President Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman, who was born in 1884, joined a light artillery battery in Kansas City in the summer of 1905, and at once got into hot water. He presented himself to a Kansas City photographer's studio where he had his picture taken in civilian clothes, and then the photographer took him in his new uniform, a beautiful blue affair with red stripes along the trouser legs and red piping on the cuffs, brass buttons down the tunic, a red fourragere hanging from the right shoulder, and a big ornate hat. He stood for one of the pictures in uniform, sat for another, with and without hat. He was a thin bony youth, four years out of high school, just turned 21.
All this was preliminary to taking the train down to Grandview, Missouri, a few miles south of the metropolis, walking a mile into the country from the station and presenting himself to Uncle Harrison Young, for whom he had been named, and to the family matriarch, Grandmother Harriet Louisa Young, nearly ninety years old. The grandmother remembered the Civil War, when she had been a strong sympathizer with the Confederate States of America. She took one look at her grandson, clad in uniform. "Harry," she said, "this is the first time since 1863 that a blue uniform has been in this house. Don't bring it here again." Harry did what he was told but, then, he later admitted that he thoroughly enjoyed his two three-year enlistments in the National Guard, including a summer camp when everything was covered with a foot of water and he and his friends dug holes and enticed sergeants and lieutenants into them. Being an artilleryman, he told the inevitable story about a fellow guardsman who got his finger in the breech of a three-inch gun, lost it and ran for the camp hospital, and another friend picked up the finger and was taking it across the field when he stumbled and lost it.
Although a farmer and over age, he reenlisted in 1917 and thought the men of the artillery regiment would make him a sergeant and instead they elected him first lieutenant. In France the next summer as a captain, he took over the unruly Battery D, which had been hard on its officers. The day after he took command his men knew they had (as one of them remembered) "a different cat to do business with." They liked him, then adored him, and he took them through heavy action and brought all 198 men and officers out alive. On the way back, in 1919, on the new 14,000-ton German steamer Zeppelin, loaded without ballast, which wallowed from one side to the other, the men whiled away their time playing poker, taking a percentage of each game to buy a 16-inch-high loving cup inscribed to "Captain Harry S. Truman. Presented by the members of Battery D in appreciation of his justice, ability and leadership."
After three years (1919-22) as a haberdasher, Harry Truman went into politics, spending 10 years as an administrator of Jackson County, Missouri, the big county containing both Independence and Kansas City, then 10 more as U.S. Senator. In January, 1945, he became vice president under the ill Franklin D. Roosevelt and on April 12 became president of the United States. He felt, he said, like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on him. In the work of the presidency from 1945 to 1953, Harry Truman made many judgments and made them in a manner that every citizen of the United States might well employ for serious decisions of any sort. To his detractors and even to some of his friends he had the reputation of making snap judgments and they were anything but that. When a problem arose apparently requiring a decision, after finding out whether it needed one he made what he called a "jump decision."
This was a tentative, perhaps even instinctive, judgment. Then he thought it over, mulled it, plumbed its depths and widths, during his morning walks, in the interstices of the scheduled callers at his office, after afternoon naps (he worked each night, or attended formal functions, and a nap was a necessity), early in the mornings when arriving at his office at 6 a.m. or shortly after. Then, when he could wait no longer, he came to his decision. Afterward he did not look back, for what good would that do?
Gen. George C. Marshall found the new president a delight to deal with, quick and orderly, as opposed to another president with whom Marshall, himself a man of quick and orderly judgment, had many dealings. In addition to these attractive ways of decision making Truman possessed another quality essential to judgment. This was something Marshall also possessed, that is, a remarkable selflessness.
When people came to see him during his presidency he never believed for a moment that they came to see him, Harry Truman, but that they were paying their respects to the high office he held. The writer John Hersey observed him carefully for several days late in 1950, in preparation for a profile in the New Yorker and noticed that there were two people, Harry Truman the man and Harry Truman the president, and no confusion existed between the two roles. Years later I met the former president, who came up to me, put out his hand and said, simply, "Truman."
For domestic affairs during the Truman administration the president sought a continuation of the New Deal and titled his own program the Fair Deal. Almost all of his proposals would be adopted, albeit years later. After World War II the principal concerns of his fellow citizens were demobilization of the country's huge military forces and reconversion of industry from wartime to peacetime production. The only proposal of domestic legislation by Harry Truman that did not get attention during the next two generations was his attempt to make medical care available for everyone. He was alarmed by the rising cost of care. What was the country coming to, he wrote a correspondent, when a working man could pay as much as $25 a day for a hospital bed?
In foreign affairs his achievement was a series of great measures against the new postwar colossus, the Soviet Union: the Truman Doctrine (1947), Marshall Plan (1947), Berlin airlift (1948-49), North Atlantic Treaty (1949). The Cold War turned hot with the Korean War (1950-53). After the initial public enthusiasm for U.S. intervention in Korea, Truman was vilified for it.
Harry Truman will go down in history as the first -- and one must hope, only -- President to approve the use of nuclear weapons. It was not so much a decision as a confirmation of a long series of smaller decisions that had taken the war in the Pacific against Imperial Japan to such a point that the Japanese government lay in the hands of its military commanders who were determined to fight to the finish.
And with the decision to end the war by whatever weapons his own country had at hand, Truman soon faced other decisions involving the new nuclear weapons, decisions that transformed much of the basis of war, should it come once again. He was not merely the first president to order use of nuclear weapons but to confront the dual strategy the world's major nations have followed since, preparation for both nuclear and non-nuclear war. During his presidency the Soviet threat was very real. To his distress he beheld the slow production of nuclear bombs that began an era of "nuclear plenty" about the time of the Korean War.
The U.S. Air Force became fully able to deliver nuclear weapons only about the same time. The threat from spies was large, for the Soviets obtained the design for the Nagasaki bomb shortly after it was used and employed it in their first nuclear device in 1949. But as intricate as was what Winston Churchill described as the "balance of terror," even more so was the balance of conventional forces, keeping a balance between U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and (with independence from the Army in 1947) U.S. Air Force.
One of President Truman's closest military advisors was his naval aide beginning in 1947, Rear Adm. Robert L. Dennison, who had come to the president's attention that year as captain of USS Missouri (BB 63) during a voyage back from Rio de Janeiro where Truman and his advisors opened an inter-American conference. Dennison stayed on until the end of the administration and may well have been one of the most effective aides the Navy ever assigned a president of the United States. Modest and unassuming like the president he served, "Bob" Dennison worked at every task to the best of his ability, which said a great deal for quality and accomplishment. At the outset he sensed a wariness in his "boss," for Truman behind his good-natured Missouri personality was a formal, formidable person who did not give his trust easily. Dennison waited out his apprenticeship and the trust came. Dennison finished his illustrious career as commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet.
To the president -- during the historic first years after World War II when it was necessary to set domestic, foreign and military policy for what has proved a half-century -- the naming of a great carrier in his honor would have been an unbelievable sign of public affection and regard. It also might have embarrassed him, for during his lifetime and after the opening of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence in 1957 he forbade any signs or symbols, including even postcards, that celebrated himself. As long as he lived, he allowed no special attentions.
But as he might have protested, it is probable that he would also see what today's event really means: that it commemorates a president who, with the exceptional qualities that he possessed, did his best for his country, who through the Navy, Army and Air Force, as well as his domestic and international programs, helped bring the great "Republic of the New World" into its third century safe and sound. Article by Robert Hugh Ferrell, Ph.D. Professor Ferrell is a historian, a Truman scholar and the author of several books on American diplomacy and Harry S. Truman.