“Give-’em-hell-Harry” The Presidency of Harry Truman

Future president Harry Truman had a difficult childhood. A kid wearing glasses was a rare thing in the farm town of Independence, Missouri, and his schoolmates teased him. Since he was not very tall, they nicknamed him “little four eyes.”

Young Harry Truman also had different goals than most other children. He loved music and hoped to become a concert pianist. As a result of his father’s bad investments Truman could no longer receive piano lessons or even apply to college. Although he hated it, he worked the family farm until his father died. Truman then tried his hand at various business ventures, all of which failed.

Despite his poor eyesight and the fact that he was past the draft age, Harry managed to serve as a combat artillery captain in World War I. He discovered his ability to lead other people and gained the respect of his men. The experience boosted his confidence. He returned to Missouri as a war hero and married his sweetheart Bess Wallace.

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Official Presidential Portrait of Harry Truman

Truman needed to support his family and had to find work. After another business failure, he decided to try politics. It helped that he had kept in touch with the other veterans he served with during World War I. With the help of his friends and Democratic Party boss Tom Pendergast, Harry got elected first as a judge and later to other county offices. Despite his association with Pendergast, who had criminal ties, Harry became known for his honesty and his desire to help the common man during the Great Depression.

In 1934 Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate. He served as chairman of a committee that uncovered the Defense Department’s wasteful spending. The public found Truman’s honesty and even his swearing so refreshing that they nicknamed him “Give-’em-hell-Harry.”

During the 1944 presidential election Truman was selected as President Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president. Only a few months after he became vice-president, Roosevelt died and Truman had to take over. At the time he thought, “There must be a million other men more qualified for the presidential task. But the work was mine to do, and I had to do it.”

Chief among Truman’s tasks was to bring World War II to a successful conclusion. Even after Germany surrendered, the fighting with Japan dragged on. Truman believed that if the war in the Pacific continued, up to 100,000 American soldiers could die. He decided that if Japan refused to surrender, he would use the new atomic bomb.

On July 26, 1945, Truman warned Japan that it would be destroyed if it continued to fight. The Japanese Emperor still would not give up. In August, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs, one on the town of Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki. Finally, the Japanese Emperor surrendered and the war was over.

Truman received criticism in later years for using the atomic bombs, which mostly killed Japanese civilians. He never regretted his decision, however. As Truman put it “The greatest part of the president’s job is to make decisions…he can’t pass the buck to anybody.”

After World War II Truman turned his attention to stopping the spread of communism. The start of a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union worried voters, and Truman’s popularity suffered. In 1948 he was probably the only person who thought he would be re-elected president. He took the campaign seriously and made hundreds of speeches throughout the country on his “Whistle-stop campaign” tour. Truman’s confidence proved to be prophetic when he won.

Truman’s second term was dominated by his decision to support South Korea when it was invaded by communist North Korea. He never asked Congress for a declaration of war because he feared the public would be reminded of World War II. As the war went on, Truman’s popularity took a nosedive.

Even though he had a poor approval rating, the public was still shocked when he announced that he didn’t plan to run for president again. He took delight in returning to Missouri and becoming “Mr. Citizen.” Truman lived to see much of his reputation restored. He became known not only for overseeing the end of World War II but also for desegregating the military and banning racial discrimination in the federal government.

 

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