Harry S Truman: Reluctant vice-president who became an outstanding leader

Historian GORDON LUCY on the life of a US president whose Ulster-Scots background is often overlooked

Monday, 2nd July 2018, 10:00 am
Updated Monday, 16th July 2018, 4:58 pm
Harry S Truman was vice-president for less than 12 weeks before inheriting the top job

Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, was one of the outstanding presidents of the 20th century.

His four grandparents were all Americans of several generations’ standing who had settled in Missouri in the 1840s. His father’s side of the family was English.

Although often overlooked as an Ulster-Scots president, the Youngs, his mother’s family, had their origins in Ulster. The ‘S’ in Harry S Truman stood for absolutely nothing, often a marker of Scotch-Irish heritage.

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Harry S Trumans wartime US army ID card

The future president spent his earliest years on a succession of farms until the family moved to Independence.

Graduating from high school in 1901, he worked as a clerk in Kansas City banks until 1906 when he became a farmer on land owned by his Young grandmother.

Truman had aspirations to becoming an army officer and served in the newly formed National Guard.

His grandmother took exception to the blue uniform. When he appeared in it she told him that it was the first time a ‘blue [i.e. Union] uniform’ had been seen in her house since 1863 and that he was not to bring it there again.

It was in the First World War that Truman first exhibited leadership qualities. In July 1918 as ‘a fresh artillery captain’ he was given command of D Battery of the 2nd Battalion of the 129th Field Artillery.

The 34-year-old Truman was ‘a straight-laced Freemason who loved history books and wore owlish spectacles’.

By way of contrast, D Battery (known as ‘Dizzy D’) was notoriously obstreperous (proving too much for several of Truman’s predecessors) and was full of “wild young Irish Catholics from Kansas City’ whose mode of behaviour and outlook on the world were radically different from those of Truman.

At his first parade one of the men remembered “a stirring among the fellows … Although they were standing at attention, you could feel the Irish blood boiling – as much as to say, why if this guy thinks he’s going to take us over, he’s mistaken.”

Confronted by 200 pairs of hostile eyes, Truman admitted, “I could just see my hide on the fence …

“Never on the front or anywhere else have I been so nervous.”

Unable to say very much, he eventually told the men they were dismissed.

They let out a Bronx cheer – an enormous raspberry of derision –and staged a brawl in the evening.

Next morning Truman posted a list of all the NCOs he had ‘busted’ – reduced to the ranks – for being responsible for instigating the brawl.

He told the rest: “I didn’t come over here to get along with you.

“You’ve got to get along with me. And if there are any of you who can’t, speak up right now and I’ll bust you right back now.”

However, he ended with a promise: “You soldier for me, and I’ll soldier for you.”

He was as good as his word, becoming an extremely efficient and respected officer who whipped ‘Dizzy D’ into shape as a combat unit.

‘Dizzy D’ took part in the huge American Meuse-Argonne offensive in the Argonne Forest at the end of September 1918.

During this offensive the Americans fired off a greater weight of ammunition than had the Union side during the entire American Civil War.

After a week or so of fighting, the exhausted artillerymen were pulled back for a rest – Truman had lost 20 pounds in weight – but they returned to the front for the end of the war.

Truman recalled the Armistice: “When the firing ceased all along the line it was so quiet it made me feel as if I’d been suddenly deprived of my ability to hear.

“The men at the guns, the captain, the lieutenants, the sergeants and corporals looked at each other for some time and then a cheer arose all along the line.”

Truman returned home in 1919 and operated a haberdashery in Kansas City until it failed in 1922.

In 1922 he became a judge for the Eastern District of Jackson County in Missouri. In 1926 he became presiding judge, a position he retained until he was elected as a Democrat to the US Senate in 1934.

In the Senate he made a reputation for himself as a workhorse rather than a show horse.

Greatly admired by his fellow senators, he became Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reluctant running mate in the Presidential election of 1944.

He was only vice-president for 11 weeks and five days, becoming president on FDR’s death on April 12, 1945.

During his presidency Truman took a number of historically important decisions which went far to shape the second half of the 20th century.

He decided to drop the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring the Second World War to an end.

Truman had a more realistic appraisal of Stalin and Soviet communism than FDR ever had.

FDR viewed the British with greater suspicion than the Russians.

In a speech to Congress in March 1947 Truman identified the Soviet Union as America’s greatest foe, declaring that the world had to decide between two ways of life – freedom or totalitarianism.

Thus Truman was responsible for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the formation of NATO and intervention in Korea to prevent North Korea’s bid to take over South Korea.

Although a Democrat, Truman’s presidency is highly rated by Democrats and Republicans alike. Roy Jenkins in his study of Truman offers a fascinating comparison between the 32nd and 33rd presidents: “Truman was in some ways the superior of Roosevelt.

“He did not have his style, his resonance, his confidence, his occasional sweep of innovative imagination, or his tolerance and understanding of diverse human nature.

“But he was less vain, less devious and better to work for.

“He was more decisive, and quite apart from Roosevelt’s physical disability, he had more sustained energy than the wartime Roosevelt … He was mostly better briefed, and not only in an immediate and superficial sense. He was at least as well read in history and biography as Roosevelt.”