Harry S. Truman - 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

As Bess Truman looks on, Harry Truman (left) takes the oath of office from Chief Justice Harlan Stone following the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. CORBIS
As Bess Truman looks on, Harry Truman (left) takes the oath of office from Chief Justice Harlan Stone following the death of President Franklin Roosevelt.

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.

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