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Ted Stillwell: The rise of Senator Truman

The Examiner

In 1922, Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, was elected as one of the three judges of the Jackson County Court (an administrative position), representing the eastern part of the county. 

He was elected presiding judge in 1926, and re-elected in 1930. In that position he had the chief responsibility for expending $60 million in tax funds and bond issues across Jackson County. 

Harry Truman

In 1934, Truman was elected to the United States Senate with nearly 60 percent of the vote. During his first term, he was chairman of a Senate subcommittee that wrote the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and was one of the sponsors of the Transportation Act of 1940. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1940.

On Jan. 15, 1942, Senator Truman presented the first annual report of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. The report denounced the defense mobilization practices of business, labor and government.

Ted Stillwell

Established almost a year earlier at Truman’s request and under his chairmanship, the Truman Committee, as it became known, investigated all aspects of the nation’s World War II industrial mobilization programs. The senator’s main concern was the large number of defense contracts granted to a relatively few big corporations and the lack of consideration accorded smaller businessmen seeking contracts. He also condemned the graft and waste evident in construction projects, especially those involving military camps.

The January 1942 report particularly singled out the Office of Production Management for censure. Created in late 1940, the OPM was charged with overseeing defense production, planning for mobilization and creating new facilities as needed.

Many of the OPM staff were “dollar-a-year” men or “without compensation” – labels given those who remained employed in the private sector while working for the government. Theoretically, the practice enabled government to utilize the best minds available. In actuality, according to the Truman Committee, these men favored big business because that was their background. Echoing Scripture, the report concluded, “No man can honestly serve two masters.”

The committee report also called attention to problems in airplane construction. It attacked the automobile industry for continuing to manufacture civilian transportation instead of moving quickly into war production. Army Air Corps officials, it charged, continually redrew plane designs, for example, changing the number of guns. It described the planes being produced at the time as mediocre at best. Both OPM procurement policies and the military’s supply service, the report stated, must share the blame for the nation’s air inferiority.

Truman had presented the report to President Franklin Roosevelt a few days before it was made public. On Jan. 13, the president announced the creation of the War Production Board to assume oversight of procurement and production. He abolished the OPM a few days later.

The Senate, the public and the media applauded the Truman Committee’s work. According to Truman biographer Lon Hamby, “It uncovered genuine fraud … and … prevented a lot of waste and insufficiency,” saving American taxpayers’ untold sums in defense production costs.

In July 1944, Truman was nominated as the vice presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention to run with Roosevelt. Elected in November, he served as vice president only 82 days, succeeding to the presidency April 12, 1945, upon Roosevelt’s death.

His first year as president was marked by the dropping of the first atomic bomb and the end of World War II.

After leaving the White House, the former president returned to Independence, where the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum was built, holding his personal papers and mementos. Mr. Truman died on Dec. 26, 1972. He is buried in the courtyard of the Truman Library.

Reference: Missouri Historical Review of the State Historical Society of Missouri

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at or 816-896-3592.