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Diplomacy and Conflict • Negotiating Peace: Diplomacy During WWII

Harry Truman, often referred to as "Give 'em hell Harry" because of his forthright manner, became president of the United States at the tail end of World War II and helped to shape the postwar world. Presiding over the opening events of the cold war, Truman's term in office was difficult, and many thought of him as a failure at the time. In retrospect, however, historians and political commentators agree that he may have been one of the nation's greatest presidents.

Born on May 8, 1884, Truman grew up on a farm near Independence, Missouri. As a young man, he developed a passion for reading history books. He could not afford to attend college and worked at a series of clerical and farm jobs until his National Guard unit was mobilized in 1917. During World War I, he served as an artillery officer in France, rising to the rank of captain.

Path to the Presidency

After failing in a clothing store venture in Kansas City in 1922, an army friend, the nephew of political boss Tom Pendergast, persuaded Truman to run for district judge. He was elected but failed to win reelection in 1924. With Pendergast's help, Truman won the race for chief judge of Jackson County in 1926. In 1934, Pendergast, looking for a "man of unimpeachable character and integrity" to restore the image of his political machine, helped Truman win election to the U.S. Senate. Truman was never subservient to Pendergast and voted for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, which Pendergast opposed. Truman was still viewed with suspicion by the Roosevelt administration, however.

When Pendergast was arrested and imprisoned for income tax evasion in 1939, Truman, financially unable to launch an expensive reelection campaign, considered retiring from the Senate. His pride was hurt, however, once it became clear that Roosevelt preferred to support Truman's opponent, and he decided to wage an unconventional reelection campaign. With no money to buy advertising, Truman traveled around the state talking to people wherever he found them. The strategy worked, and he won a narrow reelection victory in 1940.

During the campaign, Truman had decided that the rapidly growing defense program the United States was developing was riddled with waste and inefficiency. Upon his return to the Senate, he succeeded in establishing and chairing the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. Throughout the massive spending of World War II, Truman and his committee made headlines by exposing corporations that padded military expense costs. By 1944, when Roosevelt chose him to be his fourth-term running mate, Truman was a respected figure in the Senate. Changing political winds had convinced Roosevelt that he needed a vice presidential running mate in the 1944 election with a far less liberal reputation than Henry A. Wallace, and Truman seemed safe.


Truman assumed the office of president after the unexpected death of Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. He became president during an extraordinarily difficult period with very little preparation. Roosevelt had not included him in Cabinet or important policy meetings. During his first two years in office, Truman had to confront the immensely difficult tasks of rebuilding the nations ravaged by World War II and containing the powerful appeal of communism. He had to negotiate the future of the U.S. and Soviet presence in Europe and the Middle East with Joseph Stalin, decide whether to use the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan, confront Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, cope with massive labor unrest and postwar inflation in the United States, and deal with a hostile, newly elected Republican Congress.

Truman was unable to persuade Congress to agree to wage and price controls after World War II ended, and as he had predicted, prices soared. Organized labor responded by seeking wage increases. By the end of 1946, millions of workers were on strike. Truman attempted to use the influence of the White House to help negotiate settlements in the railroad and coal-mining industries. When his efforts failed, he threatened to use the army to run the trains, pressuring the strikers back to work after only a few days, and obtained an injunction to prevent the coal miners from striking.

Truman refused, however, to be labeled antiunion and vetoed the antilabor Case Bill in 1946. When the Republicans won control of Congress in the 1946 elections, they passed the Taft-Hartley Act, designed to curtail the power of organized labor, over Truman's veto.

Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO

Truman was in an awkward political position in 1947. He was viewed as antilabor by unions and antibusiness by executives because of his support of wage and price controls. He was also unpopular in the South because he favored civil rights legislation and in the Northeast because of his unsophisticated demeanor. In addition, deteriorating conditions in the war-ravaged world seemed to be undoing all that Americans thought World War II had won. Western Europe was impoverished, Eastern Europe had fallen under the Soviet Union's domination, the communists were winning the civil war in China, and the conflict between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine was outstripping the British ability to control it. Truman wrote, "Charlie Ross [Charles G. Ross, Truman's press secretary] said I'd shown that I'd rather be right than President, and I told him I'd rather be anything than President."

Truman refused to accept the negative judgment of his critics. Stymied on the domestic front, he moved boldly in the international arena to contain communism. The Truman Doctrine of 1947, precipitated by a civil war in Greece between communists and noncommunists, declared the determination of the United States to use its military might to contain communism and fight communist insurgencies in every corner of the world. Among the many programs Truman initiated through bipartisan foreign policy support in Congress were the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. U.S. forces also protected the defeated Nationalist Chinese forces on the island of Formosa (Taiwan).

Reelection and Second Term

Unable to secure civil rights legislation in Congress, Truman used his office to publicize the issue and, through executive action, to order the integration of the armed forces. (It was only in the Korean War, however, that integration of the armed forces was achieved.) His actions caused a revolt in his own party. The southern wing refused to endorse his reelection in 1948 and ran its own candidate, Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, for president as a states' rights "Dixiecrat."

With his own party split and the Republicans united behind a confident moderate candidate, New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, Truman's election defeat in 1948 seemed certain to everyone but Truman. Running against what he labeled the "do-nothing" Republican Congress, Truman ran a vigorous campaign. He traveled across the nation and spoke to people from the back of his presidential campaign train. The result was a narrow election victory and a stunning political upset. He defeated Dewey 303 electoral votes to 189. Thurmond received 39 electoral votes.

House Un-American Activities Committee

Truman's second term was dominated by a period of mass hysteria over communist spies and infiltrators in America and by the Korean War. Truman did not support the questionable "witch hunt" activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, or Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, but he was unable to prevent their excesses. He vetoed the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, which required all communists to register with the Justice Department; provided for the deportation of any alien who had ever been a communist; and prohibited the employment of communists or their supporters in positions relating to national defense. Congress passed it anyway.

Korean War

When North Korean forces invaded South Korea in 1950, Truman, without obtaining a declaration of war from Congress, ordered U.S. forces to the area before the United Nations (UN) voted to halt the aggression. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was placed in overall command of UN forces and succeeded in driving the North Koreans out of South Korea. Truman then authorized him to pursue North Korean forces up to the Yalu River border with China. MacArthur was sure Chinese troops would not intervene and that Korea would be liberated by Christmas. Instead, half a million Chinese troops entered North Korea, and UN troops were put on the defensive. MacArthur demanded the right to launch air strikes at enemy supply bases in China. Truman refused, fearful of provoking Soviet intervention and a third world war. MacArthur publicly criticized Truman's decision in 1951 and was ordered by Truman not to discuss the subject with reporters. When Republican minority leader Joseph W. Martin made public a letter from MacArthur in which he again criticized Truman in public, an infuriated Truman accepted the political consequences of his extremely unpopular action and relieved MacArthur of command.

Truman was booed at the opening game of the 1951 baseball season in Washington. Having a favorable job rating of only 25% in the polls and plagued by charges of corruption in government due to the actions of friends he had trusted, Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952. He subsequently was snubbed by the newly elected Dwight D. Eisenhower during his inauguration ceremony and judged a failure as president by contemporaries. The day Truman left Washington to return to his home in Independence, Missouri, he wrote to his daughter: "There is an epitaph in Boot Hill cemetery in Arizona which reads, 'Here lies Jack Williams. He done his damnedest! What more can a person do?' Well, that's all I could do. I did my damnedest, and that's all there was to it!"

Later Years

Truman spent the last two decades of his life writing his memoirs, establishing the Truman Library, and traveling. He continued to offer his "plain talk" solutions to important issues until his death on December 26, 1972.

Truman's reputation began to improve during the eight years of the boring and allegedly ineffectual Eisenhower administration. By 1960 and the return of the Democrats to the White House, his reputation was intact. Truman has been subjected to a second round of criticism since then, however, largely over his handling of communism abroad and at home. Some scholars think that his limited understanding of international relations and his blunt, untutored style of diplomacy hurt U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and hastened the outbreak of the cold war. Also, the Truman Doctrine is seen by some scholars as a misunderstanding and misapplication of George F. Kennan's strategy of containment and the cause of many costly and ill-considered U.S. interventions overseas, culminating in the Vietnam War. Finally, historians of the anticommunist hysteria at home locate its roots not in the actions of Senator McCarthy but in those of Truman, with his containment doctrine and his demand that all government employees sign loyalty oaths.

Historians continue to be impressed, however, with Truman's success in consolidating the gains of the New Deal (protecting labor's right to organize; guaranteeing welfare for the poor, the aged, and the disabled) and his efforts to extend the principles of the New Deal with his own proposal—the Fair Deal—for liberal reforms. Moreover, his combination of vast military expenditures abroad and significant outlays for social welfare at home ("guns and butter") became the Keynesian (after English economist John Maynard Keynes) formula—government expenditures to stimulate consumer purchasing power—on which a generation of Democratic politicians and presidents (John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson) staked their political success.

"Give Harry" "man integrity" "Charlie President." "Dixiecrat." "do-nothing" "witch hunt" "There it!" "plain talk" ("guns butter")
Steven G. O'Brien
Steven G. O'Brien is an independent history scholar. He has contributed to such books as American Civil War: The Essential Reference Guide (ABC-CLIO, 2011) and The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 (ABC-CLIO, 2012) and authored American Political Leaders: From Colonial TImes to the Present (ABC-CLIO, 1991).

Further Reading

Cochran, Bert, Harry Truman and the Crisis Presidency, 1973; Donovan, Robert J., Tumultuous Years: The Presidency of Harry S Truman, 1949-1953, 1982; Gaddis, John Lewis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1972; Hamby, Alonzo L., Beyond the New Deal: Harry S Truman and American Liberalism, 1973; Jenkins, Roy, Truman, 1986; Miller, Merle, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S Truman, 1974; Paterson, Thomas G., The Origins of the Cold War and Strategies of containment, 2nd ed., 1974; Rogin, Michael P., The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter, 1967; Truman, Harry S, Memoirs, 2 vols., 1955, 1956; Truman, Margaret, Harry S Truman, 1973.

MLA Citation

O'Brien, Steven G. "Harry Truman." American History, ABC-CLIO, 2020, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/248038. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Entry ID: 2171547

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