Harry Truman, whose birthday we mark on Monday and whose legacy we continue to explore, debate and celebrate, stands among America’s best presidents.
It is not just that he was at the center of so many decisions that reshaped the world order as the Second World War wound down, a system that brought political freedom and economic prosperity to millions and a measure of peace and security for the West. That system held in place for decades, an era we now recall with fondness.
It’s not just that he believed in the right things but that he acted. He fought for people who work for a living, play by the rules and expect no more than a fair shake from their government, from their community, from their country. He worked, at no little political peril to himself, to advance the cause of civil rights. Those steps might look modest today. In the moment, they weren’t.
Truman knew enough of history – how many presidents have been so steeped in its lessons? – and knew enough of himself to understand his own considerable skills but also the need to surround himself with highly capable people unafraid to tell him the truth. He understood the presidency as obligation as well as opportunity, a job to be done with energy and integrity but ultimately a trust to be held, preserved and passed along. He could check his ego at the door.
He was also the right man for his times, unlikely as that seemed in the moment. He was president in an era when America imagined and did big things, when the electorate and the leadership had a healthy regard for government gaining too much power but also held to the fundamental belief that government – We the People – exists to do things, to serve its citizens, to make things better.
And there is this: Truman never forgot who he was and, as he said, where he was from and where he would go home, Independence. He came from humble roots, he took advantage of the education available to him, and he never stopped reading or learning. He farmed, he tended shop, he led soldiers in battle. All of this shaped him. It led to wisdom.
People who knew him then and people who study him deeply today come back to the same word for Truman – character. He knew right from wrong, he spoke the truth, he was decisive, and he stood his ground. He knew how to navigate among the many imperfect choices that politicians confront and how to find a path to progress, even when progress can be maddeningly slow and uneven.
The great patriotic song “America the Beautiful” speaks of heroes “who more than self their country love” and of “patriot dream that sees beyond the years. Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.” Truman saw beyond the years.
He led in a time of toil, tears, trial and triumph. All of those things can be true at once. He pushed for a better, more just America. That is Truman’s legacy, and that is the work still ahead of us.