Harry Truman ranked in top tier of presidents

Published 10:24 am Thursday, August 31, 2017

By Betty Etchison West

Cana/Pino Correspondent

Note:  Last week’s article about Franklin Roosevelt contained a glaring mistake.  It said that Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 15, 1945 when in fact he died on April 12, 1945. Please make the necessary correction on your copy concerning Roosevelt.

On April 12, 1945, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt summoned Vice President, Harry S. Truman to the White House. Upon his arrival there, Mrs. Roosevelt said, “Harry, the president is dead.”  Mr. Truman asked if there was anything he could do for her. Mrs. Roosevelt replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”   

Mr. Harry S. Truman was sworn in that day as President of the United States by Chief Justice Harlan Fiske.  Thus the man who had only been vice president since January of that same year became the 33rd President of the United States of America.

Harry S. Truman was born on a farm in Lamar, Mo. on May 8, 1884. He was the oldest of the three children of Ellen Young Truman and John Anderson Truman.  When Harry was about 6 years old his family moved to Independence, Mo., and it was there that Harry attended elementary and high schools. While in elementary school, Harry met Bess Wallace, who many years later became his wife.

In spite of having poor eyesight, Harry loved to read. The local librarian declared that he had read every book in their collection which was probably an exaggeration, but Harry was somewhat self-educated by reading biographies, histories and other books.

When Harry graduated from high school, there was no money for college. He wanted to go to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point but his poor eyesight kept him from becoming a cadet so he had to take whatever jobs were available.  He clerked for the Santa Fe Railroad, for a bank and for a newspaper and finally went to work on a farm which his parents inherited. He did not like farm work and was really a failure as a farmer, but those years on the farm taught him lessons about hard work which he never forgot. When Harry’s father died, Harry broke free from the farm.

While still working on the farm, Harry joined the National Guard and a Kansas City Democratic organization run by the politically powerful Tom Pendergast.  This association with Pendergast helped Harry get political jobs through the years, but it turned out to be a liability because Pendergast was a dishonest politician who finally went to jail.  Even though the Pendergast machine was associated with gangsters, no one was ever able to find Harry Truman in any way dishonest or involved in any criminal activity. Truman never really turned his back on Pendergast. According to the book, “The President Fact Book,” Truman said: “Tom Pendergast has always been my friend, and I don’t desert a sinking ship.”

When World War I broke out, Harry’s National Guard unit was mobilized. Truman’s eyesight was always a problem and one source says that Harry memorized the eye chart so he could pass the eye test. He was evidently successful in passing the test because he was sent to Fort Sill, Okla. for training and ended up in Europe. He was promoted to captain and led a unit which fought with distinction in several battles in France. By the time the war was over, Harry Truman had earned the rank of major.

When Harry got back home, he married Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace who he been “carrying a torch for many years, he said since elementary school.  Harry was 34 when he and Bess were married. The newlyweds lived with Bess’ mother at 223 N. Main St., Independence, Mo., after they were married. They lived in that same house the rest of their lives except went they lived in Washington; and even then, the Wallace house was always home to the Truman family as well as to Mrs. Madge Gates Wallace who lived until 1952.

After returning home after WWI, Mr. Truman opened a men’s clothing store with a friend. The store was a failure. He needed a job so Harry sought the office of Judge of Missouri’s Jackson County. He was elected to that job which was not the kind of judge that holds court but was the overseer of roads, etc. Mr. Truman was successful in that job. He saved the county money while improving the road. He was elected to a second term.  Politics proved to be the way for Harry Truman to succeed. In 1934, Harry S. Truman was elected to the United States Senate with the help of Mr. Pendergast.

Mr. Truman was a strong supporter of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. He was named to the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Interstate Commerce Committee. He co-wrote the Truman-Austin bill which created a the Civil Aeronautics Board. He was also a force behind the Transportation Act of 1940 which brought reform to the railroads. Even though he had done a good job as a Senator, he had Democratic opposition when it was time to run for a second term.  The President Fact Book says, “Running behind Stark (his Democratic opponent) and another popular candidate and having little money to campaign with, Truman drove around Missouri in his own car, making speeches in plain language concentrating on his record of public service.” Truman plan worked because he defeated the other Democrats and went on to defeat his Republican opponent in the general election.

At the time of that election, the country was preparing to enter World War II. Truman looked around his state and found all kinds of graft in the military camps and defense plants – padded payrolls, overstaffed operations, poor quality equipment – all paid for with tax money. He reported his findings to the Senate and demanded an investigation. He, of course, was asked to head a committee, called the Truman Committee, which investigated fraud and waste and by the time the work of the committee was done, it was believed that it saved the taxpayers an estimated $15 billion. This work resulted in Mr. Truman becoming an important political figure.

As the 1944 election was approaching, there was dissatisfaction with Henry A. Wallace who had been serving as the vice president. At almost the last minute, Mr. Wallace was dropped and Harry S. Truman, who had a good record in the Senate, was named as the vice presidential candidate to run on the ticket with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was seeking a fourth term. The people in the United States did not want to change leaders during the war so the Roosevelt/Truman ticket swept to victory.

It was only a few months after Harry Truman became the vice president that he got the summons from Mrs. Roosevelt to come to the White House and received the message that the President was dead. Mr. Truman had only spoken to Mr. Roosevelt twice since he had assumed the office of vice president so he did not have any inside information about the war or anything concerning the work of the president. According to the book,  The American President,  sometime after he was sworn in as president, Mr. Truman said: “It was a terrible thing to have to take over. [But] maybe that made me work harder.”

The war in Europe was winding down.  Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, just about a month after President Roosevelt died. The war against Japan was still daunting. It seemed that the United States would have to invade the mainland before the Japanese would surrender and that would mean many more United States soldiers would die, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands. President Truman met with Mr. Roosevelt’s cabinet, all of whom he had asked to stay in the positions in which they had been serving. After the meeting, Secretary of War, Henry L. Stinson, stayed in the room after everyone else had left. At that time, he told the President about the atomic bomb. This was the first that Mr. Truman had heard about this new, unbelievably powerful weapon.

June was taken up with foreign affairs. The President addressed the final session concerning the founding of the United Nations, and he presented the United Nations Charter to the Senate for ratification. He attended the Potsdam Conference, and he proposed a international council which would settle issues related to the World War II. Mr. Truman issued a Potsdam Declaration calling for Japan’s surrender. The Japanese did not respond. According to The President Fact Book, “Military leaders reported that an invasion of the Japanese mainland would probably cost another 500,000 lives and agreed that using the atom bomb could force a quick Japanese surrender.”  Mr. Truman made the final decision to use the atomic bomb.

The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan at 9:15 Tokyo time on Aug. 6, 1945. Davie County native, Thomas Ferebee, was the bombardier that sent the bomb down on the city of Hiroshima. (Col. Ferebee is buried in the Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church Cemetery in Pino.) Thousands of Japanese were killed and thousands more were left homeless. It was only after a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki that the Japanese surrendered. The official surrender took place on Sept. 2, 1945 aboard the ship the U.S.S. Missouri.

People questioned the use of the atomic bomb, but Mr. Truman always felt that he did the right thing because it ended the terrible war and saved the lives of thousands of United States military personnel.

A cold war with Russia began shortly after the end of World War II. This was not a shooting war, but conflicts and failed diplomacy which lasted many years. This included the situation in which Russia cut off access to Berlin and that resulted in the Berlin Airlift which provided the people of Berlin the items necessary for survival. Much of Europe was in terrible shape after the war, and Mr. Truman worked with General Marshall to create the European Recovery Plan which helped rebuild the European economy.

Even though the United States mainland never suffered the ravages of war, there were still problem when the country moved from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy. In The President Fact Book, we find this description of Mr. Truman’s action. “In an attempt to take decisive action, Truman proposed wage controls, price controls, and rent controls, and he also called for expanding public housing and extending old-age benefits. He supported a national health insurance program, a higher minimum wage and a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission to help minorities.”

Congress was opposed to many of these proposals. The President could reach some of his goals by executive order, but there was a loss of support even by members of his own party. He lost support in the South when he called for the end of segregation. It seemed that everyone was upset about something that the President was proposing. Even though there were many concerns, Mr. Truman was chosen as the Democratic candidate for president. Even though everyone thought that Mr. Tom Dewey, the Republican candidate, would be the next president, Mr. Truman did not give up. He took a whistlestop tour across the country to try to take his message to the people. At one stop someone yelled, “Give’em hell Harry” and that became Truman’s campaign slogan.

Everyone was sure that Mr. Dewey would be elected. The Chicago Tribune was so sure that it printed its paper after the polls had been closed for a few hours with a headline that said, “Dewey defeats Truman.”  Mr. Truman enjoyed displaying that headline because in spite of the many concerns, he did win the election. During the next four years, Mr. Truman had some success getting measures in his Fair Deal program passed, but he was not totally successful.

During Mr. Truman’s second term, it was discovered that the White House was structurally unsound.The difficulty really came to light when a leg of Margaret Truman’s piano went through the floor. There were so many problems that the Trumans had to move across the street to Blair House while the repairs were made. In the end, the entire interior of the White House  was gutted and rebuilt with steel reinforcement to give the building strength. The Truman family did not seem to mind living at Blair House, but there was one bad incident while they lived there. Someone tried to gain entrance to Blair House so he could shoot the president. Even though the assassin was not successful a Secret Service man was killed in the incident.

Mr. Truman’s second term was dominated by the Korean War and McCarthyism. McCarthy stirred up great trouble by making the accusation there were many communists in the State Department and then his net spread as he accused others of being a communist. McCarthy’s accusations were proven false but they caused considerable grief.

North Korea decided to take over South Korea. The U.S. sent supplies to South Korea and sponsored a UN Resolution for military sanctions against the North Korean government.  The American and the UN troops pushed the North Koreans back and finally a line between North and South Korea was established at the 38th parallel.  During the conflict, General MacArthur was in charge of the troops; and he spoke out against Mr. Truman’s policies. Mr. Truman fired the General for insubordination. Mr. Truman’s action caused great trouble for the administration because McArthur had strong support.

The years of Truman’s presidency were tough on many fronts; but Harry S. Truman, a man without a college education but with good common sense met each problem head-on. The 33rd President enjoyed successes and failures as have all presidents. As Mr. Truman’s second term was drawing to an end, he declared that he would not run for another term.

After Harry Truman had completed almost two terms as President of the United States, he and  his family returned to their home on Main Street in Independence. Mr. Truman spent his days working on his library, and Mrs. Truman enjoyed the life that she had before her husband became president – playing bridge with her friends on the screened porch, etc. Mr. Truman died on Dec. 26, 1972, and was buried at the Truman Library, a short distance from his home. Mrs. Truman lived 10 years after the death of her husband. She died Oct. 18, 1982.  She was buried beside her husband at the Truman Library.

The Truman House is maintained by the National Park Service and is open to the public. It is interesting because everything is just as it was when the Trumans lived there. Mr. Truman’s hat is hanging by the door where he always put it after he came in from his daily walk and his many books are near his favorite chair in the library.

In the ranking of presidents by presidential historians, Mr. Truman ranks in the top tier. In one recent ranking, he was ranked sixth. Historians seem to be able to see Mr. Truman’s achievements more clearly from a distance than his colleagues did while he was in office.