While visiting Harry Truman in the closing months of his presidency, Sir Winston Churchill spoke bluntly yet generously: “The last time you and I sat across a conference table was at Potsdam (in July 1945). … I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard. I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.”
If Churchill was wrong at first, so were most of his contemporaries. He was, in fact, some years ahead of other historians in his re-evaluation. Truman was one of those public men whose reputations flourished only after years of retirement. His nondescript appearance, his shoot-from-the-hip partisanship, his taste for mediocre cronies – all the things that in his time led some to consider him too small for the office – have dwindled in importance with the passing decades.
What has loomed larger is a sense of the man’s courage, a realization that he faced and made more great decisions than most other presidents. It was Harry Truman who decided to drop the atom bomb. It was the Truman Doctrine that shattered the long U.S. tradition of peacetime isolation by supporting Greece and Turkey against communist threats. It was Truman’s Marshall Plan that committed U.S. resources to the rebuilding of Europe. Later Truman defied the Soviet blockade of Berlin and risked war by authorizing the airlift. He met North Korea’s invasion of South Korea by ordering U.S. forces into the field – then fired the legendary general who opposed his commander in chief’s strategy.
Harry Truman was a country boy of legend who comes to the big city and outwits all the slickers. Like his mother, he was a light-foot Baptist; he looked upon dancing, card playing, bourbon drinking with a tolerant eye. He wore his provincialism as proudly as he would later wear his garish sport shirts. He possessed some hard inner kernel of conviction – partly moral, partly folk wisdom, partly intellectual – that made him secure.
Though born provincial, he was not born poor; the family farm ran to hundreds of acres. But wheat futures tanked just when young Harry graduated from high school in 1901, and college was out of the question. Poor eyes committed him to thick glasses, which made him reserved, almost withdrawn as a youngster. However he claimed to have read nearly every book in the local library.
After serving with distinction in France during World War I as a captain in the field artillery, he married his childhood sweetheart, Bess Wallace, and invested his life savings of $15,000 in a haberdashery with an army buddy in downtown Kansas City. They prospered briefly but crashed like so many others during the depression of 1922. Truman paid off all of the debits, though it took many years to do so.
His political career began in 1922 when the brother of Kansas City’s political boss, Tom Pendergast, asked Truman to run for judge in Jackson County. Pendergast’s nephew had served in Truman’s regiment and admired him. Truman served as an able judge for 10 of the next 12 years. As the highest elected official in the county, he dealt with roads, hospitals and political patronage. 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 as Truman was always his own man. As a re-elected senator, in his second term, he launched a special committee to investigate defense spending, saving the nation billions of dollars during the huge hurry and grab of wartime procurement.
The rest is history.
Reference: “Great People of the 20th Century,” by Time.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell send an email to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-3592.