By John Wade
Today is Presidents’ Day, the day we celebrate the men who have led our great country.This year we should, in particular, honor the Show-Me State president, Harry S. Truman; he was born in Missouri 130 years ago this year and grew up in Independence.
Truman proved the maxim that “anyone can grow up to be president,” for he was one of the most unlikely men to ever land in the oval office. Unlike many of our past leaders, Truman didn’t come from a prominent, politically connected family. He was the son of a poor Missouri farmer and mule trader and Harry struggled to earn a living for much of his early life. In addition, while other twentieth century presidents were by and large an educated lot, with many of them graduating from America’s top universities, Harry was the only president since William McKinley who didn’t graduate from college.
Furthermore, Harry Truman didn’t look the part. He only stood at 5-feet 9-inches (we tend to like our presidents tall), weighed only 167 pounds, and wore thick glasses because he was very nearsighted. He looked more like an insurance salesman than Commander-in-Chief. When Harry entered politics, he became the protégé of Thomas Pendergast, the Democratic Party boss of Kansas City who was connected to bootlegging and gambling. Pendergast was also known to fix an election from time to time before he went to prison for income tax evasion. This wasn’t the kind of guy that a future president would want in his corner.
Despite these handicaps, Truman had confidence in himself. In a written marriage proposal to Bess (yes, he first proposed to his wife in a letter), he admitted that he was struggling but added, “I’ve always had a sneakin’ notion I’d amount to something.” And he did.
Harry Truman educated himself by reading. He overcame the Pendergast taint by proving to be an exceedingly honest man. Although he still looked like a salesman, he appealed to the common man with his, honesty, plain talk and inner toughness.
Harry worked on the family farm until he joined the Missouri Army National Guard and became a captain of an artillery regiment, which fought with distinction during World War I. Truman was the only American president to see action during that war.
After the war, the future president opened a haberdashery in Kansas City which went bankrupt. Then, since business didn’t seem to be his calling, Truman turned to politics. With the aid of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City, Truman was elected to a number of county administrative positions. In 1934, he was elected to the US senate from Missouri, though some referred to him as “the senator from Pendergast.” His first term was unremarkable but during his second term, Truman became chairman of a special committee to investigate the National Defense Program. This task force, which became known as the Truman Committee, exposed waste and corruption in wartime contracts and was reputed to have saved the country $15 billion. It also made Harry Truman a national figure.
In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt began looking for a replacement for Vice President Henry Wallace, who apparently was too liberal even for Roosevelt. Thanks to Truman’s new found national reputation and the support of Robert Hannagan, the former St. Louis Democratic Party Chairman who ended up as the Democratic National Committee Chairman, Roosevelt was persuaded to support the addition of Truman to the ticket.
The Roosevelt-Truman ticket won the election of 1944 easily, but five months later, Roosevelt was dead and the man from Independence was now president. Truman was unprepared, and everyone knew it including himself.
Upon hearing that Roosevelt had died Truman went to Eleanor Roosevelt and asked if there was anything he could do for her. Eleanor’s response was, “Is there anything we can do for you? You are the one in trouble now.” Truman had been vice president for less than three months and during that time Roosevelt had largely ignored him. There were many important military and foreign policy issues to be addressed, but Truman had little foreign policy experience and hadn’t even been informed of the Manhattan Project until after Roosevelt was dead.
As unprepared as he was, he did have certain critical leadership qualities, such as common sense, courage, and decisiveness, and he quickly learned how to be president.
His biographer David McCullough wrote, “In just three months in office, Harry Truman had been faced with a greater surge of history, with larger, more difficult, more far-reaching decisions than any president before him.” In August, he made the difficult decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, which he never doubted was the correct thing to do. He believed it saved both American and Japanese lives.
In 1947 he stood up to the Soviet Union when he outlined the Truman Doctrine, which established America’s policy of containment to stop Soviet expansion around the world. The following year he authorized the Berlin Airlift and recognized the State of Israel on the same day that it became a nation. In 1948, he also commissioned the Marshall Plan which helped to rebuild the Western European economy after the war, and he oversaw the creation of NATO to safe guard Western Europe’s defense. That same year he ordered the desegregation of the US military.
One of his greatest shows of leadership came after North Korea invaded its southern neighbor in 1950. Truman immediately decided to come to South Korea’s aid.
Later when the war ground to a stalemate, Truman looked for a diplomatic solution and refused to let the conflict escalate. Unfortunately the commander of the UN forces in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur was hell bent on starting a war with China, who was North Korea’s ally. MacArthur made a number of public comments about his desire to go to war with China, which the president took as insubordination. Accordingly, Truman fired his extremely popular general. On firing MacArthur, the president said, in typical Truman style,” I didn’t fire him because he was a stupid son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for a general, I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president”.
The public never quite knew what to make of Truman. The American peoples’ opinion of him bounced around like a yo-yo. In June of 1945, the month after Germany surrendered, Truman had an 87 percent approval rating. His approval rating for his first term averaged nearly 56 percent which was higher than Clinton’s or Reagan’s first term average. But despite everything that Truman achieved, his popularity plummeted in his second term. After he fired MacArthur, only 24 percent of the American people had a favorable opinion of him. And by February 1952, with frustration over the war in Korea growing, his job approval rating fell to only 22 percent, which was lower than Nixon’s when he resigned in disgrace.
After Truman left office, historians did not at first rate his presidency very high. But overtime, that view changed dramatically. Today historians rank Truman as one of our best presidents.
So today, let’s remember Missouri’s favorite son, Harry S. Truman, who despite his humble origins turned out to be one of the greatest presidents in American history.