Truman Summary & Study Guide

David McCullough
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Truman Summary & Study Guide Description

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Harry S Truman was born May 8, 1884, in Jackson County, Missouri. Both sets of his grandparents were Scotch/Irish pioneers who went west in search of fertile farmland. He grew up in a Tom Sawyer world where his small town neighbors of Independence, Missouri, knew and helped each other.

After his high school graduation in 1902, Harry could not afford to attend college because his father had gambled away all the family's holdings. Harry, his father, and his brother all took salaried jobs in Kansas City. In 1905 the family went back into farming and Harry worked at it for ten years. In 1918 he enlisted in the Army and served as a battery captain in France during World War I, where he showed courage in battle.

After the war, he returned to Independence and married his childhood sweetheart, Bess Wallace. He and a war buddy opened a haberdashery that went bankrupt within three years. Because Harry insisted on paying off all his business debts, he was broke for years.

When Truman was 38 years old, Tom Pendergast, the political boss of Kansas City, approached him to run for county judge. Harry won. He developed an outstanding record as judge, passing bonds to build roads, hospitals, courthouses, and other improvements. However, Tom Pendergast and his brothers were corrupt. They owned saloons, houses of prostitution, and gambling and illegal drug operations. They took bribes through the politicians they got elected. Truman was honest and idealistic, so his association with them hurt his reputation and physical health.

In 1934 Harry ran successfully for United States Senate where he was often snubbed as the "Senator from Pendergast." His first term was undistinguished, yet he won reelection against terrible odds. In his second term he made a name for himself as chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. The "Truman Committee" investigated mismanagement in defense plants and saved the country billions of dollars.

After messy backroom dealings during the 1940 Democratic Convention, Truman emerged as nominee for Vice President on the ticket with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Less than four months after Roosevelt's inauguration, Roosevelt died and Truman became President. Within his first three months as President, Truman made momentous decisions such as ending the war in Japan through use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, creating the United Nations, and deciding new European boundaries at the Potsdam Conference with Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Winston Churchill of Britain.

After the war, many worried that the United States would enter another Great Depression. As workers went on strike for more money, Truman dealt with some of the unions with a hard hand. He threatened to draft all striking railroad workers, for example.

Another grave post-war problem was the aggression of the Soviet Union and their leaders' inability to agree to any meaningful treaty. Churchill called the division of Europe "an iron curtain."

In this same era Henry Wallace claimed that British imperialism was worse than Soviet expansionism, so Truman made him resign. In the 1946 Congressional election the Republicans took the House and Senate. With a new Congress, Truman was no longer under Roosevelt's shadow.

The winter of 1946 was a disaster in Europe. People were starving. Secretary of State George Marshall toured Europe and reported things were worse than believed. A $17 billion aid program, known as the Marshall Plan, was passed. Many historians believe Truman saved western civilization through the Marshall Plan. Later, after reading a devastating report about the Soviet Union, Truman outlined his "Truman Doctrine." Its basis was that the United States would support free peoples everywhere through economic aid.

J. Edgar Hoover was investigating communist infiltration of the United States government. Truman foolishly approved Hoover's tests of loyalty, opening the door for the Army-McCarthy hearings that ruined people's lives through rumor and innuendo. In this period of his Presidency, Truman spoke in favor of civil rights for Negroes and national health insurance for all. He approved the founding of the state of Israel and the partition of Palestine.

Truman was unpopular and unelectable in1948, according to pundits who predicted a landslide for Republican Thomas Dewey. But Truman won reelection handily by touring the country on the Ferdinand Magellan, a train that stopped at every small town. People would yell "Give 'em hell, Harry!" Truman said he never gave anyone hell, he merely spoke the truth.

In his second term Truman helped create NATO to defend Europe against Communist aggression. People were edgy about the Soviet Union, especially after China fell into Communist hands under Chairman Mao. After the Russians tested an atomic bomb, Truman okayed the development of the hydrogen bomb, which was ten times more powerful than the atomic bomb.

On June 4, 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea in violation of the Potsdam Conference. Truman sent American troops under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur to defend South Korea. As the war bogged down and the Red Chinese sent 200,000 soldiers, MacArthur publicly blamed the Truman administration for his lack of victory in Korea. Truman's decision to fire him was unpopular. MacArthur came home to adoring crowds and gave a memorable speech on television.

There are some signs that Truman would have run for the Presidency again had there been encouragement from his party. Democrats did not want him to run because his popularity was below 30%. Truman initially backed Eisenhower for the Democratic nomination, but when Eisenhower refused, Truman supported Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. A few months after Eisenhower was elected as a Republican, the new President signed a treaty ending the Korean War on terms that Truman would have been criticized for accepting.

Truman retired to Independence, Missouri, and worked on his memoirs and the Truman Library. Neither Eisenhower nor Kennedy asked him for advice. Lyndon Johnson ignored him after Truman refused to endorse the Viet Nam war. Truman died in 1972. Only now are historians beginning to appreciate Truman. Many now rate him as either a "great" or a "near great" President.

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