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Harry S. Truman: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: James Moeller
Harry S. Truman was a colorful, profane, and brutally honest man. He also happened to be the 33rd President of the United States. So, who was this plain and simple man from Independence, Mo.? This lesson will cover Truman's early life, political career, and elevation to the presidency during World War II.

''Give em' Hell Harry!''

''I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.'' This quote from 33rd President of the United States Harry S. Truman says a lot about his character. Colorful, profane, brutally honest, and a strong believer in loyalty and assertiveness. Additionally, he was the only U.S. president, to date, responsible for deploying the atomic bomb. President Truman stated that his order to deploy the bomb over Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Japan, was, ''no great decision.'' Just who was this plain and simple man from Independence, Mo.?

33rd President, Harry S. Truman

Early Farm Life, WWI, and Politics

Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, to John & Martha Truman. Young Harry grew up on farms in Lamar, Belton, Harrison, and Independence, Mo., working hard and gaining experience that would follow him the rest of his life and influence his decisions (loyalty, honor, telling the truth). He graduated from Independence High School in 1901. He is the only president in recent history to not have a college degree. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, young Harry re-entered the Missouri National Guard, where he had previously served in an artillery unit. Surprised, his men elected him Lieutenant. Promoted to Captain in 1918, he was given command of an artillery battery with the 35th Infantry Division. His unit was involved in the Sept. Meuse-Argonne offensive, where he saved American lives by scattering a German battery, which was trying to form opposite his lines. He was also in an operation to support Col. George S. Patton's tank brigade.

When the war ended in November of 1919, Truman returned home to Independence, where he promptly married his childhood sweetheart, Bess Wallace on June 28th.

Harry & Bess Truman, Wedding Day, June 28, 1919

Just before the wedding, Truman had opened a haberdashery in downtown Kansas City, but the business failed at the commencement of the Great Depression in 1922. So honest was Truman, he refused bankruptcy and took 15 years to pay off a $15,000 loan his creditors had forwarded him. Due to a connection with an old army buddy, Truman was introduced to Kansas City Political ''Boss,'' Tom Pendergast. With Pendergast's help, he was elected Jackson County Judge (Commissioner) in the same year. This connection would follow him to the U.S. Senate, where he would be elected to in 1934. Critics derisively called Truman, ''The Senator from Pendergast.'' It should be made clear that even though Truman was elected via a corrupt system, he stayed above it and remained honest, yet loyal to his mentor. It was thought that Truman's connection to Pendergast, who had been convicted for tax evasion, would prevent him from winning re-election in 1938. Because of his honest reputation, he narrowly won his Senate seat back.

From Vice President to President

The 1944 presidential election was fast approaching and the incumbent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had made it clear that he did not want his VP, Henry Wallace, to continue in that office. Wallace was very unpopular among Democrats. Due to Senator Truman's reputation as a straightforward, honest, hardworking politician, FDR chose Truman as his running mate. With World War II nearing a victorious end, FDR was easily re-elected to an unprecedented fourth term. Sadly, his fourth term ended all too soon when FDR died of an aneurysm at Warm Springs, Ga., April 12, 1945. On that day, as Truman entered the Oval Office to be sworn in, he approached First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt and asked, ''Is there any way I can help you?'' To which Mrs. Roosevelt replied, ''No, is there any way I can help you?''

World War II was nearing victory, and on May 8th, 1945, Germany surrendered; however, the war in the Pacific was still raging on. Now, Truman was faced with a dilemma of monumental proportions. As Vice-President, he had never been told about the Manhattan Project, the code-name for the effort to create an atomic bomb. Truman actually made the decision easily, especially when his military advisers were informing him U.S. casualties could total almost a half-million if they invaded Japan with conventional forces. After two atomic bombs were detonated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August of 1945, Japan officially surrendered on August 15, 1945.

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