[Abridged] Presidential Histories

33.) Harry S Truman 1945-1953

July 05, 2023 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
33.) Harry S Truman 1945-1953
Show Notes Transcript

"I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me." - Harry S. Truman,  April 13, 1945, the day after Franklin Roosevelt died and Truman was sworn in as president.


Harry S. Truman was a political late bloomer, first elected to the senate at age 50, and becoming vice president against his own wishes at age 60. That second role lasted just 82 days before president Franklin Roosevelt died and Truman inherited the final months of a world war, and the opening years of a cold war. Follow along as Truman, an uneducated farmer, World War I veteran, and failed businessman, rises to the presidency and grapples with the atomic bomb, global communist aggression, and a rogue general eager to start World War III.

1. Truman – David McCullough
2. FDR – Jean Edward Smith
3. Eisenhower in War and Peace – Jean Edward Smith

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Welcome to the Abridged Presidential Histories, with Kenny Ryan, episode 33, Harry Truman - The Buck Stops Here. 

Harry S Truman is when the presidency gets really complicated. Prior to him, every president who entered the office took the helm of a largely isolationist nation. Wilson didn’t enter office expecting Wwi and FDR didn’t enter office expecting WWII. They came to office with a fairly realistic expectation that the concerns of the president ended somewhere in the pacific and Atlantic oceans without really extending to the other sides.

But the United States didn’t withdraw from the world after WWII like it had after WWI. It couldn’t. Large swaths of Europe and Asia had been destroyed by the Second World War. England had been bankrupted by it. Only two super powers remained - the United States and the Soviet Union, and it soon became clear that in this ruined post-war world, the Soviets were playing for keeps.

Thrust into this vastly expanding job was one of the most unassuming men you could imagine. An uneducated farmer, a failed businessman,a man who only broke into politics with the help of a corrupt political machine, Harry S Truman.

And he just might have been the perfect guy for the job.


Harry S Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri. His parents were hard-working farmers who wanted to give Harry the middle name of one of his grandfathers, Solomon or Shipp, but they couldn’t decide which one, so they simply went with the letter S instead - that’s right, Harry S Truman’s full name is Harry S Truman.

Truman spent his youth working on the family farm and, despite poor eyesight, reading in his spare time. And that, plus a short stint in the national guard, basically covers Truman’s first 30 years with the exception of one other thing. When Truman was 26, he began courting a woman named Bess Wallace that he’d known since childhood. Bess was athletic, charming, and way out of Truman’s league. But Truman somehow got it into his head that he might woo Bess by inviting her over to play tennis. There was just one problem. Truman didn’t have a tennis court. No worry, he told himself. He’d build a court himself! But… there was another problem. Truman had never even seen a tennis court. So when Truman tried to turn a corner of his family’s farm into one, it wasn’t exactly the Field of Dreams. He ended up with a rocky patch of dirt that was entirely impractical for tennis.

But that didn’t stop him! He continued to court Bess and eventually proposed to her. And she said no. Multiple times. But Truman was a stubborn one and Bess eventually said yes.

In secret.

If Truman didn’t tell anyone else they were engaged.

The Truman love story is like… one step better than an imaginary Canadian girlfriend. But you gotta admire the persistence.

And things did work out for Truman and Bess in the long-run.

In 1917, as world war I raged in europe, and a german u-boat campaign was sinking american vessels on the high seas, Woodrow Wilson called for volunteers to “Keep the world safe for democracy” and enter the trenches of World War I. 33-year-old Truman, secretly engaged to Bess, with his bad eyesight and, due to the recent death of his father, dependent mother and sister, would never in a million years have been drafted into this war. So he volunteered for it instead! Truman rejoined the national guard and set about forming an artillery battery that elected him First Lieutenant and then they all went off to France.

Truman served honorably in Europe, leading his artillery battery through several battles, but he wasn’t your typical first lieutenant. He repeatedly showed he cared for his men more than most, lending them money when they went on leave, insisting they get a moment of rest in the middle of a brutal march, and taking the time to respond to letters from their parents - something officers rarely did. It all made a tremendous impression that would pay off after the war. And there’s this fact: The artillery battery didn’t lose a single man when Truman was in charge.

At the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th month of 1918, World War 1 effectively ended with an armistice between the allied and central powers. Truman, who was on the front line when the armistice took hold, said it became so quiet that he wondered if he’d lost his ability to hear. The last thing he did before heading home to Missouri was stop by Paris to buy a wedding ring for Bess. They got married on June 28, 1919, 9 years after their courtship began. They’d remain married for life and had one daughter together. 

Home from the war and happily married, Truman, now 35, opened a clothing store – a haberdashery – with a jew he’d met in the army named Eddie Jacobson - a name that will come up again. The store had one happily successful year, then got clobbered when the price of wheat tumbled from $2.15 a bushel to 88 cents and cratered the region’s economy. The haberdashery - gosh, that’s a fun word to say - went out of business, but Truman refused to declare bankruptcy even though doing so would have erased his debts. He thought it unconscionable that the people who had loaned him money would never be paid back, so he spent the next 15 years striving to pay off every debtor and living meagerly as he did so.

But just as the haberdashery was failing, another war relationship was about to pay out in spades. During the war, Truman had befriended a soldier named Jim Pendergast. Jim was the heir to the Pendergast political machine, which ran half of Kansas City. And now Jim wanted his father, Tom Pendergast, to run Harry Truman for county judge.

Tom Pendergast was an interesting character. Like most political machines we’ve encountered on this show, he used his influence to get people elected who would then perform favors and give him fat contracts, like overpaying for road or building construction - the profit from that would then go toward getting more people elected. It had a great growth curve

But how’d he get the people of Kansas City to vote for his candidates? Well, he had an open door policy at his office. Every day, a long line of constituents would form to ask him for favors. Whatever they asked, Pendergast would say “I’ll see what I can do,” and send them on their way with a note of introduction to whoever they should talk to about their need. But there was a code to the letters. If the note was written in red, it meant the recipient should help the carrier without delay. If it was written in blue, it meant to keep the person in mind if opportunity came up. If it was written in gray, it meant ignore this letter.

Only one handwritten note from Pendergast to Truman survives. It was written in red pencil, and it was carried by a man named Sam Finkelstein in the 1930’s after Truman had become a senator. Finkelstein was trying to get two of his relatives out of Nazi Germany. Truman tried to help, but the state department stonewalled him with legalese about immigration quotas. It’s unknown if Finkelstein’s relatives survived.

That’s the machine that got Truman elected and supported him for more than a decade. Truman did sometimes sign corrupt contracts, and we have diary entries where he struggled with his conscience over it, but he also sometimes bucked the boss and, for the most part, his constituents and journalists plauded how efficiently he ran his office, how he improved quality of life by building better roads, and, if some money was coming off the top for Pendergast, none was going into Truman’s pocket, which meant taxes could stay low and his budget was in better shape than most.

Truman spent the next decade rising the political ladder, losing sometimes, winning more often, until, in 1934, Pendergast helped elect him to the U.S. Senate. 


As I said, Truman did sometimes buck the boss, and so he wasn’t Pendergast’s first, second, or third choice for senate, but Pendergast’s first three choices said no and his son did keep vouching for Truman, so Pendergast finally said ‘what the hell’ and ran Truman as his guy. The Pendergast machine plus Truman’s reputation and vigorous campaigning resulted in a comfortable win, with roughly 60% of the vote to 40.

Harry S. Truman was 50 years old when he entered the senate - what can I say, the guy was a late bloomer - and he was in awe. One of his new colleagues told him “For the first six months you’ll wonder how the hell you got here. And after that, you’ll wonder how the hell the rest of us got here.”

Which is a pretty great quote.

As a senator, Truman backed president Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal platform to the hilt, earning the nickname “go-along, get-along harry.” His career almost ended after his first term, though, when Tom Pendergast was busted by the FBI for tax evasion in 1939 - the same wrap that nailed Capone. This meant Truman had to seek reelection in 40’ without the backing of the Pendergast machine. It’s a testament to his performance in the senate and his hard work on the campaign trail that he narrowly won reelection in a race many thought he would lose - an experience that would serve him well when facing similarly long-odds in a presidential reelection race eight years later.

Truman’s biggest claim to senatorial fame came after World War II broke out in Europe. On Dec. 29, 1940 - so this is one year before Pearl Harbor - FDR gave a speech calling for the united states to become an “arsenal of democracy,” producing war materials for the Allies in their struggle against Nazi Germany. Federal spending shot up overnight, but Truman started hearing from his constituents that much of it was wasteful. He hopped in his car and went on a 30,000 mile drive from Washington to Florida, Missouri, Michigan, and elsewhere, visiting every military base and war materials plant he could find, and sure enough, he found a lot of waste. People being paid to do nothing, contracts going to the politically well-connected instead of the best bid, and new equipment being left out to ruin in the rain. And Truman got worked up about it. On Feb. 10, 1941, Truman addressed this waste in a speech that led directly to the creation of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, known more colloquially as “The Truman Committee.”

The Truman Committee did an admirable job cracking down on corrupt American businessmen who were trying to make a buck at the expense of the boys on the front by producing faulty aircraft engines, malfunctional plane designs, and steel that wasn’t up to standard. Truman exposed ‘em all. Shaming them into doing right by the men in uniform. And I’m going to get more into how this committee worked and what they found in my next interview with the author of a recent book on the Truman Committee.

And then, in 1944, Truman started hearing whispers he was being considered for FDR’s next vice president.

Now, FDR already had a vice president, a progressive liberal named Henry Wallace. But there was a problem with Wallace - the conservative wing of the party didn’t like him. Party leaders could see FDR probably wouldn’t survive another term, and they didn’t want an independent-minded liberal like Wallace replacing FDR when he died.

So FDR started searching for alternatives, and, once again, Truman was not the first choice on the list, but there were two key differences between FDR’s search for a vice president and Pendergast’s search for a senator - this time, all the men ahead of Truman DID want the job, and Truman DID NOT want it. Truman knew most accidental presidents had been failures, and he didn’t want to join their ranks. The problem for FDR, though, was that the alternatives all carried too much baggage. FDR was ultimately convinced by his advisors, days before the convention, that he had to get Truman to say yes.

And Truman’s friends and advisors were trying to talk him into it as well. When a friend said to him “I think, Senator, that you’re going to do it.” Truman asked what gave him that idea, and the friend replied, “Because there’s a little, old 90-year-old mother down in Grandview, Missouri, that would like to see her son President of the United States,” and a crying Truman stomped out of the room.

The decisive moment came the opening day of the convention when Truman’s advisor’s pigeon-holed him into a room and called FDR basically on speaker-phone.

FDR spoke first “Bob, have you got that fellow lined up yet?”

“No, he is the contrariest goddam mule from Missouri I ever dealt with.” 

“Well,” said FDR, “You tell the senator that if he wants to break up the Democratic party in the middle of the war, that’s his responsibility.” and then FDR hung up.

“Shit,” truman said. “Well, if that’s the situation, I’ll have to say yes. But why the hell didn’t he tell me in the first place?”

But that wasn’t the end of it. Though Wallace now knew he didn’t have FDR’s support, he tried to make a fight of it on the convention floor - this decision would, technically, still be up to the delegates. Wallace stuffed the convention hall with 15,000 supporters who got in with fake tickets and, after Wallace gave a rip-roaring speech to nominate FDR, one of his supporters tried to rush the stage to nominate Wallace that moment, sensing he’d win on the spot if only they could call a vote. But the party chairman adjourned right as the supporter reached the stage, blocking Wallace’s hopes for an upset victory. 

The next day, Wallace still led on the first ballot for VP, but not with enough votes to win. FDR’s men had engineered many states to support favorite sons on the first ballot. On the second ballot, they swept behind Truman, lifting him to the nomination. Truman took the stage, walked up to the podium and paused a moment, then said, “Now give me a chance.”

On January 20, 1945, Truman was sworn in as the 34th vice president of the United States of America. He would serve in that role just 82 days.

On April 12, 1945, Truman was sharing a drink with some colleagues in his office at the senate building, when he was told that FDR’s press secretary, Steve Early, needed Truman to call him back right away. Truman stepped aside to make the call. Early sounded tense as he told Truman to “Come quickly and quietly” to the white house.

“Jesus Christ and General Jackson,” Truman said as he put the phone down, sensing what was about. Truman told the senators in the room not to say a thing then rushed to the white house, where he was met by Steve, Eleanor Roosevelt, her daughter and her son-in-law.

Eleanor broke the news.

“Harry, the president is dead.”

Truman’s first response was to ask Eleanor, “Is there anything I can do for you?” 

I can imagine Eleanor shaking her head as she replied, “Is there anything WE can do for YOU. For you are the one in trouble now.”


And so, on April 12, 1945, 60-year-old Harry S. Truman, a small-town farmer, failed businessman, and World War I veteran, an honest man who entered politics through a dishonest machine, was sworn in as the 33rd president of the United States of America - Truman is the last American to reach the white house without a college degree. But what did the world, and the country, look like when Truman became president? Let’s look around.

Internationally, the world was still at war. Allied armies were entering Germany from the East and West, but Hitler refused to surrender. Holed up in his bunker, he insisted the german people sacrifice themselves to the last man, unworthy of life after having failed their fuhrer. In the Pacific, the bloody battle of Iwo Jima had just killed 6,000 marines - the largest casualty event in marine corps history - just to capture an 8-square mile rock in the ocean. Of the 21,000 Japanese defenders on the island, only 216 were taken prisoner. The rest fought to the death. As the invasion of the Japanese home islands loomed, Americans wondered, how many more boys would have to die to end the war? Will my son or my brother be among them? Will the entire Japanese people really fight to the death on behalf of their emperor?

On April 13, 1945, the day after becoming president, Truman told the white house press corps, “I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

And he hadn’t even been told the big secret yet. The secret that would lend its name to an era. The weapon he’d have to decide when and where to use. The atomic bomb.

The atomic bomb had been developed under the strictest secrecy for three years. 200,000 men and women were involved in the project, but only a few knew the full picture. The rest were cogs in a vast machine.

Truman had nearly stumbled upon the big secret during his work on the Truman Committee. Back when he was seeking out government waste during the war, he kept coming across vast sums of money directed toward something called “The Manhattan project.” When he reached out to the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, to ask what the Manhattan project was, Stimson said, “That's a matter which I know all about personally, and I am the only one of the group of two or three men in the whole world who know about it. It's part of a very important secret development.” And Truman stopped him right there. He trusted Stimson. Whatever it was, it could stay a secret. Truman wouldn’t pry.

But now that secret had been dropped in his lap. Bam. You’re the president now. What are you going to do with THIS?

The nuclear bomb had been built out of a fear that if the Americans didn’t build one, the germans would first, and Germany had always been the intended target. But, on April 30, 1945, Hitler took that nation out of contention when he shot himself. A week later, Germany surrendered. Just like that, Japan stood alone.

At this late hour, Japan could not win the war. The Americans knew it. The Japanese knew it. But inexplicably, they kept fighting. And more American mothers were losing their sons every day.

Which raised the question, should the bomb be used on Japan?

Truman formed a committee. Eight members, all civilians. The presidents of Harvard, MIT, Carnegie, the undersecretary of the Navy, assistant secretary of state, and three esteemed scientists. The final decision would be his, but the committee would advise. The committee met three times and came to three recommendations:

  1. The bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible.
  2. The bomb should target war machine factories surrounded by workers’ homes, quote, “to make a profound psychological impression on as many inhabitants as possible.”
  3. The bomb should be used without warning. Despite its successful tests, the advisors weren’t sure the bomb would actually work in a combat situation. What if they announced a demonstration, and the thing was a dud? Or what if the Americans said, “We’re going to use it HERE,” and the Japanese brought American POW’s there? No, the committee resolved, the attack should come without warning.

There were others who warned against using the bomb. Engineers or scientists who feared nuclear proliferation would inevitably lead to the destruction of mankind. But whether their warnings reached Truman is unknown. 

As for Truman’s inclination, it was in line with the committee. He’d seen the casualty numbers at Iwo Jima. He’d seen the projections for an invasion of mainland Japan - a quarter million Americans could die there. Unless. Unless Japan surrendered first.

Quote, “The conclusions of the Committee were similar to my own, although I reached mine independently. I felt that to extract a genuine surrender from the Emperor and his military advisers, there must be administered a tremendous shock which could carry convincing proof of our power to destroy the Empire. Such an effective shock would save many times the number of lives, both American and Japanese, that it would cost.”

And so the decision was made. On Aug. 5, 1945, an atomic bomb named Little Boy was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. 80,000 people were killed instantly. Some were vaporized so thoroughly that only their shadows remained, burned into the stone by the blast. Another 50,000 succumbed to injuries or radiation poisoning in the months that followed. Only 10,000 of the dead were Japanese soldiers.

Truman reacted to the news of the successful mission with exuberance, running around a navy cruiser he was on like an excited boy, telling everyone what had happened. The soldiers loved it. Their loved ones loved it. They thought this meant the war would soon be over. They were right.

A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Six days after that, Japan officially surrendered. World War II was over.

Now… you could do an entire podcast series on the atomic bomb, and I just hit it in a few minutes, which really doesn’t do it justice. I’ll find a historian to talk to for a deeper dive on the subject, but I think there is one more question that must be addressed, because it’s the one everyone asks - should the United States have used the atomic bomb?

My answer is no. And the reason for that is I oppose all forms of civilian bombing - full stop. 

Before World War II, there was a near-universal belief that future wars would be over in hours because all you had to do was bomb civilians and they’d petition their governments to end the fighting immediately. It’s why the Nazi’s bombed London - killing 43,000. It’s why the Brits firebombed Dresden - killing 135,000. And it’s why the Americans firebombed tokyo - killing 100,000. These latter two missions, by the way, killed more civilians than either atomic bomb.

By some estimates, 2.5 million civilians were killed by the aerial bombing campaigns of World War II, and not one of those bombing campaigns ended the war! If anything, they prolonged the war, because they took resources away from the battlefields where the war was actually being fought. By 1945, Truman should have seen that. 

And to those of you who are saying, “but Kenny! The Nuke worked! Japan surrendered.” I say there’s no evidence that the nuke is why Japan surrendered. As I said before, they were already defeated. They were beat. Everyone was just waiting on the emperor to wave the white flag and end the war. 

Truman never regretted his decision to drop the bomb. But, in a later conflict, when his generals begged him to use the bomb again, he’d say no. We’ll get to that conflict soon. I think that says a lot.

Back to the narrative. World War II was over. But mushroom clouds cast a terrifying shadow. As celebrations died down, that sense of exhilaration was replaced by apprehension. With such terrifying weapons as these, could the world survive another great war?

Or had the next great conflict already begun?

There’s no single moment you can point to and say ‘that’s the first shot of the cold war.’ Cold wars don’t work that way! But a rivalry of ideologies that started with Lenin’s revolution in 1918 became THE global struggle after World War II. A contest that would determine the future of the world.

The soviet union talked a good game. It promised a socialist future where nobody would want for food or shelter. Peace, Land, and Bread, Lenin had once said. Equality for everyone. 

In truth, the Soviet union was an economic mess controlled by a government more despotic and murderous than the Czar it had replaced. By the 1940’s, Joseph Stalin was in charge. A man who impressed strangers by coming off as a fatherly figure - seriously, I’ve read accounts of Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Truman all being charmed by him - but Stalin was a stone cold killer. There’s a quote attributed to Stalin that says a lot about the man - “One death is a tragedy, but thousands are a statistic.” By some estimates, Stalin’s government killed 9 million people - 9 million tragedies.

But much of that wouldn’t come out for years. The american public wondered, could there be peace? We’d coexisted with monarchies for more than 100 years, could we live and let live with a communist nation?

When World War II ended, Soviet troops occupied Germany, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary - all of eastern europe. And… those troops didn’t leave. They stayed there, with their guns, and their tanks, and their planes, and that’s about when the west realized something might be amiss. No matter how loud the west protested, the russians were not leaving the territories they’d taken from the nazi’s, and new soviet-dominated governments were being propped up to rule on Moscow’s behalf.

In case anyone missed what was happening, Stalin said the quiet part out loud in Moscow on February 9, 1946, when he declared capitalism and communism were incompatible with each other and war was inevitable - yeah, he said that. And then he called for a 5-year economic plan geared around tripling national defense materials and deprioritizing everything else so the soviets could defeat the west by 1951. In the United States, people were freaking out. A supreme Court Justice called it the “declaration of World war III.”

A month later, Truman invited Winston Churchill, who had been voted out of office at the end of the war, to give a speech at a small college in Missouri. And it was here, in this unlikely setting, that Churchill coined a term that became synonymous with the cold war, saying an Iron curtain had fallen across eastern europe. Churchill called for the creation of a new alliance of capitalist nations to counter the soviet menace - planting the seeds that would sprout NATO just a few years later.

But even before that thought could bear fruit, it became apparent that Washington would have to take the lead against Russia, and fast.

World War II had bankrupted the United Kingdom. The brits lost everything in that war. In 1947, they cabled Washington that they were going to have to pull out from Greece, where 40,000 british soldiers and gobs of money had been propping up a western government. The Americans would have to fill the gap, or Greece would likely fall to communist guerillas.

And that’s when this crazy idea that Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall had been kicking around really began to gain steam - bankrolling the reconstruction of europe.

World war 2 had devastated europe. Millions were died, industries were ruined, cities were leveled.

Marshall and Truman initially tried to partner with Stalin on the rebuilding of europe, but when Marshall met with him, Stalin spent the meeting drawing doodles of red wolves instead of engaging on the issue. Flying back to Washington, Marshall realized the status quo played to Stalin’s favor. The worse Europe’s economy was, the more likely people would rise in socialist revolution. The United States had to prove capitalism could still work.

And so, at Truman’s encouragement, Marshall cooked up a plan. They called on Congress to approve $17 billion dollars in aid for the rebuilding of Europe - that’s 17 billion 1948 dollars. $215 billion today. This was a massive sum, and many didn’t want to spend that much “over there” when there were Americans in need “over here.” But Truman did the math - World War 2 had cost over $100 billion dollars a year. A war with the Soviet Union could cost $400 billion. Compared to that, buying peace through the economic rebuilding of Europe for $17 billion was a deal.

Truman campaigned for the program for a year. When someone suggested calling it the Truman plan, Truman insisted on calling it the Marshall plan instead, saying “Anything that is sent up to the senate and house with my name on it will quiver a couple of times and die.” He was probably right. 

The moment that sealed the deal may have been when the Soviets were given one more chance to participate in the plan, only for them to refuse and forbid their client states against participating. This guaranteed the Marshall Plan’s money would only go to western europe. With that settled, Congress voted its approval. The dollars flowed. The west was rebuilt. Revolution was averted. And, thanks to this investment, western europe would prove significantly stronger than the east during the decades of cold war that followed.

So the United States had saved western europe with the Marshall Plan, but could it save Berlin from soviet aggression? Stalin was determined to find out.

A bit of background.

At the end of world war 2, Germany had been partitioned into four zones of occupation - one American, one British, one French, and one Russian. The three western nations merged their zones to create a democratic west germany and Russia turned its zone into a communist east germany. The four nations did the same thing with Berlin - there was a democratic west berlin, and a communist east berlin. Cool.

There was just one problem. Berlin was located 100 miles deep into soviet territory.

So, when the soviets blocked all rail, road, and water access to Berlin and ordered western forces to abandon the city on June 24, 1948, the Americans were put in a bit of a pickle.

6,500 western troops and 2 million desperate civilians were surrounded by 18,000 soviet troops in the immediate vicinity and 300,000 in the region. The wrong move could spark world war 3, but how do you feed that many people when you can’t reach them by land?

You feed them by air.

In the face of great peril and greater odds, Truman ordered the U.S. airforce to pull off the impossible, a massive air lift of food and supplies to the soldiers and citizens in Berlin, and, with a little help from the British Royal Air Force, the U.S. airforce stepped up to the plate and pulled it off.

Planes laden with supplies were dispatched around the clock. When it became clear Berlin’s one available runway wasn’t cutting it, 30,000 west berliners cleared rubble from a second runway so more planes could land. Two squads of B-29 bombers were sent to assist, and it was lost on no one that these were the bombers that could also carry atomic bombs - which might be why the Soviets didn’t interfere. At the airlift’s peak, planes were taking off and touching down every 4 minutes around the clock. And the Americans also found ways to create moments of joy and hope, like when they dropped candies with little parachutes for the children of Berlin.

It took 14 months and 277,000 flights, but the soviets eventually backed down. It wasn’t just a win for the people of Berlin, it was a victory for American prestige and a blow to the soviet union’s image.

It also may have saved Truman’s presidency.

Remember what Truman said about the Marshall plan? How it wouldn’t have passed if his name was on it? 

Yeah. There’s a reason for that. By the summer of 48’, Truman was deeply unpopular. The problem was the economy. It’s tough when the government stops spending $100 billion dollars a year and 12 million soldiers have to demobilize, go home, and find jobs. And where were they going to live? There weren’t enough homes for all the vets. The influx of people seeking jobs also emboldened businesses to start cutting wages and benefits and firing anyone who protested, which resulted in a series of crippling strikes. Truman at one point asked Congress to draft striking rail workers to get the trains moving again only for management and labor to agree to terms right as Truman was giving his speech to Congress.

The economic turmoil was dramatic, costly, and in the eyes of many, all Truman’s fault.

As the GOP prepared to campaign against him, their slogan was simply, “Had enough?”

The odds against Truman got tougher when, at the Democratic convention, a young mayor named Hubert Humphrey fired up the crowd with a call for civil rights - quote “There are those who say to you, we are rushing this issue of civil rights. I say we are 172 years late!” A civil rights plank was added to the party’s platform, which cemented the support of minorities everywhere, but also pushed southern whites away from the party. Two days after Truman’s official nomination, an assembly of southern dems, waving confederate flags and calling themselves “Dixiecrats,” unanimously nominated Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to be their candidate for president. When Thurmond was asked why he was breaking with the party now after FDR had made similar promises on Civil Rights, Thurmond said “But Truman really means it.”

But Thurmond and the Dixiecrats were a side-show. Truman knew the real threat was GOP nominee Thomas Dewey, a progressive new york Republican who promised to deliver all the same progressive promises Truman was running on, but without the economic turmoil and with a tougher stance on Russia. Truman knew what to do with that - he called Dewey’s bluff by summoning a special session of Congress and challenging Republicans to pass all this progressive legislation Dewey claimed to believe in. The progressive - conservative faultline in the GOP was exposed, they did not all agree on Dewey’s agenda, and Dewey was constantly challenged to pick sides.

And then, on the first day of the special session, Truman said to hell with the Dixiecrats and desegregated the military and banned discrimination in Civil Service hires through executive orders.

Then he hit the road.

Or, should I say, the railroad.

Truman criss-crossed the country on a 22,000-mile, 33-day whistle stop tour, a distance nearly equal to a circumnavigation of the glove. He told his team at the onset, “I know I can take it. I’m only afraid that I’ll kill some of my staff - and I like you all very much and I don’t want to do that.” Every time Truman rolled into a new town, he spoke from the train to an assembled crowd about issues local to that community, identified by an advance team on the train. The crowds were huge, and the ongoing Berlin Airlift was making Truman look tougher on communism, but still, on the eve of the election, betting odds were 4-1 in Dewey’s favor and polls gave him a 5-point lead. The result appeared inevitable. 

And yet… the early results were tight. Very tight. As votes were counted overnight, something shocking emerged. Truman had taken the lead

The following morning, Truman woke up to the most shocking presidential victory in US history. He’d defeated Dewey 303 to 189 in the electoral college, with Thurmond and the Dixiecrats picking up 39 electors from 4 southern states. And he’d edged Dewey 24.1 to 22 million in the popular vote, with 1.1 million southerners voting for Thurmond. And Truman had coattails. The democrats recaptured Congress and held the senate. 

For most presidents, I tell the story of their election. For Truman, I tell the story of his reelection. On his way back to D.C., someone handed him a copy of an overconfident newspaper, printed the night before his win, that erroneously declared “Dewey defeats Truman.” The picture of a grinning Truman holding up that headline is one of the best you’ll find in American politics.

But that big victory did not mean Truman’s second term would be easier than his first. His democratic majority included many southern democrats who opposed his progressive ambitions on civil rights, healthcare, and union laws, so his domestic agenda went nowhere.

Then, on June 24, 1950, Truman received a call from his new secretary of state Dean Acheson: “Mr. President, I have very serious news. The North Koreans have invaded South Korea.”

The korean peninsula, for most of its history, had been a united kingdom. Japan conquered it back in 1910 and was still occupying it at the end of world war 2. Neither the American nor the Soviet forces had been close to the peninsula yet, but they’d had to decide who would administer Korea when the Japanese were forced out. Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk explained what happened next, quote:

“During a meeting on August 14, 1945, the same day as the Japanese surrender, [my colleague] and I retired to an adjacent room late at night and studied intently a map of the Korean peninsula. Working in haste and under great pressure, we had a formidable task: to pick a zone for the American occupation. Neither Tic nor I was a Korea expert, but it seemed to us that Seoul, the capital, should be in the American sector. We also knew that the U.S. Army opposed an extensive area of occupation. Using a National Geographic map, we looked just north of Seoul for a convenient dividing line but could not find a natural geographical line. We saw instead the thirty-eighth parallel and decided to recommend that ... [Our commanders] accepted it without too much haggling, and surprisingly, so did the Soviets.”

The initial border really was that arbitrary. And the north-south division was expected to be temporary. But as the Cold War set in, temporary lines started to look permanent, so in 1950, communist North Korea decided to reunify the peninsula by force and tanks and troops rolled across the border. The invasion had begun.

Truman reacted swiftly to the news of North Korean attack - but he did so in a novel way. The United Nations had recently formed - he called on the UN to support an international intervention against communist aggression in Korea. Now, you may know the UN has a security council with 5 permanent members who can veto anything, and you may know that Russia and China are two of those permanent members, so you may expect Truman to get blocked here, but in 1950, China’s seat was actually held by Taiwan - something that wouldn’t change until Nixon changed it - and the Russian were boycotting the UN for some silly reason and had left their seat temporarily vacant. As a result, Truman was able to get the U.N to vote unanimously in support of intervention.

A reaction force was prepared offshore and The old World War II hero Douglas Macarthur was placed in charge. As the relief force got ready, American and south Korean forces on the peninsula fought a nightmarish rear guard action as they were pursued by the northern invaders down the peninsula. Within months, they were backed into the last free city in the south. Defeat seemed imminent.

And then MacArthur tried something so recklessly stupid that, oh my god, it actually worked.

What MacArthur did was launch an amphibious assault on the port of Inchon, 200 miles north of that last South Korean holdout. And this was no ordinary amphibious assault. Inchon had no beaches, only sea walls, and the tide would only be high enough to land troops on top of those sea walls for 2 hours on a single day, September 15. If the troops missed their 2-hour window, the entire invasion would be stranded in the water. It would be a massacre.

But, like I said, the damn thing worked. 262 ships dropped 70,000 men at Inchon, liberating the city within a day. Two weeks later, the capital Seoul was liberated and half the north korean army was caught in a pincer movement. 

And then Truman made a decision that might have been a mistake. Remember that arbitrary pre-war border at the 38th parallel? Truman told MacArthur he could go north of that line and destroy what was left of the North Korean armed forces as long as American troops didn’t get close to China.

An order MacArthur ignored.

Overconfident in his own authority, MacArthur ordered his troops right up toward that Chinese border. What he didn’t notice, as American troops drove up those valleys, was that Chinese infantry were infiltrating down the hills all around them. Four days after Thanksgiving, 1950, 260,000 chinese soldiers opened fire. The Americans were caught flat-footed, nearly surrounded, and forced into immediate retreat through frigid winter conditions. In one of the most harried retreats in American history. U.S. soldiers fled 300 miles back to the south.

And MacArthur started freaking out. He wanted to drop 30 to 50 nukes on Chinese cities. When the joint chiefs told Truman this was the only way to win Korea, Truman refused. The American forces regrouped in the south, reorganized, and counter-attacked back to the 38th parallel - the same place the war had started. And a stalemate set in. Truman began seeking peace. But MacArthur didn’t want peace, he wanted victory. And he wanted to use nukes to get it. When MacArthur heard Truman was secretly negotiating an end to the war, he put out statements taunting the chinese army, threatening mainland china, and saying only he could negotiate an end to the war - effectively killing Truman’s peace initiative. It was rank insubordination.

But MacArthur’s military superiors were afraid to fire him. They knew how popular he was with the American people. They knew his supporters in congress would say mean things about them if they fired MacArthur. They balked.

But Truman didn’t.

The buck stops here

On April 11, 1951, Harry S Truman fired Douglas MacArthur.

National outcry was furious. Most viewed MacArthur as a hero. The man’s PR was been better than his generalship. The GOP threatened to impeach members of Truman’s administration over MacArthur’s removal. There were marches on Washington and strikes in support of MacArthur. Four state legislatures voted to condemn Truman over the firing.

But Truman stood firm.

On April 19, Macarthur spoke to a joint session of congress. He said he’d been denied supplies and troops and basically forbidden from winning the war. He conveniently left out his repeated calls to nuke china, then he lied and said the joint chiefs supported all his positions. This was a national event that seemingly everyone stopped and listened to. It was Macarthur at high tide. His ticker tape parade in New York got more spectators than Eisenwhoer had after WWII.

But then hearings into his firing began and his flaws started to emerge. He refused to admit any mistakes or take any responsibility. Everything was somebody else’s fault. HE wasn’t concerned if attacking China led to World War 3. The chiefs of staff testified that they supported Truman, not MacArthur.

Slowly, the Macarthur furor, the biggest threat to presidential authority over the military in U.S. history, was put to rest. As Truman later put it, quote: “I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”

Ultimately, all Macarthur managed to do was prolong the war and put peace out of Truman’s grasp. By then, Truman had already decided he would not run again. His popularity, dragged by the quagmire in Korea, was at a low ebb when he left office, replaced by Eisenhower and his VP, a young Richard Nixon, in 1953.

So how had America and the world changed during the nearly-8 years of the Truman administration? Holy smokes, how much time have you got?

In 1945, Vietnam declared its short-lived independence from France as a wanna-be American ally! That’s right, American-Vietnamese relations were actually pretty close at this time. The Americans had trained the Vietnamese in how to fight Japanese occupiers during WWII. North Vietnam’s leader Ho Chi Minh had once lived in Brooklyn as a dishwasher - an American medic had even saved his life during the fight against Japan. In his speech declaring Vietnamese independence, Ho quoted Thomas Jefferson by saying “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But there was one big problem. France didn’t want Vietnam to be independent. France wanted Vietnam to be a colony. And France wanted this so much, it threatened to join the soviet orbit if the United States didn’t back its claims for control over Vietnam. At first, the United States tried to stay out of it, but when Ho Chi Minh realized the United States wouldn’t have his back, he did what France had threatened to do - he turned to the Soviet Union for support. And a war between French occupiers and communist-backed Vietnamese guerillas broke out. Truman didn’t send any troops, but he did eventually send money to avoid looking weak on communism.

In 1947, the crown jewel of the British Empire, India, was granted independence. The architect of that independence, Mahatma Ghandi, was murdered while walking through a New Delhi garden a year later. 

Influenced by his old Haberdashery business partner Eddie Jacobson - yup, the name I told you to remember 40 minutes ago! - Truman became the first world leader to recognize the state of israel on May 14, 1948, the day of its founding. The decision was made so quick, the name “israel” had been left blank on the paperwork because nobody knew what the new country would even be called yet.

1949 was an especially tough year for Truman. The soviet union detonated its first nuclear bomb that August, years sooner than anyone expected the russians to unlock the secrets of the atom, and mainland China fell to communism when Mao Zedong chased his rival’s forces to Taiwan a month after that. Blame for this double whammy - Russians obtaining the bomb through espionage and China falling to the communists - was placed at Truman’s feet. In 1950, senator Joseph McCarthy capitalized on the fear of the moment to trigger a new red scare when he began making baseless claims of knowing the identities of communist spies in the government. For the next 5 years, McCarthy would vex Republican and Democratic leaders in turn with his reckless accusations and attempts to ruin the lives of innocent Americans, all to keep his name in the papers. This fall of China and the red scare that followed would haunt a generation of American leaders who didn’t want to be blamed for losing Vietnam the way Truman was blamed for losing China.

Oh, and Truman survived an assassination attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists in 1950. The white house was being renovated so he was staying somewhere else, and two nationalists tried to storm the building. It was a near-run thing.

On the lighter side, the Truman Administration is also when green chewing gum became a fad, scrabble was introduced, and the bikini was invented - fun fact, the “bikini” is named after the Bikini atoll, an island in the pacific that was making headlines for the nuclear testing that was happening there. The inventor sought to capitalize on the name in the press.

Truman lived another 10 years, focusing on his presidential library, autobiography, Democratic politics, and his friends. He died at 7:50 am on Tuesday, Dec 26, 1972 after a brief bout of pneumonia. He was 88 years old.

So what should we remember Harry Truman for? 

Man. There is A LOT. Allow me 4

  • He made the decision to drop the bomb on Japan, and then not on Korea.
  • He passed the Marshall Plan, which spent $17 billion dollars to rebuild western europe after World War II.
  • His defense of Berlin during the airlift and of South Korea when the north invaded set the tone for the cold war - The United States would not allow communist aggression to go unchecked.
  • He fired general MacArthur, despite knowing how unpopular it would make him, ending the biggest threat we’ve ever had to civilian rule.

And as for a lesson in leadership, let’s go with something he said back when he insisted the bailout of Europe be called the Marshall Plan instead of the Truman plan - It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Oscar Brand from Smithsonian Folkway Records.

The primary biography for today’s episode was Truman, by David McCullough

In our next episode, we’ll take a closer look at how Truman rose from obscure senator to vice presidential material - an interview with Steve Drummond, author of The Watchdog: How the Truman Committee Battled Corruption and Helped Win World War Two

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.