Harry S. Truman

The Constitution for Kids (K-3) x
The Constitution for Kids (K-3)

Harry S. Truman was thrust into the presidency just a few short weeks after becoming the vice-president. When Franklin. D. Roosevelt died shortly after winning the election, Truman became the new president. He was faced with a number of difficult situations as the new president, particularly around the war with Japan. It was Truman who decided to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Early Years

Harry S. Truman was born in 1884. His parents couldn’t think up a middle name for him so they just gave him a letter “S” as a tribute to both his maternal and paternal grandfather.

Truman never attended college and worked a number of jobs once he finished high school. He worked in a bank and in a railway company, but he left those jobs and returned to work on the farm. He also joined the National Guard from 1905–1911.

When the United States became involved in World War I, Truman immediately volunteered for duty even though he was over the age limit for the draft. He was thirty-three by this time and the age limit was thirty-one. He also would have been exempt because he was a farmer but Truman wanted to go to war.

He volunteered to develop his National Guard unit, the Kansas City Field artillery battery, into a regiment. Truman went to France with the new regiment where he was promoted to captain and given command of one of the field artillery batteries—Battery D. Battery D was the least disciplined battery in the regiment and had already broken four commanders.

Truman turned out to be an excellent commander and soon had the men under control. He gained their respect and Truman was able to get the battery through a number of battles without experiencing any casualties. The men idolized Truman and the entire regiment kept in touch throughout the years.

Politics

Truman’s entry into politics resulted from him knowing the nephew of Democratic boss Thomas Pendergast. Truman had met Pendergast’s nephew during the war. The Democrats appointed Truman to be in charge of highways in the county. A year later, Truman ran for a position as a county judge. He won the election and held the position for two years until he lost the next election. Truman ran for county judge again in 1926 and this time he won. He remained a county judge until he ran for the Senate.

Truman decided to run for the Senate in 1934. He won the election and as a senator on the Senate Appropriations Committee, he helped fund Franklin D. Roosevelt’s programs under the New Deal. Truman also served on the Interstate Commerce Committee which was responsible for railroads, shipping and interstate transport. Truman was partially responsible for stronger regulations being placed on railroads. During his second term, Truman was in charge of a committee to investigate war profiteering and spending irregularities in defense industries.

President

The current president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was looking for a new running mate. Truman’s reputation as an honest, responsible politician who was willing to defend the rights of American citizens as well as his high popularity levels made Truman an excellent choice for vice-president.

At first, Truman did not want to run as vice-president, but once he agreed, he spent a lot of time campaigning with Roosevelt. They won the November 1944 election and Truman became vice-president on January 20, 1945. He was only vice-president for 82 days before Roosevelt suffered a stroke and died. As a result, Truman became the thirty-third president of the United States on April 12, 1945.

Major Decisions

Truman faced a lot of decisions in his first weeks as president. The war with Germany was coming to an end but the war with Japan continued.

One of the first decisions Truman had to make (and the most controversial) was whether to drop atomic bombs on Japan. Truman may have known that the bomb was being developed (opinions differ) but it had not been tested when Truman became president. It was tested while he was meeting with the Allied leaders at Potsdam to discuss how Germany, which had just surrendered, should be treated. The meeting at Potsdam also called for Japan’s immediate surrender. The meeting at Potsdam also considered Germany’s payment of reparations, the borders of Poland, and opening trade.

With the atomic bomb ready, Truman had to come to a decision. He decided to drop the bombs because he felt that without the bombs, the Japanese would not surrender. Truman believed they would fight to the death while inflicting heavy casualties on the Allied forces. The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. The Japanese surrendered only after the Japanese emperor forced the Japanese military to accept defeat.

With the war officially over on all fronts, Truman began to focus on communism and searched for ways to halt its expansion. Truman moved the United States from a policy of remaining apart from international affairs to one of becoming more involved in European affairs. The Truman Doctrine was established and stated that the United States would offer aid to countries threatened by communism. The Marshal Plan was also enacted which gave economic aid to help countries rebuild their economies after the war. Truman felt that communism would have less of a chance in countries that were economically well off.

Truman also had to deal with problems in the United States. The American economy had been focused on wartime goods and now needed to be switched to a peacetime economy. There was a shortage of goods, labour disputes, and even a railroad strike. Gradually things improved but Truman’s popularity was very low. He ran for re-election but everyone expected him to lose. To the surprise of most of the country, Truman won a second term as president.

Truman continued to fight the spread of communism and when the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin, Truman ordered planes to fly in the needed supplies. Truman also supported the creation of Israel but the United States stayed neutral in the upcoming Israel-Arab conflict.

Second Term

Truman tried to pass a number of policies (called the Fair Deal) but most of them were blocked by Congress. Truman was able to pass programs that raised the minimum wage and the federal government’s hiring practices no longer allowed for racial discrimination. The military was also desegregated and Social Security was expanded. National health insurance as well as more money for education were not approved by Congress.

Korean War

Truman’s concern with the expansion of communism led him to support intervention in Korea when the communist government in North Korea attacked South Korea. The United States and NATO supported and helped the South Koreans while China, with backing from the Soviet Union, supported North Korea. The North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel (a line of latitude on the Earth) and attacked South Korea on June 25, 1950.

Truman wanted to push the North Koreans past the 38th parallel but when 300,000 Chinese soldiers arrived to support North Korea, Truman focused on containment. Douglas MacArthur, the general in charge of the American forces, publically disagreed with Truman’s decision and as a result, Truman dismissed him from duty. This caused Truman’s poor approval ratings to drop even more.

The Korean War went back and forth will neither side making much progress and after three years of bloody fighting, both sides of the conflict agreed to a ceasefire that kept the 38th parallel border intact.
This war caused Truman’s approval rating to drop even further and was one of the factors behind his decision to not seek another term as president.

Later Years

After deciding not to run for president again, Truman returned to his home in Independence, Missouri. He wrote his memoirs and became active in the Democratic Party as well as raised funds for the building of his presidential library—the Harry S. Truman library. When his health became an issue, Truman stopped most of these activities and spent his last years reading and relaxing.

On December 26, 1972, Harry S. Truman died in Kansas City, Missouri at the age of 88. His wife requested that his funeral be held at his presidential library instead of in Washington. After the funeral, Truman was buried in the grounds of his presidential library.