The 33rd President of the United States experienced numerous careers in his lifetime. Born into a Missouri farm family, he grew up with Midwestern values, a dream of going to college—and becoming a concert pianist. His family moved from their farm near Grandview to Independence where he attended public schools and graduated from high school. He recalled his first wages, $3 for working after school and on Saturday, at the Clinton Drugstore. He bought his mother a present, and tried to give his remaining earnings to his dad. By age 14, he had read all the books in the Independence Public Library.
After high school, he lived in Kansas City and briefly worked as a timekeeper for a railroad construction contractor, and then as a clerk in two Kansas City banks. Due to bad investments by his father, college was beyond his family’s financial reach. Beginning in 1906, he returned to Grandview to help his father run the family farm. Since his family had moved to Independence when Truman was only six, he was virtually a city boy. Yet, he did not shirk the hard work—filling twelve to fourteen-hour days with farm chores. He stayed at Grandview for ten years. From Grandview Farm in 1913, he wrote to Bess, the woman whose hand he sought in marriage: “There is always something the matter with a crop. It’s either too dry or too wet or too short or too long or too much or not enough. If is the largest word in a farmer’s language.” Needless to say, during those early years of hard work, becoming a United States President never crossed Truman’s mind.
From 1905 to 1911, Truman served in the Missouri National Guard, and with his regiment he saw action in WWI in France. He rose to the rank of Captain. After the war he joined the Army reserves in Independence, reaching the rank of Colonel. Over all those years, he never forgot his Missouri roots, nor his attraction to Bess Wallace, a classmate in Independence. For nine years, he courted Bess, and in 1919, they were married. He went into a men’s clothing business in Kansas with his wartime friend, Eddie Jacobson. However, the store failed in the postwar recession. Truman narrowly avoided bankruptcy, and over a number of years paid off his share of the store’s debts. At age 33, Truman deemed himself a failure.
In 1922, he started on a career of public service, winning an election to be one of three judges of his county’s court. Judge Truman’s duties were mainly administrative rather than judicial, but he built a solid reputation for honesty and efficiency in the management of county affairs. Although he lost his bid for re-election in 1924, he won the election as presiding judge in the Jackson County Court in 1926, and again in 1930. By 1934, he won an election to the United States Senate. During those years, he had significant roles in the passage into law of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and the Transportation Act of 1940. He won his second election to the Senate in 1940 and gained national prominence as chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. The Committee even took on Truman’s name, and sought to ensure that defense contractors delivered to the nation quality goods at fair prices. These were great accomplishments for a Missouri farm boy who never had the opportunity to attend college. His reputation for honesty and decisiveness garnered a nomination for Vice-President of the United States, running on the ticket with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. On January 20, 1945, he took the vice-presidential oath. With the sudden and unexpected death of President Roosevelt only 88 days later, Harry S. Truman, a common man from Missouri, sat behind the desk in the famed Oval Office at the White House.
President Truman showed remarkable courage and mental strength, claiming that his first year as President proved to be a “…year of decisions.” During his first two months in office WWII ended in Europe. He participated in a conference at Potsdam, Germany, governing the defeated country and laying groundwork for the final stage of the war against Japan. Truman approved the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 6, 1945, thus ending WWII. The debate continues to this day on whether or not dropping those atomic bombs was the only—and best—option for bringing the war to a close. President Truman never wavered in his decision; he believed that lives were saved, despite the large number of Japanese lives that were sacrificed.
In that first year of his presidency, Truman witnessed the founding of the United Nations and the increasingly strained relationship with the Soviet Union. In his salty, no-nonsense manner, he adopted the mantra: “The Buck Stops Here” as he stood firm in serious foreign policy initiatives. He influenced the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In May 1948, Truman recognized Israel, demonstrating his support for democracy and his commitment to a homeland for the Jewish people. When a communist nation invaded a non-communist one—North Korea overrunning South Korea in June 1950—Truman responded by waging undeclared war.
In his domestic policies, President Truman sought to accomplish the difficult transition from a war to a peace economy without plunging the nation into recession. The United States experienced changes in those years. A display in the Truman Museum reflects the “boom” the nation felt with women going into the work force; men entering college under the GI bill, and an unprecedented number of babies boosting the population He had hoped to extend Roosevelt’s New Deal social programs to reach more people with government protection and services. While he was successful in achieving a healthy peacetime economy, only a few of his social program proposals became law. However, his administration moved beyond the New Deal in the area of civil rights. With his power as President, he issued executive orders to desegregate the armed forces and he forbid racial discrimination in federal employment. He also established a Committee on Civil Rights and encouraged the Justice Department to argue before the Supreme Court on behalf of plaintiffs fighting against segregation.
In 1948, Truman won reelection. His defeat had been widely expected and often predicted, but Truman’s energy in undertaking his campaign and his willingness to confront issues won over the electorate. His famous “Whistlestop” campaign tour through the country has passed into political folklore.
Truman left the presidency and retired to Independence in January 1953, saying, “I’ve had all of Washington I want. I prefer my life in Missouri.” For the next two decades, he delighted in being “Mr. Citizen,” as he called himself in a book of memoirs. He spent his days reading, writing, lecturing, and taking long brisk walks. He took satisfaction in founding and supporting his Library, where he donated his Presidential papers, photos, newspaper clippings, artifacts, and documents to the American people. Well-defined exhibits of Truman’s life—and life in general in America during his era—fill two levels of the building. A beautifully landscaped courtyard centers the complex. Harry S. Truman died on December 26, 1972. Bess Truman died a decade later on October 18, 1982. They are buried side by side in the Library’s courtyard. The Truman Presidential Museum and Library is located at US 24 and Delaware Avenue, Independence, MO. Phone: 816-254-9929. www.npsgov/hstr