Rise and Legacy: Who Was Harry Truman?

Harry Truman was the 33rd president of the United States, a member of the Democratic Party who was the first to see in the Cold War.

May 14, 2024By Matt Whittaker, BA History & Asian Studies

president harry truman legacy


President Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, famously said, “The buck stops here”, following his role as Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman’s term began with Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and ended in 1952, making him the first Cold War President, who implemented the Marshall Plan to rebuild the western economy following World War II.


Truman’s Origins

Truman 1917 Source: Truman Library
Truman in 1917. Source: Truman Library


Born to Missouri farmer parents in 1884, Harry Truman spent his early years on a 600-acre farm. As the oldest of three, Truman’s mother encouraged him to take up activities like piano. He graduated high school in 1901 with an eye towards West Point. Unfortunately, poor vision and wearing glasses prevented his application. Due to family money problems, Truman attended college briefly. He worked various jobs before returning to the family farm, keeping its books. He only left when his National Guard unit got sent to France during the Great War, fighting in two last major battles. Rapidly promoted to Captain, this stint boosted Truman’s self-confidence and led to important friendships.


Rising Star and Senator

Roosevelt and Truman Source: The Washington Post
Roosevelt and Truman. Source: The Washington Post


After the war, Harry Truman ran several small businesses and joined local political organizations. In 1922 he was elected as Missouri judge, managing the local finances and launching his political career. This also established his reputation as honest, capable, and fair. By 1934, Truman became a Democratic U.S. Senator, representing Missouri for the next decade. He supported Roosevelt’s New Deal and co-authored acts like the Civil Aeronautics Act, establishing airline industry standards.


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Truman’s most significant senatorial act was the aptly named Truman Committee, which played a role in probing government contract fraud. As the U.S. entered World War II, the government awarded contracts in the billions to many companies. As usual, waste, corruption, and inefficiencies appeared when so much money got moved around. By its end in 1948, around $10-15 billion was saved. As chairman, the Committee enhanced Truman’s reputation, especially with the President. In 1944, Roosevelt asked him to be Vice President.


Succession and War’s End

Marshall Plan Poster Source: The Marshall Foundation
Marshall Plan Poster Source: The Marshall Foundation


Harry Truman became President upon Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945. He stepped in quickly on decisions regarding World War II like the Manhattan Project, and post-war issues. After VE Day, Truman’s next goal became the surrender of Imperial Japan. The projected American casualties to invade Japan shocked him to the core – suggesting perhaps a million dead. Instead, he controversially decided to use the atomic bomb, first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered, and Truman remains the only world leader who authorized a nuclear weapon.


Truman won the 1948 election, beating the Republican and Progressive challengers. The third-party challenges arose from his unpopular decision to desegregate the armed forces. Post World War II, Europe emerged as a wasteland after six years of total war, but America’s economy boomed. Truman offered the Marshall Plan for Europe, an economic package to boost industry and encourage modern business practices to prevent Communism from spreading. $13.3 billion went to mostly Western Europe by 1952, which brought their economies back.


Communism, Korea, and MacArthur

talented wwii general douglas macarthur
General Douglas MacArthur. Source: history.com


1950 began a period that wrapped Truman and America up in the Cold War. In the two years prior, he had weathered the Berlin Crisis, helped with the creation of Israel, and established the CIA. Voters rewarded him by electing him as President. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, starting a bitter three-year conflict. Truman selected World War II hero General MacArthur to lead UN forces. But by September 1950, United Nations troops had pushed the North Koreans back, some even to the Yalu River on China’s border. China became involved to help its fellow Communists, pressing the UN slowly back. Here, a clash in the next steps occurred between MacArthur and Truman. 


President Truman wanted a truce along the 38th Parallel, as before. MacArthur wanted more: to liberate North Korea and assault China, expanding the war. He interfered directly or went publicly around Truman, stating his views vehemently. Truman relieved MacArthur on April 1, 1951, for disobeying orders. Truman wanted to end the war quickly, not prolong it. The firing proved wickedly unpopular for most Americans, but Truman believed the action necessary, even years later. 


Declining Re-Election

harry truman portrait
Portrait of Harry Truman by Martha G. Kempton, 1947. Source: The White House Historical Association


By 1951, Truman had been President for seven years. His honesty and integrity were rarely, if ever, questioned. He continued Roosevelt’s New Deal, as well as weathering several controversies. The Communists winning in China proved to be a thorn, despite his generals warning him not to get involved. Truman declined to run again in 1952. His approval rating stood at 28%- the lowest ever; his advisors said his age, health, and administration corruption scandals impacted any chances of winning again. 


Truman passed away on December 26, 1972. His legacy is more good than bad; the Truman Committee’s cost-cutting, military desegregation, and Korean War negotiations are some key examples

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By Matt WhittakerBA History & Asian StudiesMatt Whittaker is an avid history reader, fascinated by the why, how and when. With a B.A. in History and Asian Studies from University of Massachusetts, he does deep dives into medieval, Asian and military history. Matt’s other passion besides family is the long-distance Zen-like runs.