Harry S. Truman

A Biography of the 33rd President of the United States

Picture of Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States.
Portrait of U.S. President Harry S Truman. (circa 1945). (Photo by American Stock/Getty Images)

Who Was Harry S. Truman?

Harry Truman became the 33rd President of the United States following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. Little-known when he first took office, Truman gained respect for his role in the development of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, as well as for his leadership during the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War. His controversial decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan is one that he always defended as a necessity.

Dates: May 8, 1884 - December 26, 1972

Also Known As: "Give 'Em Hell Harry," "The Man From Independence"

The Early Years of Harry Truman

Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884 in the town of Lamar, Missouri, to John Truman and Martha Young. His middle name, the letter "S," was a compromise made between his parents, who could not agree upon which grandfather's name to use.

John Truman worked as a mule trader and later as a farmer, frequently moving the family to small towns in Missouri. They settled in Independence when Truman was six. It soon became apparent that young Harry needed glasses. Banned from sports or any activity that might break his glasses, he became a voracious reader.

Hardworking Harry

After graduating from high school in 1901, Truman worked as a timekeeper for the railroad and later as a bank clerk. He had always hoped to go to college, but his family could not afford tuition. More disappointing still, Truman learned that he was ineligible for a scholarship to West Point because of his poor eyesight.

When his father needed help on the family farm, Truman quit his job and returned home. He worked on the farm from 1906 to 1917.

A Long Courtship

Moving back home had one very attractive benefit -- proximity to childhood acquaintance Bess Wallace. Truman had first met Bess at age six, and had been smitten by her from the start. Bess came from one of the wealthiest families in Independence, and Harry Truman, the son of a farmer, had never dared pursue her.

After a chance encounter in Independence, Truman and Bess began a courtship that lasted nine years. She finally accepted Truman's proposal in 1917, but before they could make wedding plans, World War I intervened. Harry Truman enlisted in the Army, entering as a first lieutenant.

Shaped by WWI

Truman arrived in France in April 1918. He found that he had a talent for leadership, and was soon promoted to captain. Placed in charge of a group of rowdy artillery soldiers, Captain Truman made it clear to his men that he would not tolerate misbehavior.

That firm, no-nonsense approach would become the trademark style of his presidency. The soldiers came to respect their tough commander, who steered them through the war without the loss of a single man. Truman returned to the U.S. in April 1919, and married Bess in June.

Making a Living

Truman and his new wife moved into her mother's large home in Independence. (Mrs. Wallace, who never approved of her daughter's marriage to "a farmer," would live with the couple until her death 33 years later.)

Never fond of farming, Truman was determined to become a businessman. He opened a haberdashery (men's clothing store) in nearby Kansas City with an army buddy. The business was very successful at first, but failed after only three years. At 38, Truman had succeeded at few endeavors aside from his wartime service. Anxious to find something he was good at, he looked to politics.

Truman Throws His Hat Into the Ring

Truman ran successfully for Jackson County judge in 1922. He became well-known for his honesty and strong work ethic. During his term, he became a father in 1924 when daughter Mary Margaret was born.

When his second term expired in 1934, Truman was courted by the Missouri Democratic Party to run for the U.S. Senate. He rose to the challenge, campaigning tirelessly across the state. Despite poor public speaking skills, he impressed voters with his folksy style and record of service as a soldier and a judge. He soundly defeated the Republican candidate.

Senator Truman

Working in the Senate was the job Truman had waited for his entire life. He took a leading role in investigating wasteful spending by the War Department, earning the respect of fellow senators and impressing President Franklin D. Roosevelt as well. He was re-elected in 1940.

As the 1944 election drew near, Democratic leaders sought a replacement for Vice President Henry Wallace. FDR himself requested Harry Truman; FDR then won his fourth term with Truman on the ticket.

Roosevelt Dies

FDR, in poor health and suffering from exhaustion, died on April 12, 1945, only three months into his term, making Harry Truman the president of the United States.

Thrust into the limelight, Truman found himself facing some of the greatest challenges encountered by any 20th-century president. WWII was drawing to a close in Europe, but the war in the Pacific was far from over.

Atomic Bomb Unleashed

Truman learned in July 1945 that scientists working for the U.S. government had successfully tested an atomic bomb in New Mexico. After much deliberation, Truman decided that the only way to end the war in the Pacific would be to drop the bomb on Japan.

Truman issued a warning to the Japanese demanding their surrender, but those demands were not met. Two bombs were dropped, the first on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the second three days later on Nagasaki. In the face of such utter destruction, the Japanese finally surrendered.

Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan

As European countries struggled financially following WWII, Truman recognized their need for both economic and military aid. He knew that a weakened state would be more vulnerable to the threat of communism, so he pledged that U.S. policy would support those nations coming under such a threat. Truman's plan was called "The Truman Doctrine."

Truman's secretary of state, George C. Marshall, believed that the struggling nations could only survive if the U.S. supplied the resources needed to return them to self-sufficiency. The Marshall Plan, passed by Congress in 1948, provided for the materials needed to rebuild factories, homes, and farms.

Berlin Blockade and Re-election in 1948

In the summer of 1948, the Soviet Union set up a blockade to keep supplies from entering Berlin by truck, train, or boat. The blockade was intended to force Berlin into dependence upon the communist regime. Truman stood firm against the Soviets, ordering that the supplies be delivered by air. The "Berlin airlift" continued for nearly a year, when the Soviets finally gave up the blockade.

In the meantime, despite a poor showing in opinion polls, President Truman was re-elected, surprising many by defeating popular Republican Thomas Dewey.

The Korean Conflict

When Communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, Truman weighed his decision carefully. Korea was a small country, but Truman feared that communists, left unchecked, would continue invading other countries.

Truman decided to act swiftly. Within days, U.N. troops were ordered to the area. The Korean War lasted until 1953, after Truman had left office. The threat had been contained, but North Korea remains under communist control today.

Back To Independence

Truman chose not to run for re-election in 1952. He and Bess returned to their home in Independence, Missouri in 1953. Truman enjoyed the return to private life and busied himself with writing his memoirs and planning his presidential library. He died at the age of 88 on December 26, 1972.