Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

Harry S. Truman was born in the small town of Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884. In 1890, Harry's parents, John and Martha, moved the family (which included Harry's brother Vivian and sister Mary Jane) to Independence, Missouri, a county-seat town of just 6,000 people. Located ten miles east of Kansas City, Independence had links to both the American West and South. The town, in which wagon trains picked up the Oregon and Sante Fe trails, was a gateway to America's western frontier. Most residents of Independence had migrated from the states of the Upper South, however, bringing with them many southern cultural and social mores. As in many other southern towns—and quite a few northern ones as well—black residents lived in a segregated part of town.

Harry's childhood and young adulthood were at times quite trying. He worked hard at making friends, but was uncomfortable in the company of girls his age or older. He was born with poor vision and required glasses, a solution that separated him from many of his peers. Moreover, Truman's mother, to whom he was very attached, directed him to avoid rough-housing with his peers. Harry instead developed keen interests in reading and music. He became a fine piano player and even considered for a short while pursuing a career as a concert pianist. Like other boys his age, he also dreamed of becoming a great soldier.

Harry was a solid and hard-working student who graduated from high school in 1901. He wanted to attend West Point, but his poor eyesight foreclosed the possibility of a commission. Moreover, his father's financial problems, which began in the early 1900s, prevented Harry from attending a four-year college. Instead, he attended a business college in Kansas City for a semester but, with his family's finances increasingly dire, dropped out of school and took a job in the mailroom of the Kansas City Star in the summer of 1902. Truman subsequently worked for a construction company and as a bank clerk.

In 1906, Truman left his position at the bank and went to work on the family farm in Grandview, Missouri, with his father and his brother Vivian. Truman spent most of the next decade on the farm, though the farm itself rarely made much of a profit. Harry kept the books and did his share of manual labor, neither of which he enjoyed. He did, however, find satisfaction in two other pursuits. In 1905, Truman joined the National Guard, which offered a chance to escape the farm and provided him with masculine companionship for the next six years. In 1910, Truman began courting Bess Wallace, with whom he had graduated high school. Bess refused a marriage proposal in 1911, but they continued their romance nonetheless.

Truman's father died in 1914, an event which caused Harry much heartache. John Truman's passing, however, did allow Harry to ease away from the farm. He spent the next few years trying to earn a living as an owner and operator of a small mining company and as a partner in an oil business. Neither enterprise met with much success. In 1917, with the United States on the verge of entering World War I, he rejoined his National Guard unit. After it was federalized, Harry Truman became a member of the 129th Artillery Regiment.

A Military Career and Marriage

The soldiering life suited Truman. He rose to the rank of captain and ran the regiment's only successful canteen. More impressive, he turned his battery—which had a reputation for unruliness and ineffectiveness—into a top-notch unit. In March 1918, his regiment shipped out to France. Truman and his men saw their first action in the Vosges mountains (August 1918) and then in the Argonnes campaign (September and October 1918), the last major engagement of the war.

Truman's service during World War I had a profound effect upon his life. His ability to lead a group of men under the most trying of circumstances boosted his self-confidence; his men, in turn, respected his leadership. Truman established close friendships with some of his fellow soldiers. Eddie Jacobson, Truman's right-hand man at the canteen, became his business partner in the early 1920s. Harry Vaughn, though not in Truman's battery, would serve as an aide throughout Truman's political life. Finally, Truman's service in the war—and the friends and acquaintances he made - would eventually provide him a political power base in the Kansas City area.

Before departing for training with his regiment in 1917, Bess Wallace had tearfully told Truman that she wanted to get married. Truman asked her to wait until he returned from the war, writing "I don't think it would be right for me to ask you to tie yourself to a prospective cripple—or a sentiment." But he made clear his feelings in a letter to her, writing, "I'm crazy about you." On June 28, 1919, following Truman's return home one month earlier, Harry and Bess married in Independence. Four years later, the couple had their first and only child, Mary Margaret.

Help from the Democratic Boss

A few months after his wedding, Truman and war buddy Eddie Jacobson opened a haberdashery (a store that sold men's clothing and accessories) in Kansas City. Truman and Jacobson took out a number of loans to get the store up and running, and initially business was quite good. The enterprise, however, could not survive the nation's acute economic downturn of the early 1920s. The clothing shop closed its doors in September 1922, leaving Truman nearly bankrupt and heavily in debt.

Even though the store failed financially, it brought Truman distinct social benefits. He kept up with his network of friends and acquaintances from the National Guard, many of whom often stopped by the shop. As a respected businessman, he joined several civic organizations, like the Triangle Club (a group of businessmen dedicated to improving the city), and actively participated in veterans groups like the American Legion and the Reserve Officers Association.

In 1922, Thomas J. Pendergast, the Democratic boss of Kansas City and uncle of one of Truman's war buddies, asked Harry to run for a judgeship on the county court of the eastern district of Jackson County. (Jackson County encompassed Kansas City in the west and Independence and other smaller towns and communities in the east.) Pendergast believed that Truman's reputation for honesty and hard-work would attract independent-minded voters and, just as important, that Truman's fellow veterans would support him at the polls. Truman won a tight, five candidate Democratic primary, then easily beat his Republican challenger in November.

As eastern district judge, Truman served essentially as a county commissioner. His main concerns were the county's budget and roads, and the distribution of patronage positions and contracts to Pendergast supporters. Truman lost his re-election bid in 1924 when a feud in the county Democratic Party cost him votes. In 1926, though, he was elected (again with the help of the Pendergast machine) as presiding judge of the county court; he easily won re-election in 1930. As presiding judge, he skillfully guided a major rebuilding and modernization of Jackson county's road system, presided over several significant construction projects, and managed the county's finances during the early years of the Great Depression.

While Truman could not escape the taint of corruption that came from his association with Pendergast, he did establish a reputation for personal integrity, honesty, and efficiency. As part of the Pendergast machine, Truman certainly rewarded the machine's allies; he would not have remained in Pendergast's good graces had he done otherwise. But he also genuinely strove to make local governance as efficient and effective as possible. Indeed, his reputation for scrupulousness benefited Pendergast, who could point to the honest judge as an example of good, clean government. Just as important, Truman during these years proved to be a politician who could win support from both urban—including black and ethnic minorities—and rural constituencies.

Senator Truman

In 1934, Truman asked Pendergast to support his run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Though the details of this episode are murky, Pendergast supposedly agreed initially but then changed his mind: he wanted Truman to run for the U.S. Senate. Following a bruising Democratic primary that featured widespread ballot-box stuffing by Truman's (and his main competitor's) supporters, Truman captured the Democratic nomination. He then easily defeated his Republican opponent in November. On December 31, 1934, Senator-elect Truman, his wife Bess, and daughter Margaret arrived in Washington, D.C.

Truman's first term as senator was largely unremarkable. He enjoyed his life in the Senate, especially the male camaraderie and "old boys" network that characterized the institution. The long hours and time away from Bess and Margaret tried his family life, however. Politically, Truman emerged as a reliable ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs and built especially strong ties with labor unions. He made his mark on transportation issues as a member of the Appropriations Committee and the Interstate Commerce Committee. He helped write (with Democratic Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana) the Transportation Act of 1940, which tried to bring some order to the tangle of regulations affecting transportation industries. Truman also helped design the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which laid the groundwork for the growth of the airline industry over the next four decades.

Truman faced a tough re-election campaign in 1940. The Democratic machine that had powered him to victory in 1934 had collapsed during the intervening years. Pendergast was ill and in prison as the election cycle approached. As in 1934, Truman's largest challenge was winning the Democratic nomination. He managed to defeat Governor Lloyd Stark by only 8,000 votes; Truman overcame Stark's support from rural voters by running up large margins in urban Kansas City and St. Louis. According to Truman biographer Alonzo Hamby, the 1940 election showed Truman to be a "candidate of the cities, an urban liberal."

Truman began his second term in the Senate in 1941 as the United States prepared for war. During the last six months of 1940, Congress had appropriated more than ten billion dollars for defense and military spending. Truman convinced the Senate leadership and the Roosevelt administration to make him head of a special Senate investigative committee—which became known as the Truman committee—charged with uncovering and stopping wasteful defense spending. He described the committee's work as protecting the "little man" from the greedy predations of big labor and big business. While moderately successful on this score, he did garner both popularity and recognition.

The coming of World War II forced Truman to clarify and crystallize his thinking about American foreign policy. In the mid-1930s, Truman voted for the Neutrality Acts, but this support was politically motivated—his constituents were mildly isolationist—rather than indicative of a deeply-ingrained isolationism. Indeed, Truman had warned publicly of the threats posed by Germany and Japan and of the need for increased American military preparedness. After the outbreak of hostilities in August 1939, Truman supported initiatives like the "cash-and-carry" and Lend-Lease policies designed to succor American allies in their time of need. He also supported American rearmament efforts and the Selective Service Act. Truman explained his evolving position in early 1941, writing to a Missouri voter, "We are facing a bunch of thugs, and the only theory a thug understands is a gun and a bayonet."

Vice President Truman

In 1944, President Roosevelt decided to drop Henry A. Wallace, his sitting vice president, from the Democratic ticket in the upcoming general election. Wallace's liberal political views and somewhat bizarre mysticism offended party professionals and conservative Democrats whose support the President needed. After a set of complicated behind-the-scenes maneuvers orchestrated by Democratic party officials, Truman emerged as the consensus choice for the vice-presidential slot and performed admirably, if not flawlessly, during the national campaign. The Democratic ticket defeated Republican challengers Thomas Dewey and John Bricker by a comfortable margin in the November general election.

As vice president, Truman functioned as a "pipeline" between the White House and the Senate, over which he presided. He also cast the tie-breaking votes to confirm former Vice President Wallace as secretary of commerce and to prevent passage of the Taft lend-lease amendment, which would have forbade the use of lend-lease agreements for post-war relief. Truman, however, was not a major player in the Roosevelt administration and had a superficial relationship with the President.

Truman served only eighty-two days in the vice presidency. On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, he was summoned to the White House. Upon arrival, Eleanor Roosevelt approached him and said, "Harry, the president is dead." Within hours, Harry S. Truman took the oath of office to become the thirty-third President of the United States.