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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Harry Truman and National
Politics (1935-1952)

On January 3, 1935, with Missouri and the nation in the depths of the Great Depression, Harry Truman took the oath of office to become a U.S. Senator. He supported President Roosevelt's New Deal policies to help small businesses, defend labor unions, and fund federal projects that would help revive the country's economy. Truman felt that these programs were not only good for people of the nation and his state, but on a more personal level, that they would also assist his friends and family back in Independence. Harry often wrote letters to them to share information and ask for their support on the tough issues that faced him as Senator. He also corresponded regularly with his wife when she and their daughter, Margaret, returned home to Independence, often for months at a time.

Truman soon realized that the real work done by the Senate "was carried out by unassuming and conscientious men, not by those who managed to get the most publicity."¹ He was a hard-working Senator who applied what he had learned on the local level in the committees on which he served. For example, as a member of the Interstate Commerce Committee, Truman drew on his knowledge of road-building projects in eastern Jackson County to support a nationwide system of good railroads and highways.

One of the most important projects that Senator Truman worked on was the Senate's Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, usually known as the Truman Committee. Its purpose was to stop waste and unfair practices in companies that supplied military contracts for the Federal Government. From March 1941 until Truman left the committee in 1944, it saved U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars. Harry Truman's leadership and hard work had gained the attention of Democratic party leaders and President Roosevelt. The president selected him to be his running mate in 1944 in his unprecedented race for a fourth term. They easily won the fall election and Harry S Truman became the vice-president of the United States.

Truman had been in the job for only 82 days when President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. The next day he told the White House news reporters, "I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets fell on me."² Harry Truman shouldered the weight of the Presidency, including the responsibility of leading the United States to victory in World War II. In the next few months he oversaw the end of the war in Europe, the occupation of defeated Germany, and the formation of the United Nations. He met with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam. Although he had not known of its existence when he became President, Truman made the decision to use the atomic bomb to defeat Japan and end World War II.

Even with the end of fighting, international affairs demanded Truman's attention. He instituted the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and countered Communist expansion (the Truman Doctrine) in Greece and Turkey as well as through the Berlin Airlift. Truman also recognized the new state of Israel.

At home, Truman began the difficult task of converting the U.S. economy from a wartime to a peacetime footing. Problems suppressed through the Depression and the war years surfaced and labor unrest increased. Consequently, few people believed that Truman could win the election campaign of 1948 against Republican candidate Thomas Dewey. Harry Truman decided to take his program directly to the American people and traveled thousands of miles by train during his famous "Whistlestop Campaign."

Truman defeated Dewey and won the election. His second term was dominated by efforts to contain the expansion of Communism. Following the defeat of Nationalist forces, China had become a communist power. In 1950, making what he called his hardest decision, Harry Truman sent American troops to defend South Korea when the communist North invaded it. The United States also formed the NATO alliance to contain Soviet expansion in Europe. However, a new red scare was unleashed in the form of McCarthyism. Domestic labor unrest continued, but the civil rights movement gained support when Truman issued executive orders to desegregate the U.S. armed forces. In 1952, Harry Truman decided not to seek the Presidency again but to return to Independence, a place he thought of often and missed a great deal.

Throughout these turbulent years, the President kept in touch with his friends and family in Independence by writing countless letters. In one to a good friend Ray Wills, who ran a local gas station, Harry urged him, "Take good care of yourself. Union Street and Maple Avenue will not be the same corner unless you are there to make it run." ³

On short trips back home, he thoroughly enjoyed his visits. From 1945 to 1952, the house on Delaware Street had also served as the nation's "Summer White House." Looking past the presidential election campaign of 1952, Harry Truman looked forward to returning home.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What national office did Truman hold before he became Vice President in 1944?

2. Describe Truman's committee work. Which of the committees that he worked on sounds most interesting to you, and why?

3. How did Harry Truman use his experiences in Independence to help him in government? How did he feel about his family and friends in Independence?

4. How did Truman become President of the United States? What challenges did he face and overcome?

5. What was the "Whistlestop Campaign"?

6. What did Truman consider to be his most difficult decision as President? Look over some of the other decisions Truman made. What would have been the most difficult for you, and why? (For more information on decisions made by Truman during his administration, visit the Truman Presidential Museum and Library website referenced in Supplementary Resources.)

Reading 3 was compiled from Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S Truman: A Life (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1994); Richard S. Kirkendall, ed., The Harry S Truman Encyclopedia (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989); 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 Richard S. Kirkendall, ed., The Harry S Truman Encyclopedia (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989), 325.
² David G. McCullough,
Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 353.
³ Letter, Harry S Truman to Ray Wills, Washington, D.C., May 26, 1948, #3193, Truman Papers, Harry S Truman Presidential Library.

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