Robert H Ferrell. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Harry S. Truman of Independence, Missouri, once remarked that three experiences prepared a man for high political office—farming, banking, and the army. By the time he entered politics he possessed all three. In his preparation for the presidency he might have added three more: knowledge of small-town America, avid reading of books about the leaders and government of the United States, and extensive participation in local and national politics.
The Formative Years
The future president spent his early years in rural America. He was born on 8 May 1884 in the farm village of Lamar (120 miles south of Kansas City), where his father, John, pursued a horse and mule business, buying and selling in a lot across the street from the small white frame family residence. A few months later the Trumans moved to the first of a succession of farms. In 1890 the family, increased by the birth of a second son, John Vivian, and a daughter, Mary Jane, settled in Independence. There, on the several acres surrounding their house on Crysler Street, John Truman conducted his animal-trading business. Independence grew rapidly during the 1890s, doubling in population to twelve thousand by the turn of the century. In 1896 the Trumans moved to another house near the town’s principal residential street. Since Independence was a farm town and the county seat of a large rural area to the east of Kansas City, Harry Truman’s farm roots did not wither and dry up.
When Truman reached manhood, he worked briefly in Kansas City but soon established himself on a farm near Grandview, twenty miles from Independence, where he remained until he entered the army in 1917. Here his lifetime habits became fixed. He often spoke of the farm experience, even during his presidency. Whatever the duties of the presidential years, however late into the evening he presided over dinners or meetings, he awoke each morning at 5:00 or 5:30 and within minutes was at his desk, long before secretaries and assistants.
The farm meant much loneliness, save for the company of horses and mules, and offered opportunity to consider principles, such as the beliefs of the Baptist Church, which Truman joined in Grandview, and the Masons, to which he applied for membership in 1908. He came away from the farm with a sharpened sense of right and wrong, of how principles counted and irresolute positions did not. He understood—when he got into politics—that it often meant compromise, but he interpreted “compromise” as the discovery of a mutually agreeable position, not as a trimming of principles.
During the farm years, Truman became what Americans of another generation might have described as an administrator: he managed six hundred acres. In the early part of the twentieth century, farming necessitated careful management of time and machinery. Plowing, the initial enterprise, required hours for each acre. Cultivating, mowing, and reaping covered areas of only six or eight feet, meaning almost interminable circling of fields. Truman hired farmhands at fifteen or twenty cents an hour, plus meals, to help run his teams, but unlike later management experts, he did much of the work himself.
The second of Truman’s preparations for high political office, banking, appears to have meant far less to him than the experience of farming. Perhaps it was because he spent less time at it—three years, beginning in 1903, when he lived in Kansas City and worked in the cages of the National Bank of Commerce and the Union National Bank as a recorder of tellers’ transactions or bookkeeper for checks received from, or sent to, country banks. The young bank clerk functioned on a low level, and appears not to have enjoyed the work, or so he told a friend, although he displayed enough interest and ability to increase his salary from $35 a month to $100. From this experience he may have derived his oft-remarked fascination in later years with the federal budget. As president, he read budgets with intense care, having an acute sense for the reliability—or deviousness—of line items. He saw the director of the Bureau of the Budget almost daily, believing the budget to be the principal management device of the federal government.
In April 1917 the United States entered World War I, and almost immediately Truman entered the army. He had been a member of the Kansas City field artillery battery of the Missouri National Guard for two enlistments, from 1905 to 1911, and when war began, he volunteered to help enlarge the battery into a regiment. There followed his election as first lieutenant in what became, upon reception into federal service, the 129th Field Artillery, attached to the Thirty-fifth Division from Missouri and Kansas. He went overseas in April 1918, was promoted to captain that month, and in July took command of the most unruly battery in the regiment, Battery D, a group of German Catholics and “wild Irishmen” (so he described them) that had broken four previous commanders.
Ability to manage a bewildering variety of tasks had derived from life on the farm, and in the few months that remained of American participation in the war, Truman demonstrated a remarkable skill in the management of men. After an inauspicious beginning, during which the assembled battery greeted him with what one of its members years later described as a “Bronx cheer,” he brought the men under control through a careful combination of firmness and friendliness, and took them through several actions, including the battles of Saint Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, without losing a man. The battery idolized him, and he became known as Captain Harry. When the men took passage home in April 1919 aboard the German liner Zeppelin, a rough rider, they whiled away the time in a day-and-night dice game, during which they set aside a percentage of each pot for purchase of a large engraved silver loving cup for the captain. For the rest of their lives they kept in touch, immensely proud of the man they described as their leader. Each Armistice Day they met in reunion. At the inaugural parade in January 1949, the members of Battery D marched on each side of Captain Harry’s automobile.
Among other formative influences was life in Independence during the 1890s. The future president commenced school in 1892 at the age of eight, and in 1894 a near-fatal attack of diphtheria interrupted his studies for months; even so, he graduated with the Independence High School class of 1901 (schooling in those years consisted of ten grades, not twelve). A photograph of the class shows not only Truman but Elizabeth (“Bess”) Wallace, who was to become his wife in June 1919. Truman never forgot Independence, in which he was to spend most of his long life. It was, of course, the small town, not the later residential suburb of Kansas City of more than 100,000 inhabitants.
And then there was the reading of books that so influenced him. Just before the Truman family moved to Independence the youngster had been “fine-printed”; that is, fitted with glasses to relieve his farsightedness. As a child in Independence he had been ill with diphtheria. The illness but especially the glasses, which were expensive, kept him out of childhood games, inspired him to study the piano, and made young Truman an inveterate reader during these years. Afterward he tended to exaggerate his reading, but he did spend an unusual amount of time with books. The town library contained seventeen hundred (the president later exaggerated it to four thousand), and he liked to say he had read them all, including the encyclopedias. Perhaps he read several hundred, which seemed like all of them. His taste ran to the historical, especially American history, with an emphasis on the history of American government. He often remembered a four-volume oversized set given him on his twelfth birthday by his mother, who bought it from a door-to-door salesman—Great Men and Famous Women, edited by Charles F. Horne. He read Plutarch, Arthurian romances, and biographies of presidential heroes—Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln. The young Truman also admired Grover Cleveland.
Any analysis of Truman’s preparation for the presidency must also look to the twenty years of local and national office holding prior to 1945, to the years when he turned to politics as a “profession” (his proud word). His initial participation in American politics occurred in 1892 when he wore a white hat to school bearing the names of Grover Cleveland for president and Adlai Stevenson (grandfather of a future Democratic nominee) for vice president. As he told the story long afterward, some big Republican boys snatched the hat and tore it up. He entered politics after the failure of the haberdashery he had opened in Kansas City in 1919 with his former army sergeant, Edward Jacobson; the business was caught in a recession that caused shelf stock to plummet in value from $30,000 to less than $10,000. Truman assumed all of the partnership’s debts after Jacobson declared bankruptcy in 1925; not until the early 1930s did he pay them off. Indeed, the haberdashery’s failure inaugurated a period of twenty years during which he was strapped for funds, for in 1934 and 1940 he had to pay a large share of the cost of two senatorial campaigns.
Truman’s political career began because of a chance army friendship. Having met Lieutenant Jim Pendergast during the war, he made the acquaintance of Jim’s father, Mike, older brother of the Democratic boss of Kansas City, Thomas J. (“Tom”) Pendergast. The Pendergast brothers in 1922 needed a man as “eastern judge” (that is, eastern county commissioner) in the three-man Jackson County court. The eastern part of the county included Independence and its rural hinterland, and Kansas City formed the western part. The court consisted of judges representing each, together with a “presiding judge” elected at large. Truman won the primary, went on to easy victory in November, and served a two-year term (1923-1924). Defeated in 1924 because of a division in local Democratic ranks caused by an anti-Pendergast leader in Kansas City, Joseph G. Shannon, he ran for presiding judge in 1926, was elected, and served two four-year terms (1927-1934).
Association with Boss Tom Pendergast proved a terrible liability once the politician from Independence became prominent nationally; people outside of Missouri did not understand either Pendergast or the politics of Jackson County. The Pendergast association was a complex one and could hardly be reduced to the simplicities employed by Truman’s opponents.
Machines no longer manage the big cities of America, but in the era of enormous urban growth that began in the 1880s, the machines did much to make cities endurable for immigrants and poor people; machines constituted the welfare system of their time, the boss helping with groceries, medical care, burial, and other necessities in return for loyalty on election day. His ward heelers ensured victory by getting out the vote. In Kansas City this meant getting out enough votes, real or otherwise, to defeat any state ticket or senatorial nominees put up in primaries by the rival political machine (also Democratic) of St. Louis. Pendergast voted absentees and dead people through use of “repeaters,” frequently high school students who voted repeatedly on election day. “Ghost voters” often lived in empty lots, and dozens of them lived in tiny apartments. And then there were always the cemeteries, which inspired the election-day quip “Now is the time for all good cemeteries to come to the aid of the party.” Pendergast lieutenants desired to show the boss their vote-getting abilities and frequently brought in more votes than occasions demanded.
Truman probably could not have entered Jackson County politics without support from Pendergast, even had he run only for eastern judge, since Pendergast’s brother Mike controlled that part of the county. When running at large for presiding judge, he undoubtedly would have lost without Pendergast votes. He was an honest man, which recommended him to Pendergast, who needed an attractive figure on the court. He was cooperative about patronage, understanding that it was the glue of party loyalty. He always drew a line, which Pendergast respected, between patronage and graft, willing to provide the one but not the other. The two men maintained an easy relationship, and the boss looked to other office-holders, such as the city manager of Kansas City, if there was need for graft. Pendergast refused to support road contractors who thought Truman uncooperative for not giving them preference in contracts, insisting on the lowest bidder. Upon the death of Mike Pendergast in 1929, Presiding judge Truman became Tom Pendergast’s lieutenant for the eastern part of the county.
During his years on the court Truman put through two major bond issues, totaling $14.4 million, and gave the county skillfully engineered cement roads, a beautiful art deco skyscraper courthouse in Kansas City, and a remodeled Georgian-style courthouse in Independence. Outside each courthouse he placed an equestrian statue of General Andrew Jackson.
It was contention with St. Louis that persuaded Boss Tom to back Truman for senator in 1934, after at least three prospective candidates refused what looked like a difficult race, but Truman, with a forty-thousand-vote plurality, won the primary, which ensured election in November. During the primary the state’s senior senator, Bennett Champ Clark, son of the legendary Speaker of the House “Champ” Clark, fought him tooth and nail, and described Truman’s campaign as afflicted with “unexampled mendacity.” But, in the way of good politicians after defeat, he took Truman down the aisle of the Senate Chamber in January 1935 to be sworn in by Vice President John Nance Garner.
As a decade on the Jackson County court had made Truman conversant with the extraordinary convolutions of politics in a metropolitan county and had taught him how to measure factions and how to advance a forward-looking program, so a decade in the Senate taught him how national and even international issues focused on ninety-six men elected from all parts of the country. He learned how progressive legislation emerged from the work of perhaps a dozen relentlessly hardworking, imaginative senators who usually took the other members along in voting for what they produced. In his two terms, the second cut short by elevation to the vice presidency in January 1945, he joined the group of Senate leaders. In his second term, when he headed the Truman Committee to investigate the national defense effort, he became an outstanding member of the upper house.
His first term opened without fanfare, and President Roosevelt in the remote fastness of the White House required weeks before he found time to see the junior senator from Missouri. The president gave Truman a fifteen-minute appointment, but his secretary ushered the senator out after seven minutes. Roosevelt apparently considered him “the senator from Pendergast,” a label Boss Tom may have pinned on Truman by relating expansively how steel corporations and railroads sent senators and he therefore had sent his “office boy.” One of Truman’s primary opponents in 1934 had claimed that Truman would have calluses on his ears, from the long-distance phone to Kansas City, and Roosevelt may have heard of that remark. To make matters worse, the new senator voted a straight New Deal line, which made him invisible; if he had threatened to get out of line during close votes or otherwise given the appearance of being unpredictable, he would have received attention. Roosevelt gave Missouri’s patronage to the mercurial Bennett Clark, who took it as if he deserved it.
Truman’s fellow senators ignored him, save for the maverick Democrat Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and one or two others. But Senator Wheeler liked Truman, instructed him in Senate ways, and put him on the railroad subcommittee of the Interstate Commerce Committee, where Truman soon was investigating the successive bankruptcies of major roads in the 1920s and 1930s, including the suspicious involvement of bankruptcy courts in high fees to law firms and financiers in New York. The resultant Truman-Wheeler Transportation Act of 1940 brought order out of corporate financial chaos. Truman was also author of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which provided an independent board and chairman for regulation of the fledgling aviation industry.
At the beginning of his second Senate term, Truman received dozens of letters from Missouri constituents concerning waste in construction at Fort Leonard Wood; in response, he persuaded the Senate to establish an investigating committee with himself as chairman that turned out remarkably well. At the outset the Roosevelt administration displayed no interest and indeed almost no support, and Senator James F. Byrnes allotted only $15,000 to investigate the expenditure of billions. Truman nonetheless brought together several serious-minded senators who made thirty investigations of major aspects of the defense and (after 7 December 1941) war effort, reportedly saving the nation $15 billion. Each Truman Committee report was carefully researched, and the mere threat of an adverse report usually brought correction of abuses.
By 1944, Truman had shown himself an adroit leader, on the local, state, and national levels, and hence was available, to use the political term, for the vice presidency. His achievements in Jackson County politics were almost legendary. On the state level he had managed not merely election to the Senate in 1934 but managed it again in 1940 when he won an extremely close primary campaign against Governor Lloyd C. Stark and another Democratic candidate by a plurality of 7,976 votes. In this campaign the odds had been appalling, be, cause Boss Tom Pendergast had been sentenced to Leavenworth prison for income tax evasion and because the Roosevelt administration favored Stark and refused to endorse Truman (although it did not endorse Stark either). Thereafter Truman showed remarkable leadership with the success of the Truman Committee.
In 1944, Roosevelt allowed party chieftains to recommend Truman as a running mate because the Missouri senator possessed many friends in the upper house and could assist passage of the United Nations treaty. Senators did not respect the vice president at the time, Henry A. Wallace, an aloof figure who took an interest in issues rather than personalities. On their side the party leaders proposed Truman because they considered him presidential timber and were certain that American voters would reelect Roosevelt to a fourth term and that the president, whose health was deteriorating visibly, would die in office. Truman, let it be said, did not lift a finger for the nomination in 1944, in part because his wife disliked the goldfish-bowl aspect of Washington life and hated the prospect of the vice presidency and presidency; Truman knew, too, that if he had shown any ambition for the vice presidency, Roosevelt would not have liked it, for the president did not like ambitious people. As Truman saw support gathering for his nomination he did not absolutely refuse to accept it; he could have done a “General Sherman,” refusing to consider the office under any circumstances, but he did not go that far. One has the impression that he was not unhappy when the office came his way. He knew it meant the presidency.
Following Roosevelt’s election to his fourth term, Truman was sworn in as vice president on 20 January 1945, and in subsequent weeks began to accustom himself to his largely ceremonial duties. Then, on 12 April, while he was presiding over a tedious session of the Senate, a tragic scene was being enacted in Warm Springs, Georgia, where the president had gone, as so often before, for treatment of his paralysis. After sitting for his portrait in his small cottage Roosevelt complained of a terrific headache, lost consciousness, and died. Truman was summoned to the White House shortly after five o’clock to learn from Mrs. Roosevelt that he had become president of the United States.
When Harry Truman took the oath of office that evening at 7:09 in the Cabinet Room, he was as astonished as were the American people. He knew that the president’s health was deteriorating, but the moment was astonishing.
The next day he told a group of newspapermen that he felt as if “the moon, the stars, and all the planets” had fallen upon him, and he asked them to pray for him. This remark, so expressive of his rural Baptist background, was widely quoted. (Privately, Truman doubted if they knew how to pray for him.)
From such remarks people concluded he was an ordinary individual who happened to become president. But he was hardly an ordinary man. Few, if any, leaders in Washington knew more about domestic American politics; the whole of his personal experience had made him a political master. Truman’s only obvious lack of qualification for the presidency was his ignorance of international affairs, which were to occupy most of his time during his presidency.
It is a curious fact, not often noticed, that Truman’s quickness in learning about foreign affairs—he made errors in foreign policy in his first year of the presidency, but not many—may have been attributable to his knowledge of domestic politics. Truman in retirement ruminated about the qualities he so desperately needed upon entering the presidency after virtually no preparation by the secretive and otherwise absentminded Roosevelt, who (as Truman’s assistant Clark Clifford once said) thought he would live forever. The president of 1945-1953 concluded that if a politician knows American domestic politics he can learn quickly about foreign relations. It does stand to reason that if a president, out of long experience, senses what the American people want, he can advance those desires internationally by relying, as Truman did from the outset, upon the negotiating abilities of the Department of State.
The first issue of foreign policy that Truman confronted was the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan. No decision of his presidency has drawn so much criticism as the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August). The question is whether he could have done anything else—that is, whether he could have delayed use of the bombs by opting for a demonstration of their immense power or refused to employ what General Dwight D. Eisenhower described many years after its employment as an inhuman weapon.
Truman knew about the bomb before he became president. When he was chairman of the investigating committee his investigators had reported on the huge expenditures at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and at Hanford, Washington, the two principal production sites for uranium-235 and plutonium. When he and Roosevelt lunched together under a magnolia on the White House lawn in August 1944, just before the vice presidential candidate went out to campaign, the president told him the secret. At that time the bomb had not been tested.
After he entered the presidency, everything moved rapidly. When, on 16 July 1945, scientists tested a plutonium device (only enough U-235 was available for a single bomb, so they could not test the uranium weapon), they expected a low yield, equal to 500-1,500 tons of TNT, and less effective explosive power because everything would be in a single war-head instead of many small bombs. At the very moment of testing, Truman and other high administration officials had just reached the Berlin suburb of Babelsberg in preparation for a Big Three conference that opened next day at Potsdam and lasted until 2 August; the president had no time to think much about a plutonium bomb that he now realized equaled 20,000 tons of TNT. At Potsdam the president spent two weeks in complicated discussion about Germany’s occupation and the payment of reparations; the government and borders of Poland; the opening to all commerce of Europe’s principal waterways; and a special declaration by the United States, Britain, and China (the Soviet Union did not take part because it had not yet entered the Far Eastern war) warning Japan in general terms to make peace with the Allies.
With the bomb available, and the president at Potsdam, it was necessary to make a decision, and Truman chose to use the new weapon. One reason for his decision was his feeling, and that of virtually all of his countrymen at the time, that the Japanese military—and behind it the Japanese government—did not know how to wage civilized war. The Japanese army not merely had fought well in its campaigns, whether in offense or defense, but it had fought in bestial fashion. The first evidence had appeared in the sack of Nanking in 1937, in which at least 100,000 Chinese, soldiers and civilians alike, were slaughtered. The attack on Pearl Harbor had infuriated the American people, and there had followed the Bataan death march, a terrible affair. The small-scale attack of American bombing planes on Tokyo and other cities in 1942 was followed by another bloodbath of 100,000 or so deaths in China of anyone and everyone suspected of harboring American fliers. The Japanese defense of Manila against the attacking U.S. Army in 1945 may well have added another 100,000 mainly civilian deaths. The same number of American and Allied prisoners were in the hands of the Japanese army and, as it turned out, would have been slaughtered if the United States had invaded the Japanese home islands. And then there was the likely cost of an invasion of the southernmost island of Kyushu scheduled for 1 November 1945, followed by an invasion of Honshu (including the Tokyo plain) on 1 March 1946. At Iwo Jima in 1945 the United States had lost 6,200 men dead, at Okinawa 13,000. Using Okinawa as a measure, the much larger invasion of Kyushu and Honshu would have cost 65,000 deaths, and casualties—missing, wounded, and dead—could have run much higher because of the nearness of bases for the kamikaze planes that might have made chance hits on packed troopships. There was every evidence that Japanese forces would exact frightful casualties, all the while themselves fighting to the death.
The Potsdam Declaration by the United States, Great Britain, and China called upon Japan to surrender, although of course it did not mention the new weapon that might force such a result, as Congress itself, despite having paid the bill, did not know of the nuclear program. The Japanese government, in control of the military, contemptuously refused. The two bombs cost 110,000 lives and gave the military the excuse they needed to consider surrender. But even then the decision to surrender was forced by the emperor, who twice broke a tie vote among his highest advisers. A rebellion by the Tokyo division guarding the imperial palace that was fomented as a protest to the emperor’s decision was put down only after the murder of its commander.
Truman’s second major decision in foreign relations was to change the American stance in international affairs from abstention to participation, a decision that reversed the long-standing policy advocated by George Washington. This reversal, this change, established Truman’s reputation as one of the nation’s greatest presidents. His announcement of the change through the Truman Doctrine (12 March 1947), which promised United States support to countries threatened by Communism; the Marshall Plan (5 June 1947), which placed an economic. foundation under the struggling nations of Western Europe; and the North Atlantic Treaty (4 April 1949), which assured military assistance, resolved the economic and political near-chaos of Europe after World War II. These measures would, he believed, preserve democracy in Western Europe and thereby help preserve the freedom of the United States. The Truman Doctrine applied to Greece and Turkey. The Marshall Plan included most of the nations of Western Europe: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. (Switzerland signed the convention creating an organization for the plan, but refused to accept funds.) Congress included China in Marshall Plan appropriations. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) comprised the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Britain, Canada, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland; Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, West Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982.
At the time, the logic of Truman’s measures may not have been evident to all Americans; many were confused because of proposed policy changes coming so close to the end of World War II, others saw politics in the president’s international stance, and still others, having thought little in the past about international affairs, seemed determined to remain in ignorance. The leading figures of the administration, perhaps even the president, were not always sure where they were going; sometimes they were feeling their way. They all had many duties, and the crises came up quickly; they may even have lurched from crisis to crisis.
Confusion often reigned. In the midst of the administration’s several measures, the Soviets began the land blockade of the western sectors of Berlin and an airlift became necessary from June 1948 until September 1949. In the Middle East the British government chose the date of 15 May 1948 to give up its mandate over Palestine, resulting not merely in the announcement on midnight of the preceding day, 14 May, of the birth of the State of Israel but in an almost immediate convergence of Arab armies upon the new state, hoping to stifle it at birth. Hostilities lasted until an armistice was worked out the next year. Truman extended almost immediate recognition to Israel, eleven minutes after the state’s founding, but the United States remained neutral during the first of the Arab-Israeli wars.
Critics have maintained that Europe could have righted itself without Truman’s measures, which, they have said, ensured a permanent cold war. Signs of Soviet weakness, economic and military, were visible at the time and often remarked upon. John Foster Dulles, then a member of an American delegation to a conference in Moscow in 1947, drove from the airport of the Russian capital through the streets to the Kremlin and beheld mile after mile of slums, rundown houses, and aging apartment buildings, the people in tatters. He easily concluded that the Soviet Union had a long way to go before it could match the economic might of the United States. Students of Soviet affairs later concluded that Premier Joseph Stalin in 1947-1949 needed a foreign enemy because the Soviet economy could not produce both peacetime and military goods and he sought to maintain control by threat of war. World War II revealed large groups of the populace, such as the Ukrainians, susceptible to Western—in this case, German—influence. The Soviet Union defeated the German army, so the argument went, largely by masses of troops thrown against German forces and by primitive weapons similarly expended, but was not able to take its crude military might far beyond its borders.
These alarms and contentions could have no effect on President Truman and his assistants, who could act only on the need to do something to save Western Europe—and also, to be sure, on the basis of what they saw, which was Soviet intransigence: vehement protest over peace talks held early in 1945 with German army representatives in Switzerland shortly before surrender of German troops in Italy; looting of territories traversed by the Red Army; indifference to the plight of captured Allied soldiers whose camps Soviet troops overran; demands for huge reparations from Western-occupied zones of Germany; and ruthless domination of the countries of Eastern Europe, despite promises of individual rights and liberties set out in the Yalta Declaration on Liberated Europe, to which the Soviets had promised support. When British, American, and French forces entered their allotted sectors of Berlin in July, they beheld evidences of Russian outrages against the city’s population on every side. In ensuing months the Soviets turned the Council of Foreign Ministers, created by the Potsdam Conference to help restore order to Europe, into a debating group, Soviets versus Western Allies.
Then there was the immediate crisis of the spring of 1947. In 1946 it had become obvious that Western Europe’s economies could not by themselves recover from the war. The harsh winter of 1946-1947 froze wheat in the ground, threatening dire food shortages. Coal supplies failed to reach cities, where inhabitants were without heat and frequently without electricity.
Truman did not quite sense the crisis until, in February 1947, the British government gave up support of Greece and Turkey, two weakened states on Europe’s periphery, one afflicted by years of German occupation and the other threatened by invasion across the long Turkish-Soviet border. The resultant Truman Doctrine, backed by an appropriation of $400 million, inaugurated years of support that mounted to billions of dollars. The European Recovery Plan, announced by Secretary of State George C. Marshall at the Harvard commencement in June 1947, had an initial installment of $5.6 billion (passed by Congress in March 1948) and eventually totaled $13 billion. (In his inaugural address in 1949 the president proposed economic aid to developing countries, and this fourth point in the address—known as Point Four—received modest congressional appropriations for a few years, mostly in the form of pilot projects of a technical nature, such as water systems or plans for increasing crop yields.) The Truman administration could not sign the North Atlantic Treaty until April 1949—that is, until after the president had fought the “whistle stop” campaign of 1948 and become president in his own right. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization did not become an effective military organization until after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. General Dwight D. Eisenhower went to Europe as supreme commander of NATO in January 1951, a clear signal of United States commitment.
The Truman administration perhaps erred in making the Truman Doctrine of 1947 so all-inclusive: the president’s enunciation of the doctrine, produced in the State Department, was hard-line and included any threatened country in the world. Administration opponents in Congress immediately raised the question of China, where Communists were fighting Nationalists. Representative Walter H. Judd of Minnesota inquired why the United States sought to protect Greece against Communism when its policy in China, set out clearly in the unsuccessful mission of General Marshall in 1946, was to bring the warring factions together. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson explained that China’s size and population were immensely larger than those of Greece. Actually Acheson had asked a department speech-writer, Joseph M. Jones, to use expansive phrases in the Truman Doctrine speech so as to ensure congressional approval. When the United States in the 1960s involved itself in Vietnam, the phrases came to seem singularly inappropriate. It appeared that the Truman Doctrine had been intended to oppose Communism everywhere, including the Far East—a notion that never entered the minds of Truman and Acheson.
Fortune, as well as statesmanship, may have ensured success of the Marshall Plan, as the plan became known, for $13 billion merely primed Western Europe’s economic pump. It was American orders for European goods during the so-called Korean War boom that ensured the revival of the European economies, allowing them to take off into the patterns of consumer consumption that had characterized the American economy since the 1920s.
NATO forces, galvanized by Eisenhower, never numbered much beyond the equivalent of twenty-five divisions, not enough to have prevented a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, although enough to prove that any attack was a serious matter, not a probing effort or an accident. The cost of American forces placed the United States at a disadvantage in trade with allies who did not pay for protecting themselves. And the second largest national contingent of NATO came from West Germany. Inclusion of Germans in NATO occurred only after years of contention with the French government that soured relations between Paris and Washington.
President Truman nonetheless pushed through the three major parts of his program—the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO—to effect the permanent alignment of the United States with Western Europe. For a man who achieved the presidency through the death of his predecessor and whose political experience lay almost entirely in domestic issues, it was an extraordinary personal, as well as public, triumph.
The last leading issue of foreign affairs during Truman’s presidency, the Korean War, also displayed his resolution, but its domestic political consequences obscured the essential achievement. Not until nearly half a century later, in the 1990s, when the Korean War had passed into history, was Truman’s judgment vindicated.
On 24 June 1950 the president was visiting in Independence when he received the news from Secretary of State Acheson that 135,000 North Korean troops had begun crossing the thirty-eighth parallel into South Korea, equipped with Russian tanks and planes—weapons the South Korean forces did not possess—and that tanks were rumbling toward Seoul. The next afternoon, the president returned to Washington and, in his limousine en route to Blair House, where he was living during reconstruction of the White House, told Acheson and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, “By God, I’m going to let them have it!” At Blair House that evening his assistants worked out a strategy whereby American naval, air, and, eventually, ground forces entered the fighting in the next few days. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council voted to support South Korea. (The Soviet Union was then boycotting its meetings because the Chinese Nationalist representative occupied China’s permanent seat, rather than a representative from Beijing, and thus there was no veto.)
In retrospect, it is clear that at the outset of the Korean War, Truman should have asked Congress for a declaration of war. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advised Truman that, as commander in chief of American armed forces and president of a United Nations member state, he had the right to help defend South Korean independence. He also said that the president might run into a long debate with Congress that could tie the chief executive’s hands. Truman therefore described Korea as a “police action.” A declaration in June 1950 would have been easily obtained, for Congress almost unanimously supported the war at its outset. Unfortunately, later, when the war became unpopular, the idea of a police action gave Truman’s domestic political opponents an easy point of criticism, because the war had far outgrown the designation. Moreover, Truman unwittingly provided a precedent for the Vietnam War years later.
American fortunes in the Korean War wavered erratically, but Truman did his best, much to the confusion of the American people, who often failed to understand either tactics or strategy. The United States Army was so weak in June 1950 that it barely stopped the North Korean advance around the tip of the peninsula near the port of Pusan. The Inchon landing high upon the peninsula’s west coast, near Seoul, righted matters, but movement into North Korea brought Chinese intervention in November and December, another retreat, and finally establishment of a line approximately at the thirty-eighth parallel. After seemingly interminable parleys, a truce was worked out in July 1953, after Truman had left the presidency.
In the course of the war, General Douglas MacArthur quarreled publicly with the president over strategy and sought to undercut him, and so Truman dismissed him from his Far Eastern commands in April 1951. The general did not merely contend to the president that he believed the Far East a much more important theater of Russian concern and possible aggression than Western Europe; he also talked to newspaper reporters about his strategic opinions and wrote letters voicing them. He also disagreed with the administration on tactics, for when the Chinese intervened, he wanted to use nuclear weapons against them. This, too, became public knowledge. And he made virtually diplomatic points in public, admonishing the North Koreans and Chinese or in other ways undercutting the State Department. The president issued a directive to subordinates, military and diplomatic, to clear their statements with each other, but MacArthur ignored it. When the two men met for a short conference at Wake Island on 15 October, it seemed that they were in agreement, but MacArthur’s subsequent pronouncements made their disagreements obvious. America’s allies began to doubt that Truman had the general under control; the British government was especially concerned. When Truman at last dismissed MacArthur, he replaced him with General Matthew B. Ridgway.
Truman’s task during the long agony of Korea became one of explanation, and the task proved impossible. Few Americans knew much about Korea. It seemed a strangely unimportant peninsula in which to contain Communism. The timing also appeared wrong—mainland China had fallen to the Communists in October 1949. The strategic contentions of MacArthur, with their easy solutions—bombing mainland China, perhaps with nuclear weapons, and sowing a belt of radioactive cobalt across the thirty-eighth parallel with a half-life of sixty-two years (a notion disclosed only after MacArthur’s death)—required a return to the prenuclear age. (“There is no substitute for victory,” he wrote the Republican minority leader of the House of Representatives, Joseph W. Martin, Jr.) Republican leaders in Congress espied an opportunity for a “great debate” in which they could refuse the bipartisanship so successful in Western Europe; Republican presidential nominees had failed in every election since 1928, and an irresistible opportunity arose for victory in 1952.
Truman’s problems—the public’s confusion and ignorance, the cries of military and political opponents, and spiraling inflation caused by war orders—were compounded by American casualties of 33,237 men dead, 103,376 wounded, and 410 missing. The American people, Truman often said, understood issues when they were explained to them. That was true of domestic political issues, as the president knew from his whistle-stop explanations, but the international issues in Korea did not lend themselves to explanation from the rear platform of a train.
The trouble with the Korean conflict was that the American people did not yet understand the requirements of statesmanship by a great power in a nuclear age. What really needed to be said—and the administration sought vainly to say it—was that the invention of nuclear weapons had made all-out war in the style of the two world wars impossible and that the differences of the United States and the Soviet Union were likely to flare into limited war in insecure places like Korea and become tests of their resolution. Truman, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary Acheson, and Secretary of Defense Marshall, who had replaced Johnson, knew that only force, coupled with negotiation, would hold the line, but they were unable to convince many.
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the purposes of the Soviets in Korea were altogether unclear. The administration was therefore uncertain about what it itself was attempting to do—to prevent the Soviets from taking Korea through use of North Korean or Chinese troops; to save Japan by preserving the Korean buffer; or to convince the Soviets that the United States would fight anywhere, even in East Asia, and thereby prevent the Soviets from overrunning Western Europe before the United States could organize NATO. The memoirs of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, published years later, undisguisedly admitted Soviet involvement and offered a presumption that weaknesses of the South Korean regime of President Syngman Rhee, together with such American testimony as Secretary Acheson’s speech of January 1950 in which he failed to mention South Korea as within the United States’ “defense perimeter” in Asia, encouraged the Soviets to explore American resolution. The Kremlin may also have desired to involve the Communist Chinese against the United States, in the hope that the Beijing regime might busy itself in a peripheral area of Asia, away from Soviet borders. Years later, in 1993, an American researcher in the former Soviet archives was given a document proving that Stalin had started the Korean War—by giving the green light to the head of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, and arranging the date of attack. The purpose was to see how far Kim could go.
Truman’s domestic policies as president took far less of his time, and proved far less successful, than his foreign policies. Here also he dealt with three major issues: administration of the modern American presidency, a legislative program known as the Fair Deal, and Republican accusations of internal subversion and corruption. He managed well with two of these domestic matters.
Students of the Truman presidency do not often realize that Truman was the first chief executive to organize the administration of his high office. He was not the first modern American president; Franklin Roosevelt deserves that distinction. Under Roosevelt the old ways of the presidency disappeared, for during the New Deal and World War II the government became too large; never again could a president conduct his affairs with a few assistants and enjoy leisure that took him out of White House offices for large parts of each day. But none of these presidents had large office staffs, although Roosevelt had expanded the White House staff from thirty-seven people in March 1933 to several times that number in 1945 and had also arranged for a new group of assistants, the Executive Office of the President, created in 1939 at the recommendation of a federal commission. Truman turned the energies of these assistants to presidential problems rather than, as under Roosevelt, internecine rivalries. He deplored Roosevelt’s sloppy and sometimes byzantine administrative ways. He sought ideas from his assistants, welcomed arguments over matters of policy, and asked that contentions be set forth in well-reasoned memoranda. Once he set the lines of policy, he expected support from assistants.
In addition to reorganizing the White House staff, Truman vastly expanded the Executive Office of the President, both because he believed it needed expansion and because Congress forced his hand. Uncertain over the economic advice Roosevelt had received, Congress in 1946 created the Council of Economic Advisers, a three-man panel of trained economists. The National Security Act of 1947 and its 1949 amendments then created an organization for presidential coordination of defense and foreign policy, the National Security Council. At first Truman gave it little attention, but after the outbreak of the Korean War, he attended its sessions and used it carefully as a management device. The act created the Department of Defense, reduced the navy and army to subcabinet status, added an air force subdepartment, and created the Central Intelligence Agency.
Truman also brought the sprawling federal bureaucracy under control. At the outset of his tenure, he found that the bureaucracy had grown from 600,000 civilian employees in 1932 to 2.6 million twenty years later, with 4,000 in the judicial branch, 22,500 in the legislative, and 2.57 million in the executive (1.3 million in defense, 500,000 in the post office, and the rest in other activities). He could not have controlled his part of this mass through the White House staff and the Executive Office staff. Moreover, most civilian employees were under civil service; the president appointed only 3,000. Truman therefore had to rely on his cabinet. He trusted that cabinet members would control their departments and thereby do the bidding of his administration. His management of the cabinet hence turned out to be far different from that of Roosevelt and other of his twentieth-century predecessors. Cabinet departments, to be sure, had been far smaller in pre-Roosevelt days, and perhaps it was easier for a president to ignore the cabinet. Truman, upon becoming president, was appalled to learn of the formlessness of the Roosevelt cabinet: Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins had lost almost all of her department’s divisions and agencies, and cabinet members fought each other openly, leaking their arguments to newspaper reporters. He dismissed most of the Roosevelt appointees in the initial months of his administration. He insisted upon dealing directly with members of the cabinet, and it was their task, he said, both to show loyalty to him and to control their departments. Not all Truman cabinet appointees proved able; but in the crucial areas of military and foreign affairs, his appointments were generally excellent. Cabinet meetings became business sessions, each official taking up his problems by bringing them before the group, with the president making the decision himself.
The domestic legislation of the Truman era followed carefully the main lines of expansion of economic and social programs advanced by the New Deal. At the outset, in September 1945, Truman sent to Congress a sixteen-thousand-word message proposing full-employment and fair-employment-practices bills, federal control of the unemployment compensation program, a large housing program, and the development of natural resources. The proposals ran into a hail of criticism (“brickbats,” Truman privately described them), and not much came from this message offered so early in his presidency. Most of his initial months were consumed by arguments whether price controls would prevent inflation while manufacturers sought to fill the huge postwar demand for civilian goods. In 1947-1949 the president offered his major change in American foreign policy—the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO. In 1948, politics and the Berlin blockade took much time. Only in early 1949 could he go back to his domestic program of three years before. The program of 1949 contained twenty-four points and began with the words “Every segment of our population and every individual has the right to expect from our government a fair deal.” This promised development of tried-and-true New Deal themes proposed federal control of prices, credit, commodities, exports, wages, and rents; a broadening of civil rights laws; low-cost housing; and a 75-cent minimum wage. It asked repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, which had passed over a presidential veto in 1947 and which outlawed industry-wide strikes, closed shops, and mass picketing; made unions liable to suits; required union leaders, before they could use the National Labor Relations Board, to file affidavits declaring that they were not Communists; set up cooling-off periods before strikes; prohibited the use of union funds for political contributions; and gave the president power to obtain antiunion injunctions. The Fair Deal promised increased coverage for Social Security, federal aid to education, and compulsory health insurance. The last issue brought Truman into frontal conflict with the American Medical Association, whose leaders cried “socialized medicine” and eventually helped to establish private programs of health insurance.
The time was not right for the Fair Deal, in either 1945 or 1949. In the immediate postwar years, the desire to relax, to have done with challenges, governed the popular mood; the exertions of the New Deal era followed by those of wartime had been too much. Truman himself bemoaned the public selfishness of the early postwar period when arguments between his administration and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who wanted to lift price controls because of shortages, notably a meat shortage in 1946, persuaded the president to give up the effort to control consumer prices. He may well have reached the low point of his presidency that year when he wrote out a speech about price controls, which he did not give but which came close to offering his resignation from the presidency. Victory in the election of 1948 and the exhilaration of becoming president in his own right in January 1949 momentarily convinced him that the old American spirit of self-sacrifice and generosity again was abroad in the land, that Americans by voting Democratic had affirmed the New Deal and the Fair Deal. Then he began to sense that his mandate was more personal than public, a recognition of his attractive, fighting personality rather than of his ideas for economic and social legislation. He managed to get parts of his program through the Eighty-first Congress, and the rest of it became a blueprint for successor administrations.
Truman made a valiant attempt to rationalize the nation’s agricultural production—to solve what generations of Americans, ever since the opening of the Trans-Mississippi West, had described as the farm problem. Truman’s secretary of agriculture during his second term, the able Charles F. Brannan, a long-time high official of the department, proposed what the president announced as the Brannan Plan, perhaps the most promising advance in agricultural policy by the federal government in the present century. The Roosevelt administration had assisted farmers through a crazy quilt of fixed prices and other measurements that tended to assist larger farmers, leaving the American consumer to pick up the check for the support program in the form of higher prices. This policy undercut exports, and the consumer picked up that loss when farmers sold their excess to the government at support prices. The consumer also paid for storing the excess, which the government then usually gave away. Brannan proposed to support all farm products, not just a few, and to translate support into units, such as ten bushels of corn. The plan entitled each farmer to price support for eighteen hundred units, no more, eliminating the advantage of the large farmer. In addition, it proposed direct subsidies instead of government loans and purchase agreements.
But the Republicans would not support his farm program. They preferred to let prices fall and de-claimed against subsidies in favor of disguised payments, such as price supports and conservation awards. The Brannan Plan failed of support, and the farm problem staggered on.
The Fair Deal scored a triumph in one important respect—the first national breakthrough in the protection of civil rights of black Americans. (Most earlier civil rights measures had not been reinforced by adequate enforcement legislation.) Truman had grown up in a family that had celebrated the death of Lincoln. The Missouri of his youth was lily-white. But his reading and his plain observation of the realities of life in Missouri and across the nation convinced him that oppression at home was as bad as, or even worse than (because it was far more easily remedied), oppression abroad. Late in 1946 he established the Committee on Civil Rights, which presented its report, To Secure These Rights, in October 1947. The cabinet split over the question of asking Congress for legislation, but Truman followed his own course and, on 2 February 1948, sent Congress a ten-point civil rights message calling for a new law against lynching, a federal fair-employment-practices committee, an end to segregation in interstate transportation, and protection of the right to vote. None of these proposals was enacted, and had to await later times.
The Democratic convention of 1948 in Philadelphia turned into a donnybrook over civil rights, with representatives from the Deep South departing the hall in high dudgeon to found their anti-black-rights party, the States’ Rights Democrats, a “spoiler” group that hoped to gain attention for its position by throwing the election into the House of Representatives. The Dixiecrats, as the group became known, led by Governor J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, presented proof, if such were needed, of Truman’s dedication to civil rights. The president already faced a challenge to party unity from the Progressive party, supporters of former Vice President Wallace. Truman could ill afford espousal of black rights in 1948. But he did not hesitate. Neither did Thurmond. A reporter asked the governor why he was taking the drastic step of forming a new party. “President Truman is only following the platform that Roosevelt advocated,” the reporter argued. “I agree,” Thurmond said. “But Truman really means it.” After the election, when civil rights legislation met resistance in Congress, Truman, by executive order, forced compliance with nondiscriminatory rules in government contracts, and by the end of 1951 the order covered a fifth of the nation’s economy. During the Korean War the integration of the armed forces, begun in 1948 by executive order, reached completion.
The third major domestic issue during the Truman administration centered on a twin accusation by the Republicans that the president made little effort to clean the Communists out of government departments and that he condoned and covertly supported corruption among members of the White House staff and within government departments. When the Republicans challenged the Democrats in the election of 1952, it was through a crafty formula suggested by Senator Karl E. Mundt of South Dakota—K1C2. The Korea part was clear enough, and C2 stood for Communism and corruption. The amalgam of charges produced by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin in 1950, along with the conviction of the onetime State Department officer Alger Hiss for perjury that year and the discovery that spy rings had infiltrated the wartime and postwar nuclear projects, promised to push the GOP to victory in 1952. Combined with charges of Democratic corruption, which had some small basis in fact, the Republican strategy became almost irresistible.
Truman’s Republican opponents pressed the Communism-in-government issue, and the president could not easily deny the charge, for a denial would necessarily have forced him to answer many trumped-up charges—and his enemies would always have the advantage of first exposure with their assertions. Moreover, Communists did get into the government, for how else could they have attempted to obtain nuclear secrets or, for that matter, subvert the government? The numbers were minuscule, judging from what the Federal Bureau of Investigation managed to turn up, but the controversy persisted. Truman established the Federal Employee Loyalty Program in 1947, by executive order. By mid-1952 the government had screened 4 million of its employees or prospective employees and dismissed or denied employment to 378 (0.022 percent of the total). The program threatened civil liberties and provided an atmosphere in which character assassins thrived.
The president also had to deal with the charge that the Republicans linked to Communism—namely, corruption. It was in meeting allegations of corruption within the federal government, in the White House staff, and particularly in the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) that the president’s patience with his political tormentors nearly ran out. Truman became irritated over this issue of domestic politics, and of course, the more intransigent he became, the harder the opposition hammered at their points about corruption. There may also have been a failure of the president’s political experience in this regard, for in his political training with the Pendergast machine he had learned that his efforts at reform had to yield to things as they were. Still another factor entered into his clumsiness in dealing with the corruption issue—loyalty. When a subordinate or a friend got into trouble, he instinctively went to his defense.
One of the president’s principal errors in handling the corruption issue was his loyalty to an old Missouri friend from World War I days, his military aide, Major General Harry H. Vaughan, an honest but imprudent man. Despite his friendship for Vaughan, he should have cut him loose. Vaughan accepted several freezers, and one of these appliances found its way to 219 North Delaware Street, the president’s house in Independence. Vaughan also was friendly with a few individuals who procured federal contracts for a fee of 5 percent. The term “fivepercenter” became a political epithet. General Vaughan was not transferred but remained in the White House for Truman’s entire administration.
More unfortunate was presidential insensitivity to corruption in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and the BIR. The RFC naturally attracted employees who made themselves useful to borrowers and left government employ for private enterprise; one of them, unfortunately from Missouri, presented his wife, a secretary in the White House, with a mink coat worth $9,540, paid for by a lawyer for a firm seeking an RFC loan. Congress abolished the RFC in 1953. The BIR offered similar temptations and too many political appointments to collector-ships in regional offices around the country. The BIR was the most sensitive government bureau because its operations touched all taxpayers. The president should have watched it closely and moved against miscreants instantly. In his last months in office, he reorganized the BIR by reducing the numbers of regional districts and collectors and placing almost all of the bureau’s personnel under civil service.
Opinion polls reflected Truman’s failure to marshal public support during his second term, and by November 1951 his popularity had dropped to 23 percent, down from a July 1945 high of 87 percent. This rating was one point lower than that of President Richard M. Nixon on the eve of his resignation in 1974. For the rest of Truman’s administration his popularity rating was very low, and by January 1953 it had risen to only 31 percent.
Part of the reason for Truman’s low popularity was the tactics he used to deal with the steel strike of 1952. After appealing to capital and labor, he discovered the animosity and uncooperativeness of both, which seemed especially egregious in the midst of the Korean War. Seeking not to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, he chose to seize the mills in the name of the government. The mill owners went to court, and the resultant decision, in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer, forced Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to give the mills back to the owners and constituted a sharp blow to Truman’s prestige. It was one of the century’s most important Supreme Court decisions limiting the power of the president.
Early in 1952, Truman announced that he would not run for another term, which he could have done, since he had not served two full terms. He chose, instead, to support Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, who was chosen Democratic standard-bearer that summer. Stevenson sought to distance himself from the Truman administration because of its low public esteem. For a while the president was angry with Stevenson, whom he believed ungrateful. In the autumn, nonetheless, Truman campaigned against the Republican candidate, General Eisenhower, who triumphed easily in the November election.
All in all it was an immensely successful presidency. Truman had kept at the task of leading the government and nation, in belief that posterity would uphold his purposes, foreign and domestic, and that belief has proved well founded. His indefatigable energy despite his age (he was sixty-eight when he left office), his innate modesty that allowed for judgment without involving personal feelings, and his invincible pride in his country carried him forward despite the confusions of his time. In foreign policy he made the decision to use nuclear weapons, whatever it promised for his historical reputation. He rightly took pride in changing the nation’s course, from isolation and occasional intervention to participation through the measures of 1947-1949. The Korean War held the line against Communism. In domestic affairs he left the executive branch securely organized, an extraordinarily helpful inheritance for his successor Eisenhower. The Fair Deal appeared to Truman as a thoroughly reasonable program, a belief justified by its enactment in the 1960s and retention by subsequent administrations, Republican as well as Democratic. The issues of Communism and corruption, which bedeviled his last years in the White House, he firmly believed to be (to use his often-quoted description for the former) a red herring, and mostly they were, although his usual political judgment failed him in handling the latter.
Truman lived nearly twenty years after his presidency. He returned to Independence and the white Victorian house built shortly after the Civil War, renewing acquaintance with the town through brisk morning walks. He published his memoirs in two thick volumes in 1955-1956, presided over fundraising for construction of the Harry S. Truman Library, and became an active Democratic spokesman. In the mid-1960s he slowed down, for ill health brought his activities virtually to a halt. In his last years he returned to the reading of history, biographies of America’s leaders of the past, and narrative accounts of the development of American government. The artist Thomas Hart Benton sketched him in a book-lined room of the Delaware Street house in 1971, piles of books across the desk, the old president holding a book in gnarled, arthritic hands. In this manner he passed the time until his death on 26 December 1972.