several weeks later, American intelligence analysts concluded that the USSR had exploded its first atomic device.

The Department of State, with Truman’s emphatic approval, had decided that China was a quagmire and had given Europe a much higher priority. Truman had cut off aid to the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek and was prepared to deal with Mao, hoping that he would be an independent national leader. Instead, Mao’s negotiation of an alliance with the USSR and his vocal anti-Americanism made such a policy impossible. The continuance of the Nationalist Chinese regime on the island of Taiwan provided a rallying point for Truman’s critics.

Outbreak of the Korean War

The Soviet atomic bomb undermined Truman’s defense policy, which had been based on deep cuts in military expenditures and a reliance on the deterrent power of the American atomic monopoly. In January 1950 Truman reluctantly approved the development of a thermonuclear “super bomb.” In April the National Security Council produced an important working paper, NSC-68, which advocated a major re-armament program; the president hesitated but approved it that September, after the outbreak of the Korean War.

The political dialogue came to focus on alleged internal Communist activities. In January 1950 Alger Hiss, a former assistant secretary of state, was convicted of perjury for denying under oath that he had once given classified information to the USSR. At about the same time, Dr. Klaus Fuchs, an atomic scientist with British citizenship, was arrested in England, charged, and sentenced to prison for having passed atomic secrets to the USSR. That summer some American Communists, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were arrested for having been couriers for Fuchs’s spy ring. These episodes, among others, provided fodder for Republicans who charged that Truman and the liberal Democrats were “soft on Communism.”

In February 1950 a hitherto obscure freshman Republican senator, Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, gained enormous national attention with a declaration that more than 200 “card-carrying” Communists worked for the State Department. McCarthy made one attention-grabbing accusation after another. None of them was ever proven, yet they were taken seriously by much of the press and public. By June Truman’s domestic agenda was headed by the effort to contain and discredit the senator. Then, the North Korean invasion of South Korea on 25 June assured that “McCarthyism” would be more than a brief aberration.

Korea had been little more than an afterthought for American foreign policy, and American military capabilities were stretched thin. Still, Truman decided that aggression there had to be resisted. The United States obtained a United Nations resolution calling for the defense of South Korea and threw ill-prepared occupation troops from Japan into the fight. Under the command of General MacArthur, the Americans and the South Koreans managed to hold the southeastern port of Pusan. Then, in mid-September, MacArthur staged a successful landing far behind the lines at Inchon. The North Koreans were soon routed.

With victory apparently in sight, Truman approved a general advance north, the anticipated outcome being the unification of Korea under an anti-Communist government. On 15 October he met with MacArthur at Wake Island, and the general discounted fears that China might intervene. Three weeks later, American troops fought battles with Chinese units. By the end of November, American forces were in retreat. Rejecting a full-scale war with China and worried about a possible Soviet attack against Western Europe, the administration redefined its objective as restoration of the status quo ante in Korea. MacArthur vehemently dissented, requesting authorization instead to extend the war to China, involve Chinese Nationalist troops, and possibly employ atomic bombs. Such options were unacceptable to the United Nations, to the Europeans, and to Truman. On 11 April 1951, after MacArthur had openly conveyed his views to Republican leaders, Truman relieved him.

The war continued for the remainder of Truman’s presidency. Truce talks stalled largely because China demanded forced repatriation of its American-held prisoners of war. Truman carelessly had called the Korean conflict a “police action”; instead it had become a costly stalemate that would dominate and seriously mar his last two years in office.

The Politics of Anticommunism

The most immediate impact of the fighting in Korea was to give free rein to the politics of anticommunism, not simply in the actions of Senator McCarthy himself, but in the rhetoric of many Republicans and some Democrats. In September 1950 Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act. The president vetoed the bill, characterizing it as an attack on civil liberties, but Congress overrode him easily. (Two years later Truman vetoed the McCarran-Walter Act, a restrictive immigration bill, with the same result.)

The war also diverted attention from Truman’s Fair Deal agenda and ended any hope of building congressional majorities for its passage. Democratic losses in the midterm elections (held just as the first signs of Chinese intervention appeared) were relatively small, but the administration had needed gains. After the MacArthur dismissal, Truman could do little more than concentrate on uniting the Democratic party and fighting for his foreign policy against increasing “neo-isolationist” attacks.

At home, the war also led to inflation, then economic controls. The sacrifices required of civilians were small but irritating all the same—especially after the conflict degenerated into a stalemate. Revelations of corruption in some executive agencies were also damaging; ultimately, they led to the dismissal of Truman’s lackadaisical attorney general, J. Howard McGrath, on 3 April 1952.

On 29 March 1952 Truman announced that he would not run for reelection. He opposed a third term as a matter of principle, but he doubtless also realized that he probably could not be reelected. According to a Gallup poll, his public approval rating fell to 23 percent after the MacArthur firing; it rebounded no higher than 32 percent during the remainder of his presidency.

Truman originally had offered to support General Dwight D. Eisenhower for president. When Eisenhower opted to pursue the Republican nomination instead, the president turned to Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, who after much hesitation accepted a draft. Although personal tension developed between the two, Truman campaigned intensively for Stevenson that fall. At that low point of his public standing, he may have been less an asset than a liability. Eisenhower won a landslide victory.

In January 1953 Truman retired to Independence, Missouri, where he wrote his memoirs and from time to time spoke out on public issues. He died in Kansas City.

Truman’s Legacy

Among the general public, the press, and many academicians, Truman’s standing as an effective, forthright leader grew steadily after 1953. He was consistently evaluated as an “above average” president in polls of professional historians. Dissenting scholars, influenced by the upsurge of intellectual radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s, criticized him as the instigator of the Cold War, a bogus liberal, and not competent for the presidency.

Truman liked to think of himself as a “common man,” and his career does say much about the nature of democracy and democratic politics in twentieth-century America. At his best, he was a person with whom the average American could identify, but he also could be snappish, impetuous, and lacking in personal presence. These appearances may reveal the stresses of constructing an identity in a democratic society that provided him with no ready-made status. Whatever the case, beneath his surface commonness lay unusual character and resolve.


Truman’s papers, along with those of many of his associates, are at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo. Robert H. Ferrell has edited selections from them in Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (1980), “Dear Bess”: The Letters from Harry Truman to Bess Truman, 1910–1959 (1983), and The Autobiography of Harry S. Truman (1980). See also Monte M. Poen, ed., Strictly Personal and Confidential: The Letters Harry Truman Never Mailed (1982), and William Hillman, ed., Mr. President (1952). Merle Miller, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (1974), is based on interviews the author conducted with Truman in 1961–1962.

Truman’s Memoirs (2 vols., 1955–1956) are written in a restrained style that conveys little of his personality. He also published Mr. Citizen (1960), an account of his years after leaving the presidency. Margaret Truman, Where the Buck Stops (1989), draws heavily on a series of taped interviews he made for a planned but never completed history of the presidency.

Jonathan Daniels, Man of Independence (1950), and Alfred Steinberg, Man from Missouri (1962), are sound journalistic biographies of Truman. Margaret Truman, Harry S. Truman (1973), is the work of a loving daughter; see also her Bess W. Truman (1986). David McCullough, Truman (1992), an immensely successful example of literary craftsmanship, is nonetheless uncritical and nonanalytical. Robert Ferrell, Harry S. Truman: A Life (1994), is the work of an eminent scholar who has devoted much of his career to Truman research. Alonzo L. Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (1995), provides thorough, interpretive coverage of Truman’s pre-presidential life and his presidency.

Robert J. Donovan’s two volumes, Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945–1948 (1977) and Tumultuous Years: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1949–1953 (1982), remain the best and fullest account of the Truman presidency. Donald R. McCoy, The Presidency of Harry S. Truman (1984), is a solid one-volume account. Hamby, Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism (1973), probably remains the most self-consciously interpretive work on the Truman presidency. A group of recent scholarly perspectives can be found in Michael Lacey, ed., The Truman Presidency (1989). An obituary is in the New York Times, 27 Dec. 1972. A Kansas City Star Truman centennial edition, containing several good articles by Truman scholars, was published on 5 May 1984.