Born a country boy, Harry Truman came to the city and outwitted all of the city slickers. Growing up in Independence he was innately religious. But like his mother, he was a light-foot Baptist; he looked upon dancing, card playing, and bourbon drinking with a tolerant eye.
A congenital eye defect condemned him to thick eyeglasses, causing him to be reserved, almost withdrawn, as a boy. He claimed to have read every book in the local library.
He possessed some hard inner kernel of conviction though – partly moral, partly folk wisdom, partly intellectual – but that made him secure.
After serving with distinction in France during World War I as a captain in field artillery, his political career began in 1922, when Kansas City’s Pendergast machine invited him to run for Jackson County judge. Truman served as ably for the 10 of the next 12 years as the highest elected county official.
In 1934 at the age of 50, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. They called him “the senator from Pendergast.”
That snide remark was unfair, because Truman was always his own man. Re-elected in 1940, he soon launched a special Senate committee to investigate defense spending, saving the nation billions of dollars during the hurry and grab of wartime procurement. By 1944 his stature had grown so impressive that Franklin D. Roosevelt chose him as his running mate. But Truman’s tenure as vice president was short lived; in less than three months, Roosevelt was dead.
Truman was ill prepared as president. Roosevelt had not taken him into his inner circle, had not even let him in on the secret of the atom bomb. But Truman soon took command. On his desk he placed a sign: “The buck stops here.” So did pretensions.
When confronted by the great issues, Truman never flinched. One that brought heavy criticism was the decision to drop the atom bomb. As was his practice, Truman listened to both sides of any argument and then decided. Later he recalled, “We faced a half a
million casualties trying to take Japan by land. It was either that or the atom bomb, and I didn’t hesitate a minute, and I’ve never lost any sleep over it since.”
Following World War II, the president proclaimed the Truman Doctrine, and initiated the Marshall plan for economic revival of Europe, which probably staved off imminent revolution in some countries and provided Western Europe with the means to rebuild.
At home, Truman was less successful, facing post war shortages, inflation and strikes. When it came time for re-election his popularity was at a low ebb. Panicky party strategists bolted, the Democratic left had deserted to third-party candidate Henry Wallace, the South to Strom Thurmond’s States Rights party. The country figured Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, would take the White House.
Then, without major money or support, Truman set out on his famous whistlestop election tour across the country. At each stop he lambasted the “do-nothing” Republican Congress for failing to address the nation’s post-war ills.”Give ’em hell, Harry!” the crowds cried.
Not until mid-morning on the day after the election did an amazed nation learn that Truman had scored the greatest upset in U.S. election history.
Reference: “Great People of the 20th Century,” published by Time Books.
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