Quickly now, name the top 10 presidents in US history. Chances are, you would cite George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR in some order. Not many people would think of Harry S Truman, who I believe is one of the most underrated and underappreciated Presidents in history. Time after time, he demonstrated high levels of integrety and leadership. He did what he thought was right, regardless of the political fallout. Now, Truman is generally considered by a consensus of academic historians and political scientists to have been one of the top ten Presidents in history, ranking in a group just below the aforementioned Big 5. Ironically, upon leaving office in 1952 his job approval rating was only 22%, according to a Gallup Poll, which was the lowest in history for a departing President. To put that in perspective, Richard Nixon, who left office in disgrace, departed with a job approval rating of 24%. Underrated and underappreciated indeed.
So, who was Harry S Truman? What did he accomplish to merit such high praise from historians, and why the low rating initially?
Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri on May 8, 1884. The “S” does not stand for any middle name. He was raised on the family farm. He served in the army during WWI. Afterwards, he owned a haberdashery, which eventually went bankrupt. (As a measure of his character, he paid off all creditors, even though he was not required to do so legally. It took 13 years.). Then, he entered politics, holding various offices at the local level. In 1934 he was elected to the US Senate. His big break was being chosen to run for VP with FDR in 1944. Upon FDR’s death, he became the 33rd President of the US.
Truman served as President duirng a very critical and turbulent time in US history. Luckily for us, he was up to the task. He was a very strong and decisive leader. As I said, many times, he took unpopular actions because he thought they were right. He governed by the credo of the sign on his desk in the Oval Office: “The Buck Stops Here.” Among his accomplishments were:
1. He gave the final authorization to drop the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was a very controversal decision, especially when the world saw the massive devastatation caused by these weapons. Although there was moral outrage in some quarters, the general view now is that Truman made the right decision. Japan was prepared to fight to the death, and our military advisors estimated that its capture would have likely have taken a year and cost hundreds of thousands of American lives.
2. He led the fight to allocate funds to rebuild Europe after WWII under a program that became known as the Marshall Plan. This plan was unpopular at the time, because it was expensive, and there was little appetite to help Europe, especially our defeated enemies.
3. He aggressively and successfully fought to contain the spread of communism. This was the advent of the “Cold War.” The Soviet Union, which already controlled Eastern Europe, was looking to expand its influence into Greece, Turkey and elsewhere. Were it not for Truman’s actions the world would look a lot different today.
4. He strongly advocated for creating the UN and NATO.
5. When the Soviets initiated a blockade of supplies into West Berlin, he authorized the Berlin Airlift, which effectively broke the blockade and saved West Berlin as a free city.
6. When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he acted promptly and decisively to support the South, thus preventing the Korean peninsula from turning 100% communist. Later, he fired the popular Douglas MacArthur, who was commanding our troops there, for insubordination. MacArthur was a WWII war hero, and this decision was very unpopular, but Truman did what he thought was right regardless.
7. He recognized the State of Israel just 11 minutes after its creation. His advisors had cautioned him that this action would anger the Arab states in the region, which controlled much of our oil supply, however, Truman went ahead anyway, stating that he “would decide his policy on the basis of justice, not oil.”
8. He integrated the Armed Services by Executive Order.
Truman ran for re-election in 1948 against Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of NY. Truman’s approval rating was 38% in the Spring of 1948, and he was universally expected to lose. But, the polling of the day was flawed. Firstly, it was conducted by telephone. Since many more Dems did not have telephones, they were underrepresented in the polls. Also, Gallup stopped polling several days before Election day, so he missed a late surge for Truman. You may be aware that the Chicago Tribune famously published the inaccurate headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Truman did not run again in 1952, retiring to Missouri to lead a quiet life. He turned down numerous offers for corporate positions and commercial endorsements, as he did not want to diminish the integrety of the Presidency. Unfortunately, he had no pension, so he was actually poor. His financial situation improved, however, when Congress passed a law granting former Presidents a pension. Truman died on December 26, 1972. As I mentioned, he was not appreciated when he was alive, but with the passage of time and the perspective of history he is now recognized as one of our truly great Presidents.