On December 26, 1972, Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States, died.
Truman was born in Missouri on May 8, 1884. He grew up on a farm, and worked a variety of jobs after high school from railroad timekeeper to bank bookkeeper, and never attended college. He went back to farming before volunteering for duty during World War I. This was an interesting move for Truman because he was already 33 years old (two years older than the draft age limit), and eligible for exemption due to his status as a farmer. During his service, he helped organized the National Guard regiment and was promoted to captain. He gained the respect of his men and led them through heavy fighting.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace, after returning from the war and unsuccessfully opened a hat shop in Kansas City with an associate. The Great Depression caused the business venture to fail, and Truman owed $20,000 to creditors, which he slowly paid back over the course of 15 years. During this time, Truman was approached by Thomas Pendergast or “Boss Tom,” who was a Democratic political boss in Kansas City. Pendergast’s nephew had served in the war with Truman, and Pendergast appointed Truman to be overseer of highways for Kansas City. He was soon after chosen by Pendergast to run for a few different county judge positions. He was finally elected as a presiding judge in 1926 and kept this position until he ran for senator.
In 1934, Truman was elected to the United States Senate and began paving his way to the presidency. He helped allocate tax money for railroads, shipping, and interstate transport under Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s New Deal project. As the chair of a special committee investigating the National Defense Program, he helped to prevent unnecessary defense spending and war profiteering. This gained him much respect from his peers as well as from the general public.
For the 1944 presidential campaign, FDR chose Truman to run alongside him for Vice President over Henry Wallace, who was FDR’s Vice President during his first term. Speculation abounded that FDR would not survive this term, so the choice of the responsible and socially accepted Truman as his running mate was an important one. They won the election in 1944, and just 82 days after they took office together, FDR died of a stroke and Truman was sworn in as President of the United States on April 12, 1945.
In the midst of World War II, Truman started his term. His first six months of presidency were a whirlwind – he announced the German surrender from the war, dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and signed a charter sanctioning the United Nations. Though this war had come to an end, soon after tensions with the Soviet Union flared and the Cold War began.
After Republicans took control of the House and the Senate in 1946, reelection of Truman for a second term seemed unlikely. This unlikely reelection caused the Chicago Tribune to famously go to print with a headline reading “Dewey Defeats Truman,” stating that New York governor Thomas Dewey had won the election before all of the results were in. In a surprising turn of events, Truman won a second term.
His second term proved to be a challenging one. Initially, he set up a domestic policy called the Fair Deal to increase minimum wage, set up universal health care, provide more funding for education, and give equal rights under law to all citizens. Many had mixed feelings about the policy and parts of it were rejected. 1950 saw the beginning of the Korean War, and Truman sent in troops because he believed the invasion of South Korea by North Korea was effected by the Soviets and could potentially start another world war. This move was soon met with criticism and Truman changed his tactics to focus on preserving the independence of South Korea rather than trying to eliminate communism in North Korea.
Truman’s reputation was damaged further at home due to a labor dispute between the major steel mills and the United Steel Workers of America. A wage increase was requested by union workers, but mill owners did not want to provide more money to the workers unless the government allowed them to increase the prices of their consumer goods. Truman was not able to come to an agreement with mill owners and refused to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act which would have kept union workers from striking. He then seized the mills in the name of the government and was met with the companies filing a suit against the government which went to the Supreme Court. The steel mills won the case and Truman was once again viewed in an unfavorable way by the American public.
Since he no longer was seen in a positive light by Americans, Truman announced that he would not be running for reelection and returned to his home of Independence, Missouri. He spent his remaining years writing his memoirs and overseeing the construction of his presidential library. He died on December 26, 1972 after suffering from organ failure.