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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Years of Change and
Challenges (1906 - 1934)

While living on the farm in Grandview, Missouri, Truman continued to stay in contact with his friends and relatives in Independence. By 1910, he was dating Bess Wallace, who lived across the street from his aunt and uncle in Independence. He fell in love with Bess during grade school, but both were in their mid twenties by the time they started courting. To visit her, Truman would sometimes travel two hours between his family's Grandview farm and Bess's home on Delaware Street in Independence.

During the couple's courtship, World War I broke out and Truman served in the Army. He received basic training in Oklahoma in the fall of 1917, and "shipped out" to Europe in March of 1918. By the war's end he had been promoted to the rank of captain of his artillery unit and was in command of almost 200 men. Truman experienced all the hardships and terror of war, remembering later, "As a veteran of the First World War, I have seen death on the battlefield ... I know the strain, the mud, the misery, the utter weariness of the soldier in the field."¹

Returning home safely in the spring of 1919, he married Bess Wallace in Independence at the Trinity Episcopal Church. The couple lived with Bess's mother and younger brother in the Wallace house at 219 Delaware Street. That fall, Harry and a friend from the Army opened a men's clothing store [haberdashery] in downtown Kansas City. Because of economic hard times, the business closed only three years later, in 1922. Although he was $20,000 in debt, Truman refused to declare bankruptcy and repaid his creditors in full over the course of the next decade.

With the support of family and friends, Truman decided to run for political office in Jackson County. He won the position of eastern county judge in 1922, and served for a four-year term. After losing the race for re-election, Truman ran again in 1926 and became the presiding judge of Jackson Country. Although no law degree was required for the position, Truman studied law in night school for three years out of respect for his job and the people he served. Truman worked at the courthouse just a few blocks from his Delaware Street home.

Judge Truman's job was equivalent to that of a county commissioner today, being responsible for the county finances, its budget, and road building. He was determined to see that the voters had good roads, especially in the farming communities of eastern Jackson County. Feeling that every farm should be within 2.5 miles of a paved road, Truman raised $6.5 million in tax money to build them. He also helped finance the renovation of the courthouse in Independence and a new courthouse in Kansas City by 1933. During the Great Depression, Truman administered public works projects and created a highly recognized six-county regional plan, which became a model for future town planners.

Truman had been elected judge with the support of Thomas Pendergast's Democratic political organization in Kansas City. At times, this political machine fixed primary elections using vote fraud, then often controlling the government officials it had helped elect through bribes and other illegal methods. Harry witnessed fellow judges taking money for their vote on certain county jobs. Although he was personally honest, he was frustrated and wondered in a private note to himself, "Am I an administrator . . .? Or am I just a crook to compromise in order to get the job done? You judge I can't."² Truman knew corrupt practices were going on and at times looked the other way to accomplish many of his goals, but he never personally profited from his position as judge. Harry wrote, "I'm not a partner of any of them, and I'll go out poorer in every way than when I came into office."³ Truman neither concealed nor renounced his association with Thomas Pendergast, but conducted himself in public office with such personal integrity that he continued to be elected by his Missouri constituents after the political machine collapsed.

Still, Harry Truman wanted to do even more for the people of Missouri, and not only those from Jackson County. In 1934 he ran for the U.S. Senate, and to his delight, was elected.

Questions for Reading 2

1. How did family and friends in Independence still play a role in Truman's life while he lived in Grandview?

2. What rank did he earn as a soldier in World War I?

3. What type of business did he enter after returning home in 1919?

4. What was the first elected office Truman held? What projects did he complete in this office and how did they affect the people of Jackson County?

5. What political machine helped Truman get elected? How did Truman justify his association with the Pendergast machine? In your opinion, was Truman right to accept help from a corrupt political machine to get elected? Explain your reasoning.

Reading 2 was compiled from notes in the Truman Papers at the Harry S Truman Presidential Library; Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S Truman: A Life (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1994); Alonzo Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S Truman (New York: Oxford Press, 1995); David G. McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992); Merle Miller, Plain Speaking (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1973); and Harry S Truman, Year of Decisions, vol. 1, Memoirs by Harry S Truman (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1956).

¹ Harry S Truman, Broadcast to the Armed Forces of the United States upon his Assumption of Office, April 17, 1945.
² Handwritten manuscript, "Politics. Life, etc." c. 1931, Pickwick Hotel Papers, Papers as Presiding Judge of the Jackson Co. (Missouri) Court, Harry S Truman Papers, Harry S Truman Presidential Library, 186.
³ Handwritten manuscript, "Politics. Life, etc." c. 1931, Pickwick Hotel Papers, Papers as Presiding Judge of the Jackson Co. (Missouri) Court, Harry S Truman Papers, Harry S Truman Presidential Library, 187.

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