When Harry Truman was called to the presidency in April 1945, he had been serving as vice-president for just three months. He had not been briefed about President Roosevelt's escalating difficulties with the Soviet Union, nor about the development of the atomic bomb. "I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me," he said.
The only 20th-century president without a college degree, he was expected by some to prove woefully out of his depth. Truman had started out in Missouri as a farmer, book-keeper and clerk before serving as an artillery officer in the First World War and coming back to start an unsuccessful haberdashery business in Kansas. He then became active in the Democratic Party, was in due course appointed a county judge and became a Senator in 1934. During the Second World War he headed the Senate committee investigating waste and corruption, reportedly saving some $15bn – and building a reputation for diligence and honesty which made him, for President Roosevelt, an attractive running-mate for the 1944 election.
Truman accepted the nomination for vice-president with some reluctance – "Tell him to go to hell" was reportedly his first response, and he later described the office as "about as useful as a cow's fifth teat". He had little contact with Roosevelt while serving with him and was understandably shocked at the magnitude of the responsibility that was thrust upon him after 82 days.
Yet the man who coined the phrase "The buck stops here" did not buckle. Within four months he had made two of the biggest decisions ever made by a human being, authorising the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (According to notes that he wrote at the time, he was afraid that he might be bringing about the end of the world.) Japan surrendered shortly afterwards.
Other momentous decisions followed. He led the US in helping to create the United Nations; approved the Marshall Plan (named after his Secretary of State, George C Marshall) for European recovery; played a leading role in the establishment of Nato; and in March 1947 enunciated what became the West's defining creed for the Cold War – the Truman Doctrine. This stated that every nation must choose between two "alternative ways of life": Communism and democracy. "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures," he stated.
Truman also made the crucial decision to recognise the new state of Israel in 1948, sponsored the 11-month Berlin Airlift (also in 1948), and won a UN mandate to expel the invading North Koreans from South Korea by force in 1950. He also resisted pressure from General MacArthur to declare all-out war on China when the Korean War began to escalate.
At home, he championed the rights of African-Americans, initiated a "loyalty review" programme to root out Communist subversion in federal employees, and presented to Congress a 21-point programme – known as the Fair Deal – that proposed the expansion of social security, a full-employment programme, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Act, and public housing and slum clearance. He claimed that this programme symbolised "my assumption of the office of President in my own right" – but he was unable to get it all through Congress.
The economic difficulties that followed the Second World War made it hard for him to achieve lasting popularity with the electorate – there was widespread surprise when he was re-elected in 1948 – and by 1952 his ratings had reached an all-time low. Progressives saw him as reactionary – especially after he ordered the federal seizure of the nation's steel mills to head off an impending strike – while the increasingly strident McCarthyites (whom he had underestimated) accused him of being "soft" on Communism. He was also plagued by accusations of corruption among senior officials.
He did not seek re-election in 1952 but retired to his home in Independence, Missouri, where he wrote his memoirs, saw his reputation gradually recover, and worked in Democratic affairs until his health began to fail in the Sixties. He died in 1972.
In his own words
"Within the first few months, I discovered that being a president is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep riding or be swallowed."
"Communism is based on the belief that man is so weak and inadequate that he is unable to govern himself, and therefore requires the rule of strong masters. Democracy is based on the conviction that man has the moral and intellectual capacity, as well as the inalienable right, to govern himself with reason and justice."
"I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them... That's all the powers of the President amount to."
"The buck stops here."
"I knew what I was doing when I stopped the war [with the atomic bomb]... I have no regrets and, under the same circumstances, I would do it again."
"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
"It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."
In others' words
"There never has been a decision made under this man's administration... that has not been made in the best interest of his country. It is not only the courage of these decisions that will live, but the integrity of them." George Marshall
"President Truman is beloved by the American people because of his candour, honesty, frankness and principle. He... represented in the minds of the American citizens the bold principles of the New Deal and the Fair Deal." Hubert Humphrey
"It defies all common sense to send that roughneck ward politician back to the White House." Robert A Taft
His wife, Bess, who lived to be 97, was the longest-lived First Lady.
Truman met his wife when he was six and she was five. "I only had one sweetheart," he said later.
He considered himself an art-lover, but preferred equestrian statues to Picasso.
Truman was a gifted pianist ( right), who often played to relax.
His middle name, in full, was "S". Truman's parents could not agree whether it should be Solomon (after his mother's father) or Shippe (after his father's father) – so they compromised with a simple letter on the birth certificate.
When President Roosevelt died, Truman was summoned urgently to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt told him: "Harry, the President is dead." Truman said: "Is there anything I can do for you?" Mrs Roosevelt shook her head and said: "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."
His daughter, Marion, was a singer. When the Washington Post published a scathing review of one of her performances, Truman wrote a famous letter to the critic in question: "I have just read your lousy review buried in the back pages. You sound like a frustrated old man who never made a success, an eight-ulcer man on a four-ulcer job and all four ulcers working. I never met you but if I do, you'll need a new nose and a supporter below." He hand-wrote the letter and posted it himself so that his aides would not intercept it.
Truman's victory in the 1948 election was considered so unlikely that the Chicago Daily Tribune published a famously premature edition with the front-page headline "Dewey defeats Truman".
David Lilienthal, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, expressed concern that Truman's explosive temper might set off World War III.Reuse content