A few days after he became President upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945, Harry S. Truman received a thick folder from General George Marshall. For the first time, Truman found out that the United States had an atomic bomb. Stunned, the 33rd President carefully read the report and knew his country had a weapon which could wipe out whole cities – and it would be his job to decide if it would be used. No man in history ever had such an awesome decision. Quietly, he closed the folder, thanked Marshall, and accepted the terrible burden that had just been handed him.
That was Harry S. Truman, the man from Independence, Missouri. Born there on May 8, 1884, Truman was the only President this century not to go to college. Instead he had worked his family farm, until he served in France during World War I. Coming home, he opened a men’s clothing store in Kansas City, but that failed in 1921. Turning to politics, Truman became part of the powerful Democratic
machine and was elected a judge in 1922, although he didn’t have a law degree.
In 1934, Truman became U. S. Senator. Roosevelt chose Truman to be his Vice President in 1944. Truman took office on January 20, 1945; eighty-two days later he was President. As soon as Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, longtime differences with the Soviet Union came to the surface over control of captured lands in Eastern Europe. In July, Truman, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in Potsdam, Germany, but nothing was settled. While there, Truman ordered the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. After the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, and Nagasaki on August 9, Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945.
With the end of the hot war, the Cold War between the U. S. and the Soviet Union began. Adopting the policy of containment, Truman set the guide for American policy until the collapse of the Soviet Union four decades later. He also set up the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and NATO to protect it from attack by the Soviet Union. On the home front, he instituted the broad social-welfare reforms, which had been put on hold because of the war. He also pushed for civil rights for African-Americans and desegregated the armed forces.
His policies divided the Democratic Party and it looked like he would not win reelection in 1948. However, by staging the greatest comeback in political history, Truman won a narrow victory over Republican Thomas Dewey.
Communism – at home and abroad – dominated his second term. At home, Congress began a hunt for Communists, real or imagined, in everything from the government to the movies. In June 1950, South Korea was invaded by Communist North Korea bringing on the Korean War. The U. S. led the United Nations in the fighting. In 1951, Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur for urging drastic military action including the bombing of troop assembly areas in Communist China; but much of the public supported the general. Truman retired to write his memoirs and lived to see himself become an American folk hero before he died on Dec. 26, 1972.