Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman

In the beginningHarry S. Truman, America's 33rd president, was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri. Serving as vice president for only 82 days, he succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt, upon his death on April 12, 1945. FDR's condition was a closely held secret, and he had not prepared Truman for ascension to the presidency. America was still embroiled in World War II. Courage, determination and imagination were required and well met during the Missouri Democrat's presidency.

Shortly after the Allies achieved victory in Europe, Truman was faced with one of the most awesome decisions faced by anyone in world history; he decided to drop the first atomic bombs on Imperial Japan. The two bombs ultimately killed more than 200,000 people and ended World War II. Truman struggled through the Korean War, apparently unable to bring it to a close, and faced a frustrated and angry Congress that was beginning to threaten impeachment proceedings against him. He declined to run for president again in 1952 and returned home. Truman died in Kansas City, Missouri, on Dec 26, 1972.

Truman's youthThe Truman birthplace, which the family occupied until Harry was 11 months old, was built between 1880 and 1882. John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Young Truman purchased the 20- by 28-foot house as newlyweds in 1882 for $685. Visitors today can view its four downstairs rooms and two upstairs rooms, as well as the smokehouse, well and outhouse located in the back. The modest furnishings inside the house and the surrounding landscaping represent a typical home of the time. It has neither electricity nor indoor plumbing.Harry S. Truman was the eldest of three children; he had a brother and a sister. Harry's parents could not decide on his middle name, but since both final alternatives began with "S," the Trumans adopted the middle initial by itself. When Harry was six years old, his family moved from a farm near Grandview, Missouri, to Independence, where Harry entered public school and attended the Baptist church. Young Harry started wearing eyeglasses at age eight. Cautioned by the optometrist against breaking them, Harry shied away from rough play. By 14 years of age, Harry had read all the books in the Independence Public Library, plus the Bible three times.After graduating from high school at Independence, he worked on a variety of jobs before managing his family's farm from 1906 to 1917. Truman wanted to attend West Point, but was not accepted because of poor eyesight. He did join the Missouri National Guard in 1905. At the outset of World War I, he served in the U.S. Army as an artillery battery commander in France. Following World War I, Truman returned to Kansas City where he married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Virginia ("Bess") Wallace, on June 28, 1919. He opened a men's clothing store, which failed in the postwar depression. Harry and Bess had one daughter, Mary Margaret*, born in 1924.Truman in politicsIn 1922 Truman entered local Democratic politics and was elected judge (commissioner) of Jackson County, Missouri. With the support of the influential political leader, Thomas J. Pendergast, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934, where he voted consistently for New Deal legislation. Truman was re-elected to the senate in 1940 and again in 1944. During World War II, he came to national prominence as chairman of a senate investigating committee that exposed waste in the war effort. Coincidently, Truman's committee was never aware of the Manhattan Project, which alone cost $20 billion.

From vice president to presidentBefore the election of 1944, Truman replaced Henry A. Wallace on the Democratic ticket with FDR, and the pair went on to victory. Upon FDR's sudden death, Truman became America's 33rd president on April 12, 1945. Truman was a veteran politician and legislator, but he had no experience with foreign policy, so he had to rely on advisors and his own instincts. Indeed, the ailing Roosevelt had not prepared Truman to take over a foreign policy that called for using the atomic bomb to bring the war with Japan to a close, and for continuing relations with the Soviet Union, a U.S. wartime ally.

Foreign policyDuring World War II, Truman had to contend with many powerful and sometimes devious men who were well prepared for their respective roles on the world stage. Such national leaders as Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini; military men, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton Jr. and Douglas MacArthur; and scientists, Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, had decades of training and experience on the world stage and were leaders in their respective fields.

Enmity had grown between Truman and generals Patton and MacArthur. Both men were respected and admired American heroes. Patton and MacArthur each had their own concept of how to win World War II in their respective theaters. The situations were unique for each general, but the bone of contention between Truman and those two men was simply, who was in charge of foreign policy.

The Manhattan Project had begun in 1942, during the Third Franklin Roosevelt Administration. Truman did not learn about the project until after FDR's death. Truman knew the planned invasion of the Japanese homeland, "Olympic," would exact a terrible cost of life. At the time, little was known of the side effects from the blast of an atomic weapon. Irradiation from the atom bombs eventually killed about as many people as the actual explosions. Current estimates put the total loss of Japanese life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at about 200,000 souls. On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally.

Postwar presidencyTruman became convinced that Stalin meant to extend Communist influence throughout Europe. By early 1947, the president had a new foreign policy in the making. In its later stages it was called "Containment" and was aimed at blocking Communist expansion anywhere in the world. Under Truman, the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were the major manifestations of containment and committed the United States to a role of world leadership it had never before been willing to assume. The war years had brought America out of its Isolationism.

Implemented in 1947 and 1948, the Marshall Plan was a massive American-financed reconstruction program for war-torn Europe. At the time, NATO was a military alliance established in 1949 to provide a common defense against potential Soviet and later Communist Chinese military aggression, and it was the first peacetime military alliance the U.S. had ever joined.Truman's Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, desegregated the military. The order declared: "There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." Truman also established a presidential committee to oversee the desegregation of military units. By the end of The Korean War in 1953, 90 percent of the units were integrated.Truman presided over major domestic events and trends in the late forties and early fifties:

  • The GI Bill (passed in 1944) provided assistance to veterans for college tuition and to buy houses with low-interest mortgages.
  • Eighty-five percent of new houses were constructed outside of central cities.
  • Automobiles and highways became essential for the "American Dream."
  • The postwar "Baby Boom" (1946 to 1964), was the largest generation in history.
  • Defense companies laid off one million workers; three million workers became unemployed by March 1946.
  • Inflation jumped 25 percent weeks after Price Controls ended in June 1946.
  • In 1947, Taft-Hartley anti-labor legislation was passed over Truman's veto.
  • Truman insisted upon a strong civil rights plank in the Democratic Party platform, prompting southern Democrats to bolt from the party.
  • Truman's Fair Deal program managed to extend Social Security to 10 million additional people, provided flood control, and raised the minimum wage to 75 cents an hour, but failed to win national health insurance and more assistance for farmers.
  • The "McCarthy Hearings," brought on by several U.S. Cold War setbacks and an increasingly anti-Communist political atmosphere at home, persisted for more than five years.
  • Truman's approval ratings dropped to 23 percent by 1951, with the public unhappy with the war in Korea, doubts about Communist subversion, and the "loss of China" to Communism.
  • Despite much postwar dissatisfaction with the Democratic record, Truman pulled off an upset victory over Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. In 1950, he led the United States into the Korean War.Fighting Communism and the Korean WarThe Korean War broke out in June 1950, when North Korean forces swept into South Korea, and lasted for three and a half years. U.S. commanding general MacArthur had originally estimated a short campaign, but had not anticipated the entry of the Chinese into the conflict on behalf of North Korea. Inexperienced American soldiers were fighting alongside South Korean troops. By late summer, battle-hardened veterans of World War II were recalled into service and began to bolster the American forces, just as more modern weaponry and equipment started to arrive from the United States.President Truman had reprimanded MacArthur on several occasions for publicly disagreeing with him over the general's proposal to pursue the Chinese across the Yalu River into China during the Korean War. The president relieved him of his command in April 1951. In secret, they had even discussed the possibility of using nuclear bombs against the North Koreans and the Chinese.

    Extending beyond Truman's term of office, the war ended in stalemate at the 38th parallel, which was the same point at which it had started.

    *Mary Margaret Truman authored many books, some about her father, and distinguished herself with numerous good works.

    Oral History Project

    Jimmy Carter with Bess Truman's nurses at the Truman Home, August 1980. Carter was interviewed in 1991.

    The oral history project at Harry S Truman NHS began in 1983. When the National Park Service began tours of the home in 1984, little was known about the Truman family's private life and activities in the community. Early oral history interviews focused on the personal information critical to properly interpret, furnish, and preserve the home in a manner that accurately reflected the occupation of the Truman family.

    For more than 30 years the program has preserved important information about the Truman family's home life and community ties in Independence and Grandview, Missouri. One Hundred thirty taped interviews have been conducted, totaling over 200 hours. The completed interviews allow the park to document the stories of family, friends and neighbors associated with Harry Truman and his family during their residence at 219 North Delaware in Independence and on the Truman farm in Grandview. Oral history informants included neighbors, secret service agents, medical personnel, shopkeepers, relatives, friends, household staff and other Truman contemporaries. The broad range of people interviewed helps paint a more complete picture of the Truman family's life.

    Click on the alphabetical links below to browse the oral histories. Oral history transcripts in PDF format are accessible for many of the informants listed. Park staff and volunteers are working on finalizing recent interviews and these oral histories will be posted as they become available.


    A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q

    R S T U V W X Y Z

    To search the oral histories by the informants' relationship with the Truman family, visit Oral History Informants by Association.

    The Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library has conducted interviews related to Truman's political life. Click here to visit the Truman Library's oral history page.

    Harry S Truman (1884-1972)

    Harry S Truman, June 1956 © Truman was the 33rd president of the United States who oversaw the end of World War Two, including the atomic bombing of Japan, and the new challenges of the Cold War.

    Harry Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, on 8 May 1884. After leaving school he held a series of clerical positions, as well as farming. In 1917, he joined the US Army and fought in World War One. He returned home in 1919 and married Bess Wallace. They had one daughter.

    In 1923, he was appointed a judge in Jackson County, a mainly administrative position, and in his spare time studied at Kansas City Law School. He became active in Democrat politics in Missouri and was elected to the senate in 1934 and re-elected in 1940. In 1941, he headed the Truman Committee investigating waste and fraud in the US defence programme. It was estimated to have saved around $15 billion and made Truman a national figure.

    Franklin Roosevelt selected Truman as vice president in 1944. In April 1945, with the end of World War Two in sight, Roosevelt died and Truman became president. With very little preparation he faced huge responsibilities in the final months of the war, including authorising the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, and planning the post-war world. Two months after taking office he witnessed the signing of United Nations Charter.

    Truman was unable to achieve many of his immediate post-war domestic aims because of opposition within his own party and the Republican Party regaining control of congress. In foreign policy, he responded to the growing threat from the Soviet Union. He issued the Truman Doctrine, justifying support for any country the US believed to be threatened by communism. He introduced the Marshall Plan, which spent more than $13 billion in rebuilding Europe. When the Soviets blockaded the western sectors of Berlin in the summer of 1948, Truman authorised a massive airlift of supplies until the Soviets backed down. The fear of the spread of communism in Europe led to the establishment in 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a defence alliance between Western European countries, Canada and the US.

    Truman expected to lose the 1948 presidential election as his pro-civil rights actions had alienated many southern Democrats. Nonetheless, he won and foreign policy again dominated in his second term. In the summer of 1950, he authorised US military involvement in the Korean War.

    Truman retired from politics in 1952 and died in Kansas City on 26 December 1972.

    Featured Article

    At 7:30 p.m. on October 31, 1950, two dapper gentlemen arrived at Union Station in Washington, D.C., and walked to the nearby Hotel Harris, where they registered separately, as though they were strangers. The front-desk clerk, noting their new suits and dark hats, surmised that the one with the steel-rimmed glasses and kindly face was a divinity student. Actually, the two polite guests were Puerto Rican terrorists who had come to Washington to kill President Harry S. Truman, and with wiser planning and better luck, they might have succeeded.

    The would-be assassins were members of the small, volatile Puerto Rican Nationalist Party headed by Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard graduate whose exposure to racism in the American Army during World War I had left him an embittered advocate of the Caribbean island’s independence through violent revolution. Although the Nationalist Party had failed miserably at the polls and fielded no candidates after 1932, its members had remained convinced that their cause would triumph.

    While most Puerto Ricans rejected Albizu Campos’s extremist policies, many shared his feelings toward the United States. For years a wide gulf had existed between the poor majority of the island’s population and the wealthy minority. Successful American efforts to eradicate various diseases had spurred a population explosion that often erased economic gains as fast as they occurred. Simultaneously, because the United States had granted the island no real self-government until the 1940s, Washington could be held at least partly responsible for difficulties within Puerto Rico. American missionaries, teachers, and physicians worked unselfishly to aid Puerto Rican citizens, but they could not solve all the problems, and the goodwill they created was often offset by unfortunate incidents.

    One such episode occurred when a young American doctor named Cornelius Rhoads, who was conducting research in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, wrote an ill-advised letter that a technician found and gave to Albizu Campos. The island, the doctor had written, needed ‘not improved health but . . . something to exterminate the entire population . . . .’ Rhoads insisted that he was being facetious, and an investigation proved that none of his patients had been mistreated. Nonetheless, Albizu Campos and the Nationalists bitterly resented the United States for its refusal to punish the physician for his comments.

    Although the Nationalists were weakened after 1932 by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts to help the Puerto Rican people, Albizu Campos announced a new government on the island with himself at its head and organized a black-shirted army of liberation. During the next two decades the party’s tactics included bombings, assassinations, and pitched battles with the police. Its violent methods did not win it popular support but did intensify the dedication of the faithful. Ironically, the Nationalists received financial aid from several wealthy Puerto Rican landowners who were chafing under the reforms of the New Deal.

    Among the Nationalist Party’s true believers in 1950 was 36-year-old Oscar Collazo. In 1932, at the age of 18, Collazo had traveled to his native Puerto Rico after several unhappy months working at the Army and Navy Club in New York City. Soon after hearing an impassioned speech by Albizu Campos and learning of Dr. Rhoads’ insulting letter, Collazo dedicated his life to the Nationalist Party. He returned to New York, where he married Rosa Mercado, a divorcée with two daughters, who was herself a devoted nationalist.

    In 1941, the Collazo family moved into a Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York whose residents suffered from homesickness, ethnic discrimination, and economic exploitation. By then Collazo had become a skilled metal polisher with an excellent reputation. On Sundays he would serve as an interpreter and guide to new immigrants, and he represented the workers on his union’s negotiating committee. Meanwhile, he was a model husband and father who paid his bills on time and did not smoke or drink. Collazo, in short, led a useful and reasonably successful life that might have satisfied a less complicated and confused personality.

    Twenty-five-year-old Griselio Torresola’s radicalism was almost inbred, as his family had participated in every Puerto Rican revolution for a century. He and his brother, Elio, and two sisters, Angelina and Doris, were devoted to Albizu Campos almost from childhood. In August 1948, Griselio got a job in a New York stationery and perfume store, but he was let go when a divorce caused him to become despondent and unreliable. For the remainder of his life, Torresola, with a new wife and one of his two young daughters, lived on a relief stipend of $125 a month. He longed to do something important, and he had one talent that Collazo lacked he was deadly with a pistol, while Collazo had never fired a handgun.

    In 1943, Pedro Albizu Campos finished a federal prison term in Atlanta, stemming from his revolutionary activities in Puerto Rico, and joined Collazo in New York, where he established a new Nationalist Party headquarters. By 1948, Collazo’s revolutionary zeal had escalated, fueled by Albizu Campos’s influence, a new sense of importance as he rose in the party’s ranks, and his voracious reading about such heroes as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Simón Bolívar. Infuriated by discrimination against Puerto Ricans in New York City and by the indifference of most Americans toward his beloved island, Collazo could not comprehend the new realities of Puerto Rican progress.

    Torresola spent much of 1950 purchasing arms for a planned October 28 revolt in Puerto Rico. On September 21 of that year, Albizu Campos directed that, should it become necessary, Torresola was to ‘assume the leadership of the movement in the United States without hesitation,’ and that he should ‘collect the funds…necessary to take care of the supreme necessities of the cause.’ The U.S. Secret Service later considered these letters proof that the subsequent actions of Collazo and Torresola were part of a larger conspiracy. However, the agency concluded that the poor planning evidenced by Collazo and Torresola indicated that they had acted on their own when they tried to kill the president.

    The attempted coup of October 28 in San Juan was a fiasco, and efforts to assassinate Governor Muñoz Marín failed. Torresola’s sister was wounded, and his brother was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a policeman. In New York, Collazo and Torresola were frustrated and angered by their inability either to assist in the coup or die for the cause. Collazo then decided that the assassination of President Truman might lead to an American revolution that would provide the Nationalists with an opportunity to lead Puerto Rico to independence. The absurdity of such hopes was lost on the two zealots, who not only suffered from vengeful anger and martyr complexes, but remained under the powerful influence of Albizu Campos.

    On Tuesday, October 31, Collazo and Torresola bought new suits and handbags, said fond farewells to their families, and purchased one-way train tickets to Washington. On the morning following their arrival in the nation’s capital, they went sightseeing, bought some postcards, and took a taxi to Blair House, President Truman’s temporary residence, where they carefully studied the security arrangements.

    If Collazo and Torresola had planned more carefully, they might have succeeded in their mission, as no president in modern times has been more vulnerable to attack than Truman was during his years at Blair House.

    In 1948, when inspectors discovered dangerous structural flaws in the White House, the decision was made to move the First Family to the Blair-Lee mansion across Pennsylvania Avenue, until repairs could be completed. This solution had seemed ideal to everyone, except those charged with ensuring Truman’s safety.

    Unlike the White House, which stood protected behind iron fences that enclosed an enormous expanse of lawn, Blair House was separated from the sidewalk–where hundreds of people passed every hour–by only a five-foot-wide front yard, a low hedge, and a shoulder-high iron fence. Moreover, the doors to Blair House were not always locked, and the logistics involved in getting President Truman back and forth to the White House were a daily problem. Frequently, the gregarious president, who loved to walk and greet people, had to be escorted on foot. Truman was informal and friendly with his guards, but their resulting affection for him did not make their job any easier.

    Blair House actually consisted of two town houses–named for their Civil War-era residents, Montgomery Blair and Admiral Samuel Philips Lee–which had been combined into a single unit. Having been two separate residences, Blair House had two front doors, each at the top of a short flight of steps leading up from the sidewalk. The fence along the sidewalk turned at right angles to form railings for the stairways. The basement floor was at street level, with narrow walkways at each end of the building leading from the sidewalk to service doors that were used by the household staff and the president’s guards. Each basement door was protected by a guard stationed in a white sentry box on the sidewalk.

    The canopy-covered front stairs to the east, or Blair House, front door were used by the president and his guests, and a guard was always stationed at the bottom step.* Just inside this door another guard stood with a machine gun within reach. All the guards carried pistols and were expert marksmen. Six of the usual seven-man detail actually stood guard the seventh handled other duties that arose. Three men guarded the three entrances to the building, another was stationed just inside the front door, and two, including the officer-in-charge, moved around wherever needed. On November 1, 1950, the main front door was open because of the warm weather, but its screen door was locked.

    Four of the guards on duty that day were members of the White House Police, recruited from the Washington Metropolitan Police. The remaining three were part of the Secret Service, which shared the task of presidential security within the capital city and assumed the full burden when the president traveled. All the men had performed well in other jobs, had served in the armed forces, and were proud of their assignment. Only two had ever been under direct fire. As a Marine in Nicaragua in 1929, 44-year-old Private Joseph Downs had been commended for ‘exceptional coolness and bravery.’ Secret Service Agent Vincent Mroz, a former Michigan State University football star, had been involved in a shoot-out in Chicago just a few months earlier.

    Stationed at the sentry box on the west, or Lee House, side of the residence was forty-year-old Private Leslie Coffelt, a quiet, good-humored man who was liked by everyone. At the other box was Private Joseph Davidson, at 37 the group’s only bachelor. Donald Birdzell, 41 years old, guarded the stairway to the all-important front door to Blair House, while Pennsylvania State Police veteran Stewart Stout stood just inside that door. In charge of the detail was another graduate of the Pennsylvania State Police, 35-year-old Secret Service Agent Floyd M. Boring.

    Having planned their simple strategy, Collazo and Torresola ate lunch and returned to their hotel, where Torresola taught his cohort how to handle his gun. After cleaning and oiling their weapons, the men took a taxi cab back to Blair House, carrying 69 rounds of ammunition between them. Appearing unperturbed as he left the hotel, Collazo calmly asked the clerk about the posted check-out time and was assured that leaving an hour or so late was fine.

    By this time, President Truman, having been driven home for lunch with Mrs. Truman, was taking a nap. His schedule called for him to leave Blair House at 2:50 p.m. to be driven to Arlington National Cemetery for the unveiling of a statue. Had the assassins looked at a Washington newspaper and learned something of the president’s schedule, they would have known that there would be ample opportunities to strike as the president walked to his car or from among the trees and monuments at Arlington. Fortunately, however, they were ignorant of his timetable they were not even certain that he was at home.

    At approximately 2:20 p.m., a half-hour before the president’s scheduled departure, Collazo and Torresola approached Blair House from opposite directions. Floyd Boring had just stepped outside for a routine check with his detail. He spoke with Private Coffelt, then moved to the other corner of the house, where he reported to headquarters on the phone in Private Davidson’s booth. He was chatting with Davidson when Collazo walked by.

    At the front steps, Donald Birdzell, who was facing westward at the time, suddenly heard a sharp click. Collazo had tried to shoot him at point-blank range, but the gun had misfired. Either the first round in the clip was empty, or Collazo’s inexperience had caused him to engage the safety lock at the moment of firing. Birdzell whirled around to see Collazo pounding the gun with his left fist, which caused it to fire, striking Birdzell in the right knee. To draw the fire away from the house, the wounded officer limped out into the street before turning to shoot back at Collazo, who had started up the now unguarded steps.

    Davidson halted Collazo by firing at him from the east booth area. Agent Boring also began firing. Collazo sat on the second step and fired a clip of bullets back at the two guards. He managed to reload, despite the bullets ricocheting off the iron picket fence and railing. Collazo’s nose and an ear were grazed by bullets, and another tore through his hat. Meanwhile, Stewart Stout grabbed the machine gun and took up a position inside the house, at the door.

    Agent Mroz came out the basement door behind Boring and Davidson, took one shot at Collazo, then raced back into the Lee House basement to meet a new threat at the basement door on the other end of the building, where Torresola had acted with much more effectiveness than his partner. Approaching from the west, Torresola had reached Private Coffelt’s sentry box immediately behind Downs, who had been away from Blair House on personal business and arrived at the basement door just as the gunfire erupted. Because tourists often stopped at the box for information, Coffelt was taken completely by surprise as Torresola fired three times into his chest, abdomen, and legs. Mortally wounded, Coffelt sank back into his chair, but managed to draw his gun while struggling to remain conscious. Downs, standing in the doorway, tried to draw his pistol, but Torresola shot him three times. Then, seeing that Officer Birdzell was shooting at Collazo from the street, the skilled gunman disabled that officer with a bullet through his left knee.

    At this crucial point, Torresola might have gone unimpeded through the west door to the basement, but Private Coffelt made a final supreme effort before losing consciousness and killed the assailant instantly with a shot through the head. If Torresola had gone through the door, he would have stood a very good chance of reaching the president, who now was guarded only by Agent Mroz and Officer Stout. Coffelt’s heroic act may have saved the president, because no one within range was safe as long as Torresola was shooting. Boring, meanwhile, had shot Collazo through the chest, and the battle was over. Approximately thirty shots had been fired in less than three minutes.

    Leslie Coffelt died in a hospital less than four hours later. Birdzell’s wounds were temporarily disabling, but not life-threatening, while Downs survived wounds that would have killed a weaker man. Collazo was not hurt critically.

    When the shooting ended, President Truman rushed to the window but was quickly waved back by Boring, who feared there might be more accomplices in the excited crowd on the street. Ten minutes later, the president left by a back door for his speech in Arlington. ‘A president has to expect such things,’ he calmly informed an aide. Truman later reassured Admiral William Leahy: ‘The only thing you have to worry about is bad luck. I never have bad luck.’

    Private Coffelt’s seriously ill wife was scheduled to have a kidney removed only four days after the tragedy. Although she was still in shock from the death of her husband, presidential aides persuaded her to postpone the surgery and go to Puerto Rico. For three days she received expressions of sorrow from various Puerto Rican leaders and crowds, to whom she dutifully responded with a simple speech absolving the island’s people of blame for the acts of two fanatics. Puerto Rican school children contributed almost two hundred dollars, most of it in pennies, to their own special fund for her welfare. Observers believed that her visit helped to ease the tensions created by the earlier attempted coup of the Nationalists.

    At his trial in 1951, Oscar Collazo, scorning his attorney’s advice that he plead insanity, delivered an impassioned oration from the witness stand decrying the brutal exploitation of Puerto Rico by the United States. Many of his facts were dated or inaccurate, and neither the American public nor the people of Puerto Rico paid much attention. The United States had already offered full political autonomy to Puerto Rico the year before, and in 1952, the island became a self-governing commonwealth. Truman himself had named the first native Puerto Rican governor of the island and had extended social security to its people. Mrs. Coffelt’s reception in Puerto Rico was a far more accurate indication of the mindset of the island’s people than were the actions of Oscar Collazo.

    The jury found Collazo guilty of murder, attempted assassination, and assault with intent to kill. Since his collaboration with Torresola made him a principal in the death of Coffelt, Judge T. Alan Goldsborough sentenced Collazo to death. A higher court upheld the conviction, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The execution was set for August 1, 1952. On July 24, however, President Truman denied Collazo martyrdom by commuting the sentence to life imprisonment. Nearly thirty years later, President Jimmy Carter had the now-elderly Collazo released. Returning to Puerto Rico, Collazo lived quietly until his death in 1994.

    Pedro Albizu Campos, the ill-starred near-genius who had inspired Collazo and Torresola and left a long trail of death and destruction in his wake, died peacefully in April 1965. The racial orientation of the U.S. Army in 1918 had cast a long and tragic shadow.

    In May 1952, President Truman dedicated a plaque to Leslie Coffelt in front of Blair House. The fortunate president spoke from the heart and with wisdom gained from experience that day when he vowed to cooperate with his guards in every way possible. He did so, he said, not because he was personally afraid, but because he had learned the hard way the extent of his own responsibility for the safety of the men assigned to protect him.

    This article was written by Elbert B. Smith and originally appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of American History. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!

    Our History

    While many United States Presidents are immortalized in structures of bricks and mortar or marble, the memory of our 33rd President continues in a living memorial: the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation.

    Dedicated to education and public service, President Truman often spoke about the importance of promoting young leaders, and envisioned a program for students that would encourage educated citizenship and political responsibility. Therefore, after his death in 1972, the President's friends and family found this memorial especially fitting.

    John W. Snyder, Secretary of the Treasury during the President's Administration, and Stuart Symington, then Senator of Missouri, worked together to create the Foundation through an Act of Congress. Both lifelong friends of President Truman, Mr. Snyder and Mr. Symington also sought the approval of Margaret Truman Daniel, the President's daughter, who later said, “no memorial could be more appropriate.” Mrs. Daniel said her father “valued education most highly, and he would surely value education for public service more highly than any other kind.”

    The bill passed in December 1974 and President Gerald Ford signed the Act of Congress on January 4, 1975. The Act authorized the Foundation to “award scholarships to persons who demonstrate outstanding potential for and who plan to pursue a career in public service,” and to conduct a nationwide competition to select Truman scholars. The Foundation awarded its first Scholarships in the 1977-78 academic year.

    While the details have changed over time, the Scholarship remains proudly bound to the vision of its founding Board of Trustees. Each year hundreds of college juniors compete for roughly 60 awards. The rigorous selection process requires that good candidates have a strong record of public service, as well as a policy proposal that addresses a particular issue in society. Firmly rooted in President Truman's belief that education promotes the general welfare of our country, the Truman Scholarship remains committed to supporting and encouraging the future of public service leadership in the United States. Many of those chosen as scholars go on to serve in public office, as prosecutors and public defenders, as leaders of non-profit organizations, and as educators.

    The Foundation continues to expand on a very lean budget, offering a range of opportunities for Scholars. Truman Scholars Leadership Week began in May 1989. Summer 1991 marked the first Summer Institute, a program that brings Truman Scholars to Washington, DC for the summer following their graduation from college. The Truman-Albright Fellows Program, started in 2004 and generously supported by the Truman Foundation's President, Madeleine Albright, permits Truman Scholars to remain employed in Washington, DC for a year or two between undergrad and graduate school and keeps them engaged in community-building and professional development programming. And, in 2013, the Foundation launches two new programs - Truman Democracy Fellows and Truman Governance Fellows - for Truman Scholars of all ages interested in running for office or serving in high level appointed office, respectively.

    Remarkably, President Truman did not hold a college degree, though he certainly grasped a worldly education. He once said, “…Ignorance and its hand-maidens—prejudice, intolerance, suspicion of our fellow man—breed dictators and breed wars.” The self-awareness and sincerity required of Truman Scholars, along with their education that the Foundation supports, eases the edge of ignorance that pervades our tumultuous world. Perhaps what is most important about President Truman's living memorial is that it continues to grow each year.

    Harry S. Truman - History

    Harry S. Truman succeeded President Franklin D. Roosevelt and became the 33rd United States President when President Roosevelt died after serving three months into his fourth term. Truman was up against many challenges and he felt that everything had fallen upon him.

    Genealogy and Childhood

    Harry S. Truman originated from Lamar, Missouri. He was born on May 8, 1884. He was the firstbornof Martha Ellen Young and John Anderson Truman. His siblings were John Vivian and Mary Jane. He claimed that he was named after his maternal uncle, Harrison Young. The letter “S” that functions as his middle name does not stand for anything. Accordingly, this was chosen to satisfy both his grandfathers, whose names start with an “S”. Their names are Solomon and Anderson Shipp.

    Truman’s father used to be a farmer and a livestock merchant. They originally lived in a farm in Lamar. Before he turned one year old, they relocated to a place in Harrisonville. After staying there for a while, they moved to Belton, until, finally in 1887, they settled to his grandfather’s place in Grandview. He first attended school when he was six at the Presbyterian Church Sunday School. It was only when he turned eight that he started traditional schooling.

    As he was growing up, his interests focused on history and music, as well as reading. In 1901, Truman graduated in Highschool from Independence Highschool. He dreamed of entering West point to finish a college degree. However, he was not allowed to do so due to poor eyesight. When it became apparent that his childhood dream of entering West Point would not be fulfilled, he enrolled in a local business school. For some reason, he only stayed for one semester. He was then hired as a time keeper at a railroad in Santa Fe. During this time, he was subjected to sleep in traveller camps near the railroads. He had a succession of clerical jobs, getting hired briefly from one job to another. He returned home to work for his grandfather at their Grandview farm until he re-joined the army 1917.

    Truman in the Army

    Truman became a registered Missouri Army National Guard in 1905. His service lasted until 1911. As the World War I started, Truman went back to service. He was initially trained in Oklahoma before he was officially sent to perform his active duty in France. He was tasked to tend to the camp canteen.

    Truman was promoted to become an officer and later on became the commander in an artillery regiment for Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 60th Brigade, and 35th Infantry Division. Under his supervision, the battery never lost an army. Heading a field artillery recognized for being undisciplined, he made his troops one of the most united, loyal and obedient group ever organized in World War I. After the war, he rose to become a Colonel in the Army Reserves. He later on claimed that the war has greatly transformed him as it brought out the leadership potentials that he never thought he even had. As such, he claimed that his political career was an offspring of his war record and history.

    After being rejected by Bess Wallace before re-joining the army, Truman returned home and again made his proposal to marry her. They were married on the 28th of June, 1919 and later had a daughter which they named Mary Margaret.

    Before his marriage, Truman and a friend he met in the army started a haberdashery in Downtown, Kansas City. After a few years of success, the economic crisis in 1921 made him file for bankruptcy. It was only after 1934 that Truman was finally able to pay off all his debts.

    Political Career

    He was made judge of the Country Court of the eastern district of Jackson County in 1922. This position entailed administrative rather than judicial function. He was not re-elected by 1924. In 1926 he was, however, elected as the presiding judge for the court and was re-elected again after his first term ended. The year 1930 marked a milestone to the Kansas City history as Truman managed a Ten Year Plan which eventually transformed the City into a booming economy. The Plan made possible the development of extensive road improvement, construction of a new County Court building, and the creation of the 12 Madonna of the Trail monuments that were made to honor women.

    US Senate: First term

    Truman officially entered the world of politics in 1934 as he became a candidate for the US Senate election. He ran as a representative of the Democratic Party. He later on defeated the Republican Roscoe C. Patterson. During his first term, he became very outspoken, fighting against corporate greed as the major player that influences the national affairs.

    US Senate: Second Term

    During his re-election in 1940, Truman defeated the Republican Manvel H. Davis with a very slight margin. Truman’s later success in politics was initially sealed when he became the Grand Master of the Missouri Grand Lodge of Freemasonry in September 1940.

    Truman Committee

    The Truman Committee was formed as it aimed to fight waste and mismanagement during the war. Although it initially gathered criticism and disapproval from many different sector of the government, the committee is reported to have saved more than fifteen billion dollars and countless lives. Through this initiative, he gained popularity and a lot of approvals as his advocacy coined him as the man who has saved a lot of war resources through common sense. In 1945 and later on 1948, he was named as the Man of the Year by the Times Magazine. The success of the Truman Committee became the major contributor for him to get the focus of the national spotlight.


    After being played on by the president’s advisers and President Roosevelt himself, Truman agreed to run as Vice president even against his better judgement. Their tandem was greatly accepted as it led them to victory when they defeated Governor Thomas E. Dewey and Governor John Bricker by a landslide. Truman was then sworn in to office as the new vice president on January 20, 1945. He assumed that position for only a period of three months.

    US President: First Term (1945-1948)

    His post as vice-president was cut short following the sudden death of President Roosevelt. Upon assuming the presidential post, he was briefed by the former president’s advisers on the administration’s plans and current engagements. This briefing familiarized him about President Roosevelt’s major initiatives pertaining to the on-going war. These initiatives include the launching of the first Atomic Bomb as the US’ primary weapon against Japan. The bombing of Japan would later on become known as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. These bombings would become one of the largest factors for the US to finally conclude the war in her favour. Although the bombings gathered a lot of disapproval from many sectors of the society, Truman and his supporters held on to their argument that the decision would save the country and the lives of many Americans.

    His first term as president has been very challenging as he was made to face a lot of strikes and upheavals brought about by the transition initiated by the end of the war. All aspects of the government and the society needed renewal and rehabilitation as the nation shifted from war to peacetime economy. Since the people are hyped by the war’s closure, everyone’s momentum is high and no one is patient enough to wait until everything is in order. As such, major strikes and protests were performed with great passion and conviction.

    His handling of the Cold War and the Fair deal and even his efforts to recognize the establishment of the State of Israel made him an unfavorable candidate for a re-election. A lot of critics found him too incompetent to handle affairs that greatly involved humanitarianism and democracy.

    Truman was re-elected in the election that transpired in 1948. From a public approval rating of 36%, his victory was founded by a lot of people very intriguing. Accordingly, his success can be attributed to the efforts they have made during the last part of the campaign period. Truman and his staff travelled across the country as Truman made his personal appeal to voters all around the United States. Known as the “whistle stop” tactic, he personally met people to give them brief speeches from any place they find convenient. This strategy has proven to be effective as he was able to win the race coming from a very low start against Eisenhower Dewey. His second term began on January 20, 1949 with Alben Barkley as his vice president.

    US President: Second term (1949–1953)

    His second term is not far-fetched from the challenges that he faced during his first terms. Bombarded by foreign and local affairs, he remained true to his Democratic beliefs. It was during his second term that the Chinese conflicts and the Korean War emerged. During this time, he received a lot of negative reactions on how he handled international affairs. He has created a lot of unpopular decision that led Congress to become hostile and unreceptive to him and his governance. One of his decisions that generate a lot of upheaval was the dismissal of General Douglas Mc Arthur. This decision has created a lot of negative reaction that steered his national approval to the lowest.

    His second term as president staged many war disappointments and government scandals including controversies concerning corruption charges among Senior Officials.

    Attempted Assassination and Death

    Puerto Ricans Griselo Torresola and Oscar Collazo made their attempt to assassinate Truman at Blair house on November 1, 1950.
    Harry Truman’s political career was put to a stop after a bill was passed that no longer allowed presidents to run for a third term. After stepping down as a US president, he returned home to Independence, Missouri to live at the Wallace Home. His predecessor was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
    After running the country, Truman found himself close to poverty. He was able to manage his finance by writing his memoirs.

    On December 5, 1972 he was admitted and confined to Kansas City Research Hospital and Medical Center. Findings showed that he had lung congestion due to pneumonia. He died on December 26, 1972 at the age of 88. He is buried at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. Following his wife’s request, he was given a simple private funeral service at the library as opposed to a state funeral being given to a person who held the highest position in the country.

    Harry Truman left his office as one of the most unpopular president in history. However, years after his term ended, his popularity started to climb steadily. After he died, he was considered among the “near great” presidents by a poll gathered from distinguished historians.

    Harry S. Truman - History

    Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, to John and Martha Truman. His parents gave him the middle name “S” after both his paternal grandfather Anderson Shipp Truman and his maternal grandfather Solomon Young. Although using a letter for a name was not an uncommon practice, his middle name often caused confusion. Truman sometimes joked that since S was his middle name and not an initial, it should not have a period. However, Truman himself used a period when he signed his name.

    Truman worked on the family farm until 1917. Later, he frequently spoke nostalgically about the years he spent toiling on the farm. His formative years of physically demanding work on the farm and for the railroad gave him a real appreciation for the working classes. It was also during these years that he met Bess Wallace. He even proposed marriage to her in 1911—an offer she declined.

    Truman had served in the Missouri National Guard from 1905 – 1911. At the onset of World War in 1917, he rejoined the Guard. Much to his delight, he was chosen to be an officer and later a battery commander in an artillery regiment in France. When the Germans attacked his battery in the Vosges Mountains, the men in the battery started to run away from the fight. Truman got their attention by letting loose with a string of obscenities he later said he learned while working on the Santa Fe Railroad. The men, shocked by the outburst from this usually quiet, reserved officer, resumed their positions—not a single man in the battery was lost.

    The events of World War I greatly transformed Truman and brought to light his great leadership skills. His war record would make his later political career possible.

    After World War I ended, Truman returned to Missouri as a captain. Truman once said, “In my Sunday School class there was a beautiful little girl with golden curls. I was smitten at once and still am.” Back home, he found the girl with the golden curls and proposed to her a second time. Bess Wallace accepted the second proposal, and they married on June 28, 1919. They had one daughter, Margaret, in 1924.

    Truman did not go to college until the early 1920s when he studied for two years towards a law degree at Kansas City Law School. He did not complete the degree. He worked as a judge in Jackson County, Missouri, and as Missouri’s director for the re-employment program, which was part of the Civil Works Administration.

    Then in 1934, Truman was elected as a Democratic senator from Missouri. Truman’s ability to work in a bipartisan manner, to pose difficult questions to powerful people, and to be fair-minded earned him a great deal of public acclaim—he became a political celebrity. His reputation as being tough but even-handed led to his nickname, “Give ‘em Hell Harry.” Truman once said, “I never gave anybody hell! I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

    It was undoubtedly his achievements on the Truman Committee that drew the Democratic Party’s attention to him as a possible vice-presidential candidate for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth term re-election campaign. In 1944, the Roosevelt-Truman ticket easily won the election.
    Truman was to serve only eighty-two days as vice president. During that time, he had few conversations with Roosevelt. He was left completely in the dark about the war, world affairs, and domestic politics. In addition, there was one very big secret—a very large bombshell—he knew nothing about either, a secret that would play a central role in his political future. The bombshell Truman knew nothing about was literally that—a bombshell. America was about to test the world’s first atomic bomb as part of the top secret Manhattan Project.

    On April 12, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died suddenly at his resort in Warm Springs, Georgia. When Truman was urgently summoned by the White House, he assumed he was going for a briefing with the President. Instead, he was informed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt that the President was dead. When Truman asked if there was anything he could do for her, she responded, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

    Shortly after Truman assumed the Presidency, Germany surrendered to the allies. Truman was briefed on the existence of the Manhattan Project. Three months after he took office, the first successful atomic test called the Trinity test took place in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The atomic bomb was a reality. With Germany no longer a threat, the allies were anxious to end the war. Truman approved the use of atomic weapons against the Japanese in order to force their surrender and to quickly bring about the end of World War II. Truman once said, “Carry the battle to them. Don't let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive and don't ever apologize for anything.” Harry S. Truman never did apologize for his decision to use the atomic bomb.

    Although today the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan is considered by many to have been morally wrong, it was not a controversial decision at the time. Neither the United States nor any of the Allied countries had any qualms about using any weapon available to end the war. World War II had cost the allies billions of dollars, had wiped out entire cities, and had destroyed families, cultures, and economies. Even after Adolph Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered, it would take decades before Europe recovered from the war. The destruction on the Pacific side of the war was also great. World War II had caused destruction and death on the largest scale the world had ever seen with more than 53 million lives, both military and civilian, lost.

    The Allies were anxious to see the end of the war at any cost. A mainland assault of Japan, like the one launched against Germany on D-Day, would have driven the casualty numbers even higher and dragged the war on for possibly years longer. According to Truman, the decision to use the atomic bomb was not a difficult decision it was a necessary evil to end the war. The technology had been made available, and even though it was known to be a terrible weapon of mass destruction, Truman and the Allied nations saw it as “merely another powerful weapon in the arsenal of righteousness.”

    The two bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, resulting in the deaths of more than 110,000 people. Japan surrendered. For a short time, the first time in a long time, there was peace on Earth. The weapons of war were silent, and while mankind might never completely recover from the carnage of World War II, the rebuilding began.

    Truman would go on to serve another term as President. Truman’s administration would see, amongst other things, the end of World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, and a police action in Korea that would not be known until years later as the Korean War. There were countless issues at home to deal with as well, including the beginnings of the civil rights movement, the “communist witch-hunts” of McCarthyism, and charges of corruption in his administration that, in one scandal alone, led to the resignation of 166 of his appointees. He accepted both the credit for the good things he was able to do and the blame for the bad things that happened during his administration. As he was so fond of saying, “The buck stops here.”

    After his Presidency ended, Truman remained active in politics from the comfort of the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. There, Harry and Bess Truman received such famous guests as John F. Kennedy (for whom Truman campaigned during the 1960 Presidential election), Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Chief Justice Earl Warren. Harry S. Truman died at the age of eighty-eight on December 26, 1972.

    Brother Harry S. Truman was initiated on February 9, 1909, at Belton Lodge No. 450, Belton, Missouri. In 1911, several members of the Belton Lodge separated to establish the Grandview Lodge No. 618, Grandview, Missouri. Brother Truman served as its first master. At the Annual Session of the Grand Lodge of Missouri in September, 1940, Brother Truman was elected by a landslide to be the ninety-seventh Grand Master of Masons of Missouri. He served until October 1, 1941.

    While President, Truman was made a Sovereign Grand Inspector General, 33°, and Honorary Member, Supreme Council in1945 at the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Masons Southern Jurisdiction Headquarters in Washington, D.C. He was also elected an Honorary Grand Master of the International Supreme Council, Order of DeMolay. On May 18, 1959, the Illustrious Brother Truman was presented with the fifty-year award—the only U.S. President to reach that golden anniversary in Freemasonry.

    While President of the United States, Brother Truman once said, “The greatest honor that has ever come to me, and that can ever come to me in my life, is to be the Grand Master of Masons in Missouri.”

    Harry S. Truman

    During his few weeks as vice president, Harry S. Truman scarcely saw President Roosevelt, and received no briefing on the development of the atomic bomb or the unfolding difficulties with Soviet Russia. Suddenly these and a host of other wartime problems became Truman’s when, on April 12, 1945, he became president when Roosevelt died. He told reporters, “I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

    Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884. He grew up in Independence, and for twelve years prospered as a farmer. He went to France during World War I as a captain in the Field Artillery. Returning, he married Elizabeth (Bess) Virginia Wallace, and opened a haberdashery in Kansas City, which failed.

    Active in the Democratic Party, Truman was elected a judge of the Jackson County Court (an administrative position) in 1922. He became a senator in 1934. During World War II he headed the Senate War Investigating Committee, exposing waste and corruption and saving perhaps as much as $15 billion.

    As president, Truman made some of the most crucial decisions in history. Soon after V-E Day, the war against Japan had reached its final stage. An urgent plea to Japan to surrender was rejected. Truman, after consultations with his advisers, ordered atomic bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese surrender quickly followed. In June 1945 Truman witnessed the signing of the charter of the United Nations.

    Soon he presented to Congress a 21-point program, proposing the expansion of Social Security, a full-employment program, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Act, and public housing and slum clearance. The program, Truman wrote, “symbolizes for me my assumption of the office of president in my own right.” It became known as the Fair Deal.

    In 1947 the Soviet Union pressured Turkey and, through guerrillas, threatened to take over Greece. Truman asked Congress to aid the two countries, as part of what was soon called the Truman Doctrine. The Marshall Plan, named for his secretary of state, stimulated spectacular economic recovery in war-torn western Europe.

    When the Soviets blockaded the western sectors of Berlin in 1948, Truman created a massive airlift to supply Berliners until the Soviets backed down. Meanwhile, he was negotiating a military alliance to protect Western nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), established in 1949.

    In 1948, Truman faced New York Governor Thomas Dewey and a left-leaning third-party challenger, former Vice President Henry Wallace, and defied the predictions of pollsters and analysts to win his own full term as president. After the election, the Trumans moved out of the sagging White House so that it could be gutted and reconstructed. The Truman White House renovations were completed in 1952.

    In June 1950, the Communist government of North Korea attacked South Korea. Truman later wrote, “There was no suggestion from anyone that either the United Nations or the United States could back away from it.” A discouraging struggle ensued as U.N. forces held a line above the old boundary of South Korea. Truman limited the fighting, which frustrated Americans—especially his Korea commander General Douglas MacArthur, whom he fired for insubordination.

    Having served almost two terms, Truman decided not to run again. Retiring with Bess to Independence, he lived until December 26, 1972. Later, Americans came to appreciate his honesty, sound judgment, and courageous decision making, admiring him far more than his own contemporaries had. Of his presidency, Truman modestly said, “Well I wouldn’t say I was in the ‘great’ class, but I had a great time while trying to be great.”

    Capt. Harry S. Truman

    On June 14, 1905, the man who would become America's 33rd president enlisted in Light Battery B of the Missouri National Guard. The 21-year-old Harry S. Truman was so proud of his new uniform that he promptly went to a photographer's studio and had a series of portraits made. However, his pride was dashed at home when his grandmother, a staunch supporter of the late Confederacy, told him that she wouldn't have a blue uniform in the house.

    Nevertheless, young Truman remained a member of Battery B and served as its clerk until he was discharged as a corporal in 1906. When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Truman was a farmer of 33 who could easily have avoided service. He chose to re-enlist with the National Guard, where he was elected first lieutenant. On Aug. 5, 1917, the 2nd Missouri Field Artillery was sworn into the regular Army as the 128th Field Artillery of the 35th Division. The unit was sent in 1918 to France, where Capt. Truman took command of Battery D on July 11.

    Battery D had been organized in Kansas City and was a burly group of first-generation Irish and German Catholics. Truman felt he would have to work very hard to gain their acceptance and approval. By the end of the summer, he had developed his battery into a tight combat unit. They won regimental records for firing accuracy and range assembly speed, and participated with distinction in the Vosges, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne campaigns.

    Truman won something greater — his men's confidence, support, and respect. At war's end, Battery D presented its commander with an engraved silver loving cup as a token of that respect. In turn, Truman told them, "Right now, I'm where I want to be — in command of this battery. I'd rather be here than president of the United States."

    Harry S Truman’s Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb

    Aerial view of Hiroshima depicts the terrific destructive force of the atomic bomb

    United States Army Air Corps Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

    By August, 1945, Japan had lost World War II. Japan and the United States both knew it. How long would it be, however, before Japan surrendered? Japan was split between surrender or fighting to the end. They chose to fight.

    In mid-July, President Harry S Truman was notified of the successful test of the atomic bomb, what he called “the most terrible bomb in the history of the world.” Thousands of hours of research and development as well as billions of dollars had contributed to its production. This was no theoretical research project. It was created to destroy and kill on a massive scale. As president, it was Harry Truman’s decision if the weapon would be used with the goal to end the war. “It is an awful responsibility that has come to us,” the president wrote.

    President Truman had four options: 1) continue conventional bombing of Japanese cities 2) invade Japan 3) demonstrate the bomb on an unpopulated island or, 4) drop the bomb on an inhabited Japanese city.

    Option 1: Conventional Bombing of the Japanese Home Islands

    While the United States began conventional bombing of Japan as early as 1942, the mission did not begin in earnest until mid-1944. Between April 1944 and August, 1945, an estimated 333,000 Japanese people were killed and 473,000 more wounded in air raids. A single firebombing attack on Tokyo in March 1945 killed more than 80,000 people. Truman later remarked, “Despite their heavy losses at Okinawa and the firebombing of Tokyo, the Japanese refused to surrender. The saturation bombing of Japan took much fiercer tolls and wrought far and away more havoc than the atomic bomb. Far and away. The firebombing of Tokyo was one of the most terrible things that ever happened, and they didn't surrender after that although Tokyo was almost completely destroyed.”

    In August 1945, it was clear that conventional bombing was not effective.

    Option 2: Ground Invasion of the Japanese Home Islands

    The United States could launch a traditional ground invasion of the Japanese home islands. However, experience showed that the Japanese did not easily surrender. They had been willing to make great sacrifices to defend the smallest islands. They were likely to fight even more fiercely if the United States invaded their homeland. During the battle at Iwo Jima in 1945, 6,200 US soldiers died. Later that year, on Okinawa, 13,000 soldiers and sailors were killed. Casualties on Okinawa were 35 percent one out of three US participants was wounded or killed. Truman was afraid that an invasion of Japan would look like "Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other." Casualty predictions varied, but all were high. The price of invasion would be millions of American dead and wounded.

    Estimates did not include Japanese casualties. Truman and his military advisers assumed that a ground invasion would “be opposed not only by the available organized military forces of the Empire, but also by a fanatically hostile population." Documents discovered after the war indicated that they were right. Despite knowing the cause was hopeless, Japan planned a resistance so ferocious, resulting in costs so appalling, that they hoped that the United States would simply call for a cease fire where each nation would agree to stop fighting and each nation would retain the territory they occupied at the time. Almost one-quarter million Japanese casualties were expected in the invasion. Truman wrote, “My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a human feeling for the women and children of Japan.”

    In August 1945, it appeared inevitable that Japanese civilians would have to suffer more death and casualties before surrender. A ground invasion would result in excessive American casualties as well.

    Option 3: Demonstration of the Atomic Bomb on an Unpopulated Area

    Another option was to demonstrate the power of atomic bomb to frighten the Japanese into surrendering. An island target was considered, but it raised several concerns. First, who would Japan select to evaluate the demonstration and advise the government? A single scientist? A committee of politicians? How much time would elapse before Japan communicated its decision—and how would that time be used? To prepare for more fighting? Would a nation surrender based on the opinion of a single person or small group? Second, what if the bomb turned out to be a dud? This was a new weapon, not clearly understood. The world would be watching the demonstration of a new weapon so frightening that an enemy would surrender without a fight. What if this “super weapon” didn’t work? Would that encourage Japan to fight harder? Third, there were only two bombs in existence at the time. More were in production, but, dud or not, was it worth it to expend 50% of the country’s atomic arsenal in a demonstration?

    In May 1945, Truman had formed the Interim Committee, a committee to advise the president about matters pertaining to the use of nuclear energy and weapons. The Committee’s first priority was to advise on the use of the atomic bomb. After prolonged debate, the president received the Committee’s historic conclusion: “We can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war. We can see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

    Option 4: Use of the Atomic Bomb on a Populated Area

    Truman and his advisors concluded that only bombing a city would make an adequate impression. Any advance warning to evacuate a city would endanger the bomber crews the Japanese would be forewarned and attempt to shoot them down. The target cities were carefully chosen. First, it had to be a city that had suffered little damage from conventional bombing so it couldn’t be argued that the damage came from anything other than the atomic bomb. Second, it must be a city primarily devoted to military production. This was complicated, however, because in Japan, workers homes were intermingled with factories so that it was impossible to find a target that was exclusively military. Finally, Truman stipulated it should not be a city of traditional cultural significance to Japan, such as Kyoto. Truman did not seek to destroy Japanese culture or people the goal was to destroy Japan’s ability to make war.

    So, on the morning of August 6, 1945, the American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay , dropped the world’s first atom bomb over the city of Hiroshima.

    What Happened in Japan That Day

    The temperature near the blast site reached 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit. The sky seemed to explode. Birds ignited in midair asphalt boiled. People over two miles away burst into crumbling cinders. Others with raw skin hanging in flaps around their hips leaped shrieking into waterways to escape the heat. Men without feet stumbled about on the charred stumps of their ankles. Women without jaws screamed incoherently for help. Bodies described as "boiled octopuses" littered the destroyed streets. Children, tongues swollen with thirst, pushed floating corpses aside to soothe their scalded throats with bloody river water.

    One eyewitness at Hiroshima recalled, “I climbed Hikiyama Hill and looked down. I saw that Hiroshima had disappeared. I was shocked by the sight. Of course I saw many dreadful scenes after that — but that experience, looking down and finding nothing left of Hiroshima — was so shocking that I simply can't express what I felt. Hiroshima didn't exist — that was mainly what I saw — Hiroshima just didn't exist.”

    Approximately 80,000 people were killed as a direct result of the blast, and another 35,000 were injured. At least another 60,000 would be dead by the end of the year from the effects of the atomic fallout.

    What Happened in America That Day

    The President released a press release, which read in part, “Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. …. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

    A 21-year-old American second lieutenant recalled, “When the bombs dropped and news began to circulate that [the invasion of Japan] would not, after all, take place, that we would not be obliged to run up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being mortared and shelled, for all the fake manliness of our facades we cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.”


    One week later, on August 14, 1945, after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered. World War II, the deadliest conflict in human history, with between 50 and 85 million fatalities, was finally over.

    What Did Harry S Truman Have to Say About His Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb?

    At the time, the president seemed conflicted over his decision. The day after the Hiroshima bomb was dropped, Truman received a telegram from Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia, encouraging the president to use as many atomic bombs as possible on Japan, claiming the American people believed “that we should continue to strike the Japanese until they are brought groveling to their knees.” Truman responded, “I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare but I can't bring myself to believe that because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in that same manner. For myself I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the ‘pigheadedness’ of the leaders of a nation, and, for your information, I am not going to do it unless absolutely necessary.”

    On August 9, the day the Nagasaki bomb was dropped, Truman received a telegram from Samuel McCrea Cavert, a Protestant clergyman, who pleaded with the president to stop the bombing “before any further devastation by atomic bomb is visited upon her [Japan’s] people.” Two days later, Truman replied, “The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”

    Looking back, President Truman never shirked personal responsibility for his decision, but neither did he apologize. He asserted that he would not use the bomb in later conflicts, such as Korea. Nevertheless, given the same circumstances and choices that confronted him in Japan in 1945, he said he would do exactly the same thing.

    It was heavy burden to bear. Speaking of himself as president, Truman said, “And he alone, in all the world, must say Yes or No to that awesome, ultimate question, ‘Shall we drop the bomb on a living target?’” Every president since Harry Truman has had that power. None has exercised it.

    Today in History: Harry S. Truman is Born (1884)

    On this day in 1884, one of the most influential presidents in American history was born in Lamar, Missouri. Harry S. Truman is most well-known for how he ended World War II, but there was more to his life and his presidency than meets the eye.

    When someone asks &ldquoWhat do you know about Harry Truman,&rdquo most people would answer, &ldquoHe authorized the use of nuclear weapons to end World War II.&rdquo Ask them what else they know, and if they aren&rsquot history majors, they probably wouldn&rsquot have an answer.

    His presidency might be the most pivotal in American history if you look at the sheer amount of things he did or was first at.

    Truman&rsquos career as a politician started in 1922 as a county clerk, and grew from there. By 1934, he was a member of the U.S. Senate. He gained influence quickly, and in March 1941 he formed the Truman Committee, which was widely publicized. Its mission was to root out waste and inefficiency in wartime contracts.

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose Truman to be his Vice President, and he took up that office in January 1945, just four months before Roosevelt died in office.

    During this time, the world was embroiled in World War II. Nazi Germany was on its last dregs, and would surrender just a month or so after Truman took up the Presidency, but Japan was still very strong.

    Military experts at the time predicted that the war in the Pacific could rage on for at least another year, and would likely cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. The reason it would be so costly is due to the spread out nature of the Japanese islands, and Japan&rsquos military strength at the time. In order to save those lives, Truman did the one thing no other American (or anyone else for that matter) has ever done: he ordered the use of nuclear weapons on Japan, and on August 6 and on August 9, 1945, his orders were carried out.

    Aftermath of the nuclear bomb in Japan. DailyMail

    That decision may be the most controversial one ever to be made by a sitting U.S. president, and is still hotly debated to this day. Right or wrong, however, it is seen as the catalyst to Japan&rsquos unconditional surrender.

    That&rsquos what most people know about Harry S. Truman. But that happened at the beginning of his time in office, and there is much more to his presidency. Because of World War II, Truman oversaw one of the greatest economic booms in the country&rsquos history. Despite this, there was a lot of strife in the economy as the United States struggled to transition from a wartime economy. Labor conflicts flared up, and several large-scale strikes took place after the war.

    For example, in January 1946, 800,000 steel workers went on strike. A lot of this had to do with the economy at large as inflation was a real issue, and shortages in housing and consumer products were plaguing the nation. Labor relations would be a constant struggle for Truman during his presidency.

    Harry S. Truman. History Channel

    Most of Truman&rsquos accomplishments during his presidency happened in the foreign arena. He instigated the Marshall Plan, which sent money to war-torn Europe, and he was the president who was in office in the opening salvos of the Cold War, a struggle that would last nearly 45 years. He created the Truman Doctrine to help prevent the spread of Soviet and Chinese communism.