Thrust into leadership during one of the most uncertain periods in American history, Harry S. Truman steered the United States through the end of the Second World War and into the early Cold War.
From the atomic bomb to the Korean War, Truman’s presidency oversaw a host of era-defining moments. But how did this young man from the farming communities of Missouri grow to become one of the most notable Presidents of the 20th century?
Here are 10 facts about Harry S. Truman:
1. He was born into a farming family in Missouri, USA
Harry S. Truman was born on 8 May 1884 in Lamar, Missouri to John and Martha Truman.
Hailing from a large farming family, he was given his famous middle initial “S” to honour both of his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young, though it did not stand for a specific name.
2. He never received a college degree
When Harry was 6 the family moved to Independence, Missouri where he attended school as a talented student. Unable to further his education due to the family’s finances however, Truman never received a college degree, and is the last President of the United States to not have one.
After trying out a few jobs, in 1906 Truman returned to his family industry and went to work on his grandparents’ 600-acre farm, staying there for the next 11 years.
3. He fought in World War One
In 1917, the US joined World War One and Truman was sent to France with the Missouri National Guard, serving in Battery B, 2nd Missouri Field Artillery Regiment. Though he had poor eyesight, he passed the eye test by secretly memorising the eye chart.
In 1918, he was promoted to captain and would go on to lead troops in a number of campaigns on the Western Front, with his men in Battery D firing some of the final shots of the entire war on 11 November 1918.
A competent and skilled leader, not one of Truman’s men lost their life under his command, and it would be his experiences in the war that should shape his character and leadership in the years to come.
4. He began his political career as a county judge
After the war Truman returned to Missouri and began his political career as a county judge in 1922, with backing from Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast.
By 1926, he had secured the role as presiding judge of Jackson County, gaining prestige and respect for his integrity and pragmatism.
5. In 1934 he was elected to the US Senate
In a significant turn of events (and after Pendergast’s first four choices for the role declined to run) Truman was elected US Senator for Missouri in the 1934 Democratic primary election.
In this new role, he supported President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, which aimed to alleviate the gruelling years of the Great Depression in America.
From 1941 to 1944, he also led the Truman Committee, which investigated waste and profiteering at various military bases across the country, saving the American taxpayer around $15 million ($220 million in 2021) and earning him a feature on the cover of Time magazine.
6. He became the 33rd President of the US
In 1944, President Roosevelt sought an unprecedented fourth term in office, selecting Truman as his (somewhat reluctant) running mate. The pair were voted in.
Just 82 days later, Truman was sent an urgent message to go to the White House. Roosevelt had died of a huge cerebral haemorrhage on 12 April 1945, and Truman was now the President of the United States.
Stunned, he asked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt if he could do anything for her. She replied: “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now!”
7. He authorised the first and only use of atomic bombs in warfare
Though it had been under development since 1943, it was not until 25 April 1945 that Truman was given the details of the new and highly destructive weapon the Manhattan Project had created during World War Two: the atomic bomb.
On 6 August 1945, Truman authorised its use in warfare for the first time in history on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands instantly. Three days later, a second was dropped on Nagasaki with the same devastating results.
Japan surrendered the Second World War on 15 August. Truman maintained that the use of the bombs were justified in ending the war and thus saving the lives of thousands of soldiers from both America and Japan.
8. He presided over the early years of the Cold War
As the Second World War ended, another crept into being: the Cold War.
During his time as President, Truman oversaw a number of memorable Cold War initiatives. The Truman Doctrine of 1947-8 established the US’ aim to contain Communist expansion, while the Marshall Plan supplied a crippled Western Europe with $13 billion in reconstruction aid.
NATO and the CIA were both created during his Presidency, while in 1950 he involved America in the Korean War when communist forces from North Korea invaded South Korea.
9. He declined to run for a third presidential term
In March 1952, Truman announced that he would not run for a third term as President. The Korean War had damaged his popularity and, after reviewing his poor standing in the polls, he was advised to step down.
In his place came General Dwight D. Eisenhower, ending 20 years of Democratic Presidents in America.
10. He spent the rest of his life building up his presidential library
In January 1953, Eisenhower was inaugurated and Truman returned to his home in Independence, Missouri with his wife Bess.
He spent his later years writing his memoirs and building up his presidential library, as Roosevelt had done before him. He then donated it to the federal government to maintain and operate, a tradition adopted by his successors.
On 26 December 1972, he died aged 88 in Kansas City, Missouri after suffering pneumonia and multiple organ failure. At his wife’s request, he was given a simple funeral and buried in the courtyard of the Truman Library in Independence, where he had both grown up and spent his final years.