Harry Truman looked undersized for the job, coming after the charismatic Franklin Roosevelt, who had saved (temporarily) the USA from the Great Depression and who had led the Allies to victory in WW2. All commentators and he himself doubted that he could be up to all the challenges that were involved when one moved to the White House.
And he proved able to do the job and become ONE OF THE GREATEST PRESIDENTS of the 20th century.
If ever there was an unimpressive C.V. it was his ! Born in a modest Missouri family, he never graduated from a college and when he tried to run his own business (a haberdasher store ) it failed. He owed his political career to a political machine that had a poor reputation (its boss went to jail for income tax cheating) … and while he never denied that connection, he himself has never been suspected of anything unsavory.
In the Senate he did an unspectacular career : he tried to take consensual positions and made few enemies. However he surprisingly became Vice-President for FDR’s fourth term, and even more surprisingly, after just 82 days in that office, he succeeded his suddenly deceased boss. He was totally unprepared for his new function : neither in foreign nor in military affairs did he benefit previously of the slightest briefing.
The first important decision Truman had to make concerned the dropping of the atomic bomb on two civilian targets on mainland Japan. He became president in the midst of the battle for the Okinawa island, where 75.000 Japanese fought until the last one was dead and out of 350.000 Americans engaged in the fight one in ten became a casualty. It was reasonable to expect that in case of a US invasion of the main Japanese islands, the consequent bloodbath would exceed all WW2 battles. Those two bombs, despite the estimated 200.000 civilian deaths, actually saved lives by causing Japan’s surrender.
TRUMAN’S MOST IMPORTANT STRATEGIC DECISION was recognizing that the Soviet Union was out to conquer the planet, all the more plausible as with Mao’s victory over Chiang about 1/4 human beings had fallen under Stalin’s dictatorship. At the end of his life, FDR fell under the spell of Stalin and was ready to appease his ever increased demands. When Churchill reminded Stalin that he had promised that after WW2 there would be an independent Poland: all he got for an answer was “I was the one who promised and I am the one who withdraws the promise”. Truman needed to find some answer to counter this ever-expanding foe, who could count on powerful communist parties in Italy and Spain and who supported a civil war in Greece. The US public opinion was very keen on peace, on bringing back the troops to their homeland…a military answer was initially rejected.
MARSHAL PLAN to help Western Europe’s economic reconstruction. While this plan was generous in helping war destroyed Western Europe to get back on its feet, it also coincided with the proclaiming of the “Truman doctrine” meaning a plan to contain the advance of communism on all continents and all countries.
This peaceful defensive position appeared inadequate when North Korea (with Russian weapons) threatened to take over it’s neighbor and invaded the south of the peninsula…While Washington was divided on the most effective response, Truman under the flag of the United Nations decided to send American troops and stop the communist progression.
Sacking MacArthur, a megalomaniac very popular general, who owed his popularity as much to his military feats as to his skill in handling the US press. When the UN forces intervened, only a sliver of the territory was not occupied by the North Koreans. MacArthur who led the UN forces, first pushed them back, but when he neared the Chinese border, massive and war-trained Chinese forces drove him away…MacArthur then wanted to resort to an atomic bombing of China! President Truman had no other remedy than dismissing him since he did not want to start a Third World War…
Willingness to take hard decisions. Truman noticed that all high government officials tended to avoid hard decisions by “passing the buck” up the ladder of hierarchy: and he put up a sign above his desk: THIS IS WHERE THE BUCK STOPS ! In a fast changing geopolitical world, Truman’s steady leadership consolidated the solidarity of the Western world : in front of the communist organisation (the Warsaw Pact) he created NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).
The flip side of his presidency. Of course, not everything Truman initiated worked out as planned. He had trouble managing the post WW2 economic upheavals, he tried but failed to push through Congress some Civil Rights laws that would correct the injustices the Blacks (at the time called “colored”) were suffering from…He chose initially to ignore the witch hunt that Senator McCarthy organized against imaginary Communist infiltrators. Hundreds of intellectuals, movie makers, artists etc became victims and saw their professional lives ruined. It’s only when McCarthy questioned the loyalty of the US Army that public opinion rejected him and the craze stopped.
CONCLUSION Not only was Truman a strong president in public affairs he also left the memory of private probity on a level that we would have trouble to imagine nowadays. When Truman retired, he was practically a pauper, having as only income his pension as WW2 veteran. To keep him out of financial misery Congress had to enact a law giving ex-Presidents a retirement package…