An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States

Nov 5, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Today we will look at Harry S Truman, the thirty-third president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

Harry S Truman (Truman had no middle name—just the initial S) was born May 8, 1884 in Lamar, Missouri. His family would move three times after he was born, settling on a farm near Independence, Missouri when he was six. Truman attended public school in that community, graduating from high school in 1901. He attended Spalding’s Commercial College in Kansas City, Missouri for one semester, but didn’t receive a degree. He worked at a number of different jobs during the next five years, but by 1906 had moved back to his parents’ farm. He lived there for 11 years until the United States entered the First World War. Truman had served in an artillery unit of the Missouri National Guard from 1905 to 1911, and in 1917 he reenlisted in that unit.

The men of that outfit elected him lieutenant. While in training, he was promoted to the rank of captain. In July of 1918, his unit was sent overseas, and Truman became the commander of a battery of artillery. Deployed into battle, Truman proved to be an effective leader. His unit didn’t lose a man in combat, and his men rewarded him with a loving cup after the war was over. Mustered out of military service in 1918, Truman returned to Missouri and opened a clothing store in Kansas City.

The business failed in 1921, but Truman was not unemployed for long. Truman had always been interested in American history and politics, serving as a page at the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City in 1900. During the First World War he made an important political connection when he served with the nephew of the man who ran the Democratic political machine in Kansas City.

This “boss,” Tom Pendergast, helped Truman win election in 1922 as a judge in Jackson County, Missouri. This was a position that did not involve judicial duties; rather, it was like a county commissioner position in many states. Truman lost in 1924 when he ran for reelection, and for two years sold auto club memberships. In 1926, Pendergast helped Truman win that position back. Truman would serve as a county judge until 1933, when he was chosen to head an agency of the Civil Works Administration (one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs) in Kansas City. Truman proved to be an able administrator, and earned high marks for his fiscal responsibility.

In 1934, Truman was contacted by Pendergast about making a run for the US Senate. Truman accepted, and won the Democratic primary. Truman easily won the general election in the fall, and assumed his seat in the Senate. Truman sought reelection in 1940, but faced opposition in the Democratic primary. He prevailed, and won the general election by a narrow margin. During his second term, Truman chaired a Senate committee that investigated government spending involved in the war effort. Truman took great pains to notify Franklin Roosevelt privately of his committee’s findings before he made them public, a courtesy that would pay dividends for Truman in 1944. In that year, Democratic leaders made it known to Roosevelt that they had serious misgivings about retaining Henry Wallace as the vice-president. Roosevelt agreed to allow the Democratic national convention to choose his running mate, and a number of individuals—including Wallace—made it known that they were interested in the position.

But each potential candidate had significant drawbacks, and led an influential party leader from Missouri to suggest Truman as a compromise candidate. Roosevelt, remembering Truman’s service on the financial oversight committee, agreed that he would be acceptable as a running mate. When approached about the position, however, Truman was initially reluctant. It took a conference call in which the president intimated that Truman’s reluctance to run might well cause Roosevelt to lose to convince him to be the Democratic candidate for vice-president. The Democratic ticket won the election in 1944, and Truman was sworn in as vice-president in January of 1945.

Three months later ,Franklin Roosevelt died, and on April 12, 1945, Truman was sworn in as president

  1. What was he MOST known for

Truman presided over an eventful eight years in American history, but he is best known for a decision that he made quite early in his career as president. When Roosevelt died, the United States was engaged in fighting against the Axis powers in both Europe and Asia. It was readily apparent that the war in Europe was rapidly winding down; it would in fact end less than a month after Truman took office. The end of the war against Japan, on the other hand, was far less certain. By early 1945 the Allies had completely reversed the tide of battle in the Pacific, virtually destroying the Japanese surface fleet in the process of conquering wide swaths of Japanese-held territory. At the same time, the US army Air Force was conducting a bombing campaign that had decimated Japanese cities. But to many Americans, it seemed as though the Japanese were fighting with greater ferocity as the Allies approached the Japanese homeland.

The fearsome kamikaze raids launched by the Japanese, for example, suggested that they would fight to the bitter end. But when Truman became president, he was made aware of the fact that the United States was working on the atomic bomb, a weapon that many involved in the program felt could shorten the war.

Others, however, felt that the weapon (which had been developed to counter the possibility that Nazi Germany might be building such a device) should not be used against the Japanese. These individuals suggested that the American naval and air campaigns would force the Japanese to sue for peace without the need for using the atomic bomb. In addition, it became apparent during the summer of 1945 that at least some individuals inside the Japanese government were desirous of using diplomacy to end the conflict. But for a number of reasons Truman decided not to halt the effort to develop, test, and use atomic weapons on the Japanese.

Accordingly, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. Truman will therefore always be known as the only president to ever authorize the use of nuclear weapons on an enemy.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Truman was a very decisive individual. Indeed, he had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that read “The Buck Stops Here.” He was not afraid to run the risk of criticism if he felt that what he was doing was right.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Truman, much like Harding, believed in promoting individuals that he was friends with. Unfortunately, some of these individuals turned out to be corrupt or incompetent. This helped cause a significant drop-off in popular support for his administration during his second term.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Truman’s years in office saw the development of a period in time known as the Cold War. While there is some evidence that before his death Franklin Roosevelt began to believe that the Soviets could not be trusted in the post-war years, at the time of his death he was still striving to consult and cooperate with the Soviets. Truman, on the other hand, felt that the Soviets were bent on expansion, and as such he developed policies designed to keep them from achieving their goals. This effort became known as “Containment,” and it would form the basis of US foreign policy until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

During Truman’s years in office, the United States would use everything from military action in Korea to the economic rehabilitation of Europe through the Marshall Plan to accomplish this goal.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Truman is very interesting in regard to how we remember him. He had a very low approval rating when he left office in 1953, primarily due to corruption within his administration and the stalemate in Korea. But in retrospect, historians have recognized the significant good that he did for the country, and have consistently ranked him somewhere in the top ten. In the most recent poll, he is regarded as the seventh-best president in our nation’s history.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Truman was from Missouri, a state that had allowed slavery to exist until the XIII Amendment ended the institution in 1865. Moreover, his ancestors had supported the Confederate cause during the Civil War. For those reasons, few expected Truman to do much if anything for African-Americans as president. But Truman confounded his friends and foes alike in 1948 when he issued an executive order desegregating all US military forces. Truman knew this action would prove unpopular with the vast majority of the Southern white population, but he felt that the contributions of African-Americans to the war effort during World War II had earned them that right.

We recognize Truman’s action as one of the significant milestones on the road to equality, and as such I would suggest this courageous stance is his greatest accomplishment.

  1.   Could you provide a summary statement about our thirty-third President?
  2. Truman was asked once about his legacy, and he related a story about a tombstone inscription he had seen in Tombstone, Arizona that said “Here lies Jack Williams. He done his damnedest.”

He thought that statement was a great epitaph, and it seems therefore quite appropriate to use it for a man who “done his damnedest” for the American people as president.


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