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Harry S. Truman (1884 - 1972)

33rd President of the United States

It was late afternoon of a warm spring day. Vice-President Harry S. Truman had just finished listening to a Senate debate. He was given a telephone message, asking him to get to the White House as soon as possible. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died at Warm Springs, Georgia. That evening, April 12, 1945, at 7:09 P.M., Harry S. Truman took the oath of office as the 33rd president of the United States.

The end of World War II was in sight, but American forces were still fighting in Europe and the Pacific. The people at home were supplying the needs of their own fighting men and helping their Allies at a total cost of nearly 90 billion dollars a year. An atomic bomb had been developed. It was the most powerful weapon the world had ever known. President Truman knew that he must decide whether or not to use the bomb in the war with Japan.

Victory and peace brought their problems too: the new Administration faced questions of how to deal with the defeated nations and how to help newly freed peoples. They had to share in planning a world organization of nations to enforce peace. On the home front there was the gigantic task of re-establishing the nation's peacetime economy.

Harry S. Truman, the man who was to guide the United States through this critical period, was born May 8, 1884, at Lamar, Missouri. He was the son of John Anderson Truman, a cattle trader, and Martha Young Truman. Shortly after Harry's birth, the Truman family moved to nearby Independence, Missouri, not far from Kansas City. There Harry attended grade school and high school.

After graduation from high school Harry tried for an appointment to West Point but was rejected because of poor eyesight. Having no money to pay his way through college, he took a job in a Kansas City drugstore. At the same time he joined the Missouri National Guard.

After a brief stay in the drugstore, Truman became a clerk at the Kansas City Star. He then tried working as a timekeeper for a railroad construction gang and a clerk in a Kansas City bank. Five years after he had left high school, Truman was tired of city life. He returned to his father's farm and worked there for the next ten years.
Truman was still a farmer when the United States entered World War I. As a member of the Missouri National Guard, he was called for a short period of training at the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Okla. He went overseas as a Captain with the 35th Division and commanded Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery in the St-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives. After the war, he was commissioned a Major in the Field Artillery Reserve.

On June 28, 1919, Truman married Bess Wallace of Independence. They had been childhood sweethearts. A daughter, Mary Margaret, was born to the Trumans on Feb. 17, 1924. After his marriage, Truman invested all his savings into a Kansas City haberdashery. The business was successful for two years, then failed during the depression in 1922. Truman and his business partner, Eddie Jacobson, faithfully repaid their creditors, though it took them the next 12 years to do so.

At the Democratic National Convention in June, 1944, a lively contest developed between several candidates for the Vice-Presidential nomination. Most conspicuous were Henry Wallace, who had the support of the radical wing of the Democratic Party, and James Byrnes, who represented the Conservative wing. Naming Truman as the compromise candidate broke the deadlock. Truman at first flatly refused to take the nomination because he wanted to remain in the Senate. However, Roosevelt was insistent, and Truman finally agreed. As vice-president, Truman had little to do with shaping America's policies at home or abroad. Roosevelt seldom consulted with him. As a result, when Roosevelt suddenly died, Truman, as President, faced many problems. Presidential aides and others did their best to help him, and Truman learned quickly.

Two weeks after he became President, Truman learned of the top-secret project to develop an atomic bomb. On July 16, 1945, he was told a successful atom bomb test had been made at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Truman consulted with his aides to decide whether the bomb should be used against Japan. An invasion of Japan was being planned and they estimated that if the bomb worked, it would save a quarter of a million American lives. Truman suggested that the United States warn Japan that, if it did not surrender, the bomb would be used. They did so, but Japan refused to yield. On August 6, 1945, the atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima, shattering three fifths of the city. On August 10, Japan sued for peace.

The election of November 2, 1948, was the most dramatic political upset in the nation's history. Truman was the first Democratic president to be elected without the "solid South." He won 28 states and 303 Electoral votes. The Democrats also won control of Congress.

On June 25, 1950, war broke out in Korea. This was a great personal blow to President Truman. He had often said he wanted more than anything else to be regarded by Historians as a President who brought peace to the world. Truman ordered the United States military forces to support the United Nations "police action" in Korea. On December 16 he declared a state of national emergency to help prepare the United States for a possible "all-out" war with Communism.

In the midst of these problems an amendment was added to the Constitution — the 22nd ammendment which limited a President to two full terms or to a total of ten years if he had served part of an unexpired term. The amendment was passed in 1947 by a Republican Congress, mostly as a reaction against Franklin D. Roosevelt's four Presidential election victories. It has been argued that this controversial amendment served to weaken a President's effectiveness during the second term, because the incumbent cannot run for reelection.

Between 1948 and 1952 the White House was completely reconstructed. During most of this period the Truman family lived at Blair House, across the street from the Executive Mansion. It was while the Trumans were living there that an attempt was made to assassinate the president by two Puerto Rican terrorists, Oscar Collazo and Greselio Torresola. On Nov. 1, 1950, President Truman was upstairs taking an afternoon nap when the two-armed men ran up the steps to the front door of Blair House. Armed White House police rushed to stop them, firing as they ran. In a few moments Torresola lay dead and Collazo was severely wounded. Two police officers were wounded; a third, Leslie Coffelt, was killed.

President Truman took the attempt on his life calmly, keeping all the rest of his scheduled appointments that day and going for his customary early-morning walk the following day. He was familiar with the fact that Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were murdered while in office and that assassins had tried to kill Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt. "A President has to expect such things," Truman said. His would-be assassins were members of the Puerto Rican revolutionary Nationalist party determined to obtain Puerto Rican independence. Collazo was convicted of murdering Coffelt and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Truman later commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. The President had previously assured the Puerto Rican people they were free to work out their own political future. President Truman refused to seek reelection in 1952, and the Democratic nomination went to Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois. The candidate for the Republican Party was General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was inaugurated President on January 20, 1953, and Harry Truman retired to his home in Independence, Missouri. When he left office, Truman said, "I have had a career from precinct to president, and I'm proud of that career." Friends raised funds to build the Harry S. Truman Library at Independence. After his death on Dec. 26, 1972, Harry Truman was buried in the courtyard of the library. His memoirs appeared in 1955-56. In 1959 his birthplace at Lamar was dedicated as a Missouri State shrine. In 1965 the Medicare act -- government health insurance for the aged, first sponsored by Truman in 1945 — was signed in the Truman Library.