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Biographies: Harry S. Truman

Vice President Harry S. Truman succeeded to the Office of President of the United States on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. Sorely unprepared, uninformed and inexperienced, Truman was thrust into the position of the leader of the Free World in a crisis time. 

The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan brought a sudden end to World War II August 14, 1945. Americans immediately faced a postwar period filled with economic uncertainties at home and the growing threat of military conflict with the Soviets on a number of fronts overseas. Truman was forced to deal with both of these dilemmas during his presidency.

In response to Soviet pressures around the world, Truman adopted a policy of “toughness” in his dealings with Moscow. That policy was stated firmly in the Truman Doctrine (which promised aid to countries threatened by Communist expansion) and its economic counterpart, the Marshall Plan. By 1947, Truman’s hard-line stand against Soviet aggression had brought on an equally hard-line response from the Soviets. What had been an effective prewar U.S.-Soviet alliance had deteriorated into a Cold War that would distract much of the world for the next 40 years.

On the domestic front in the immediate postwar period, Truman hoped to expand and extend the New Deal, but he was uncomfortable with New Dealers. That led him to replace most of Roosevelt’s appointees with his own loyal men. On September 6, 1945, the president sent to Congress a peacetime program that was a continuation and enlargement of the New Deal. It included expansion of unemployment insurance, extension of the Employment Service, an increased minimum wage, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, a plan for slum clearance and low-rent housing, and a public works program. The entire program was later dubbed the Fair Deal.

The paramount postwar American economic problem faced by Truman was inflation, not depression as many had projected. The tasks of restraining consumer spending while convincing labor to hold off on wage demands and businesses to hold down price increases became insurmountable for the new and inexperienced president. A series of strikes in 1946, threatened to push the American economy into an inflationary spiral. Truman forced settlements between labor and management in the mining and railroad industries, and allowed substantial wage increases in the auto and steel industries. In 1945 and 1946, the Truman administration, through its Office of Price Administration, tried to control the economy through price freezes. But by late 1946, after pressure from nearly all sides of the economy, controls were finally lifted except for those on rents, sugar and rice.

In 1946, Truman signed the Employment Act, which was designed to achieve full employment in America. Also in that year, the president created the Atomic Energy Commission, a civilian agency to regulate the use and deployment of atomic energy. In 1947, Truman signed the National Security Act which established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and made permanent the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 1949, the Housing Act was passed with Truman’s leadership, and the president is credited with making a number of advances in the cause of civil rights for American blacks, including the desegregation of the Armed Forces.

In November 1946, the Democrats suffered a severe defeat in the congressional elections. The result was the 80th Congress, the first Republican-controlled Congress in 16 years. Bent on dismantling the New Deal, the 80th Congress moved to limit the power of labor, lower taxes, and ride their successes on to victory in the 1948 presidential election. Not surprisingly, Truman clashed with the 80th Congress over a number of issues, but the most important was Congress’s attempt to regulate and restrict organized labor. Truman vetoed the controversial 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which banned the closed shop and restricted the power of organized labor in a number of other ways. The bill was passed over Truman’s veto, but his actions increased his standing with organized labor. Twice in 1947, the 80th Congress passed tax cuts only to watch Truman veto them with the claim that they favored the wealthy. In 1948 a third tax cut bill was passed over Truman’s veto.

In September 1946, Truman fired Henry Wallace, his secretary of commerce. Wallace was the darling of the Democratic left, and the president’s actions alienated that wing of the party. Wallace ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948; however, support for his candidacy from the Communist Party worked against Wallace in the campaign and destroyed any possibility of a victory. 

Having lost the support of liberals by firing Wallace and alienating southerners by supporting civil rights, Truman appeared to be headed for certain defeat in 1948, at the head of a deeply divided party. However, Truman held together the disparate factions of his party in a surprising upset of the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey. Truman’s tough stand against Communism (at home and abroad), his vetoes of the Taft-Hartley Act and proposed tax cuts, his berating of the Republican-dominated 80th “do nothing” Congress, and the president’s celebrated “whistle-stop” tours are considered the important factors in turning the 1948 election in his favor.

In Europe, the Berlin Airlift straddled Truman’s two terms, from April 1948 to May 1949. In April 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed as a mutual defense pact against possible Soviet aggression in Europe.

Domestically, America’s second “Red Scare” began during Truman’s administration, and may in fact have been precipitated by the president to forestall attacks from the increasingly volatile right wing of both political parties. In March of 1947, Truman had inaugurated a loyalty program that subjected all federal workers to investigation as to their beliefs. The program was designed to enhance Truman’s respectability among the growing number of American anti-Communists, but it set off an anti-Communist hysteria that led to a number of notorious espionage trials and accelerated the rise to national prominence of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

In addition, Congress in 1950, passed the McCarran Act over the president’s veto. The bill required Communist and Communist-front organizations to register with the federal government. It also empowered the federal government to arrest persons suspected of subversive activities. Without excessive hyperbole, Truman in his veto message denounced the act as “the greatest danger to freedom of the press, speech, and assembly since the Sedition Acts of 1798.” Truman’s veto of this popular bill was little short of heroic. But his stance caused his popularity to slump between 1950 and 1952, and enabled the Republicans to affix the unfair label of “soft on communism” on Truman’s Democrats to the end of his administration.

Thus, the anti-Communist fervor of the 1950s well predated the Korean War. Although there were indeed Communists unearthed during the period, the damage done to the nation through the abrogations of personal liberty, false accusations, and the exercise of power by untrammeled regional fanatics undoubtedly outweighed any damage to national security inflicted by a few genuine Communists. 

Truman’s second term was dominated by the rise of Communist power in Asia, and the Korean War. In late 1949, Communist forces under Mao Tse-tung defeated the U.S.-supported Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek, and mainland China became the focus of Communism in Asia.

In April 1950, Truman recorded his views on the Communist threat in National Security Council Paper No. 68 (NSC-68), which contended that Communism was a monolithic, aggressive threat directed from Moscow, and recommended rather drastic U.S. peacetime mobilization to face the threat. Before Truman could attempt to put NSC-68’s rather overwrought recommendations into effect, the Korean War erupted, and America, more or less, went to war. The Korean War would dominate Truman’s foreign and even his domestic policy to the end of his second term in 1953.

The Republicans politically exploited the Korean War stalemate. Although at first applauding Truman’s decision to intervene, they later began to claim that not only had the Democrats “lost” China to the Communists in 1949, now they could not, or would not, defeat the Communists in Korea.

For one supposedly soft on communism, Truman presided over a huge escalation of defense spending caused by the war. Between 1950 and 1953, the United States increased its defense budget from $14 billion to $44 billion. By the latter year, fully 60 percent of the federal budget was earmarked for defense, and defense expenditures reached a percentage of gross national product never approached since. The result was an economic boom that kept incomes rising and unemployment low until 1954. But with the boom came a problem that had haunted Truman since he came to office in 1945— inflation. Through the Office of Price Stabilization, the Truman administration tried to hold down inflation’s worst ravages. But Truman’s economic policies were severely shaken in the aftermath of an attempted price hike by steel manufacturers and a subsequent strike by steelworkers. Truman seized the mills as a wartime necessity, but his action was reversed by the Supreme Court. But for the most part, the war, unpopular as it was, generally diverted attention from the U.S. domestic scene.

By 1952, the president had lost most of the popularity he had gained by his triumph against the “experts’ ” odds in November 1948. The Republicans were gathering strength through a number of issues that included the perceived problem of communism at home, corruption, inflation and the war. Truman’s seeming impotence in the face of the war played into the hands of his political enemies, who demanded total victory in Korea.

The corruption issue came to the forefront with the news that the administration had to fire no less than 250 employees of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Eventually, nine senior Democrats were jailed for malfeasance. The press began to recall Truman’s onetime association with the notorious Pendergast machine in Missouri. The IRS, “Mink coat,” “five percenter” and other egregious scandals, plus the Truman administration’s seeming lackadaisical response, were subsumed by gleeful Republicans under the generic term “The Mess in Washington.” It did not help matters that the president’s military aide, the bumbling, flabby, Brigadier General Harry Vaughan, was widely believed to have used his office to personal gain.

Perhaps the nadir of Truman’s presidency took place in early 1952, when Truman’s outside investigator, probing IRS malfeasance, was fired by the U.S. attorney general, whereupon that public servant was, in turn, fired by Truman.

By 1952, Truman was exceptionally unpopular among the American people and even with the Democratic leadership. With an emaciated 23 percent approval rating (a record low), his chances in the 1952 election seemed minuscule. In addition, the Republicans were beginning to focus their attentions on the extremely popular General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower. But there was always the “miracle” of 1948 to recall. Nonetheless, and not surprisingly, Truman announced in March 1952, that he had decided to forego a third term. (Truman was exempt from the provisions of the XXII Amendment, the Republicans’ posthumous revenge against the uniquely four-term Franklin Roosevelt. Truman had merely filled Roosevelt’s fourth term, and was at any rate specifically excepted from the amendment’s provisions.)

Harry Truman, although about as “typical” an American as could ever be found, was not a popular president in his final years in office, if the polls were any indication. His decisive, even courageous, action against Communist aggression in June 1950, was offset by the stalemate with which the Korean War concluded. His reputation, at least among historians, remains high for his principled stand in opposition to the worst excesses of domestic anti-Communist hysteria, despite his misguided loyalty program. Many also revere his memory for his mostly abortive “Fair Deal” social program. For most Americans with longer memories, Truman will be best remembered for his nose-thumbing upset victory in 1948 and his decision to take America into the Korean War. Historians note his decision to drop the atomic bomb over Japan, but he should also be remembered for the fact that, despite pressures to the contrary, he did not drop the bomb over Korea. 

Gary A. Donaldson

Donovan, Robert. Tumultuous Years: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1949-1953 (1982). 
Ferrell, Robert. Harry Truman and the Modern American Presidency (1983) 
Gosnell, Harold. Truman’s Crises: A Political Biography of Harry S. Truman (1980). 
Hamby, Alonzo. Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism (1973). 
Jenkins, Roy. Truman (1980). 
Reichard, Gary. Politics As Usual (1988).

Reprinted with permission from The Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler and published by Garland Publishing, Inc.