Presidency of Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman served as the 33rd President of the United States (1945–53). He had briefly served as Vice President before succeeding to the presidency on April 12, 1945 upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman was president during the final months of World War II; Nazi Germany surrendered just a few weeks after he assumed office, but the war with the Empire of Japan continued for several months. Truman approved the use of atomic weaponry as an alternative to the planned invasion of Japan, and Japan surrendered in September 1945. Truman was elected in his own right in 1948.

Truman's presidency was a turning point in foreign affairs, as the United States engaged in an internationalist foreign policy and renounced isolationism. Truman helped establish the United Nations in 1945, issued the Truman Doctrine in 1947 to contain Communism, and got the $13 billion Marshall Plan enacted to rebuild Western Europe. Tensions with the Soviet Union, an ally in World War II, increased, marking the start of the Cold War. Fears of Soviet espionage led to a Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism. Truman oversaw the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and the creation of NATO in 1949. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he sent U.S. troops and gained UN approval for the Korean War. After initial successes in Korea, however, the UN forces were thrown back by Chinese intervention, and the conflict was stalemated throughout the final years of Truman's presidency.

Truman presided over an uncertain domestic scene as America sought its path after the war. His domestic agenda, known as the "Fair Deal," faced opposition from a conservative Congress dominated by the Southern legislators, but his administration was able to successfully guide the American economy through the post-war economic challenges. Truman maintained that civil rights were a moral priority and in 1948, he submitted the first comprehensive civil rights legislation and issued Executive Orders to start racial integration in the military and federal agencies. Popular and scholarly assessments of Truman's presidency initially were unfavorable but became more positive over time following his retirement from politics.

Truman (1945)

Major acts as president

Assumption of office and end of World War II

For more details on this topic, see Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Three men in suits standing with several men in the background
Joseph Stalin, Harry S. Truman, and Winston Churchill in Potsdam, July 1945

Shortly after taking the oath of office on April 12, 1945, Truman spoke to reporters: "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."[1][2] Truman had been the vice president for just three months, during which time he rarely interacted with Roosevelt.[3] Though Roosevelt had been president since 1933, Truman had only joined the ticket in 1944 after Roosevelt's allies pressured him to dump Henry Wallace as vice president.[4] Truman was uninformed about major initiatives relating to the war, including the top-secret Manhattan Project, which was about to test the world's first atomic bomb.[5] While Germany surrendered less than a month after Truman took office, Japan remained an adversary in the Pacific War.

Upon assuming the presidency, Truman asked all the members of FDR's cabinet to remain in place, and told them that he was open to their advice. He emphasized a central principle of his administration: he would be the one making decisions, and they were to support him.[6] Although Truman was told briefly on the afternoon of April 12 that the Allies had a new, highly destructive weapon, it was not until April 25 that Secretary of War Henry Stimson told him the details. Truman benefited from a honeymoon period after Roosevelt's death, and from the Allies' success in Europe, wrapping up the war there. Truman was pleased to issue the proclamation of V-E Day on May 8, 1945, his 61st birthday.[7][8]

We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.
Harry Truman, writing about the atomic bomb in his diary[9] on July 25, 1945[10]

With the end of the Second World War drawing near, Truman journeyed to Europe for the Potsdam Conference, where the allied powers of the Untied States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain discussed the post-war order. Though the allies had fought together since 1941, tensions remained over ideological differences.[11] Several major decisions were made at the Postdam Conference: Germany would be divided into four occupation zones (among the three powers and France), Germany's border was to be shifted West to the Oder–Neisse line, a Soviet-backed group was recognized as the legitimate government of Poland, and Vietnam was to be partitioned at the 16th parallel. While at the Potsdam Conference, Truman was informed that the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb on July 16 had been successful. He hinted to Joseph Stalin that the U.S. was about to use a new kind of weapon against the Japanese. Though this was the first time the Soviets had been officially given information about the atomic bomb, Stalin was already aware of the bomb project, having learned about it (through espionage) long before Truman did.[12][13][14]

In August, the Japanese government refused surrender demands as specifically outlined in the Potsdam Declaration. With the invasion of mainland Japan imminent, Truman approved the schedule for dropping the two available bombs. Truman always said that attacking Japan with atomic bombs saved many lives on both sides; military estimates for the invasion of mainland Japan were that it could take a year and result in 250,000 to 500,000 American casualties. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, and Nagasaki three days later, leaving 105,000 dead.[15] Japan agreed to surrender the following day.[16][17]

Truman announces Japan's surrender. Washington, DC, August 14, 1945

Truman later signed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which determined how the United States would manage its nuclear arsenal.

Supporters of Truman's decision argue that, given the tenacious Japanese defense of the outlying islands, the bombings saved hundreds of thousands of lives that would have been lost invading mainland Japan.[18] Critics have argued that the use of nuclear weapons was unnecessary, given that conventional tactics such as firebombing and blockade might induce Japan's surrender without the need for such weapons.[19] Truman strongly defended himself in his memoirs in 1955–56, stating that many lives could have been lost had the U.S. invaded mainland Japan without the atomic bombs. In 1963, he stood by his decision, telling a journalist that "it was done to save 125,000 youngsters on the American side and 125,000 on the Japanese side from getting killed and that is what it did. It probably also saved a half million youngsters on both sides from being maimed for life."[20]


Administration officials

The Truman Cabinet
Office Name Term
President Harry S. Truman19451953
Vice President none19451949
Alben W. Barkley19491953
Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr.1945
James F. Byrnes19451947
George C. Marshall19471949
Dean G. Acheson19491953
Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.1945
Fred M. Vinson19451946
John W. Snyder19461953
Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson1945
Robert P. Patterson19451947
Kenneth C. Royall1947
Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal19471949
Louis A. Johnson19491950
George C. Marshall19501951
Robert A. Lovett19511953
Attorney General Francis Biddle1945
Tom C. Clark19451949
J. Howard McGrath19491952
James P. McGranery19521953
Postmaster General Frank C. Walker1945
Robert E. Hannegan19451947
Jesse M. Donaldson19471953
Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal19451947
Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes19451946
Julius A. Krug19461949
Oscar L. Chapman19491953
Secretary of Agriculture Claude R. Wickard1945
Clinton P. Anderson19451948
Charles F. Brannan19481953
Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace19451946
W. Averell Harriman19461948
Charles W. Sawyer19481953
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins1945
Lewis B. Schwellenbach19451948
Maurice J. Tobin19481953

Truman inherited Roosevelt's fourth-term Cabinet. By the beginning of 1946, Truman had picked a mostly new Cabinet, with only Henry Wallace, Harold Ickes, James Forrestal, and Henry Stimson remaining.[21] In 1946, Truman fired Wallace after Wallace criticized Truman's foreign policy.[21] Wallace, who had preceded Truman as Roosevelt's vice president, ran a third party campaign against Truman in the 1948 election. The National Security Act of 1947 created a Secretary of Defense to oversee the United States military, and then-Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal became the first Secretary of Defense. As the twenty-fifth Amendment was not ratified until 1967, the United States lacked a vice president during Truman's first term. Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky, who served as the Democratic Senate leader from 1937 to 1949, became Truman's vice president after the 1948 election. In part due to Barkley's long legislative experience, Truman sought to include Barkley as an important part of his Cabinet.[22]

Judicial appointments

Supreme Court

Truman appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court:

The four justices appointed by Truman joined with Justices Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson, and Stanley Reed to create a substantial seven-member conservative bloc on the Supreme Court.[23][24] This returned the court for a time to the conservatism of the 1920s.[23] However, Vinson, Minton, and Burton all left the court during the Eisenhower administration, paving the way for the more liberal Warren Court.[25]

Truman's judicial appointments have been called by critics "inexcusable."[23] A former Truman aide confided that it was the weakest aspect of Truman's presidency.[23] The New York Times condemned the appointments of Tom C. Clark and Sherman Minton in particular as examples of cronyism and favoritism for unqualified candidates.[23]

Other courts

In addition to his four Supreme Court appointments, Truman appointed 27 judges to the courts of appeals, and 101 judges to federal district courts.[26]

Foreign policy

United Nations

As a Wilsonian internationalist, Truman strongly supported the creation of the United Nations, and included Eleanor Roosevelt on the delegation to the UN's first General Assembly.[27] In 1942, Roosevelt and other allied leaders had declared their intent to form the United Nations, and Truman signed United Nations Charter at the 1945 United Nations Conference on International Organization. Unlike Woodrow Wilson's attempt to ratify the Treaty of Versailles in the aftermath of World War I, Truman was able to win Senate ratification of the American role in the United Nations. Construction of the United Nations headquarters in New York City was completed in 1952.

Cold War

With the Soviet Union expanding its sphere of influence through Eastern Europe, Truman and his foreign policy advisors took a hard line against the USSR. In this, he matched American public opinion, which quickly came to view the Soviets as intent upon world domination.[28] Truman won bipartisan support for the Truman Doctrine, which formalized a policy of Soviet containment, in which the United States would oppose the spread of Communism without seeking to roll it back. Truman abandoned Roosevelt's Morgenthau Plan, which had aimed to de-industrialize Germany, in favor of the Marshall Plan, which aimed to help rebuild postwar Europe.[29][30][31] To get Congress to spend the vast sums necessary to restart the moribund European economy, Truman used an ideological argument, arguing that Communism flourishes in economically deprived areas.[32] The Marshall Plan would be followed by other foreign aid programs, including the Mutual Defense Assistance Act and the Mutual Security Act.

As part of the U.S. Cold War strategy, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 and reorganized military forces by merging the Department of War and the Department of the Navy into the National Military Establishment (later the Department of Defense) and creating the U.S. Air Force. The act also created the CIA and the National Security Council.[33] In 1952, Truman secretly consolidated and empowered the cryptologic elements of the United States by creating the National Security Agency (NSA).

Truman and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during Nehru's visit to the United States, October 1949

The escalation of the Cold War was highlighted by Truman's approval of NSC-68, a secret statement of foreign policy. It called for tripling the defense budget, and the globalization and militarization of containment policy whereby the U.S. and its NATO allies would respond militarily to actual Soviet expansion. The document was drafted by Paul Nitze, who consulted State and Defense officials; it was formally approved by President Truman as official national strategy after the war began in Korea. It called for partial mobilization of the U.S. economy to build armaments faster than the Soviets. The plan called for strengthening Europe, weakening the Soviet Union, and for building up the U.S. both militarily and economically.[34]

Truman was a strong supporter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which established a formal peacetime military alliance with Canada and democratic European nations that had not fallen under Soviet control following World War II. The treaty establishing it was widely popular and easily passed the Senate in 1949; Truman appointed General Eisenhower as commander. NATO's goals were to contain Soviet expansion in Europe and to send a clear message to communist leaders that the world's democracies were willing and able to build new security structures in support of democratic ideals. The U.S., Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Iceland, and Canada were the original treaty signatories. The alliance resulted in the Soviets establishing a similar alliance, called the Warsaw Pact.[35][36]

General Marshall was Truman's principal adviser on foreign policy matters, influencing such decisions as the U.S. choice against offering direct military aid to Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Chinese forces in the Chinese Civil War with their communist opponents. Marshall's opinion was contrary to the counsel of almost all of Truman's other advisers—he thought that even propping up Chiang's forces would drain U.S. resources in Europe needed to deter the Soviets.[37] When the communists took control of the mainland, driving the Nationalists to Taiwan and establishing the People's Republic of China, Truman would have been willing to maintain some relationship between the U.S. and the new government, but Mao was unwilling.[38] On June 27, 1950, after the outbreak of fighting in Korea, Truman ordered the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to prevent further conflict between the communist government on the China mainland and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan.[39][40]

Berlin airlift

For more details on this topic, see Berlin Blockade.

On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blocked access to the three Western-held sectors of Berlin. The Allies had never negotiated a deal to guarantee supply of the sectors deep within the Soviet-occupied zone. The commander of the American occupation zone in Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, proposed sending a large armored column across the Soviet zone to West Berlin with instructions to defend itself if it were stopped or attacked. Truman believed this would entail an unacceptable risk of war. He approved Ernest Bevin's plan to supply the blockaded city by air. On June 25, the Allies initiated the Berlin Airlift, a campaign that delivered food and other supplies, such as coal, using military aircraft on a massive scale. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before, and no single nation had the capability, either logistically or materially, to have accomplished it. The airlift worked; ground access was again granted on May 11, 1949. Nevertheless, the airlift continued for several months after that. The Berlin Airlift was one of Truman's great foreign policy successes; it significantly aided his election campaign in 1948.[41]

Soviet espionage and McCarthyism

In August 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former spy for the Soviets and a senior editor at Time magazine, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He said that an underground communist network had been working within the U.S. government since the 1930s, of which Chambers had been a member, along with Alger Hiss, until recently a senior State Department official. Although Hiss denied the allegations, he was convicted in January 1950 for perjury for his denials under oath. The Soviet Union's success in exploding an atomic weapon in 1949 and the fall of the nationalist Chinese the same year led many Americans to conclude that subversion by Soviet spies was responsible, and to demand that communists be rooted out from the government and other places of influence.[42][43] However, Truman did not fully share such opinions. He famously called the Hiss trial a "red herring," and the Justice Department was moving to indict Chambers instead of Hiss for perjury.[44]

Following Hiss' conviction, Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced that he stood by him. This and other events, such as the revelation that British atomic bomb scientist Klaus Fuchs was a spy, led current and former members of HUAC, including Congressman Nixon of California and Karl Mundt of South Dakota, to decry Truman and his administration, especially the State Department, as soft on communism. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy used a Lincoln Day speech in Wheeling, West Virginia to accuse the State Department of harboring communists, and rode the controversy to political fame.[45] In the following years, Republicans used Hiss' conviction to castigate the Democrats for harboring communists in government; Congressman Nixon gained election to the Senate in 1950 on an anti-communist platform, defeating the liberal Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom he called "the Pink Lady."[46]

Charges that Soviet agents had infiltrated the government were believed by 78% of the people in 1946, and became a major campaign issue for Eisenhower in 1952.[47] Truman was reluctant to take a more radical stance because he feared that the full disclosure of the extent of the communist infiltration would reflect badly on the Democratic Party. It was a time of the Red Scare. In a 1956 interview, Truman denied that Alger Hiss had ever been a communist, a full six years after Hiss' conviction for perjury on this topic.[48] In 1949 Truman described American communist leaders, whom his administration was prosecuting, as "traitors," but in 1950 he vetoed the McCarran Internal Security Act. It was passed over his veto.[49] Truman would later state in private conversations with friends that his creation of a loyalty program had been a "terrible" mistake.[50]

Recognition of Israel

President Truman in the Oval Office, receiving a Hanukkah Menorah from the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (center). To the right is Abba Eban, Ambassador of Israel to the U.S.

Truman had long taken an interest in the history of the Middle East, and was sympathetic to Jews who sought a homeland in Mandatory Palestine. As a senator, he announced support for Zionism; in 1943 he called for a homeland for those Jews who survived the Nazi regime. However, State Department officials were reluctant to offend the Arabs, who were opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state in the large region long populated and dominated culturally by Arabs. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal warned Truman of the importance of Saudi Arabian oil in another war; Truman replied that he would decide his policy on the basis of justice, not oil.[51] American diplomats with experience in the region were opposed, but Truman told them he had few Arabs among his constituents.[52]

Palestine was secondary to the goal of protecting the "Northern Tier" of Greece, Turkey, and Iran from Communism, as promised by the Truman Doctrine.[53] Weary of both the convoluted politics of the Middle East and pressures by Jewish leaders, Truman was undecided on his policy. He later cited as decisive in his recognition of the Jewish state the advice of his former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, a non-religious Jew whom Truman absolutely trusted.[52] Truman decided to recognize Israel over the objections of Secretary of State George Marshall, who feared it would hurt relations with the populous Arab states. Marshall believed the paramount threat to the U.S. was the Soviet Union and feared that Arab oil would be lost to the United States in the event of war; he warned Truman that U.S. was "playing with fire with nothing to put it out".[54] Truman recognized the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, eleven minutes after it declared itself a nation.[55][56] Of his decision to recognize the Israeli state, Truman wrote in his memoirs: "Hitler had been murdering Jews right and left. I saw it, and I dream about it even to this day. The Jews needed some place where they could go. It is my attitude that the American government couldn't stand idly by while the victims [of] Hitler's madness are not allowed to build new lives."[57]

Korean War

For more details on this topic, see Korean War.
President Truman signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency and authorizing U.S. entry into the Korean War

On June 25, 1950, Kim Il-sung's Korean People's Army invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War. In the early weeks of the war, the North Koreans easily pushed back their southern counterparts.[58] Truman called for a naval blockade of Korea, only to learn that due to budget cutbacks, the U.S. Navy could not enforce such a measure.[59] Truman promptly urged the United Nations to intervene; it did, authorizing troops under the UN flag led by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.

Truman decided that he did not need formal authorization from Congress, believing that most legislators supported his position; this would come back to haunt him later, when the stalemated conflict was dubbed "Mr. Truman's War" by legislators.[58] However, on July 3, 1950, Truman did give Senate Majority Leader Scott W. Lucas a draft resolution titled "Joint Resolution Expressing Approval of the Action Taken in Korea". Lucas said Congress supported the use of force, that the formal resolution would pass but was unnecessary, and that the consensus in Congress was to acquiesce. Truman responded that he did not want "to appear to be trying to get around Congress and use extra-Constitutional powers," and added that it was "up to Congress whether such a resolution should be introduced."[60]

By August 1950, U.S. troops pouring into South Korea under UN auspices were able to stabilize the situation.[61] Responding to criticism over readiness, Truman fired his Secretary of Defense, Louis A. Johnson, replacing him with the retired General Marshall. With UN approval, Truman decided on a "rollback" policy—conquest of North Korea.[62] UN forces led by General Douglas MacArthur led the counterattack, scoring a stunning surprise victory with an amphibious landing at the Battle of Inchon that nearly trapped the invaders. UN forces marched north, toward the Yalu River boundary with China, with the goal of reuniting Korea under UN auspices.[63]

However, China surprised the UN forces with a large-scale invasion in November. The UN forces were forced back to below the 38th parallel, then recovered.[64] By early 1951 the war became a fierce stalemate at about the 38th parallel where it had begun. Truman rejected MacArthur's request to attack Chinese supply bases north of the Yalu, but MacArthur promoted his plan to Republican House leader Joseph Martin, who leaked it to the press. Truman was gravely concerned that further escalation of the war might lead to open conflict with the Soviet Union, which was already supplying weapons and providing warplanes (with Korean markings and Soviet aircrew). Therefore, on April 11, 1951, Truman fired MacArthur from his commands.[65]

Giving Them More Hell

I fired him [MacArthur] because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President ... I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.[66]

Harry S. Truman to biographer Merle Miller, 1972, posthumously quoted in Time magazine, 1973.

The dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur was among the least politically popular decisions in presidential history. Truman's approval ratings plummeted, and he faced calls for his impeachment from, among others, Senator Robert A. Taft.[67] Fierce criticism from virtually all quarters accused Truman of refusing to shoulder the blame for a war gone sour and blaming his generals instead. Others, including Eleanor Roosevelt, supported and applauded Truman's decision. MacArthur meanwhile returned to the U.S. to a hero's welcome, and addressed a joint session of Congress, a speech which the President called "a bunch of damn bullshit."[68]

The war remained a frustrating stalemate for two years, with over 30,000 Americans killed, until an armistice ended the fighting in 1953.[69] In February 1952, Truman's approval mark stood at 22% according to Gallup polls, which was, until George W. Bush in 2008, the all-time lowest approval mark for an active American president.[70]

List of international trips

Truman made five international trips during his presidency:[71] His only trans-Atlantic trip was to participate in the 1945 Potsdam Conference with British Prime Ministers Churchill and Attlee and Soviet Premier Stalin. He also visited neighboring Bermuda, Canada and Mexico, plus Brazil in South America. Truman only left the continental United States on two other occasions (to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, February 20-March 5, 1948; and to Wake Island, October 11–18, 1950) during his nearly eight years in office.[72]

Dates Country Locations Details
1 July 15, 1945  Belgium Antwerp,
Disembarked en route to Potsdam.
July 16 – August 2, 1945 Germany Potsdam Attended Potsdam Conference with British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.
August 2, 1945  United Kingdom Plymouth Informal meeting with King George VI.
2 August 23–30, 1946  Bermuda Hamilton Informal visit. Met with Governor General Ralph Leatham and inspected U.S. military facilities.
3 March 3–6, 1947  Mexico Mexico, D.F. State visit. Met with President Miguel Alemán Valdés.
4 June 10–12, 1947  Canada Ottawa Official visit. Met with Governor General Harold Alexander and Prime Minister Mackenzie King and addressed Parliament.
5 September 1–7, 1947  Brazil Rio de Janeiro State visit. Addressed Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Continental Peace and Security and the Brazilian Congress.

Domestic policy

Civil rights

The Chicago Defender announces Executive Order 9980 and Executive Order 9981.

A 1947 report by the Truman administration titled To Secure These Rights presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. In February 1948, the president submitted a civil rights agenda to Congress that proposed creating several federal offices devoted to issues such as voting rights and fair employment practices.[73] This provoked a storm of criticism from Southern Democrats in the runup to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying: "My forebears were Confederates ... but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten."[74] Tales of the abuse, violence, and persecution suffered by many African American veterans upon their return from World War II infuriated Truman, and were a major factor in his decision to issue Executive Order 9981, in July 1948, desegregating and requiring equal opportunity in the Armed Forces.[75] After several years of planning, recommendations and revisions between Truman, the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity and the various branches of the military, Army units became racially integrated.[76] The 1948 Women's Armed Services Integration Act allowed women to serve in the peacetime military.

Another executive order, also in 1948, made it illegal to discriminate against persons applying for civil service positions based on race. A third, in 1951, established the Committee on Government Contract Compliance (CGCC). This committee ensured that defense contractors did not discriminate because of race.[77][78]

Economy and labor strife

The end of World War II was followed by an uneasy transition from war to a peacetime economy. The costs of the war effort were enormous, and Truman was intent on decreasing government expenditures on the military as quickly as possible. Demobilizing the military and reducing the size of the various services was a cost-saving priority. The effect of demobilization on the economy was unknown, but fears existed that the nation would slide back into a depression. A great deal of work had to be done to plan how best to transition to peacetime production of goods while avoiding mass unemployment for returning veterans. Government officials did not have consensus as to what economic course the postwar U.S. should steer. In addition, Roosevelt had not paid attention to Congress in his final years, and Truman faced a body where a combination of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats formed a powerful voting bloc.[79]

The president was faced with the reawakening of labor-management conflicts that had lain dormant during the war years, severe shortages in housing and consumer products, and widespread dissatisfaction with inflation, which at one point hit 6% in a single month.[80] Added to this polarized environment was a wave of destabilizing strikes in major industries. Truman's response to them was generally seen as ineffective.[80] A rapid increase in costs was fueled by the release of price controls on most items, and labor sought wage increases. A serious steel strike in January 1946 involving 800,000 workers—the largest in the nation's history—was followed by a coal strike in April and a rail strike in May. The public was angry, with a majority in polls favoring a ban on strikes by public service workers and a year's moratorium on labor actions. Truman proposed legislation to draft striking workers into the Armed Forces, and in a dramatic personal appearance before Congress, was able to announce settlement of the rail strike. His proposal passed the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate.[81][82] For commodities where price controls remained, producers were often unwilling to sell at artificially low prices: farmers refused to sell grain for months in 1945 and 1946 until payments were significantly increased, even though grain was desperately needed, not only for domestic use, but to stave off starvation in Europe.[83]

Truman with Greek American sponge divers, Florida, 1947

Although labor strife was muted after the settlement of the railway strike, it continued through Truman's presidency. The President's approval rating dropped from 82% in the polls in January 1946 to 52% by June.[84] This dissatisfaction with the Truman administration's policies led to large Democratic losses in the 1946 midterm elections, when Republicans took control of Congress for the first time since 1930. The 80th Congress included Republican freshmen who would become prominent in the years to come, including Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and California Congressman Richard Nixon. When Truman dropped to 32% in the polls, Democratic Arkansas Senator William Fulbright suggested that Truman resign; the President said that he did not care what Senator "Halfbright" said.[85][86]

The power of the labor unions was significantly curtailed by the Taft–Hartley Act, which was enacted over Truman's veto. Truman twice vetoed bills to lower income tax rates in 1947. Although the initial vetoes were sustained, Congress overrode his veto of a tax cut bill in 1948. The parties did cooperate on some issues; Congress passed the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, making the Speaker of the House rather than the Secretary of State next in line to the presidency after the vice president.[87]

In response to a labor/management impasse arising from bitter disagreements over wage and price controls, Truman instructed his Secretary of Commerce, Charles W. Sawyer, to take control of a number of the nation's steel mills in April 1952. Truman cited his authority as Commander in Chief and the need to maintain an uninterrupted supply of steel for munitions to be used in the war in Korea. The Supreme Court found Truman's actions unconstitutional, however, and reversed the order in a major separation-of-powers decision, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). The 6–3 decision, which held that Truman's assertion of authority was too vague and was not rooted in any legislative action by Congress, was delivered by a Court composed entirely of Justices appointed by either Truman or Roosevelt. The high court's reversal of Truman's order was one of the notable defeats of his presidency.[88]

Fair Deal

Main article: Fair Deal

As he readied for the 1948 election, Truman made clear his identity as a Democrat in the New Deal tradition, advocating national health insurance,[89] the repeal of the Taft–Hartley Act. Taken together, it constituted a broad legislative agenda that came to be called the "Fair Deal."[90] A major difference between the New Deal and the Fair Deal was that the latter included an aggressive civil rights program, which Truman termed a moral priority. Truman's proposals were not well received by Congress, even with renewed Democratic majorities in Congress after 1948. The Solid South rejected civil rights, as those states still enforced segregation. Only one of the major Fair Deal bills, the Housing Act of 1949, was ever enacted.[91][92] On the other hand, the major New Deal programs still in operation were not repealed, and there were minor improvements and extensions in many of them.[93]

Scandals and controversies

In 1950, the Senate, led by Estes Kefauver, investigated numerous charges of corruption among senior administration officials, some of whom received fur coats and deep freezers in exchange for favors. A large number of employees of the Internal Revenue Bureau (today the IRS) were accepting bribes; 166 employees either resigned or were fired in 1950,[94] with many soon facing indictment. When Attorney General J. Howard McGrath fired the special prosecutor in early 1952 for being too zealous, Truman fired McGrath.[95] Truman submitted a reorganization plan to reform the IRB; Congress passed it, but the corruption was a major issue in the 1952 presidential election.[96][97]

On December 6, 1950, Washington Post music critic Paul Hume wrote a critical review of a concert by the president's daughter Margaret Truman:

Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality ... [she] cannot sing very well ... is flat a good deal of the time—more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years ... has not improved in the years we have heard her ... [and] still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.[98]

Harry Truman wrote a scathing response:

I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an 'eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.' It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work. Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below! Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you'll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.[98]

Truman was criticized by many for the letter. However, he pointed out that he wrote it as a loving father and not as the president.[99][100][101]

White House renovations and assassination attempt

Inside of a building being renovated, with scaffolding
View of the interior shell of the White House during renovation in 1950

In 1948, Truman ordered an addition to the exterior of the White House: a second-floor balcony in the south portico, which came to be known as the "Truman Balcony." The addition was unpopular; some said it spoiled the appearance of the south facade, but it gave the First Family more living space.[102][103] [104] The work uncovered structural faults which led engineering experts to conclude that the building, much of it over 130 years old, was in a dangerously dilapidated condition. That August, a section of floor collapsed, and Truman's bedroom and bathroom were closed as unsafe. No public announcement about the serious structural problems of the White House was made until after the 1948 election had been won. By then Truman had been informed that his new balcony was the only part of the building that was sound.

The Truman family moved into nearby Blair House during the renovations. As the newer West Wing, including the Oval Office, remained open, Truman walked to and from his work across the street each morning and afternoon. In due course, the decision was made to demolish and rebuild the whole interior of the main White House, as well as excavate new basement levels and underpin the foundations. The famous exterior of the structure was buttressed and retained while the extensive renovations proceeded inside. The work lasted from December 1949 until March 1952.[105]

External video
Newsreel scenes in English of the assassination attempt on U.S. President Harry S. Truman

On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo attempted to assassinate Truman at Blair House. The attack drew new attention to security concerns surrounding Truman's residence at Blair House. He had jumped up from a nap, and was watching the gunfight from his open bedroom window until Secret Service agents shouted at him to take cover. On the street outside the residence, Torresola mortally wounded a White House policeman, Leslie Coffelt. Before he died, the officer shot and killed Torresola. Collazo was wounded, stopped before he entered the house. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in 1952. Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison. To try to settle the question of Puerto Rican independence, Truman allowed a plebiscite in Puerto Rico in 1952 to determine the status of its relationship to the U.S. Nearly 82% of the people voted in favor of a new constitution for the Estado Libre Associado, a continued 'associated free state.'[106]


Democratic seats in Congress
Congress Senate House
79th 57 243
80th 45 188
81st 54 263
82nd 48 234

1946 election

In the 1946 mid-term elections, Truman's Democrats suffered losses in both houses of Congress. Republicans, who had not controlled a chamber of Congress since the 1932 elections, took control of both the House and the Senate. Truman's party was hurt by a disappointing postwar economy.[107] The election was a major blow to Truman's hopes of passing his domestic policies.[108] Truman strongly criticized the subsequent 80th United States Congress as a "Do Nothing Congress."[107]

1948 election

The 1948 presidential election is remembered for Truman's stunning come-from-behind victory.[109] In the spring of 1948, Truman's public approval rating stood at 36%,[110] and the president was nearly universally regarded as incapable of winning the general election. The "New Deal" operatives within the party—including FDR's son James—tried to swing the Democratic nomination to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a highly popular figure whose political views and party affiliation were totally unknown. Eisenhower emphatically refused to accept, and Truman outflanked opponents to his nomination.[109]

Man in gray suit and wire glasses holding newspaper that says "Dewey Defeats Truman"
Truman was so widely expected to lose the 1948 election that the Chicago Tribune had printed papers with this incorrect headline before all the returns were in.

At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Truman attempted to unify the party with a vague civil rights plank in the party platform. His intention was to assuage the internal conflicts between the northern and southern wings of his party. Events overtook his efforts. A sharp address given by Mayor Hubert Humphrey of Minneapolis—as well as the local political interests of a number of urban bosses—convinced the Convention to adopt a stronger civil rights plank, which Truman approved wholeheartedly. All of Alabama's delegates, and a portion of Mississippi's, walked out of the convention in protest.[111] Unfazed, Truman delivered an aggressive acceptance speech attacking the 80th Congress, which Truman called the "Do Nothing Congress,"[80] and promising to win the election and "make these Republicans like it."[112]

Within two weeks of the convention, in 1948 Truman issued Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the U.S. Armed Services[113][114][115] and Executive Order 9980 to integrate federal agencies. Truman took a considerable political risk in backing civil rights, and many seasoned Democrats were concerned that the loss of Dixiecrat support might destroy the Democratic Party. South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, a segregationist, declared his candidacy for the presidency on a Dixiecrat ticket and led a full-scale revolt of Southern "states' rights" proponents. This rebellion on the right was matched by one on the left, led by Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket. Immediately after its first post-FDR convention, the Democratic Party seemed to be disintegrating. Victory in November seemed unlikely as the party was not simply split but divided three ways.[116] For his running mate, Truman accepted Kentucky Senator Alben W. Barkley, though he really wanted Justice William O. Douglas, who turned down the nomination.[117]

Truman's political advisors described the political scene as "one unholy, confusing cacophony." They told Truman to speak directly to the people, in a personal way.[118] Campaign manager William J. Bray said Truman took this advice, and spoke personally and passionately, sometimes even setting aside his notes to talk to Americans "of everything that is in my heart and soul."[119]

The campaign was a 21,928-mile (35,290 km) presidential odyssey.[120] In a personal appeal to the nation, Truman crisscrossed the U.S. by train; his "whistle stop" speeches from the rear platform of the observation car, Ferdinand Magellan, came to represent his campaign. His combative appearances, such as those at the town square of Harrisburg, Illinois, captured the popular imagination and drew huge crowds. Six stops in Michigan drew a combined half-million people;[121] a full million turned out for a New York City ticker-tape parade.[122]

The large, mostly spontaneous gatherings at Truman's whistle-stop events were an important sign of a change in momentum in the campaign, but this shift went virtually unnoticed by the national press corps. It continued reporting Republican Thomas Dewey's apparent impending victory as a certainty. One reason for the press' inaccurate projection was that polls were conducted primarily by telephone, but many people, including much of Truman's populist base, did not yet own a telephone.[123] This skewed the data to indicate a stronger support base for Dewey than existed. An unintended and undetected projection error may have contributed to the perception of Truman's bleak chances. The three major polling organizations stopped polling well before the November 2 election date—Roper in September, and Crossley and Gallup in October—thus failing to measure the period when Truman appears to have surged past Dewey.[124][125]

1948 electoral vote results.

In the end, Truman held his progressive Midwestern base, won most of the Southern states despite the civil rights plank, and squeaked through with narrow victories in a few critical states, notably Ohio, California, and Illinois. The final tally showed that the president had secured 303 electoral votes, Dewey 189, Thurmond 39, and Henry Wallace 0. Truman's Democrats also re-took control of the House and the Senate. The defining image of the campaign came after Election Day, when an ecstatic Truman held aloft the erroneous front page of the Chicago Tribune with a huge headline proclaiming "Dewey Defeats Truman."[126]

1950 election

In Truman's second mid-term election, Republicans again picked up seats in both houses of Congress. However, unlike the 1946 elections, Democrats retained control of Congress. Republicans ran against Truman's proposed domestic policies and his handling of the Korean War.[127]

1952 election

For more details on this topic, see United States presidential election, 1952.
Three men at a desk reviewing a document
From left: President Harry S. Truman, Vice Presidential nominee, Alabama Senator John J. Sparkman and presidential nominee, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. Oval Office, 1952

At the time of the 1952 New Hampshire primary, no candidate had won Truman's backing, and Truman had not stated whether he would seek re-election. Although a Constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms had been ratified in 1951, Truman could run for another term due to a grandfather clause in the amendment. Truman's first choice to succeed him, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, had declined to run; Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson had also turned Truman down, Vice President Barkley was considered too old,[128][129] and Truman distrusted and disliked Senator Kefauver, who had made a name for himself by his investigations of the Truman administration scandals. Truman had hoped to recruit General Eisenhower as a Democratic candidate, but found him more interested in seeking the Republican nomination. Accordingly, Truman let his name be entered in the New Hampshire primary by supporters. The highly unpopular Truman was handily defeated by Kefauver; 18 days later the president announced he would not seek a second full term. Truman was eventually able to persuade Stevenson to run, and the governor gained the nomination at the 1952 Democratic National Convention.[130]

Harry S. Truman's Farewell Address
Harry S. Truman's speech on leaving office, and returning home to Independence, Missouri. (January 15, 1953)

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Eisenhower gained the Republican nomination, with Senator Nixon as his running mate, and campaigned against what he denounced as Truman's failures: "Korea, Communism and Corruption". He pledged to clean up the "mess in Washington," and promised to "go to Korea."[128][129] Eisenhower defeated Stevenson decisively in the general election, ending 20 years of Democratic presidents. While Truman and Eisenhower had previously been good friends, Truman felt betrayed that Eisenhower did not denounce Joseph McCarthy during the campaign.[131] Similarly, Eisenhower was outraged when Truman, who made a whistlestop tour in support of Stevenson, accused the former general of disregarding "sinister forces ... Anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-foreignism" within the Republican Party.[132] Eisenhower was so outraged he threatened not to make the customary ride down Pennsylvania Avenue with the departing president before the inauguration, but to meet Truman at the steps to the Capitol, where the swearing-in takes place.[132] Republicans also took control of the House and the Senate, giving them control of Congress and the presidency for the first time since the 1930 elections.


Man in suit sitting behind desk with sign that says "The buck stops here"
Truman poses in 1959 at the recreation of the Truman Oval Office at the Truman Library in 1959, with the famous "The Buck Stops Here" sign on his desk. (The reverse of the sign says, "I'm From Missouri".)

When he left office in 1953, Truman was one of the most unpopular chief executives in history. His job approval rating of 22% in the Gallup Poll of February 1952 was lower than Richard Nixon's 24% in August 1974, the month that Nixon resigned. Citing continuing divisions within the Democratic Party, the ongoing Cold War, and the boom and bust cycle, an American Political Science Association prize-winning 1952 book stated that "after seven years of Truman's hectic, even furious, activity the nation seemed to be about on the same general spot as when he first came to office ... Nowhere in the whole Truman record can one point to a single, decisive break-through ... All his skills and energies—and he was among our hardest-working Presidents—were directed to standing still".[133] However, American public feeling towards Truman grew steadily warmer with the passing years; as early as 1962, a poll of 75 historians conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. ranked Truman among the "near great" presidents. Truman has always fared well in polls of political scientists and historians, never ranking lower than ninth, and ranking as high as fifth in a C-SPAN poll in 2009.[134]

Truman died when the nation was consumed with crises in Vietnam and Watergate, and his death brought a new wave of attention to his political career.[66] During this period, Truman captured the popular imagination, emerging as a kind of political folk hero, a president who was thought to exemplify an integrity and accountability many observers felt was lacking in the Nixon White House. This public reassessment of Truman was aided by the popularity of a book of reminiscences which Truman had told to journalist Merle Miller beginning in 1961, with the agreement that they would not be published until after Truman's death.[135] However, Truman continued to receive criticism. After a review of information available to Truman about the presence of espionage activities in the U.S. government, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that Truman was "almost willfully obtuse" concerning the danger of American communism.[136] In 2010, historian Alonzo Hamby concluded that "Harry Truman remains a controversial president."[137]

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused Truman advocates to claim vindication for Truman's decisions in the postwar period. According to Truman biographer Robert Dallek, "His contribution to victory in the cold war without a devastating nuclear conflict elevated him to the stature of a great or near-great president."[138] The 1992 publication of David McCullough's favorable biography of Truman further cemented the view of Truman as a highly regarded Chief Executive.[138] According to historian Daniel R. McCoy in his book on the Truman presidency,

Harry Truman himself gave a strong and far-from-incorrect impression of being a tough, concerned and direct leader. He was occasionally vulgar, often partisan, and usually nationalistic ... On his own terms, Truman can be seen as having prevented the coming of a third world war and having preserved from Communist oppression much of what he called the free world. Yet clearly he largely failed to achieve his Wilsonian aim of securing perpetual peace, making the world safe for democracy, and advancing opportunities for individual development internationally.[139]

See also


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  8. Dallek 2008, pp. 19–20.
  9. Reynolds 2005.
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  48. Evans, p. 324.
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  59. Truman Library, Memo 1950.
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  124. Bennett 2012.
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  126. Jones 1948.
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  128. 1 2 McCullough 1992, p. 887.
  129. 1 2 Ambrose 1983, p. 515.
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  131. Time November 10, 2008.
  132. 1 2 Dallek 2008, p. 144.
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  139. McCoy 1984, pp. 318–19.

Further reading

Primary sources

U.S. Presidential Administrations
Preceded by
F. D. Roosevelt
Truman Presidency
Succeeded by
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