Harry S. Truman (1884 - 1972)
Harry S. Truman was the thirty-third president of the United States of America. Truman took over the presidency after serving only a short time as vice president under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Known as the plain-speaking man from Missouri, Truman led the United States through the end of World War II, the Korean War, and helped transform the nation into a world superpower.
Early Years and Education
Missouri map showing places Truman lived
Around the age of six, Harry moved with his family to Independence, Missouri.
Street scene of Independence, Missouri, where Harry S. Truman attended school.
Harry S. Truman was born in
The Truman home in Lamar, Missouri
Harry Truman spent the first eleven months of his life in this house at 1009 Kentucky Avenue in Lamar, Missouri. The city later changed the street name to Truman Avenue in honor of the president. The home is on the National Register of Historic Places and is now a Missouri State Historic Site. The furnishings are different from those used by the Truman family, but the home itself remains much like it was when young Harry lived there, without electricity or running water.
Register of Births, Barton County, Missouri, 1884. This document shows that Harry Truman’s birth was registered on June 5, 1884, almost a month after he was born.
[Missouri Birth Records [Microfilm], Missouri State Archives]
Map of Lamar, Missouri, 1886.
on May 8, 1884. He was the oldest child of John Anderson Truman, a farmer and livestock dealer, and Martha Ellen Young Truman. His siblings were John Vivian and Mary Jane. The
The wedding photo of John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Young Truman.
[Harry S. Truman Library & Museum]
A census record listing the Truman family living in Jackson County in 1900.
[1900 U.S. Census, Jackson County, Missouri]
lived in Harrisonville, Grandview, and then moved in 1890 to Independence, Missouri, where Harry attended school.
Harry did well at school and also studied the piano. His poor vision—corrected by thick eyeglasses— prevented him from playing sports. When Harry was ten, his mother gave him Great Men and Famous Women, a book that influenced his life. Harry read about great generals, political leaders, and philosophers. He also read the Bible, Shakespeare, and as much history as he could.
Harry graduated from
William Chrisman High School, Independence, Missouri.
The graduates of William Chrisman High School, Independence, Missouri, 1901, including Harry S. Truman(fourth from the left in the back row) and Bess Wallace, his future wife (first on the right in the middle row).
in 1901. He did not go on to college, however, because his family could not afford to send him. He wanted to attend West Point because it provided a free education, but he did not qualify due to his poor eyesight. Though he studied briefly at a business college in Kansas City and later took night classes at the Kansas City Law School, Harry never completed a college degree.
Farm Work and Responsibilities
For the next five years, Harry Truman worked various jobs to help support his family. He was a timekeeper for a railroad construction firm and clerked for a bank in Kansas City. In 1906 he returned to Grandview to help run the six-hundred-acre family farm. Although he had little farming experience, Truman worked hard to learn the best and most efficient ways to farm. He was left to care for his family and the farm when his father died in 1914.
During this period, Truman began writing letters to
Elizabeth "Bess" Virginia Wallace
Elizabeth "Bess" Virginia Wallace was born in Independence, Missouri, on February 13, 1885. She was the daughter of David Willock Wallace and Margaret Elizabeth Gates. Bess Wallace and Harry Truman were childhood friends. After graduating from high school, Bess attended Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City. She married Truman on June 28, 1919. They had one child, Mary Margaret.
[Harry S. Truman Library & Museum]
Mrs. Harry S. Truman
As first lady, Bess went with Harry to the White House, though she often returned to live in Independence with her mother and daughter. After the presidency, Bess returned with Harry to Independence, and the couple lived in her childhood home at 219 North Delaware. She died at the age of ninety-seven on October 18, 1982.
[Official Manual of the State of Missouri, 1945-1946]
a girl he’d known since early childhood. Truman said later that Bess had been the love of his life since he was six years old. The two wrote to each other often during their long courtship, and his letters were filled with
“Politics sure is the ruination of many a good man. Between hot air and graft he usually loses not only his head but his money and friends as well. Still, if I were real rich I’d just as soon spend my money buying votes and offices as yachts and autos.”
[Truman, p. 89]
for his future.
Military Service and Politics
Truman served in the Kansas City National Guard unit from 1905 to 1911. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he rejoined the Missouri National Guard. He recruited for the guard and created a new artillery battery, Battery F. He was elected first lieutenant of that battery. In France, Truman was made a captain and proved a capable and well-liked officer in his new unit, Battery D. Truman was a successful and dependable leader, especially when ordered to carry out dangerous assignments.
Portrait of the Truman family showing Harry, his daughter, Margaret, and his wife, Bess. Artist Greta Kempton painted the portrait of the first family around 1950.
[SHS Art Collection 1952.0035]
After the war ended in 1918, Truman returned to Independence. He and Bess
The wedding photo of Harry S. Truman and Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace Truman.
[Harry S. Truman Library & Museum]
Newspaper article in the Independence Examiner announcing the marriage of Harry S. Truman to Bess Wallace.
[Independence Examiner, June 28, 1919. p.1]
the following year. Together they had one child, Mary Margaret
. Truman then tried his hand at several business ventures. He opened a haberdashery, or men’s clothing store, in Kansas City with one of his army buddies. That business failed, as did investments in real estate and mines.
Truman at a Democratic rally in Brookfield, Missouri, on October 12, 1940.
In 1922, Truman revealed his interest in politics. He ran for office at the urging of Tom Pendergast
, a powerful Kansas City politician. Truman, who ran as a Democrat, was elected to the post of Eastern District Judge for Jackson County. He was responsible for overseeing the county budget, hiring and firing county clerks, road crews, and other county employees. Although he didn’t win his bid for reelection, in 1926 Truman won the
Portrait photograph of Truman as presiding judge of the County Court of Jackson County.
Letter from Truman introducing the book Jackson County: Results of County Planning, published in 1933.
race for Jackson County. He was reelected to that position in 1930.
In 1934 Truman ran as a Democrat for United States Senate and won easily. Once in office, Truman gained a
Truman’s work with the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program earned him a national reputation. This committee—known as the Truman Committee—investigated fraud and overspending by the defense industry. It also revealed military incompetence.
for honesty and hard work. He served as senator from 1935 until 1945.
President Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 – 1945)
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with newly elected Vice President Harry S. Truman and former Vice President Henry Wallace shortly after the election in 1944.
[Photo by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, SHS 015976]
Truman was a strong supporter of President Roosevelt and his
The New Deal was a plan devised during the 1930s by President Roosevelt and his administration to pull America out of a severe economic depression. The plan included policies and programs that promoted economic recovery and social reform. It was ambitious and far-reaching. Truman felt that the New Deal would help the common man. He supported the president and his plan fully.
With his reputation for honesty and diligence and his ability to work with a variety of politicians, Truman was Roosevelt’s pick for vice president in 1944. Roosevelt was reelected, and Truman became vice president. He had been on the job only eighty-two days when Roosevelt died unexpectedly. On April 12, 1945, Truman became the thirty-third president of the United States. “I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me,” Truman told reporters at the time.
Truman taking the oath
Harry S. Truman takes the oath of office as president of the United States. His wife and daughter are beside him.
[Photo by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, SHS 006382]
This political cartoon by Daniel Fitzpatrick shows the newly appointed President Truman looking off to the war overseas. The cartoon appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 15, 1945.
[SHS St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Cartoon Collection, April 15, 1945]
The country was in shock at the loss of Roosevelt. There was concern that the untested Truman was at the helm in a time of crisis—the United States was at war with both Germany and Japan. As usual, Truman jumped in, studied hard, and was a fast learner. On May 7, 1945, the Germans unconditionally surrendered. In July, Truman headed to Germany to meet with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Potsdam. Here the three leaders of the Allied powers decided the fate of postwar Europe.
Atomic power in Truman's hands
“A New Era in Man's Understanding of Nature's Forces” by Daniel Fitzpatrick. This political cartoon shows the atomic power resting in Truman's hands.
[SHS St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Cartoon Collection, August 7, 1945]
On the Japanese front, the war still raged. It was a costly battle in both American and Japanese lives. Truman made the controversial decision to drop atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. The Japanese surrendered six days later on August 14, 1945.
A New Era
Winston Churchill in Missouri
President Truman brings Churchill to Missouri.
[Photo by Gerald Massie, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, SHS 003312]
Winston Churchill giving the “Iron Curtain Speech” at Westminster College
President Truman used his influence to bring Winston Churchill to his home state in 1946. The former British prime minister gave a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, that popularized the phrase “iron curtain.” Churchill used the term to describe the growing rift between the Soviet Union and the free world. Many historians see this period as the beginning of the Cold War, a state of political tension and military rivalry between nations that stops short of full-scale war. The primary nations involved in the Cold War were the United States and the Soviet Union.
[Photo by Gerald Massie, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, SHS 003326]
The international situation remained grim, however. A
“State of the World” by Daniel Fitzpatrick.
The phrase “cold war” was used to describe the icy relations that developed between communist and capitalist/democratic governments after World War II. This frigid standoff existed primarily between the Soviet Union and the United States. Although the Soviet Union had helped stop Adolf Hitler’s aggression during World War II, the U.S. suspected that the Soviets would try to expand their own territory into European countries devastated by war and no longer able to defend themselves. A war of propaganda and a silent buildup of armaments began as each country distrusted the motives and actions of the other.
Daniel Fitzpatrick was the creator of this political cartoon entitled “State of the World.” It appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 16, 1946. The cartoon shows the world being torn apart by the political tension and military rivalry that existed between the Soviet Union (represented by the flag on the left) and the United States and Great Britain (represented by the flags on the right).
[SHS St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Cartoon Collection, June 16, 1946]
was developing between the Soviet Union and countries in Europe and the United States. At the end of the war, the United States, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Germany and its capital city, Berlin, into four sectors. Allied forces joined their sectors to form a democratic West Germany and a free Berlin. Berlin, however, was surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany. In an effort to stop the formation of a unified and democratic Germany, the Soviet Union attempted a
blockade of West Berlin
This political cartoon by Daniel Fitzpatrick is entitled “Gateway to Understanding?” It shows the Soviet flag flying over Berlin beyond a break in the “Berlin Blockade.”
[SHS St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Cartoon Collection, May 5, 1949]
to keep goods, including food, from entering the city. Great Britain and the United States countered with an enormous airlift of supplies. The Soviets backed down. However, Berlin and Germany remained divided into East and West until 1990.
Tough Times in America
Daniel Fitzpatrick's cartoon entitled “All This and Brickbats, Too?” shows the various domestic and foreign policy issues that Truman faced.
Standing to the left of Pershing is Joseph Joffre, Marshal of France.
Also pictured are Raymond Poincare (second from right) and Paul Deschanel (extreme right).
[SHS St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Cartoon Collection, March 26, 1948]
Truman faced many domestic problems as well. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers came home from Europe and the Pacific and could not find work. Factories closed as orders for military goods dried up. Union workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions. The strikers refused to allow nonunion workers to fill their jobs. A railway strike paralyzed the country. Truman seized the railroads and threatened to draft striking railway workers into the armed forces. The railroad workers went back to their jobs.
Desegregating the armed forces
Executive Order 9981, July 26, 1948 (p. 1).
Executive Order 9981, July 26, 1948 (p. 2).
[Executive Order 9981, July 26, 1948; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives]
In an unpopular move, Truman desegregated the United States armed forces by Executive Order on July 26, 1948. Critics thought this would cause the president to lose the upcoming election against New York Governor Thomas Dewey. The race was so close one newspaper prematurely declared Dewey the winner. In the final count Truman won the 1948 election.
Back to Missouri
Truman's home in Independence
After serving as president, Truman returned home to Independence, Missouri. This undated photo shows Truman in front of his home at 219 North Delaware.
[Photo by Gerald Massie, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, SHS 003243]
International events overshadowed Truman’s domestic agenda. He tried to push through his own version of Roosevelt’s New Deal. He called it the
Truman’s social reform program included universal health care and low-income housing. He gave the Federal Housing Authority the ability to insure mortgages and to lend money so that more people could own their own homes. He successfully integrated the U.S. armed services and worked to improve civil rights for African Americans.
stating that every citizen had a right to expect a fair deal from the government. Many of his initiatives were never passed, however. In 1949, the communists took over China. In 1950, communist North Korea invaded South Korea, and the United States was once again at war, siding with South Korea. Truman did not run for a second term as president.
Notice of Truman's death
Announcement of Harry Truman’s death in the Kansas City Star
[Kansas City Star, December 26, 1972]
Announcement of Harry Truman’s death in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
[St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 26, 1972]
In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower became president of the United States. The Trumans left the White House and returned to Independence, Missouri. Truman remained active in politics and worked on establishing the Truman Library and writing his memoirs. He died on December 26, 1972. He was eighty-eight years old.
Truman's desk at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.
[Photo by Walker, Missouri Department of Tourism, SHS 001761]
When Truman left the presidency, the world was far different from when the senator from Missouri was asked to run as Roosevelt’s vice president. Harry S. Truman helped usher in a new world order and set in place policies like the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and institutions like the United Nations to try to prevent another world war. Under his leadership, the country embraced its new status as a superpower.
Text and research by Ellen Hosmer, Christine Montgomery, and Carlynn Trout with assistance from Valerie Kemp
References and Resources
For more information about Harry S. Truman's life and career, see the following resources:
The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Harry S. Truman in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets.
- Bolt, Robert S. “President Harry S. Truman: Independent Baptist from Independence.” v. 87, no. 1 (October 1992), pp. 36-47.
- Dains, Mary K. “Fulton’s Distinguished Visitors: Truman and Churchill, 1946.” v. 78, no. 3 (April 1984), pp. 277-292.
- Ferrell, Robert H. “A Visitor to the White House, 1947: The Diary of Vic H. Housholder.” v. 78, no. 3 (April 1984), pp. 311-336.
- Garson, Robert A. “The Alienation of the South: A Crisis for Harry S. Truman and the Democratic Party, 1945-1948.” v. 64, no. 4 (July 1970), pp. 448-471.
- Heaster, Brenda L. “Who’s on Second: The 1944 Democratic Vice Presidential Nomination.” v. 80, no. 2 (January 1986), pp. 156-175.
- Kirkendall, Richard S. “Truman and Missouri.” v. 81, no. 2 (January 1987), pp. 127-140.
- _____. “Faith and Foreign Policy: An Exploration into the Mind of Harry Truman.” v. 102, no. 4 (July 2008), pp. 214-224.
- McClure, Arthur F., and Donna Costigan. “The Truman Vice Presidency: Constructive Apprenticeship or Brief Interlude?” v. 65, no. 3 (April 1971), pp. 318-341.
- Misse, Fred B. “Truman, Berlin and the 1948 Election.” v. 76, no. 2 (January 1982), pp. 164-173.
- “Modern Missouri.” v. 70, no. 4 (July 1976), pp. 499-503.
- Morgan, Georgia Cook. “India Edwards: Distaff Politician of the Truman Era.” v. 78, no. 3 (April 1984), pp. 293-310.
- Pitts, Debra K. “Stuart Symington and Harry S. Truman: A Mutual Friendship.” v. 90, no. 4 (July 1996), pp. 453-479.
- Riley, Glenda. “‘Dear Mamma’: The Family Letters of Harry S. Truman.” v. 83, no. 3 (April 1989), pp. 249-270.
- Sale, Sara L. “Admiral Sidney W. Souers and President Truman.” v. 86, no. 1 (October 1991), pp. 55-71.
- Schmidtlein, Gene. “Truman’s First Senatorial Election.” v. 57, no. 2 (January 1963), pp. 128-155.
- Vaughan, Philip V. “President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights: The Urban Implications.” v. 66, no. 3 (April 1972), pp. 413-430.
- _____. “The Truman Administration’s Fair Deal for Black America.” v. 70, no. 3 (April 1976), pp. 291-305.
- Wilson, Thomas D. “Chester A. Franklin and Harry S. Truman: An African-American Conservative and the ‘Conversion’ of the Future President.” v. 88, no. 1 (October 1993), pp. 48-77.
“Truman Dies at 88.” Kansas City Star. December 26, 1972. p. 1.
“Truman Dies at 88.”
[Kansas City Star. December 26, 1972. p. 1.]
"Ex-President Truman is dead at 88." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. December 26, 1972. p. 1.
"Ex-President Truman is dead at 88."
[St. Louis Post-Dispatch. December 26, 1972. p. 1.]
- “The People Did It.” Liberty Advance. November 8, 1948. p. 2.
- “President Truman's Inaugural Address.” Kansas City Star. January 20, 1949. p. 8.
- “Through the Years with Harry Truman, President.” Kansas City Times. April 13, 1945. p. 7.
- “Truman Enters Office With Firm Hand.” Independence Examiner. April 13, 1945. p. 1.
"Wallace-Truman." Independence Examiner. June 28, 1919. p 1.
[Independence Examiner. June 28, 1919. p 1.]
- Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 752-756. [REF F508 D561]
- Ferrell, Robert H., ed. The Autobiography of Harry S. Truman. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. [REF F508.1 T771tra 2002]
- _____. Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess, 1910-1959. New York: Norton, 1983. [REF F508.2 T771trd].
- Hamby, Alonzo. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. [REF F508.1 T771ham]
- Hillman, William. Mr. President. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1952. [REF F508.1 T771].
- McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. [REF F508.T771mc]
- Miller, Merle. Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1974. [REF 973.918m616]
- Robbins, Jhan. Bess and Harry: An American Love Story. New York: Putnam, 1980. [REF F508.1 T771ro].
- Truman, Harry S. Memoirs. 2 vols. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955-1956. [REF F508.1 T77Trm].
- _____. Mr. Citizen. New York: Random House, 1960. [REF F508.1 T771Trc].
- Truman, Margaret, ed. Letters from Father. New York: Arbor House, 1981. [REF F508.1 T771trl].
- Bell, C. Jasper (1885-1978), Papers, 1934-1948 (C2306)
The correspondence and papers of a Missouri Democratic congressman include material on the Townsend Plan, legislation, and political campaigns. Information on Truman can be found throughout the collection.
- Stark, Lloyd Crow (1886-1972), Papers, 1931-1941 (C0004)
The papers of the Democratic governor of Missouri, 1937-1941, relate to official business, campaigns, and personal affairs. Information on Truman is located throughout the collection.
- Truman, Harry S (1884-1972), Memorial Service Program, 1973 (C3409)
Program of service held at Westminster College Chapel, Fulton, MO, on occasion of Truman's death.
These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's Website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following Websites:
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
This Website contains original documents, press releases, and correspondence about many of the issues Truman faced during his presidency. The site also contains photos and audio recordings of Truman speeches. Lesson plans are also available.
Harry S. Truman Birthplace State Historic Site
This Website offers information on and photos of the birthplace of Harry S. Truman in Lamar, Missouri.
Harry S. Truman National Historic Site
This Website has information about the Truman home in independence as well as the family farm in Grandview. The National Park Service opens the homes to visitors throughout the year.
Harry S. Truman Election Anniversary Exhibit
An online exhibit organized by the office of the Secretary of State, this Website includes commentary from average citizens on Truman's 1948 campaign for the presidency. It includes accounts of the Whistle Stop tour and his subsequent election and inauguration.
The online Biographical Directory of the United States Congress contains a brief biography of Truman.