On this day in 1972, Harry S Truman, 33rd President of the United States, passes away peacefully in his beloved Independence, Missouri. Known as “Give ’em Hell Harry,” Truman is most often noted for his plain speaking, use of the atomic bomb in wartime, subsequent generous rebuilding of the Allies’ vanquished enemies, and the Truman Doctrine opposing Communist aggression.
Born in Lamar, Missouri, Truman spent the bulk of his youth on his family’s 600-acre farm near Independence. In the last months of World War I, he served in combat in France as an artillery officer with his National Guard unit. After the war, he briefly owned a haberdashery in Kansas City, Missouri, and joined the Democratic Party and the political machine of Tom Pendergast.
Truman was first elected to public office as a county official in 1922; while the title was “judge,” the function was more administrative than legal. During this time Truman took classes first at the “Spalding’s Commercial College” and then the University of Kansas Law School, failing to attain a degree at both. As such, he is the last POTUS in our history without a Bachelor’s degree. He did, however, play the piano more than passably.
In 1934 Truman was rather foisted onto the national political scene by the Pendergast Machine, as that fixer’s fifth choice in the 1934 Senate primary. Drawing on his experience and contacts as a county official, member of the Masons, military reservist, and American Legionnaire, Truman bested all Democratic rivals and beat the sitting GOP senator by 20 points. In D.C., Truman remained rather anonymous until gaining national prominence as chairman of the Truman Committee, formed in March 1941. This body aimed to find and correct problems such as waste, fraud and inefficiency in federal wartime contracts, and as chair Truman logged 10,000 miles in his personal Dodge, rooting out war-profiteers and keeping such industries honest.
In 1944, uncertain of the perceived far-left proclivities displayed by Vice-President Henry Wallace, FDR’s advisers convinced the fading President to pluck Truman from the bench, and the Roosevelt-Truman ticket pounded Thomas Dewey and the GOP that November, 432-99. Just as swiftly, Truman succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Germany surrendered on Truman’s 61st birthday, just a few weeks later, but the war with Imperial Japan raged on and was expected to last at least another year. Truman approved the use of atomic bombs to end the fighting and to spare American and Japanese lives that would inevitably be lost in the planned invasion of Japan and Japanese-held islands in the Pacific; it is said he had zero regrets in this episode, though critics believe he was signalling to an ascendant USSR as well.
Truman is also known for the Berlin Airlift, establishment of the Truman Doctrine, NATO and the Marshall Plan to stand against Soviet and Chinese communist expansion, for winning a stunning upset re-election bid against Thomas E. Dewey, and for intervening in the Korean War, a new commitment of blood and treasure just 58 months after the end of WW2. In domestic affairs, he was a moderate Democrat whose liberal proposals were a continuation of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but the conservative-dominated Congress blocked most of them. He used the veto power 180 times, more than any president since then, and saw 12 such vetoes overridden by Congress. He also desegregated the US Armed Forces, supported a newly independent Israel, and was a founder of the United Nations.
Truman thankfully remains the only world leader to have used nuclear weapons in war, and is ranked by some historians as the sixth greatest president in US history, behind Eisenhower, ahead of Jefferson.
And here, the lesson of homespun Harry endeth.