Of all the men who have been president, Harry Truman has to be the unlikeliest. Maybe Gerald Ford could give him a run for his money, but even into his vice presidency, no one could imagine this unassuming man from a small town in Missouri becoming the most powerful man in the world. No one was more surprised than Harry Truman himself.
Born near Independence, Missouri during the Chester Arthur administration, Truman came from a long line of Midwestern farmers. Until the 1920’s, he showed no interest in politics beyond what anyone in rural Grandview or small town Independence might have shown. He was a farmer. He struggled, occasionally doing well working for a bank and making a half-hearted attempt to become a lawyer, but Truman was essentially the common man. He did, however, have a deep sense of duty and a love of history. A farmer he might have been, but Harry Truman was also well-read for someone of his modest background.
His sense of duty led him to join the Army in 1918 when America entered World War I. It was while in Europe that he met future business partner Eddie Jacobson and Jim Pendergast, son of Kansas City machine boss Tom Pendergast. It was this and several other associations he made while in France that convinced him to run for office. His father had been road overseer for Jackson County, and Truman decided to follow in his footsteps. Surprisingly, Pendergast tapped him to run for County Judge (similar to a county commissioner in other states). In that role, Truman proved to be that most surprising asset to a party machine: The honest politician. Pendergast, a cement company owner, had to bid on Truman’s pet highway projects.
Truman proved a better politician than a businessman. He and Jacobson owned a haberdashery that succumbed to bad timing in the early 1920’s. Yet he proved very effective in working a political system he found corrupt. Under Truman’s leadership, Independence and Kansas City saw its roads expanded and paved, and two new courthouses built. But Truman could only serve two terms as presiding judge. Lamenting that his career was probably over, he found himself the surprise candidate for junior senator from Missouri.
In the Senate, though, Truman had to overcome a preconceived notion of him as the “Senator from Pendergast.” Truman was loyal to Pendergast, considering him a product of the party system no different than Roscoe Conkling of an earlier era, but he also had his scruples. He built relationships with Jack Garner, FDR’s original vice president, as well as Speaker Sam Rayburn and his own future VP, Alben Barkley.
In 1940, he gave the world a preview of how he would win election in his own right in 1948. Largely abandoned by his party, Truman called in all his chips to finance a shoe string campaign to win reelection to the senate. Up until election day, without support from his party or FDR, he won reelection to the Senate. And he was not quiet second time around. As America geared up for an inevitable war that even isolationists could not deny was coming, the Army and Navy found itself gouged and bleeding cash from every corner. The Truman Commission, a bipartisan committee formed to investigate wrong-doing by suppliers and contractors, trimmed billions in waste (though he was quietly told to ignore the mysterious “Manhattan Project”) and exposed several deficiencies in war production. As a result, American industry was better prepared to supply the military for the total war that began on December 7, 1941.
In 1944, the ailing Franklin Roosevelt opted to run for an unprecedented fourth term, mainly out of a sense of duty to the nation. However, Vice President Henry Wallace proved to be somewhat erratic for Democratic (not to mention Republican) tastes. The party told Roosevelt he would need a new running mate. Original VP Garner had left Washington in a huff after two terms with Roosevelt. Wallace was seen as borderline communist while southern candidates proved to be too racist for northern and western voters. Truman, a man not without prejudice but capable of setting them aside, was the compromise candidate. Ironically, Truman was actively campaigning for Democratic stalwart Jimmy Byrnes and did not want the job. Roosevelt shamed him into it. The ticket defeated the GOP’s unlikeable Thomas Dewey.
Yet Roosevelt was sicker than realized. Stalin had noted at Yalta that FDR could not survive more than six months in his current condition. Less than three months into his new term, the president died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Truman likened his sudden elevation to the White House as “the moon, the stars, and all the planets falling on me.” When he asked Eleanor Roosevelt if he could do anything for the newly widowed First Lady, she replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? Harry, you’re the one who’s in trouble now.”
The idea of this small-town politician ascending to the presidency scared a lot of people. How would he handle the end of World War II? Could he handle the massive egos of Churchill and Stalin? At Potsdam, he made friends quickly with Churchill, as well as his successor, Clement Atlee. He also sized up Stalin and found him the most amiable evil man he’d ever met. Despite early attempts to work with the Soviets, it became clear the bulk of the Cold War’s blame could be laid squarely at Stalin’s feet, a man more interested in expansion and domination than world peace.
Truman found himself at the center of a growing Cold War with the Soviets. And yet at home, he took advantage of America’s new prosperity to press from unemployment assistance, national healthcare, and student aid. As Roosevelt’s advisors resigned or retired, Truman began surrounding himself first with old Missouri hands, raising the specter of his machine past, then with those he had befriended during the war, including Omar Bradley, James Forrestal, George Marshall, and, later, Dean Acheson.
In 1948, though, his popularity had ebbed. Both parties wrote him off, despite the Democrats nominating him. Yet Dewey, running again for a second time, arrogantly assumed the election was a formality while Truman criss-crossed the country shaking hands and reminding people that he was one of them. As a result, Dewey lost the election in an upset the news media failed to see coming.
He spent most of his second term in Blair House, the residence across the street from the White House. The Executive Mansion suffered catastrophic structural failures, including the collapse of the floor in Margaret Truman’s bedroom. Truman had the White House gutted and renovated “to last a thousand years.” The foundation was shored up, something not possible when George Washington helped lay the cornerstone. The interior was faithfully replicated.
But it was Korea that dominated his second term. Initially, the public and Congress, already fearful of communists abroad and at home, supported Truman’s decision to call for United Nations action against the government of Kim il-Sung. Initially, the war was a disaster, not helped by General Douglas MacArthur’s chronic insubordination. Truman relieved him of command. Firing a hero in the minds of many, caused his approval ratings to plummet. It was not helped by the drunken rants dressed up as aggressive patriotism on the part of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Truman managed to bring the war nearly to a close (Eisenhower would finish the job.), but he and the Democratic Party were drained and finished by 1952. America was ready for a change, and Eisenhower provided Republicans with an alternative to the ravings of McCarthy and the isolationist retreat of Senator Robert Taft. Truman left Washington to become something most presidents can only dream of: A private citizen.
Many are divided on Truman. Some see him as an honest, decisive president who didn’t stand on the usual pretense of DC. Others see him as a hot head whose rash decisions led to Republican dominance in the 1950’s and deeper hostilities than might have been necessary with the Soviets. However, our three most recent presidents probably needed to take a page from his playbook. Bill Clinton did, to some extent, pressing his agenda in spite of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. George W. Bush seems to be the most Truman-like, though not nearly as successful. Barack Obama probably could stand to give his opponents a little more hell like Harry. But Clinton and Obama are Harvard grads, while Bush is a product of Yale. Two governors, one of them an oil man, with a Chicago lawyer precludes the common touch that, at best made Truman successful and at worst allowed him to function more effectively than other embattled presidents in recent times.