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. 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, ronically, a universal health care plan far more liberal than that of Barack Obama was pursued, but defeated in Congress). 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 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.

Provides real life examples of:

  • Accidental Proposal: Truman always maintained that he married his wife, Bess, because of something like this. When the US entered World War I, Truman decided he would sign up with the army, and went to see Bess (whom he had been courting informally) to let her know his decision. During their conversation, Bess apparently joked, with no actual intent behind it, that "if this were a novel, I suppose you'd be proposing to me about now." After a few moment's thought, he replied, "Well, Bess, I think that's a right fine idea, but given the war and all maybe we should wait until I'm back from Europe." And they did.
  • Assumed Win
  • Badass Bookworm
  • Batman Gambit: Used to get him to accept the Vice Presidency. See Thanatos Gambit below.
  • Catch Phrase: "The buck stops here" (Translation: "I'm not going to make others clean up my messes" or "It's never just somebody else's problem".)
  • Cluster F-Bomb: A master of it. His profane language even became a campaign issue between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, where Nixon argued that such language wasn't appropriate for the high office. Of course, when the Watergate tapes came out and recorded Nixon getting bleeped out every other word...
    • During World War I, the men in his unit attempted to run during an enemy artillery attack. He let loose a stream of curses so foul that he literally shocked his soldiers into holding their ground and rallied them to counter attack.
  • Cold War: Was President during the beginning.
  • Covers Always Lie: The infamous "Dewey Defeats Truman" newspaper incident.
  • Crowning Moment of Awesome: During a rally Truman, after just being declared the winner of the 1948 presidential election against Thomas Dewey, holds up a factually incorrect Chicago Tribune newspaper proclaiming "Dewey Defeats Truman". All the while, Truman laughs triumphantly.
    • During Truman's first meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov after becoming president, Truman gave Molotov a vicious tongue-lashing involving lots of four-letter words for Russia's failure to live up to its postwar promises, particularly free elections in Poland. Molotov incredulously declared that he had never been spoken to like that in his life. Truman replied, "Keep your promises, and you won't be spoken to like that."
    • The Berlin Airlift. Truman's handling of the crisis against Stalin impressed the West Germans, and hastened their nation's rehabilitation and emergence as a key NATO ally during the Cold War.
    • Being the first President to speak in front of the NAACP, where he declared before 10,000 audience members that "The only limit to an American's achievement should be his ability, his industry, and his character." And this was when his chances of winning reelection were pretty slim.
    • Kicking out MacArthur, who was widely beloved by the press and the public, even though it would have cost Truman nearly all of his popularity. He knew it was the right thing to do and he didn't care what people would say about him.
  • Crowning Moment of Funny: After a rather mean spirited critic gave his daughter's concert a bad review, Truman wrote a letter to said critic where he implicitly threatened to give him a rather well-earned nut shot.
  • Crowning Moment of Heartwarming: Inviting Herbert Hoover back to the White House during his administration. Roosevelt had spent more than a decade defaming Hoover for the Great Depression (while Hoover didn't do a good job as President fighting the Depression, he wasn't that bad a person), and never employed Hoover for any special projects during the War Effort that Hoover would have excelled at. Truman as President called Hoover in 1945 to help with relief efforts in Europe, something Hoover did after World War I and did well again leading up to the Marshall Plan. It began a solid friendship that rehabilitated Hoover's reputation and established a pattern for current Presidents to call on former ones to help with public aid projects.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Truman, a plainspoken Missourian, disdained typical political puffery. His greatest moment came immediately after Douglas MacArthur's farewell speech, whom Truman had just fired for insubordination. Truman's comment on the speech: "Nothing but a bunch of damn bullshit."
    • His response to Molotov being indignant to how Truman was talking to him counts, too.
  • Dewey Defeats Truman
  • Godzilla Threshold: He believed that it was crossed and that using the atomic bombs was a justified decision. Whether or not it was is up for you to decide.
  • Happily Married: To his wife, Bess.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Using atomic bombs to end the war against Japan. He never admitted he did the wrong thing... but it's telling that when he had the same opportunities to use A-bombs on North Korea or China he refused.
  • Inter-Service Rivalry: If you want to know what the US military was doing in the Truman Presidency in between the Japanese surrender and the start of the Korean Ŵar, this is it. All three fought for their share of a shrinking budget, and control over the new-fangled nukes. The fights between the Navy and the newly created USAF were especially epic.
    • Truman was not above this himself. As a former Army officer, he had a rather well known dislike of the Marines.
  • Lesser of Two Evils: He viewed using the bombs on Japan as this. For what it is worth, he never bowed to pressure and used them again.
  • Locked Out of the Loop: During his tenure as Vice President, he suffered from this because the VP was pretty much a placeholder — even though by that time it was getting noticed that presidents elected in years ending in 0 expired before their terms did and Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected in 1940—oh, and he had polio.note  Although Roosevelt knew this, and even suspected he might die in office, a seeming last-minute improvement in his health convinced him he could carry out his term and didn't really need Truman.
    • As noted above, Truman was locked so far out of the loop that he was unaware of the existence of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb until he became President. His harshest critics (and even a few supporters) hypothesize that he still didn't understand the nature of the weapon until well after he ordered its use.
  • Name's the Same: There was another Harry Truman who was killed in the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980- he was a civilian who refused to leave his home because he didn't think it was any threat.
  • Never Live It Down: To people who do not think dropping the bombs was a good idea, this trope applies.
  • Odd Friendship: With Herbert Hoover. Despite their deep political differences both men liked and respected each other. After Hoover's death truman wrote the preface for a biography of the late president that ended with the words "Briefly put, he was my friend and I was his."
    • Hoover and his wife accepted the third and fourth Medicare cards (after the Trumans received the first two), even though they were wealthy enough not to need them, in an attempt to preserve the Trumans' dignity. The Trumans were in desperate need of assistance but were too proud to have admitted so and wouldn't have accepted their Medicare cards if the ceremony hadn't been framed as two former American presidents setting an example for the rest of the country.
  • One-Letter Name: His middle name is just "S", which was to placate his two grandfathers Solomon and Shippe. Truman's parents didn't want to favor one over the other, so they named him "S" and said Harry could choose which it would stand for when he got older. Also not wanting their wrath, Harry chose neither.
  • Papa Wolf: His daughter, Margaret, was an aspiring concert soprano. When one of her concerts was poorly reviewed, he informed the critic that he would need "a new nose and plenty of beefsteak, and perhaps a supporter below."
  • Phrase Catcher: "Give 'em Hell, Harry!"
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Toward Bess, his wife. At 5 years old, little Harry fell for his sunday school classmate and a family member said there never was but one girl in the world for him. Unlike who came before and after Truman in the office, he remained absolutely faithful to his wife, even during the years in the first world war before they got married.
  • Take a Third Option: At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four occupation zones, with Soviet Russia controlling the eastern sector. However, Berlin - situated in that zone - was divided as well, so that when the Russians started breaking their promises and the Western allies set up their own zones to become a western German state, Berlin was caught in the middle of it all. By June 1948, Stalin ordered a blockade of West Berlin, hoping to starve out the Western forces and allow him to take full control of the German capital. Truman was faced with two options: abandon Berlin, or break the blockade and potentially start a new war against Stalin and the Soviets. Instead, he ordered the Airlift, a massive supply run by plane that kept West Berlin fully supplied. By running it as a humanitarian effort, it put the ball back in Stalin's court to where he would have to be the one to break the peace by shooting the planes down. Stalin realized he couldn't do that, and ended the blockade in 1949.
  • Tearjerker: During the Korean War, a soldier was killed and had received the Purple Heart for his heroic duties. However, the soldier's family sent the Purple Heart back to Truman with a letter telling him how he it was his fault that their son died. For the rest of his days, Truman kept that Purple Heart on his desk as a reminder about all of the difficult decisions that came with being President.
  • Thanatos Gambit: Several of Roosevelt's more conservative advisors were aware of his declining health, and suspected he might not live to see the end of the war. His current Vice President, Henry Wallace, was deemed too liberal by them and unsuited to take over should FDR die. Deciding Truman was best for the job, Roosevelt and several of the Democrats subtly maneuvered him into the running for the nomination, assuring him his chances were slight while quietly whittling away his opponents. Truman, however, began to suspect them, and did not want the position, since he didn't want to bring publicity to his wife, who was currently on the payroll. As such, Roosevelt and the others staged a conversation in a next-door hotel room where they "accused" Truman of not standing up for the party. This was enough to motivate Truman, and he reluctantly accepted the vice-presidential nomination, a job he only held for 82 days.
  • True Companions: One of Truman's defining characteristics. He even attended Tom Pendergast's funeral (while Vice-President) for all that Pendergast did for him, despite all the controversy he had gathered Truman by helping him get office.
  • Vindicated by History: Though he was wildly unpopular during his time in office, Truman experienced a resurgence in popularity among historians since many of his policies actually turned out to be good ideas, such as his firing of MacArthur, the desegregation of the armed forces, the creation of NATO, and the approval of the Marshall Plan.
  • What Could Have Been: Not long before becoming FDR's Vice-President and eventual successor; Roosevelt had considered naming Truman to the position as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee as a result of his leading a Senate committee investigating government waste in defense contracts. Truman declined and recommended an ally of his named Robert E. Hannegannote ; and Hannegan would return the favor in 1944 by actively campaigning for Truman to replace incumbent Vice-President Henry A. Wallace on the Democratic ticket in 1944.

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