Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, was born in Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884. He did not attend a traditional school until the age of eight, and he never achieved a college degree. Instead, most of his education came from his mother, who guided him as he pursued his interests: reading, playing the piano, and studying history, especially the history of the places and events mentioned in the Bible.
As he reached adulthood, Truman pursued a number of occupations before joining the Missouri National Guard in 1905. When America entered World War I, he helped to organize a regiment of field artillery which saw service in France. Truman was promoted to the rank of captain and placed in command of a battery known as the “Dizzy D” because of its lack of discipline. Truman’s unyielding insistence on obedience did not earn him any great favor among his men, but his bravery eventually won their respect.
On his return from overseas, Truman became involved in politics, largely through the influence of a fellow service member who happened to be the nephew of Tom Pendergast, the head of the Kansas City, Missouri, political machine. Truman was first elected judge of a county court, a role similar to that of county commissioner in other states.
In 1934, Truman was elected to the United States Senate. He admitted to being “as timid as a country boy arriving on the campus of a great university for his first year,” but he quickly learned the routine. Truman soon noticed that there were two types of senators: those who attracted attention and accomplished little, and those who kept quiet and accomplished much. Truman decided that he wanted to be the latter type of senator.
Accordingly, he threw himself heart and soul into committee work, researching every matter before him thoroughly. Truman was first appointed to the Interstate Commerce Committee. During World War II he helped to create the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, popularly known as the Truman Committee. In this committee, Truman’s role was to keep an eye out for waste and corruption, but he also took care not to work against President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His goal was to ensure that both public and private sectors cooperated to further the war effort. This role earned Truman the respect of the President and his advisers.
When it came time for FDR to run for reelection in 1944, the President’s advisers suggested that he choose a new running mate. His failing health caused many to doubt whether he would survive a fourth term, and it was understood that a vote for FDR was essentially a vote for the Vice President. The current Vice President, Henry Wallace, was popular with voters on the far left, but not with more moderate Democrats. Several candidates were discussed for a time, but FDR’s advisers settled on Truman.
At first, Truman did not want to subject himself or his family to the visceral attacks of the campaign trail. He enjoyed his job as a senator. “The Vice President simply presides over the Senate and sits around hoping for a funeral,” he objected. But when FDR remarked, “Well, you tell him that if he wants to break up the Democratic party in the middle of the war, that’s his responsibility,” Truman relented.
Truman took the oath of his new office on January 20, 1945. By this time he had already seen for himself that FDR’s health was weakening rapidly, but the President did not seem to be interested in preparing his new Vice President for his potential task. Truman rarely saw FDR during this time, and he had only the foggiest idea of what steps were being taken to end the war. Reporters soon observed that Truman was thoroughly bored. One of them remarked, “You know, Roosevelt has an awfully good man in that Truman when it comes to dealing with the Senate if he’ll only make use of him.”
This comment was made on April 12, 1945, the day FDR died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Truman had only been a vice president for 82 days when he was sworn in as president and launched into what he later called a “year of decisions.” He had a great deal of research to do, and he had to do it quickly. He called FDR’s cabinet together, asked the members to keep their positions, and promised to listen to their advice. However, he also informed them that he was the President, and he would be making the decisions. In other words, as the famous sign on Truman’s desk read, “The Buck Stops Here.”
Truman oversaw the end of World War II, proclaiming V-E Day on his 61st birthday, May 8, 1945. After an urgent plea to the Japanese government to surrender, he dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then followed up with an air raid. The Japanese finally surrendered on August 14, 1945, thus ending World War II.
However, the end of the war did not signal the start of peace. Quickly America’s relations with the Soviet Union degenerated into a perilous standoff known as the Cold War. On March 12, 1947, the President proclaimed the Truman Doctrine, which promised military aid to countries resisting Communism. A few months later the Marshall Plan added economic aid to the equation. Truman proved as good as his word in 1948 by supplying Berlin with a massive airlift during a Communist blockade. He also created the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the United States Air Force.
Although foreign policy was the key feature of Truman’s first term, he faced a number of domestic issues, as well, such as labor strikes and civil rights controversies. Truman tended to go beyond FDR’s policies in these areas, which split the Democratic Party into three factions: the Democrats supporting Truman, the Progressives supporting Henry Wallace, and the Dixiecrats supporting Strom Thurmond, governor of South Carolina. Most journalists were sure that this divide would clinch a victory for the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, and newspaper headlines were prepared in advance. The outcome of the race is immortalized in the famous photograph of Truman exultantly holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune with “Dewey Defeats Truman” emblazoned across the front page.
Truman’s second term saw a grueling round of battles, both figurative ones at home and literal ones abroad. His underlying domestic policy, known as the “Fair Deal,” was an effort to enlarge FDR’s New Deal in order to reach more people with more services. Key features of Truman’s 21-point program were public housing projects, civil rights legislation, an expansion of Social Security, and the creation of national healthcare. The Housing Act of 1949 was the only major Fair Deal bill that ever overcame Republican opposition in Congress.
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, however, overshadowed these struggles. When North Korea invaded South Korea that June, Truman ordered a naval blockade to be sent to the area, only to discover that recent budget cuts made this impossible. Truman next turned to the United Nations for help. The UN responded by sending troops to Korea under United States General Douglas MacArthur. These troops quickly pushed their way northward, meeting with success after success, until Communist China launched a surprise attack. By early 1951, the Korean War had devolved into stalemate. General MacArthur proposed attacking Chinese supply bases to break up the gridlock, but Truman was concerned about possible repercussions from both China and the Soviet Union. The dispute grew sharp and led to the dismissal of General MacArthur. This decision and the ongoing stalemate caused Truman’s approval ratings to plummet.
Meanwhile, Communist spies were discovered occupying key positions throughout the administration. Other forms of corruption were exposed, including a case of bribery involving 166 employees of the Internal Revenue Bureau, now the IRS.
Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower made the Korean stalemate and the corruption affairs central issues in his campaign, summing up Truman’s presidency in the words “Korea, Communism, and Corruption” and promising to put Washington back to rights. Truman tentatively entered his name in the New Hampshire primary, but was defeated. 18 days later, he decided not to run for office again. When he retired to Independence, Missouri, on January 20, 1953, it was as one of the most unpopular presidents in history.
However, when Truman died on December 26, 1972, at the age of 88, America was in the depths of another ugly situation involving Vietnam and Watergate. Comparison between Truman and Nixon was inevitable, and the result was highly favorable to Truman. Americans rediscovered his personal integrity and concluded that his administration wasn’t so bad after all.
- Oversaw the close of World War II.
- Participated in the founding of the United Nations.
- Proclaimed the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
- Recognized the nation of Israel.
- Desegregated the armed forces.
- Participated in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
- Oversaw the passage of the Housing Act of 1949.
In His Own Words
- American intervention in foreign affairs: “One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion.”
- United Nations: “If history has taught us anything, it is that aggression anywhere in the world is a threat to the peace everywhere in the world.”
- Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.”
- Israel: “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.”
- Korea: “In the simplest terms, what we are doing in Korea is this: We are trying to prevent a third world war.”
- Equality: “We believe that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God.”
- Progress: “Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace.”
Just the facts in this ThinkQuest.
Harry S. Truman
Wonderful biography from The State Historical Society of Missouri.
Truman, Harry S.
Quick list of offices held from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
Harry S. Truman
Extensive biography for older students from the University of Virginia.
The Truman Committee
Background from the U.S. Senate.
“The Buck Stops Here” Desk Sign
Picture of the sign Truman kept on his desk with explanation from the Truman Library.
Full text and audio of speech.
The Berlin Airlift
Explanation from the U.S. Department of State.
Truman Announced a Fair Deal
Brief explanation from the Library of Congress site for young people.
The Fair Deal
Lengthier than above, but easy to understand for older students.
1948 Truman-Dewey Election
Background from the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers.
Harry Truman’s History Lessons
The supervisory archivist from the Truman Library details nine lessons from history that guided Truman’s decisions. Great read for older students!
Informational worksheets for younger students from the Truman Library.
Fun game for wrapping up.
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
Harry Truman and Independence, Missouri
Excellent lesson plan from the National Park Service. Use the “Continue” button at the bottom to work through the entire contents.
Students create their own motto based on “The Buck Stops Here.” From Crayola.
Harry Truman and the Truman Doctrine
Lesson plan from the Truman Library with seven activities for older students including map work, photo analysis, and discussion questions.
The Berlin Airlift
Active learning ideas from PBS.
The Strategy of Containment
A look at the Truman Doctrine, among others, from the National Endowment of the Humanities.
Analyzing a Political Comic Book Prepared for the 1948 Campaign
Interesting way to learn to spot propaganda.
Treaty of San Francisco: A Unit Study
Our own unit study that looks at the end of WWII.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Harry S. Truman
Coloring page from White House Kids.
Harry S. Truman Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, and/or wrapping up.