Prologue Magazine

Truman at 125

Spring 2009, vol. 41, no. 1


President Truman at Union Station in St. Louis, Missouri, with

President Truman at Union Station in St. Louis, Missouri, with "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline. (Truman Library)

Late in the afternoon of April 12, 1945, Harry S. Truman was summoned from the Capitol to the White House and told that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead. Vice President for only 82 days, he was now the nation’s leader and commander in chief of 8.3 million soldiers and sailors fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

Suddenly, this "little man from Missouri," as some of his detractors called him, was among the most powerful men in the world, if not the most powerful, and his solutions to the problems Roosevelt left him would determine the shape of the world for generations to come.

The worldly and patrician Roosevelt had been President for 12 years, and many Americans could not imagine anyone else in the White House. Who was the new President, with his Missouri twang, thick glasses, and quick-step manner?

Truman had been a bank clerk, a miner, an oil well wildcatter, and­for 11 years­a farmer. He had served as a battery captain in World War I. After the war, he opened a haberdashery shop, but it failed. Then he went into politics. After eight years as a local government official, he became a United States senator. All of these experiences developed in Truman an innate common touch, a feel for the concerns of ordinary Americans that those of FDR’s social status did not have.

Truman liked the U. S. Senate and would have been content to remain there for the rest of his career. But it was not to be. In 1944, Democratic Party bosses­convinced Roosevelt would not live out a fourth term­persuaded the President to dump the too-liberal Henry Wallace as Vice President and accept the centrist, border-state Truman as FDR’s fourth-term running mate, and, in effect, the next President. The party bosses were right, and the new Vice President was soon summoned to be President.

The war in Europe ended within a month of Truman’s accession to the presidency on April 12, 1945, and the atomic bombs brought the Pacific war against Japan to an official end on September 2, 1945.

Now Truman was the leader of the America that FDR made, with little knowledge of his predecessor’s postwar plans for a peacetime America­a nation vastly different than the one that existed before the Great Depression and World War II.

Returning soldiers and sailors faced shortages of jobs and affordable housing. Many consumer products prohibited by wartime rationing were now in great demand but scarce supply, since industrial capacity had been shifted to war materials. Labor-management battles, on hold in wartime, were on again, and that meant strikes. Congress ended wartime price controls, and that meant inflation. Truman proposed his "Fair Deal"­increases in Social Security and minimum wages, more public housing, and aid to education­but it got nowhere in Congress.

And then there was the state of the postwar world, which had so concerned Roosevelt. Truman took FDR’s place at the table with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin to decide how a defeated Germany was to be divided and set the boundaries of the spheres of influence of the victorious Allies, decisions that stood for decades.

Despite having little preparation for the job, he moved in typical Truman style: quickly and decisively. He proceeded with FDR’s plan for the United Nations. He enunciated and put into action as the Truman Doctrine his plan of containment of Soviet Russia. And he authorized the Marshall Plan to rescue a war-ravaged Western Europe. He reorganized the nation’s military and intelligence-gathering agencies­this even with the support of the 1947–1948 Republican-controlled Congress.

Truman with

President Harry Truman posing in the reproduction of the Oval Office at the Truman Library in 1959. The sign "The Buck Stops Here" was given to Truman by Fred M Canfil on October 2, 1945. (Truman Library)

In 1948, running for a full term of his own, Truman won an upset victory, shocking the pundits, pollsters, the Republicans, and the breakaway elements of the Democratic Party. He won by hard campaigning and by capitalizing on the rapport he had with ordinary working men and women, merchants, farmers, and veterans.

During the campaign, Truman refused to play it safe politically. He proposed civil rights legislation and ordered desegregation of the armed forces. Even before the campaign season began, he recognized the state of Israel within minutes of its founding. And when Stalin blocked allied access to divided Berlin, Truman ordered a massive airlift.

The next four years, however, were even tougher ones. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established, but the Soviets now had the bomb and half of Europe and the communists had won control of mainland China. At home, the "red scare" was sweeping the nation.

Then, on June 25, 1950, the North Koreans invaded South Korea. Truman responded with troops under the banner of the United Nations. The nation was at war again, and a frustrating stalemate developed. When his Far East commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, publicly urged pushing beyond North Korea and engaging the Chinese, contrary to the official U.S. position, Truman fired him, an action that resulted in a public outcry.

Truman left office in 1953 with low approval ratings, but they climbed steadily over the years, in the eyes of historians as well as the public. Candidates of all stripes still make a pilgrimage to Independence, hoping some of the Truman magic rubs off on them nearly 40 years after his death in 1972 at the age of 88.

In the pages that follow, Prologue offers some new insights on the nation’s 33rd President with articles by Samuel Rushay, supervisory archivist at the Truman Library; Raymond Geselbracht, special assistant to the director of the Truman Library; and Clifton Truman Daniel, the President’s oldest grandson.

Harry Truman was pretty much the same person when he left the White House in 1953 as when he suddenly became its occupant in 1945.

Whether people called out to him, "Give ’Em Hell, Harry," sneered at him as the "accidental President," or called him affectionately "the man from Independence," Truman did what he thought was right for the country. He did not agonize over the decisions he had to make, nor was he given to melancholy or brooding; he slept soundly every night.

But when the buck stopped at his desk, a decision was made. And, as he often liked to sum things up, "that’s all there was to it."


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.