Useful Notes: Harry Truman

"The Buck Stops Here"
Plaque on Truman's desk

"I'm From Missouri"
Other side of plaque on Truman's desk

Harry S Truman (May 8, 1884 — December 26, 1972) was the 33rd President of the United States (serving from 1945-1953), following FDR and preceding Eisenhower, and was the eleventh from the Democratic Party. He was the seventh Vice President to succeed to the presidency, taking over from Franklin D. Roosevelt after he died three months into his fourth term. His middle name is actually just an "S"; it was tradition among Scots-Irish families to name boys after their grandfathers, and his parents wanted to please both of his grandfathers, “Solomon” and “Shippe,” that way. The Twenty-second Amendment, which limits presidents to a maximum of two complete terms, was ratified while he was in office, but it grandfather-claused him, making him the last president who could have served more than two terms.note  He still decided not to run for a third term both to honor George Washington’s tradition and because of his massive unpopularity during his second term.note 

Missouri-born Truman was the last American president who never went to college; he was a very good student in high school and had had his heart set on attending West Point, but his extremely poor eyesight kept him from getting an appointment; he enrolled in business school and law school later on (you could do that without a degree back then) but didn't have the heart for it (because it wasn't West Point) and dropped out fairly quickly. Despite his eyesight, he managed to serve in World War I by memorizing the eye chart, serving in the artillery in the Missouri National Guard. He reached the rank of captain by the time Germany surrendered; the battery under his command did not lose a single man thanks to the Entente Cordiale's massive (more than 3:1 and increasing) superiority in artillery and doctrinal emphasis on counter-battery fire (i.e. anti-artillery artillery fire, something easier when you have more artillery to begin with). His experience in command served as the basis of a political career that would eventually lead him to the Senate in 1935. Between then, he owned a haberdashery (a men’s clothing store) and did various odd jobs after that didn't work out. Somehow, he managed to attract the eye of the Kansas City/Jackson County Democratic machine, led by a somewhat unpleasant fellow by the name of Tom Pendergast. Pendergast used his leverage to get Truman elected a county judge (which in Missouri actually means "county commissioner"—the position is legislative rather than judicial), which Truman himself leveraged into appointment as director of one of the state’s New Deal programs during The Great Depression. He was elected Senator from Missouri in 1934, against Pendergast's judgment (he backed Truman reluctantly).note  In 1941, he was appointed head of what was known as the Truman Committee, which investigated and exposed government waste in the war effort and brought him to the national spotlight. Roosevelt, impressed by the attention Truman was attracting, chose him as his running mate in the 1944 election; this was nicknamed the “second Missouri Compromise” by the press.

Less than three months after assuming this new office, Truman suddenly found himself the sitting President after Roosevelt died. Germany, already on the verge of defeat, surrendered weeks after he succeeded (on his 61st birthday, actually), but Japan proved more problematic. The atomic bombs, which were supposed to be used against the Germans, were fully developed just after Germany surrendered. Truman was never told about the Manhattan Project until he was the President (hell, Stalin and his spies knew more about it than he did!), which is very controversial among historians. Truman vowed to continue Roosevelt’s “unconditional surrender” policy, and turned down Japan’s attempts at a conditional surrender. Additionally, all of his military advisors predicted that millions would die, civilian and American soldier alike, if a land invasion was attempted. Despite this, one military advisor who did know about the secret superbomb, when asked by Truman about it, said, "Brilliant new invention; don't use it". note  Against this backdrop, Truman decided to risk it and approved the atomic bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to unconditional surrender. While the merits (if any) of dropping the bombs have been debated for decades, what isn’t debated is that it led to the Soviet Union escalating their own nuclear research, which escalated the Cold War.

On the domestic front, the economy entered a recession during his first term as the economy tried to adjust to large numbers of returning veterans. Additionally, labor unions that hushed up during the war years started to increase public activity and, in some cases, organize strikes. By the end of the decade, the economy settled down and prosperity and growth was widespread during most of The Fifties and The Sixties. He also, in a move that added some much-needed help to the growing Civil Rights Movement, desegregated the U.S. military in 1948 because of his disgust over the way African-American war veterans were treated; the fact that it also saved some tax dollars getting rid of that ridiculous redundancy helped sell it too.note  Truman was the first President to really call for full rights for African Americans - he proposed civil rights legislation to Congress (they were defeated, sadly) and he was also the first to speak in front of the NAACP. During his second term, anti-Communist hysteria, led from the Senate by Wisconsin Republican Joseph McCarthy, started to spread throughout the nation, leading to the formation of the (infamous) House Un-American Activities Committee. Truman called his domestic policy, which included national health care and civil rights bills, the “Fair Deal,” though the conservative coalition in Congress (Republicans and right-leaning Democrats from the Deep South) prevented most of them from getting passed (Including, ironically, a universal health care plan far more liberal than that Barack Obama pursued). Years later, Lyndon Johnson would pass many bills similar to what Truman proposed. In fact, Johnson signed the Medicare bill in Truman’s house and gave the first two Medicare cards to the former president and his wife, Bess.note 

Truman is most famous, however, for his foreign policy achievements. He passed the Marshall Plan, General and Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s plan to rebuild the nations of western Europe (and prevent the spread of Communism there) by pouring billions of dollars of aid money into their ruined economies. Truman recognized Israel (eleven minutes after they declared independence, actually) note  and began America’s policy of providing support to that nation. He also did the same to Taiwan after mainland China became communist. The Cold War kicked off almost immediately after the war in Europe ended, and Truman supported a policy of the “containment” of communism throughout the world, known as the "Truman Doctrine." This included the founding of several international alliances (most importantly, NATO), organizing the airlift of food and other supplies to West Berlin during the Soviet blockade, and sending American aid to nations that were fighting communism, such as Greece and Turkey. Most famously, he sent American troops as part of a UN-joint military mission into Korea when the Communist north invaded the democratic south. Led by General Douglas MacArthur (who lead American troops on the Pacific front during World War II), the UN forces pushed the North Koreans out of the South and then invaded North Korea in an attempt to free all of the Korean peninsula from communism. MacArthur, however, ignored Red China’s warning not to approach the border, and Chinese forces got involved and pushed the UN forces back to the 38th parallel. MacArthur proposed that America directly attacks China with thermonuclear weapons, which Truman rejected. Afterwards, MacArthur tried to obtain permission from the Joint Chief of Staff to use nuclear weapons without the president's permission to continue the assault on China, which (along with MacArthur's rather public criticism of Truman's policies, bordering on outright insubordination) prompted an angered Truman to fire him. The war in Korea remained a stalemate until Dwight D. Eisenhower negotiated an end to the conflict. The CIA was also formed during his presidency.

Despite the conga line of domestic and foreign crises during his first term, Truman still ran for reelection in 1948. Few newspapers expected him to win, and several of them already had "Truman lost" stories ready. The Chicago Tribune, however, made the mistake of actually printing the story (it didn't help that for the duration of a printers' strike, the Tribune had to make do with a printing method that required it to publish hours in advance), resulting in the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" photo. If you look at the example picture on that page, you can see how happy he is. This unexpected victory can be considered his Crowning Moment of Awesome, especially when one considers that he had to contend with two third-party splinter candidacies during his campaign from within the Democratic Party: one from Henry Wallace (a leftist who opposed Truman's anti-Communism) and another from Strom Thurmond (a Southern segregationist who opposed Truman's support for civil rights). His second term, however, was a slew of unpopular decisions and a slide in the polls. Truman became seriously unpopular when the Korean War turned into a stalemate and he sacked MacArthur; he ended up going as low as 22% in approval ratings, the lowest of all time in the Gallup poll. (Though George W. Bush’s disapproval rating would surpass Truman's 67% height.) He decided that he couldn't stand the heat any longer and got out of the kitchen (an expression popularized by Truman, though he spread it around by way of quoting a friend), announcing he would not run again in 1952 after he lost the New Hampshire primary. The eventual Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, would lose to Dwight D. Eisenhower, due largely to how unpopular Truman was at the time.note 

Since his death, however, Truman has enjoyed an amazing rise in popularity, and he is rated highly by many historians and the public. In particular, his decision to fire MacArthur, while deeply unpopular at the time, is now commonly viewed as a smart move that prevented the Korean War from escalating into World War III (though there are plenty who still say that focus on simply holding the North, instead defeating it is the real reason the war was ultimately a stalemate). He has a carrier named after him, a bit ironic, since Truman actually tried to limit the expansion of the U.S. Navy's aircraft carrier program during his tenure. Truman has also become a kind of political trope in and of himself, as he is frequently cited by politicians down in the polls as a reason for supporters to keep the faith. As a general rule, when a politician starts citing Harry Truman, it's a bad sign for his electoral prospects.

Truman was known for his honesty and responsibility. Famously, the plaque on his desk stated "The Buck Stops Here," his promise to take full responsibility for all of the actions of the Executive Branch. However, his loyalty to the political friends he appointed sometimes came back to haunt him; some of them were pretty corrupt and caused a few scandals, though Truman himself was never involved. He was also famous for being very plainspoken and "telling it how it is." While he was still President, Truman wrote a very scathing letter to a critic who wrote a negative review of his daughter’s concert. Most famously, when he read MacArthur's speech to Congress after he got sacked, Truman turned to the Army Secretary and said “Nothing but a bunch of damn bullshit.” His wife Bess lived to be 97 years old, making her the longest-lived First Lady. While he was in office, the White House was found to be in such dire shape that it needed immediate emergency renovations (the flooring was so weak that a piano leg fell through an upper floor and into a room Truman was in at the time). The entire interior of the building was destroyed and rebuilt, with the rotting original wooden frame taken out and replaced with steel (what little good wood remained was sawn into paneling for the new Ground Floor) and Truman spent most of his second term in Blair House, official state guest house for foreign heads of state, right across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Old Executive Office Building and catercorner from the White House itself.note  The exterior of the White House was kept intact, though, because it was too iconic to lose. He also built a new second-floor balcony on the House's south side, which is still known as the Truman Balcony.

Truman in fiction:

  • The one-man play and film Give 'Em Hell, Harry! (his campaign slogan in 1948) feature James Whitmore as Truman. A performance of this was filmed in 1976 and Whitmore received an Oscar nomination. This is one of only three times that every credited cast member received a nomination, the others being Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sleuth.
  • Truman, a 1995 HBO feature starring Gary Sinise in the title role.
  • Makes a brief and symbolic appearance getting the first Medicare card in HBO's Path To War, where Lyndon Johnson is portrayed as his spiritual successor.
  • In Watchmen, Rorschach frequently expresses admiration for 'decent men' like Truman and his father. It's shown in several in-story documents that he wrote an essay in his youth expressing how good it was that he dropped the bomb, because he saved many more lives by ending World War II. This is particularly ironic given that Rorschach claims to be a moral absolutist and attacks Veidt for killing millions in a fake 'alien' attack on New York to prevent World War III from breaking out.
  • A Doctor Who Tie-In Novel.
  • In M*A*S*H, it is often mentioned that Truman is President.
    • In one episode ("Dear Harry") Hawkeye actually writes a letter to Truman describing conditions in Korea and imploring him to end the war.
      • Interestingly, Truman was portrayed by Harry Morgan in the series Backstairs At The White House, and Morgan played Colonel Sherman T. Potter on Mash.
  • The Graveyard Book has a ghoul (that tries to abduct the main character) who is named after Truman, or rather, called "The 33rd President of the United States".
  • Appears in the Futurama episode "Roswell That Ends Well", treated with all the respect you'd expect Futurama to show a POTUS:
    [interrogating a captured Zoidberg] If you come in peace, surrender or be destroyed! If you come to make war, we surrender!
    • He is also, for some reason, depicted punching his way out of a crate of "eggs" being delivered to Roswell.
  • Makes a minor appearance at the end of the Timeline-191 Alternate History series by Harry Turtledove as the Democratic nominee for vice-president in the post-war election of 1944 (Thomas Dewey is the top half of the ticket). When they pull off a surprise victory against the Socialist Party incumbnent (Charles M. LaFollette), Truman is seen holding a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the headline LaFollette Beats Dewey.
  • In an Earthworm Jim episode, Peter Puppy found a framed letter from President Truman in a museum and read it. "Thank you for your kind offer to end World War II, but we have a bomb we wanna try out."
  • In the That '70s Show episode "Prank Day", Red says to Eric that his punishment for putting a bucket of oatmeal over the door (intended for Kelso) will be "the kind of thing that Harry Truman might order to end the war!" Fez asks who's Harry Truman and Kelso responds that he "invented electricity".
  • In Peanuts, Snoopy as the World War I Flying Ace claims to have met Truman when he was serving as a US Army captain in that conflict.
  • Chicago wrote the song "Harry Truman" after Richard Nixon's resignation, praising Truman's emphasis on responsibility and straightforwardness. It was released as a single in 1975.
  • He's given a Historical Villain Upgrade in Oliver Stone's The Untold History of the United States, with Henry Wallace cast as the tragic hero who could have prevented the Cold War and made everything awesome.
    • Well not exactly a villain. The documentary states that Truman was a well-meaning man who was in way over his head, something that, according to the documentary, Truman himself agreed with.
  • In The Simpsons episode "The Trouble With Trillions", Truman authorized the one-time printing of a trillion dollar bill to help Europe rebuild after World War II. Unfortunately, the person Truman chose to deliver the bill was Mr. Burns, who stole it for himself.
    British man: Well, this is a kick in the knickers.
    German man: Should we complain to somebody?
    French man: I say we just act snooty to Americans forever!
  • In Jonathan Hickman's comic book The Manhattan Projects, Truman is the head of the Illuminati, the secret rulers of the world, prior to becoming Vice President.
  • Truman appears in a flashback scene in the DC Comics one-shot Last Days of the Justice Society when Adolf Hitler uses the Spear of Destiny to bring about the end of the world in 1945.

Alternative Title(s):

Harry S Truman