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Harry S. Truman: the extraordinary ordinary man.

Stephen Goode is a writer for Insight magazine.

Harry S. Truman, America's thirty-third president, got the familiar names he's known by during the first few days of his presidency, and they've stuck ever since. The Common Man as President, for example, and the Man of the People in the White House. Roy Roberts, managing editor of the Kansas City Star, was one of the first newspapermen to describe him so, to a public that really didn't know much about him. "The new president is an average man," he wrote on April 13, 1945, the day after Franklin Delano Roosevelt died and Truman was sworn in as the new president.

Other newspapers and magazines followed suit. The new guy in the White House was just like everyone else, more or less. A family man, neither rich nor poor. A man who got up in the morning and had to go to work, and who wasn't particularly distinguished. A man who cared for family and wrote his mother regularly, even when his job as senator and later as president took him away from Missouri.

Truman himself was comfortable with the description: Indeed, the new president did much to cultivate his image as someone not so very special, despite the great decisions he was called upon to make--dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, for example, or recognizing Israel in 1948 and using the power and prestige of the United States to bring the new Jewish state into existence. What the big decisions he made revealed was that he was a man of uncommonly strong character, although Truman himself wouldn't have said so. They were just things he had to do.

In a 1941 letter to his beloved daughter Margaret, written when he was a U.S. senator from Missouri, Truman described himself as "just a country jake who works at the job." And in the 1960s to writer Merle Miller, who interviewed Truman in retirement for a TV special that never came off, he called himself "just an old Missouri farmer."

It wasn't a pose. About the worst thing a man could do, Truman often said throughout his life, was to think himself better than he really was or--put another way--to forget where he'd come from and who his forebears were. He fulminated loudly against men and women in the nation's capital who caught what he called "Potomac fever" and thought of themselves as so special the country couldn't do without them.


Truman never forgot that his ancestors had been Missouri farmers and that for more than a decade before he went off to World War I, he too had farmed, stood behind the back end of mules as he plowed his family's property, but hadn't really made a go of it.

It was an image Truman wisely pursued. Compared with the aristocratic, witty, and debonair Roosevelt, a very popular president, Truman did seem a country rube, a bit crude, and more than a touch unpolished in his double-breasted suits, with handkerchief neatly folded in the left-breast pocket, bad ties, and white shirts that had been bought where most other American guys bought their white shirts--Montgomery Wards, say, or Sears Roebuck.

Against FDR's polish, Truman knew he could not compete and didn't. His innumerable critics hated it when he sent a letter lambasting Washington Post music critic Paul Hume, who on December 6, 1950, criticized a singing performance by his daughter Margaret. (Hume also happens to be the author of one of the best books about her father's music.) While conceding that she was "extremely attractive," Hume stated that "Miss Truman cannot sing very well" and "has not improved" over the years. In his letter her father wrote:

"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."

Truman's critics said it was beneath the dignity of a president to do such things. The American people disagreed: More than 80 percent of the mail to the White House after the president's letter supported a father's right to defend his daughter--as Truman had predicted it would to White House aides who scolded him for sending the letter.

It would be a mistake, however, to take Truman's image as an ordinary man very far. He was also a man who loved music and could play works by Mozart or Chopin, who was his favorite, and he kept a piano in his White House office.


And he was impressively well read, particularly in history. Truman didn't go to college; his family couldn't afford it. But he was a man at ease reading Thucydides to his grandsons, and he often boasted that he'd read all three thousand books in the Independence, Missouri, library by the time he was a teenager (he always said that by that time he'd also read through the family's King James Bible three times). What's more, he made the claim that he remembered what he'd read, which was no lie. Throughout his life, the men and women closest to him were impressed by his erudition.

But many newspaper people, particularly in the beginning, were not. In what proved to be a mistake of major proportions, Time magazine predicted the week after he became president that "Harry Truman is a man of distinct limitations, especially inexperience in high level politics. He knows his limitations. ... In his administration there are likely to be few innovations and little experimentation."

Time was right on one count: The new president did know his limitations. But the newsmagazine fell short on predicting the course of Truman's years as president, for not only did he offer America more than a few innovations in government but he set new goals in domestic policy, including health care and other welfare measures. And far more than any previous president except Lincoln, Truman, born at a time when segregation sympathies predominated in his state, began the process of bringing blacks into the social fabric of the nation.

His years as president also set the course for foreign affairs for the next several decades. Under Truman, the United States undertook to shore up Western Europe and other parts of the world against communist aggression through such programs as the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. His time in office also saw the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, the containment of communism on the Korean peninsula during the Korean War, the creation of the nation of Israel, and the emergence of the United Nations as a force in world affairs.

His earthy humor--represented by the sign he kept on his desk, "The Buck Stops Here" and his oft-used quip: "If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen"--has become part of American history. Even that most controversial event of his presidency--the firing of the popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination during the Korean War--is looked upon today more as an act of courage on Truman's part. And conservative Republicans, once his most impassioned critics, now number among his most ardent admirers.


Perhaps the nation's fondest historical memory of Truman comes from the election of 1948, one of the greatest upsets in American history and a story that has always resonated with America's love of those times that the underdog comes out on top. Truman always predicted that he was going to win that election, but he was about the only one who thought so. An April 1948 Gallup poll--eight months from election time--gave him a low 36 percent approval rating. New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, the GOP candidate, seemed a shoe-in.

Even Truman's own party leaders didn't want him for the job or thought he couldn't be elected--a rejection that cut him to the quick because he admired party loyalty and he was the sitting president. (Indeed, his party loyalty was so strong that at times it blinded him to things such as the number of active Soviet spies in Washington during his administration. He refused to think it true, partly because the people he despised--conservative Republicans--said it was true, and partly because some of the spies, such as Alger Hiss, were Democrats.)

Moreover, the Democratic Party in 1948 was split three ways: There was Truman, but also a left wing had split off to form the Progressive Party, with Henry Wallace as its candidate. And right-wing Dixiecrats had formed a party with Strom Thurmond, then governor of South Carolina, as its candidate.

As he usually did when facing a problem, Truman came out fighting. During the 1948 campaign he traveled 31,700 miles, mostly by train, making "whistle stops" at towns where crowds assembled to hear him speak. He made 356 speeches-- sometimes averaging 10 a day. He spoke to an estimated 12 to 15 million people, campaigning always against what he called the "Do Nothing Congress," which had failed to pass legislation he wanted. Crowds began appearing at his whistle stops, and they grew larger as Election Day neared. Always someone cried out: "Give 'em, hell, Harry." Still, shortly before the election Newsweek, after polling 50 of the best-known political pundits in the nation, ran a story whose headlines shouted "Fifty Political Experts Unanimously Predict a Dewey Victory." Truman, who never let personal problems disturb his sleep, went to bed early on election night. The next day, the vote count showed that he had won just under 50 percent of the vote, with 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189 and Thurmond's 39. It was a David-Goliath victory that legends are made of. In one fell swoop, Truman had proved the experts wrong, dead wrong in their smug confidence that they could interpret the mind of America.


Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, and was named for a favorite uncle. The S. stands for the names of his two grandfathers, Anderson Shippe Truman and Solomon Young. Harry's father, John, was a farmer and businessman. His mother, Martha, was the parent whom the young Harry was closer to. A younger brother, Vivian, and sister, Mary, completed the family.

Martha Truman taught her son to read, restricting his early reading to books of which she approved. His favorite was the four-volume Great Men and Famous Women, which offered biographies of the world's leading men and women. Truman was always to say that biography reading was the best way to learn history. At times, it seemed he read them to improve himself, to learn how to be great. "In reading of the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves," he wrote in a memorandum while president. "Self-discipline with all of them came first."

Martha Truman also saw that Harry had piano lessons. Ethel Noland, Harry's first cousin, underlined the importance of the mother-son relationship in Harry's development. She believed Harry's character had been formed under his mother's careful watch. "Her principles were so sound," she once said. "Her discipline was so fine that greatness seemed to grow out of it."

In late life, Truman always described his rural Missouri childhood as a good time. He would also speak of his biggest burden--nearsightedness so severe that he wore thick glasses from the time he was eight--as something that prevented him from joining the rough and tumble world of boys. "I was something of a sissy," he said. In the place of rough play, he read.

He was good in school but not great. Truman and his friend Charlie Ross, who was to be his press secretary as president, planned to do a translation of works by their favorite Latin author, Cicero. Nothing came of the project. Ross went on to the University of Missouri. Truman, whose father couldn't afford college, had to stay at home. An attempt to get accepted by West Point fell through because of Harry's bad eyesight.

At the age of eighteen, Harry Truman joined the Baptist Church. He also worked as a timekeeper for a construction crew on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, the first of many jobs. He then became a clerk for Kansas City banks, rising from $35 to $120 a month. Truman referred to bank work as a job in "a zoo."

Between 1905 and 1917 Truman tried farming with his father. Then he served as a lieutenant in an artillery regiment in World War I, rising to the rank of captain and earning the lifelong respect of the men who served under him for his decency and courage. (In fact, ninety-nine of his men and their wives attended his Inauguration Day breakfast in January 1949--thirty years after the war was over.)

Truman returned home in 1918 to marry Bess Wallace, whom he'd first met at Sunday School when they were kids. He also opened a men's clothing store with Eddie Jacobson in Kansas City--a store that failed miserably in the depression of 1921 and left Truman with debts he wasn't able to pay off for nearly a decade and a half.


Harry Truman was thirty-seven and still hadn't found his niche in life. That came in 1922. One of his war buddies was Jim Pendergast, the nephew of "Big Tom" Pendergast, who happened to be political boss of Kansas City and a man who could make you or break you in Missouri politics. Big Tom decided that Truman's war record and his down-to-earth, just-like-the-other-guy personality were political assets, and they were.

In the elections of 1922, Truman got elected county judge of Jackson County, a position he held, with a two-year break between 1924 and 1926, until 1934 when he was elected Missouri's junior senator to the U.S. Congress (also with Pendergast's help).

Truman proved a popular county judge. He supervised $14 million worth of new projects, including roads (his motto was that no farm in Jackson County would be more than two and a half miles from a paved road) and a new courthouse. Despite his association with a corrupt political machine, Pendergast's reputation never rubbed off on Truman--at least for most Missourians, who perceived him as being clean as a whistle. Harry Truman never disowned his association with Boss Pendergast--even after Pendergast went to jail for income tax evasion; such disloyalty wasn't something he was capable of.

In the Senate, Truman was an ardent advocate of Roosevelt's New Deal, and his affability soon won him entrance to "the club," a group of powerful senators and representatives who met regularly to sip bourbon, play poker, and discuss politics. Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan was a member--Vandenberg would later offer important bipartisan support for Truman after he became president. Members also included Sen. Alben Barkely (of Kentucky), who would be Truman's vice president, Burton Wheeler of Montana, and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas.

Truman's chief claim to fame during his Senate years was his chairmanship of the Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, which the Senate established in 1941--at Truman's instigation--and which became known as the Truman Committee. The committee's efforts saved the country more than $15 billion (a low estimate) and made war production more efficient.

Truman was featured on the cover of Time on March 8, 1943. The magazine dubbed him "the billion dollar watchdog." That same year Roosevelt offered him the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, a position Truman quickly turned down in favor of keeping his job in the Senate. The following year, 1944, Roosevelt gave him the opportunity to run as vice president on FDR's fourth run for the presidency.

Truman accepted, but it was a job he would hold only eighty-three days before FDR died. FDR aide Harry Hopkins said that Roosevelt had had his eye on Truman for several months as a running mate. This may be true. But what is definitely true is that FDR failed to bring his vice president into his confidence. Truman saw FDR seldom, and he wasn't told, for example, about work on the atomic bomb or about the particulars of Soviet-American relations--facts Truman learned on his own after he became president.

Not surprisingly, his early months in office were a harsh learning process in which he floundered for a while but then launched out in new directions in foreign and domestic programs that revealed the grit and feistiness Americans have come to associate with his name.


In March 1946, the British wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, who was now out of office, made a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, at the invitation of Pesident Truman. Churchill used the occasion to introduce the phrase "Iron Curtain" to the world. To the former prime minister, an iron curtain was falling across Europe, separating the East, dominated by the Soviet Union, from the free West.

Churchill warned that confrontation between the United States, Great Britain, and other Western countries was inevitable. Truman wasn't sure at the time that that was true and invited Stalin to come to Missouri like Churchill and present his own case to the world. The Soviet dictator declined the invitation, and the next few months were to change Truman's own belief that a peaceful relationship was possible between the Soviet Union and the West. In a private memo, Truman wrote that he had started out "with the kindliest feelings toward Russia," but added, "In a year and a half they have cured me of it." Elsewhere, he came to describe the Soviet Union as a "Frankenstein dictatorship, worse than any of the others, Hitler included."

What had changed his opinion? In part, it was Stalin's own announcement that war between the capitalist nations and the Soviet Union was inevitable. But mostly it was the dictator's increasingly obvious grasp to expand Soviet power into Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and elsewhere, coupled with the fact that the nations of Western Europe--France, West Germany, and Italy, as well as Great Britain--were in weakened condition following the war and were vulnerable to Soviet expansion.

What to do? Truman's foreign policy evolved as a way to stop Soviet expansion and the fall of further countries to communism. Its first plank appeared on March 12, 1947, when the president announced what has come to be known as the Truman Doctrine. "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures," he declared. Under the Truman Doctrine, American military aid was sent to such places as Greece and Turkey, where armed leftist guerrilla groups fought against established governments friendly to the West.


Asecond plank in Truman's foreign policy came two months later in a speech made by Gen. George Marshall, Truman's secretary of state, at Harvard University's 1947 graduation exercises. Marshall called the plan--which came to be known as the Marshall Plan--a program of "revival" for Europe "so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist." The idea was to so improve the economic well-being of the nations of Western Europe that communism would lose its appeal.

Why call it the Marshall Plan? In part, Truman wanted to honor his secretary of state, a man he deeply admired. But mostly, he explained to friends, he named it the Marshall Plan because he thought it would have a better chance of getting through Congress than something named the Truman Plan. And he may have been right. Dubbed "the most unsordid act in history" by Churchill, the plan called for an expenditure of $17 billion, nearly $7 billion of which would be needed for Europe within one year's time.

The last major portion of Truman's foreign policy was his Point Four program, named because it was the fourth point he made in his inaugural address, and in many ways it was the most altrustic of all of Truman's policies: "We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of undeveloped areas."

In 1950, Truman acted to contain communist aggression yet once again--this time on the Korean peninsula, where communist North Korean (and later Chinese communist) troops invaded the South, an ally of the United States'. Truman worked through the United Nations; an important part of his foreign policy was based on his belief in the importance of the United Nations in settling international disputes.

The commander of UN troops--composed of soldiers from America and other UN countries--was General MacArthur--who wanted to expand the Korean conflict into China. Truman said no, fearing that an attack into China might cause the war to flare into World War III. When MacArthur publicly announced his opposition to the president on several occasions, Truman relieved him of his command.

For Truman's conservative opponents, it was an act of treachery. Republican congressmen invited the general to address a joint session of Congress, which MacArthur did. But the crisis passed. The Korean War--brought to an end after Truman had left the White House and was replaced by his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower--resulted in a stalemate, with South Korea still an American ally and the North still communist-governed.

For many conservative Americans, Truman had acted too late: The nations of Eastern Europe had become satellites of the Soviet Union under his watch. Mainline China, too, had become a communist nation. But in fairness it should be pointed out that Truman's efforts made a difference elsewhere. Western Europe remained free, and the communist juggernaut--which at one time seemed irresistible--had been slowed. John Kennedy's Peace Corps was a direct descendant of Truman's Point Four program, which offered America's expertise to undeveloped countries. No less a figure than Winston Churchill was to reach the conclusion that, because of his foreign policy, Truman, more than any other single individual, was responsible for having "saved Western civilization."


In a January 23, 1946, letter to his mother Truman wrote, with characteristic cockiness: "Big money has too much power and so have the unions--both are riding to a fall because I like neither."

At the end of 1946, Truman had the opportunity to make good on one of his promises when he took advantage of the powers of his office to bring down one of the nation's most powerful union bosses, John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers. Lewis had called a nationwide miners' strike in November, but Truman, fearing that a prolonged strike would harm the nation's fragile postwar economy, went on the air himself to make a personal radio appeal on December 7, the fifth anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, for the miners to return to work for the good of their country. Lewis backed down under this appeal to patriotism, and according to Truman aide Clark Clifford, for the first time the president felt that he had moved fully into his role as president of the United States.

Against "big money," the second adversary Truman mentioned in his letter to his mother, Truman was less successful, though not for want of trying. Shortly after V-J day in 1945, Truman reconvened Congress and handed the House and Senate a twenty-one-point program. At more than sixteen thousand words, it was the longest message sent to Congress by any president since Theodore Roosevelt (who was also an activist, progovernment president) more than forty years before. The twenty-one points included a comprehensive workman's compensation plan. It spoke of creating fair labor practices by outlawing bias and discrimination, asked for the creation of new Tennessee Valley Authorities in different parts of the nation, and talked about an expansion of veterans' benefits. Most ambitious of all, it urged the creation of a federal housing project whose goal was to build 1.5 million new homes each year for the next ten years.

The program had no hope of passing. But in it Truman said he had instituted the "political principles and economic philosophy which I had expressed in the Senate and which I had followed all my political life." Critics in Congress-- Republicans as well as conservative and southern Democrats--called the twenty- one points expensive, and they were. What rankled many opponents, however, was the tremendous expansion of governmental power that Truman advocated.

FDR's New Deal had focused power in Washington to handle problems raised by the Great Depression. Truman was asking for ever greater concentration of power in Washington, not to deal with the severe problems of the Depression but to distribute the wealth of prosperous postwar America more equitably among all its classes, its opponents said.

Truman's Fair Deal--which took shape during and after the 1948 election campaign--was an expansion of his earlier twenty-one points. The Fair Deal included health care, housing, education, and civil rights, all packaged together in a program that the Fair Deal promised would bring the blessings of America to everyone. Critics, however, warned that it would make the United States a welfare state, a socialist nation moving down the road of complete government control of every aspect of life, a government just like that of the Soviet Union.

Truman saw his Fair Deal as a compromise between two extremes. "Between the reactionaries of the extreme left with their talk about revolution and class warfare, and the reactionaries of the extreme right with their hysterical cries of bankruptcy and despair, lies the way of progress," he said.

The Fair Deal failed in a Congress antipathetic to Truman's program but that nonetheless didn't hesitate to expand certain New Deal programs, such as Social Security and the minimum wage. But Truman's Fair Deal still exerted enormous influence later on, in both President John Kennedy's New Frontier and President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Indeed, Johnson traveled to Independence, Missouri, in 1967 so that his Medicare bill could be signed in the presence of Truman, whom he acknowledged as the man responsible for originating the program. Truman was able to advance his civil rights policy, however, through the president's prerogative of executive orders, which don't need congressional approval. Executive Order 8802, for example, abolished segregation in the armed forces. According to EO 10201, contractors doing business with the federal government were no longer allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, or color. And in a touch entirely his own, Truman opened up his 1949 inaugural celebrations to black Americans, the first time that had been done.


In the late 1960s, revisionist historians began denigrating Truman's legacy, arguing that the man from Missouri, more so even than Joseph Stalin, was responsible for the Cold War. Strongly influenced by New Left thinking, the revisionists claimed that, far from being too radical, Truman's Fair Deal hadn't been radical enough.

Today the revisionists themselves have largely been revised. In the hands of such biographers as David McCullough and Alonzo Hanby, the man from Missouri's legacy is seen as mixed but largely positive. Truman did put into place America's Cold War role as the opponent of the Soviet Union and totalitarianism, which led ultimately to the Soviet collapse in 1991. He also set into movement the trend toward government participation in education, health, and almost every other aspect of American life that--for better or worse--has continued until today.

Thirty years ago, historian Clinton Rossiter (who at first did not like the feisty, crude Truman) admitted that he thought Truman belonged a bit below, say, Washington and Lincoln but alongside Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, who have set their imprint on the country to far greater measure than most other presidents. And Rossiter praised Truman for that rarity among presidents: growth while in office to become the great man he was.

Rossiter was probably right. But it was Truman himself who wrote what may be the best short description of his attitude toward the presidency in his memoirs, which he wrote in retirement in his beloved Independence. Watching FDR perform in office, he explained, had convinced him that "being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed. ... I never felt that I could let up for a single moment."


Additional Reading:

Alonzo Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.

Brian Lingham, with contributions by Elise Kirk, Paul Hume, and Henri Temianka, Harry Truman, The Man--His Music. Published in cooperation with the Harry S. Truman Library Institute of Independence, Missouri, and the Kansas City Symphony of Kansas City, Missouri, by the Lowell Press, 1985.

David McCullough, Truman, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992.

Merle Miller, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, G.P.

Putnam's Sons, New York, 1973.

Margaret Truman, Harry S. Truman, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1973. Harry S. Truman's memoirs are in two volumes: Year of Decision (1955) and Year of Trial and Hope (1956).

Revisionist historians on Truman include Athan Theoharis, William Berman, and John Lewis Gaddis.
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Author:Goode, Stephen
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 1999
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