In the eyes of the public, Harry S. Truman was viewed as an ordinary fellow. He happened to succeed one of the greatest presidents to ever serve the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. From 1945 to 1953, Truman served as the thirty-third president of the United States. Within that span of eight years, the modern presidency, which began with FDR, was strengthened administratively by the man referred to as "a commoner." On the contrary, history looked upon Harry S. Truman as anything but common. This often underrated president has gradually gained the status of being one of the best. Truman’s idea of a president was "somebody in charge who knows how to do the job and can take over and see that things happen."1 Inevitably, Truman took charge, especially of the Executive Office; possibly, the only job he might be guilty of doing was rallying public support behind his policies; also, he did see that things happened, but more importantly, he saw them happen for the right reason—for the welfare of Americans.
The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945 was a shock to everyone, especially Harry Truman who later wrote: "I won’t deny that, at first, I felt plenty of fear myself at the added and overwhelming responsibilities that had come to me so suddenly. I tried to deal with it lightly." 2 Truman’s ability to accept the burden of responsibility was probably his greatest virtue. He was a long way from being the "sissy" child who shied away from trouble because he feared the consequences of breaking his glasses and upsetting his father. Aside from his initial and understandable fear, Truman did have reason to be alarmed ascending to the presidency. In his eighty-two days as vice-president he had seldom conferred with Roosevelt. He had no previous knowledge that the U.S. was developing an atomic bomb, and was not consulted of the Allies’ postwar plans, or even of the president’s rapidly failing health. 3 In a matter of hours his responsibility shifted from having a comfortable drink while discussing some legislative matters with Congressional cronies to consulting advisors on the next step towards ending the Second Great War. Roosevelt’s failure in keeping Truman, his potential successor and deputy, acquainted in the last few months with the decisions being made on the war was an "extraordinary" surprise to Winston Churchill:
How could Mr. Truman know and weigh the issues at stake at the climax of the war? Everything that we have learnt about him since shows him to be a resolute and fearless man, capable of taking the greatest decisions. In these early months his position was one of extreme difficulty, and did not enable him to bring his outstanding qualities fully into action. 4
Indeed significant pressure was on Truman to end the war in Europe so that the U.S. military forces could concentrate on an anticipated invasion of Japan. Churchill, however, was weary that a premature withdrawal of too many British and U.S. forces from the occupied zones would intensify the "iron curtain" being drawn by the Soviets. Unfortunately, either the pressure from home or a misunderstanding of the growing Communist situation prompted Truman to practically disregard Churchill’s warnings about Europe.
In less than four months after becoming president, Harry Truman was faced with a decision never encountered by any other leader in history. The decision was whether to drop a newly developed bomb that had the capacity of destroying an entire city in one massive explosion. Then on July 29, 1945, after the Japanese rejected Truman’s final plea to surrender, he made that fateful decision. Seven days later on August 5, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Four days after, on August 9, the second and thankfully last atomic bomb to be used on humans was detonated on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered five days later. Truman recalls:
I was the president who make the decision to unleash that terrible power, of course, and it was a difficult and dreadful decision to have to make…It was a question of saving hundreds of thousands of American lives…I couldn’t worry about what history would say about my personal morality. I made the only decision I ever knew how to make. I did what I thought was right. 5
History will undoubtedly remember Truman most for making this decision, and it will be fortunate that he was man enough to accept it, if, and only if, that decision deters other from making it also.
After the war, Truman still faced the challenge of convincing the American public that he was a worthy leader. Right from the beginning, Truman was characterized by his critics as inexperienced "failed haberdasher." 6 He was called this because about twenty-five years prior, his men’s clothing business had gone bankrupt, leaving him in debt for the next fifteen years. 7 Living in the shadow of FDR was not easy. FDR’s personality was a great asset in which his persuasive charm mixed in with the words he spoke could motivate the entire people. It was as if Roosevelt truly believed he was naturally suited to be president. 8 On the other hand, Truman portrayed the style of a local, machine type politician. His oratorical skills were poor and he had a tendency to take "verbal shots from the hip" at press conferences. The public’s perception of Truman began to decline rapidly because they sensed (however incorrectly) that he was "erratic" and "impulsive" rather than decisive. 9 Consequently, his public approval rating remained lower than 50 percent for a majority of his presidency and inadvertently hurt his poker hand when dealing with Congress.
What Truman lacked in communicating, he made up for in knowledge. He was an excellent student of history and especially of past presidents. In his autobiography he wrote about the fact that:
Most good presidents knew the history of our government intimately and thoroughly, and the reason this is important, of course, is that knowledge of the past enables you to understand what makes good government and what doesn’t…you don’t have the opportunity to judge present events in context with similar or identical past events if your knowledge of past history isn’t good enough. 10
Truman’s studies encouraged him to follow the Wilsonian and FDR premises of establishing and maintaining a strong executive administration. Furthermore, Truman’s competent understanding of the Constitution and law in general helped him to institutionalize his own changes. 11 On September 6, 1945, he introduced his "Fair Deal" agenda in a twenty-one point message to Congress. Here it was made quite clear that he would strive to attain the quasi-rights that Roosevelt envisioned and make them "…the essence of postwar economic life." These quasi-rights included a paying job for each citizen, sufficient medical care, a decent home, and a good education with the intention of being provided by the grace of the federal government. Specific points of his "Fair Deal" suggested the extension of social security to more workers, an increase in minimum wage, a national heath insurance system, urban development and full employment. Sidney Milkis considers Truman’s Fair Deal an "…attempt to codify Roosevelt’s vision of a complete economic constitutional order."12 Truman had sincerely believed that carrying on the good policies of his predecessors was part of his obligation to the office.
Unlike Roosevelt, who tended to improvise on policy, Truman brought the executive branch under tighter organization. He institutionalized efficiency and stability in the legislation review process through his use of the Bureau of the Budget (BOB). The BOB was used to carry out the president’s executive and legislative duties, in short, it created his agenda. In addition, the BOB drafted White House-sponsored legislation, executive orders and acted as clearing house for legislative proposals developing from within the various federal agencies. This agenda was then packaged annually in a report named "The Program of the President," and distributed around budget time.13 As Milkis rightly points out: "Truman developed an advisory process in which policies came to him for decision, not, as with FDR, for development." 14
Truman, with some help from Congress, institutionalized his executive office further through the CEA in 1946 and the NSC in 1947, known respectively as the Council on Economic Advisors and the National Security Council. At first, Congress figured (rather hoped) that these agencies would limit the president’s power in developing both fiscal and foreign policy. For instance, the CEA was supposed to make an annual independent assessment that was not biased by any hidden political agenda, while the NSC was to place a leash on the president’s "Commander in Chief" role. However, Truman "domesticated" both agencies by requiring that his seal of approval be placed on any and all of its policies. Since then, every president has used both the CEA and the NSC as major policy creators for their executive office. 15 It is also interesting to point out that in 1949, Truman requested that the vice president be made a statutory member of the National Security Council. 16 In all likelihood, in case of another president’s death during some sort of international crisis, he did not want any successor to be as ill-informed as he had been.
Harry Truman genuinely believed:
You can’t breed or teach leadership; it comes about naturally…somebody has to have the brains to lead and to outline plans that will make the thing a success. There always has to be a man at the top who understands, or thinks he understands, where he’s going or what he wants to do. 17
This philosophy truly characterizes the way he operated—as the main framer of the agenda for political debate. His object or goal was to assure that the Executive Office of the United States had a strong voice in what direction the country would go both domestically and abroad. In fact, his Constitutional knowledge convinced him that as President "…he was required—not just entitled—to act decisively and with dispatch." 18 As it was mentioned earlier, Truman ran his administration in an orderly and business-like fashion. He had a distaste for partisan politics interfering with substantial progress, an attitude he had held since his days as the presiding county judge of Jackson County, Missouri. As Greestein notes, Truman "…would have rejected the notion than an administration’s infighting can advance the president’s capacity to lead." 19 Whereas FDR, who allowed policy bouts within his administration, had enjoyed a sort of free-market approach to coming up with ideas.
Throughout Truman’s presidency, he had worked with four different Congresses. For each Congress Truman had a different approach, characterizing his unique ability at "engaging remarkably adroit footwork," says Alonzo Hamby. His dealings with the first, the Seventy-ninth session of Congress, was the least productive of them all because of his own "accommodative attitude." 20 The Eightieth Congress, elected in 1946, turned out to be a boxing match centered around the New Deal/Fair Deal domestic issues. The Congress sustained a conservative coalition between the Republican majority and the southern Democrats. 21 Truman accepted the Congress for what it was—hostile, and in turn asserted his power through vetoing any anti-New Deal legislation and by refusing to meet with his own party’s Congressional leaders on legislative matters. Surprisingly, however, Truman scored a tremendous bi-partisan victory by obtaining approval of his infamous foreign policy aimed at Soviet expansion—the Truman Doctrine (1947). Specifically, this policy directly established that the U.S. would bear the burden of providing financial assistance for any country seeking protection, beginning with Greece and Turkey, from Communism. Indirectly, the Truman Doctrine was thought to have inaugurated the Cold War. 22 Then, in April of 1948, Truman achieved another victory for American diplomacy with the approval of the European Recovery Program. This policy, know mainly as the Marshall Plan, provided economic recovery aid for war-torn Western Europe.
In 1948, Truman won back the White House and the Democrats won back Congress. Despite the victories, Truman still had a difficult time implementing his Fair Deal policies with the Eighty-first Congress. He could only muster limited success in obtaining secondary New Deal/Fair Deal legislation in the form of social security, minimum wage, and housing proposals. 23 As for foreign policy, Truman had difficulty maintaining his previous level of support from the bi-partisan coalition. Events such as the fall of China, the Soviet’s acquirement of atomic weaponry, the Korean War and even McCarthyism all had a negative effect on the administration.
Truman’s strategy needed further readjustment when dealing with the Eighty-second Congress. His emphasis is agenda shifted back to foreign policy in part because of an unresolved Korean War and the controversial dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur. Also, new Fair Deal legislation was virtually put on hold by another stubborn constituency of Republicans and conservative Democrats. 24
When reviewing Truman’s record, most would agree that his success in creating public policy was average. Domestic programs in terms of Fair Deal initiatives were often unsuccessful. Foreign policy, on the other hand, was an impressive achievement, especially in rounding up the bi-partisan support needed from Congress. 25 Ultimately, though, Truman’s significance will be measured by his impact on the modern presidency.
The ascendancy of the Cold War gave Truman broader executive responsibility in deciding foreign policy while at the same time diminishing the Congress. Basically, he followed the rationale being that the President of the United States was now the leader of the free world, like it or not. 26 That as president, he was known for his administrative ability in dealing with social and economic issues, and not at all was he familiar in the area of diplomacy. Fortunately, Truman was intelligent and honest enough to recognize his own shortcomings and acted accordingly. He practically became his own chief of staff. He would delegate responsibility to each member of his cabinet along clearly defined lines. Any decision important to national interests Truman demanded be left to him. As the biographer Alonzo Hamby observed: "he…managed to achieve order and clarity without sacrificing control." 27 Truman’s belief in sound advice and accurate information prompted him to support the establishment of the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. In fact, he once said that he CIA was primarily created to benefit the president because it saved him from "having to look through a bunch of papers two feet high, the information was coordinated so that the president could arrive at the facts." 28
In June of 1950, Truman made one of his boldest decisions by committing U.S. troops to an all out war in South Korea without a Congressional declaration. This action was an unprecedented display of executive authority in carrying out the Constitutional duties of Commander in Chief. Truman justified his decision by stating that the U.S. was "carrying out an obligation for the United Nations." 29 At first, Truman had practically the full support of the country and the Congress, but as the war dragged on inconclusively, that support dwindled significantly. Winston Churchill, however, complimented Truman for defending South Korea in the battle against Communism this way: "His celerity, wisdom, and courage in this crisis make him worthy, in my estimation, to be numbered among the greatest of American Presidents." 30 In 1952, probably not many Americans would have agreed.
Harry S. Truman was not a man of words, but of action. He deeply believed in serving the American people honestly, loyally, and dutifully. The public’s poor perception weighed heavily on his fragile conscience. But to his credit, it had no influence on his major decisions like dropping the atomic bomb, entering the Korean War, or continuing many of FDR’s New Deal policies. More substantial, still, was Truman’s managerial expertise in solidifying and stabilizing a role for an active Executive Branch in the formulation of modern welfare and international policies. Budgets and bureaucracies were growing at astronomical rates. Truman saw to it that these emerging executive departments, as in the BOB, DOD, and CIA, were accountable and above all, answerable to him. In relations with the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court, Truman was not afraid to do battle. Disputes with often intolerant Congresses led him to cast more than two hundred vetoes during his presidency—the most famous being that of the Taft-Harley Act (officially titled the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947); which the Congress overturned and enacted anyway, but not before Truman solidified Labor’s gratitude and allegiance towards him and the Democratic party for years to come. 31 Also, Truman’s historical defeat by the U.S. Supreme Court in the steel mill seizure case of 1952 (Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer), where he refused to apply a sixty-day cooling off period between labor and management as required by the Taft-Hartley Act, marked his willingness to assert "emergency" executive powers despite the law. 32 Furthermore, it was evidence to the fact that Truman was eager, at times, to "step over the line" when he felt it was his broadly interpreted Constitutional right to do so as President and Chief-Executive of the United States. Truman later wrote: "I did what I felt had to be done without worrying too much about limitations." 33
In fact, he went so far as to say that a good president is one:
who can make up his own mind, who isn’t afraid of controversy, who doesn’t allow himself to be held back by some of the limitations other people try to place on the presidency, and who doesn’t even allow himself to be held back by certain limitations in the Constitution. 34
Admittedly, Truman had made on occasion "erratic" and "impulsive" comments to the press, and was, indeed, blunt and outspoken towards his political rivals. But, Hamby reminds us that "Truman never confused impulsiveness with decisiveness when it came to important matters." 35 Let historians not confuse Harry Truman’s popularity poles with incompetence when they are evaluating his place among former President’s of the United States.
Michael A. Kosdrosky is a junior from Brecksville, Ohio and is majoring in Political Science.
Margaret Truman, ed., Where the Buck Stops: The Personal and Private Writings of Harry S. Truman (New York: Warner, 1989) 81.Return to Text.
Ibid., 373.Return to Text.
Sidney M. Milkis, and Michael Nelson, The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-1990 (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, 1990) 366.Return to Text.
Winston S. Churchill, Memoirs of the Second World War (Boston, Houghton, 1987) 946.Return to Text.
Truman, 203-306.Return to Text.
Fred I. Greenstein, ed., and Alonzo L. Hamby, “Harry S. Truman: Insecurity and Responsibility,” Leadership in the Modern Presidency (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988) 303.Return to Text.
Ibid., 47.Return to Text.
Ibid., 312.Return to Text.
Ibid., 55-56.Return to Text.
Truman, 90.Return to Text.
Ibid., 84.Return to Text.
Milkis, 275.Return to Text.
Greenstein, 304.Return to Text.
Milkis, 281.Return to Text.
Greenstein, 305.Return to Text.
Milkis, 370.Return to Text.
Truman, 80.Return to Text.
Greenstein, 312.Return to Text.
Ibid., 312.Return to Text.
Ibid., 70.Return to Text.
Milkis, 275-276.Return to Text.
John A. Garraty, and Peter Gay, eds., The Columbia History of the World (New York: Harper, 1981) 1075-1076.Return to Text.
Greenstein, 71.Return to Text.
Ibid., 70-72.Return to Text.
Ibid., 306.Return to Text.
Milkis, 277.Return to Text.
Greenstein, 62.Return to Text.
Loch K. Johnson, America’s Secret Power: The CIA in a Democratic Society (New York: Oxford UP, 1989) 14.Return to Text.
Milkis, 277, 308.Return to Text.
Churchill, 1011-1012.Return to Text.
Milkis, 276.Return to Text.
Ibid., 277-280.Return to Text.
Truman, 84.Return to Text.
Ibid., 81.Return to Text.
Greenstein, 67.Return to Text.