President Truman

Harry S Truman was president of the United States from 1945 until 1953. This period saw the end of the Second World War and the development of the Cold War. How did Truman guide the US through this eventful time? 

President Truman President Truman

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Table of contents

    President Truman’s background

    Truman was born in 1884 in Missouri, where he grew up and worked as a bank teller before going on to manage his family farm. He also served in the First World War as captain of a field artillery unit in France. Upon his return, he married his childhood friend Elizabeth Wallace in 1919.

    President Truman Harry Truman House StudySmarterFig. 1 - Harry Truman's home in Independence, Missouri, where he lived from the time he was married to Bess Wallace (28 June 1919) until his death (26 December 1972). The home, known as the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, has been preserved and is managed by the National Park Service.

    He was a member of the Democratic Party and was elected as County court judge of Jackson County’s eastern district in 1922, backed by the Pendergast political machine (led by Tom Pendergast). He then went on to be elected as its Presiding Judge in 1926, a position he held for eight years, during which he oversaw a public works program.

    Then, in January 1935, he became a member of the US Senate. During his second term in this position, he led an investigation into fraud and waste in the US military known as The Truman Committee. It was this that cast him into the spotlight, as its findings saved $10-15 billion in military spending.

    A political machine in US politics refers to a party organisation led by a boss or small group, which commands enough support to maintain political control of an area by rewarding its supporters.

    Truman’s relationship with the Pendergast machine damaged his reputation. He was nicknamed ‘Senator from Pendergast’ when he entered the US Senate and was seen as a product of the corrupt machine. In 1940 he won re-election without Tom Pendergast’s support, who had recently been convicted of income tax evasion.

    When Pendergast died in 1945, Vice President Truman attended his funeral without hesitation, saying, ‘He was always my friend, and I have always been his’.

    In the 1944 presidential election, Truman ran as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, a position which he won but did not hold for long. On 12 April 1945, Roosevelt died unexpectedly, and Truman became president. At this point, Truman had no foreign policy experience and had not been adequately prepared for this possibility.

    When talking about it, he said that he felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on him.

    President Truman’s first term (1945–49)

    Truman’s first term focused on securing the end of the Second World War and refocusing the US economy from military to civilian purposes. It was also during his first term that the Cold War began. Under Truman, the US played a larger role in international affairs than it had ever done before.

    The End of the Second World War

    When Truman took office, Nazi Germany had not yet officially surrendered, and war in the Pacific was still going on. He helped to arrange Germany’s unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945 and made the final arrangements for the United Nations charter to be drafted in San Francisco.

    In July, Truman travelled to the Potsdam Conference to meet with the other leaders of The Grand Alliance, a wartime alliance between the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR. As the Second World War drew to a close, relations with the communist USSR became increasingly tense as leader Joseph Stalin wanted to expand Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. Truman was a hard-line anti-communist and didn’t want Eastern Europe to become a Soviet sphere of influence. He also had an issue with the communist puppet government that had been installed in Poland after the Soviet Union had agreed to run free elections.

    The United Nations is an international organisation that was formed to protect international peace and security. When it was created, the US, the Soviet Union (USSR), France, Britain, and China were the five permanent members.

    Whilst at the Potsdam Conference, Truman received news that the US had successfully tested an atomic bomb. Military planners anticipated that an invasion of Japan would extend the war for at least a year and result in a high number of American casualties. One estimate was 200,000.

    This contributed to Truman’s decision to send an ultimatum to Japan to surrender or face ‘utter devastation’. When Japan didn’t answer, the US dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively, killing over 100,000 people. Japan surrendered on 14 August, and the Pacific war officially ended on 2 September 1945.

    Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb remains one of the most controversial decisions ever taken by a US president. Historians continue to debate whether it was justified. In simplified terms, ‘traditionalist’ historians tend to argue that bombing was necessary to avoid invasion and save American lives, whilst ‘revisionist’ historians argue that the bombs were unnecessary, and instead dropped as a display of US power, particularly for the Soviet Union to see.

    President Truman in post-war America

    After the end of the war, Truman quickly demobilised the military and began to reconvert the economy into producing civilian goods. He also ended most wartime price control measures in 1946, but this resulted in the prices of consumer products shooting up. Public discontent led to the reintroduction of price controls.

    President Truman also faced issues with labour unions. Labour needs to be declined as the war ended, and overtime hours were no longer available. People were, therefore, earning less, and there was a series of strikes in 1946 demanding higher wages which involved over 4.5 million workers. Truman reacted strongly to end the strikes, damaging his relationship with labour unions. By September 1946, Truman’s overall popularity was only 32%. In 1947, the Republican Congress passed the Taft-Harley bill, which would limit the power of labour unions. Truman vetoed it, but it became law anyway. His opposition to the bill nevertheless regained some support.

    Truman supported the continuation of Roosevelt’s New Deal, a domestic program of economic relief and reform. He vetoed tax bills that would be preferential to the rich and rejected tariff increases on foreign imports. In 1947, Truman declared his support for the Civil Rights Movement when he addressed the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), although legislation to advance civil rights during his tenure was limited. One of the most famous quotes from his speech is:

    There is no justifiable reason for discrimination because of ancestry, or religion, or race, or colour.1

    In his first term, Truman also reorganised the US military and security through the National Security Act (1947). This unified the army, navy and air force; he created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and created the National Security Council (NSC). This council would advise the President on American foreign policy, and came to be very important as the Cold War developed.

    The origins of the Cold War

    With tensions already high between the United States and the Soviet Union, a series of events after the Second World War led to a complete break in relations and the start of the Cold War.

    The first of these was George Kennan's long telegram in February 1946, which argued that the Soviets were pursuing expansionism and must be contained. This was shortly followed by Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech in Missouri in March 1946, which warned of the Soviet take-over in Eastern Europe. These events influenced the direction of Truman’s administration, demonstrated by his dismissal of Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, who rejected the US anti-Soviet stance. From this point, US foreign policy became focused on containment.

    Containment can be defined as a US foreign policy strategy of ‘containing’ or isolating communism to prevent it from spreading to neighbouring countries.

    In March 1947, the President unveiled the Truman Doctrine. He pledged to give US support to countries resisting communism, which began with aid packages to Greece and Turkey, which were unstable and at risk of a communist takeover. It, therefore, became,

    the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.2

    The same year, Secretary of State George Marshall announced what would come to be known as the Marshall Plan: a multi-billion dollar program to aid recovery in Europe. It operated for four years from its introduction on 3 April 1948 and gave approximately $13 billion in foreign aid.

    Tensions came to a head in June 1948 when the Soviet Union blocked all access to Berlin in response to Britain, France, and the US's plan to merge their zones in West Germany. This was called the Berlin Blockade. In response, Truman ordered the Berlin airlift to supply the two million residents of West Berlin until the blockade ended in May 1949. He also sent bomber planes to bases in Britain to warn the Soviet Union.

    President Truman wins re-election

    The odds of Truman winning the 1948 presidential election seemed low. Everyone expected Dewey to defeat him. Thomas Dewey was the Republican candidate in the election, and polling suggested he would win, yet Truman held on to the presidency.

    The odds were stacked against him as, for one, the Republican triumph in the congressional elections of 1946 suggested that the public was tired of the reform introduced by the Democratic party. Personally, Truman also struggled to gain support from members of his own party. Liberal Democrats did not agree with his hard-line approach to the Soviet Union, and many instead supported the Progressive Party candidate Harry Wallace. Southern delegates, in turn, disapproved of his civil rights stance and supported Storm Thurmond, the States’ Rights candidate.

    However, after vigorous campaigning against Republican conservative policies and further embracing the civil rights cause by desegregating the military and outlawing discrimination in the civil service, Truman won a second term with 49% of the popular vote.

    President Truman’s second term (1949–53)

    Truman’s second term was no less eventful than his first as he continued to face issues both at home and abroad. We will first look at Cold War developments, as these influenced domestic as well as foreign policy.

    Foreign policy

    The first key development of this period was the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in April 1949. It was created by the US, Canada, and several Western European nations to provide collective security against attacks by the Soviet Union. Later in 1949, Truman also proposed a program to provide aid to build Western European military defences. This was called the Mutual Defence Assistance Program.

    A huge blow came on 1 October 1949, when the Chinese communists won the civil war against the nationalists and established the communist People's Republic of China. This came shortly after the first successful test of the atomic bomb by the Soviet Union, and these events combined to make people think the US was ‘losing’ the Cold War. Truman elevated US military production, approving the development of the hydrogen bomb in January 1950. He also approved a document created by the National Security Council called the NSC-68, which emphasised the need for a massive buildup of US military forces.

    Elsewhere in Asia, the US was enacting widespread reforms in Japan headed by General Douglas MacArthur. The recovery and reformation of Japan took place from 1945 to 1952, and their new constitution was built on the same ideals included in the American Constitution. MacArthur also led troops in the Korean War from 1950-to 1953, involvement in which earned Truman a lot of criticism.

    The Korean War was the first major conflict of the Cold War. After being split into two separate countries after the Second World War, communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. Truman brought the matter to the United Nations, and 16 countries sent troops, but it was largely a US operation, led by MacArthur. It was effectively a proxy war between the US and the USSR, who in turn supported North Korea.

    When the fighting had stabilised in 1951, Truman wanted to negotiate a peace treaty, but MacArthur wanted to extend the war to China and was thus removed by Truman. The war cost over 33,000 American lives and dragged on until mid-1953.

    Domestic policy

    After winning the 1948 election, Truman attempted to introduce his domestic reform program known as the Fair Deal. The Fair Deal comprised the following elements:

    • An increase in the minimum wage.
    • An expansion of public housing.
    • Federal protection for civil rights.
    • National health insurance.
    • Increased funding for education.
    • Liberalised immigration laws.
    • Economic support for farmers.
    • Repeal of the Taft-Harley Act.
    • Expansion of Social Security.

    However, most of these policies failed to pass due to conservative opposition in Congress. Legislation on civil rights, national health insurance, education aid, and the repeal of the Taft-Harley Act were blocked completely. Indeed, most of his proposed reforms went nowhere, other than an increase in the minimum wage and a public housing and slum-clearance bill in 1949 called the Housing Act, followed by an expansion of Social Security in 1950. Truman’s domestic policy was also restricted by Cold War tensions which absorbed resources and attention.

    In terms of economic policy, Truman aimed to balance the budget through reduced spending and high taxes. However, he gave some tax breaks to businesses in 1949 when the economy stalled, showing that he valued economic growth over balancing the budget. Truman mobilised the economy for the Korean war efforts but this ended up backfiring due to disputes between workers and management in the steel industry. The President resorted to seizing the industry and running it under government control in 1952 which later that same year was ruled unconstitutional.

    Fears of communism

    After the Second World War, fears of communism in the United States rose and continued to intensify throughout Truman’s time in office. One of Truman’s first responses to this was to carry out background checks on those that worked in the government with the Federal Employee Loyalty Program introduced in March 1947. This led to thousands of resignations and dismissals.

    The ‘Red Scare’, as it was called, intensified when in 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death. Alger Hiss, an ex-government employee, was also convicted of perjury.

    Senator Joseph McCarthy was a key figure during this period and spearheaded investigations into the US government in search of communists throughout the 1950s. This was known as McCarthyism. President Truman publicly critiqued McCarthy, who fuelled the atmosphere of anti-communist hysteria.

    In response to fears of communism, Congress passed the Internal Security Act in 1950, which severely restricted the political activities of communists in the US. Truman vetoed this on the grounds that it violated civil liberties but it was passed over his veto. Similarly, he vetoed and was overruled regarding the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act that restricted the political activities of recent immigrants to the US.

    Allegations of corruption

    Truman faced accusations of corruption throughout his entire political career. They grew during his presidency as they were powerful weapons for his opponents. Allegations often centred around Truman’s military aide Harry Vaughan, who was shown to seek government favours for friends and businessmen. Just as he was to Tom Pendergast, Truman was Loyal to Vaughan, which appeared to others as if he was condoning actions of corruption.

    Later measures that Truman took to tackle corruption in various levels of the government were overshadowed by other events.

    The end of Truman’s presidency

    By the time of the 1952 presidential election, Truman’s popularity was at an all-time low of 31%. Involvement in the Korean War, allegations of corruption, and the idea that Truman was soft on communism all contributed to his decline in approval.

    He made the decision not to run in the election and Truman’s presidency ended on 20 January 1953. He was replaced by the Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Truman moved back to Missouri and spent the rest of his life overseeing the construction of his presidential library, as well as remaining vocal about political affairs.

    He died on 26 December 1972. His cause of death was simply old age.

    Harry S Truman presidency: a timeline

    DateEvent
    20 January 1945Harry Truman became Vice President
    12 April 1945Truman became President after Franklin Roosevelt's unexpected death
    8 May 1945Germany unconditionally surrendered, ending the Second World War in Europe
    26 June 1945United Nations Charter drafted in San Francisco
    16 July 1945The US successfully tested the first atomic bomb
    17 July-2 August 1945Truman attended the Potsdam Conference
    6 August 1945An atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima
    9 August 1945An atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki
    14 August 1945Japan surrendered
    2 September 1945The Second World War officially ended
    1946Series of workers' strikes in the US
    22 February 1946Kennan's long telegram
    5 March 1946Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech
    12 March 1947Truman first announced the Truman Doctrine
    21 March 1947Truman introduced the Federal Employee Loyalty Program
    5 June 1947George Marshall first announced the Marshall Plan
    23 June 1947Taft-Harley Act came into effect over Truman's veto
    28 June 1947Truman became the first president to address the National Association of Advancement for Coloured People (NAACP)
    26 July 1947Truman signed the National Security Act
    3 April 1948Introduction of the Marshall Plan
    14 May 1948Truman recognised the state of Israel, making the US the first country in the world to do so
    24 June 1948Beginning of the Berlin Blockade and the Berlin Airlift
    4t July 1948Truman pledged to contain communism in Greece and Turkey
    26 July 1948Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military and outlawing discrimination in the civil service
    2 November 1948Truman won re-election
    20 January 1949Truman was inaugurated for the second time
    4 April 1949Creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)
    12 May 1949End of the Berlin Blockade
    15 July 1949Truman signed the Housing Act
    29 August 1949The Soviet Union successfully tested their first atomic bomb
    1 October 1949Establishment of the communist People's Republic of China
    6 October 1949Introduction of the Mutual Defence Assistance Program
    21st January 1950Alger Hiss convicted of perjury
    31 January 1950Truman announces the US would begin developing the hydrogen bomb
    27 June 1950The US entered the Korean War
    28 August 1950Expansion of Social Security
    September 1950Truman signed NSC-68
    23 September 1950Internal Security Act became effective over Truman's veto
    6 March 1951Rosenberg Trials
    1952US occupation and reformation of Japan ended
    8 April 1952Truman seized the steel mills
    2 June 1952The Supreme Court ruled Truman's seizing of the steel mills unconstitutional
    27 June 1952The Immigration and Nationality Act became effective over Truman's veto
    20 January 1953Truman was replaced by Dwight Eisenhower as president

    President Truman’s accomplishments during his presidency

    Truman was president during a particularly turbulent time and faced a lot of criticism for his decisions. Key accomplishments during his presidency, however, include:

    • Bringing the Second World War to an end.

    • Shaping US foreign policy regarding the Cold War.

    • Making some progress concerning civil rights.

    • Ending the Berlin Blockade.

    • Overseeing the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

    • Reorganising the US military under the National Security Act.

    • Implementing some social reform concerning public housing and social security.

    • Overseeing the US development as a nuclear power.

    President Truman quotes

    The following quotes give further insight into Truman’s presidency:

    If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. - June 1941 after Hitler invaded the USSR.3

    I'm tired [of] babying the Soviets. - January 19464

    I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell. - Truman in response to a supporter during his presidential campaign in 1948 when they shouted out ‘Give ’em hell, Harry!’5

    President Truman - Key takeaways

    • Truman was president of the United States during the final stages of the Second World War and the development of the Cold War. Whilst he had no prior experience in foreign policy, this became the main focus of his time in office.
    • His decision to drop bombs on Japan to end the Second World War is the subject of much debate among historians, who disagree whether the use of nuclear weapons was necessary.
    • Truman’s domestic policy program the Fair Deal was not very successful as he faced opposition from conservatives in Congress.
    • President Truman lost support due to his stance on civil rights. He was the first president to address the NAACP and passed some measures to forward the civil rights cause.
    • He was not a very popular president due to disputes with labour unions, fears of communism within the United States, and continued allegations of corruption. This led to a decline in support for not only Truman but also the Democratic party, and Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower won the 1952 presidential elections.

    References

    1. Historic Speeches - President Truman's address before the NAACP. Truman Library Institute. 8 July 2016
    2. Truman Doctrine (1947). National Archives.
    3. D.F. Fleming. The Cold War and its origins, 1917-1960 - volume 1 1917-1950. Copyright year 1961.
    4. Alonzo L. Hamby. Harry S. Truman: Foreign Affairs. Miller Center.
    5. Jim Willard. Trivially Speaking: Harry S. Truman 'told the truth and they thought it was hell'. Loveland Reporter-Herald. 20 July 2019.
    6. Fig. 1 - Harry Truman's home in Independence, Missouri, where he lived from the time he was married to Bess Wallace (28 June 1919) until his death (26 December 1972) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Trumanhist.JPG) by Nationalparks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Nationalparks) Licensed by CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about President Truman

    What was President Truman known for?

    President Truman was known for leading the US through the end of the Second World War and navigating the beginning of the Cold War.

    What did Truman do during the Second World War?

    Initially, Truman was Franklin Roosevelt's Vice President but became President in April 1945. He helped to negotiate Germany's surrender, made the final arrangements for the United Nations charter to be drafted, and attended the Potsdam Conference. He then made the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, which then surrendered ending the war.

    Why did President Truman drop the atomic bomb?

    This is a subject of debate among historians. The invasion of Japan by American forces would have cost thousands of American lives so this is certainly a motivating factor but some historians also argue that it was to display military strength to the Soviet Union.

    How did Harry Truman become president?

    Truman became president when Franklin Roosevelt died on 12 April 1945, as he had been his Vice president.

    How long was Truman president for?

    Truman was president from 12 April 1945 until 20 January 1953.

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