Harry Truman was the only American president to have seen action in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy, and Dwight Eisenhower was an Army training officer, a brevet lieutenant colonel; but neither saw action overseas. Truman did. He went to war feeling like he was “Galahad after the Grail. . . . I rather felt we owed France something for Lafayette.”
The thirty-three-year-old man who held such notions was born on a farm in southern Missouri. The metropolis to which his family moved when he was six was Independence, a city of unpaved roads and no public water supply or electricity but six thousand people. The Trumans moved there for the schools, as young Harry, though he had weak eyes and needed glasses, read constantly (the Bible from start to finish twice), and his mother had ambitions for her young son.
As an elder statesman who reveled in his reputation for hard drinking and hard swearing, he confessed, “I was never popular. The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists. I was never like that. Without my glasses I was blind as a bat, and to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy.” Actually, his peers thought him more “serious” than a “sissy”—an arbitrator who could straighten out their history when they were playacting as Jesse James or the Dalton brothers; a boy they would trust to umpire a baseball game. He was a good student at a school that taught a traditional, classical curriculum, an avid reader in a home that was well stocked with books, a boy who preferred train-watching or playing the piano to rough-and-tumble sports (where his glasses might get broken) and who kept himself neat and clean. He enjoyed, as he remembered it, a blissful small-town boyhood.
His mother was well read and doted on Harry, the eldest of her three surviving children. His father was industrious, a dealmaker, a successful livestock trader, a respected man—though with an easily ignited, nasty temper—who maintained the family in relative comfort until Harry finished high school. Then some bad land investments put the family in straitened circumstances. The family’s heritage was Southern, and Harry’s boyhood heroes included Robert E. Lee (venerated by his mother) and Andrew Jackson. He often daydreamed of becoming a general (he hoped to go to West Point until he realized his eyesight disqualified him)—or, given the hours he practiced, a pianist.
PAYING A DEBT
After high school he took courses at a commercial college, eventually seemed to have found his niche, at least temporarily, as a bank clerk, and in 1905 found an outlet for his military interests by enlisting in a National Guard artillery unit (memorizing the eye chart so his eyesight would not disqualify him). In 1906, he heeded a call from his father and took up work on a family farm—to which the family had retired—where he spent the next eleven years working the soil, an occupation he did not like, and reading or playing the piano in his few leisure hours. In 1911, after two three-year enlistments with the National Guard, he decided he could not justify the time away from the farm. That changed after April 1917, when he decided it was time to pay his debt to Lafayette.
There were other factors too. He had enjoyed his military service, he was a patriot, and, as an active Democrat who had won a couple of minor political appointments, he knew that spending time in uniform could advance his political career. He reenlisted in the National Guard, sneaking past the eye test again, was elected a first lieutenant, and showed, as he had in all his jobs, that he was a dutiful and dedicated soul. Before his unit had finished its training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he had been recommended for promotion to captain. By April 1918 he was in France and attending Advanced Artillery School. The curriculum’s intellectual demands, long hours (seven in the morning to nine-thirty at night), and hard physical training prompted Truman to write, “When I come home I’ll be a surveyor, a mathematician, a mechanical draftsman, a horse doctor, a crack shot, and a tough citizen if they keep me here long. We have periods of lectures and exams and everything just like West Point . . . and they sure give us thunder if we are late.” He graduated from the school, received his official promotion to captain, and was given command of a notoriously undisciplined artillery battery. “Give ’em hell Harry” got his start here, busting miscreants, promoting high performers, and surprising even himself with his success at managing and training a difficult lot of men: “Can you imagine me being a hardboiled captain of a tough Irish battery?” he wrote his girlfriend (and future wife), Bess Wallace.
Having come to pay his debt to Lafayette, Truman didn’t particularly care for France or the French. Typical was his frustration with the dining habits of French officers: “It takes them so long to serve a meal that I’m always hungrier when I get done than I ever was before.” He was a diligent tourist when on leave, but flinty in his patriotism and utterly convinced of the superiority of Missouri to La Belle France, Kansas City to the City of Lights, and everything American to everything French.
He saw his first action in August 1918, amid the mud and mire of the Vosges mountain range in Alsace-Lorraine, firing an artillery barrage and being fired on in return. The captain stood his ground. Many of his men did not. He cursed them for it, and won their respect.
Forced marches in cold, bitter rain brought them to the Argonne Forest and the enormous offensive that would end the war. Truman remembered that the opening barrage, to which his battery contributed, belched out “more noise than human ears could stand. Men serving the guns became deaf for weeks after. I was deaf as a post from the noise. It looked as though every gun in France was turned loose and the sky was red from one end to the other from the artillery flashes.” The artillery followed the infantry, and at the end of it all, with the armistice in November, only one man in Truman’s battery, Battery D, had been killed in action and only two others had been wounded, all of them while detailed to another command. He had performed exceptionally well. The war was the making of him.
With the war over, he wanted to go home, but he joked about his loyalty and affection for his artillery pieces: “If the government would let me have one of them, I’d pay for it and pay the transportation home just to let it sit in my front yard and rust. Men you know—gunners and section chiefs especially—become very much attached to their guns. . . . It’s like parting with old friends who’ve stood by me through thick and thin.” Bess Wallace had stood by him through thick and thin too. She married Captain Truman on 28 June 1919.
Truman entered politics uplon returning home. Over the next several decades he rose through the ranks of the Democratic party due to his staunch support of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. He eventually earned him a spot on the party’s Vice Presidential ticket in 1944.
Truman was vice president for only eighty-two days. Summoned to the White House on 12 April 1945, he was greeted by Eleanor Roosevelt. With her hand on his shoulder, she announced, “Harry, the president is dead.”
After a moment of stunned silence, Truman replied, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
The president’s widow responded, “Is there anything we can do for you, Harry? For you are the one in trouble now.”
General Patton, in Europe, thought it was America that was in trouble now. He said of Truman, “It seems very unfortunate that in order to secure political preference, people are made Vice President who are never intended, neither by Party nor by the Lord to be Presidents.” In deeper trouble, however, were the Axis Powers. In less than a month, Germany surrendered. Japan had no hope for victory in the Pacific but was instead girding itself to make unconditional victory for the Allies extraordinarily costly.
In Truman’s arsenal was one weapon of which he had known nothing when he was vice president: the atomic bomb. Another weapon that he hoped to use against Japan was Soviet military power. Truman met the Soviet leader, Marshal Joseph Stalin, at the Potsdam Conference on 17 July 1945. He liked him (he thought him a Slavic version of Tom Pendergast) and was convinced he could work with him, even as he regarded the Soviet Union as a police state and was bluntly opposed—in principle if not in force—to the export of Communism into Eastern Europe.
It took the dropping of two atomic bombs—one on Hiroshima on 6 August and one on Nagasaki on 9 August (the same day that the Soviet Union declared war and invaded Japanese-held Manchuria)—and a massive conventional air raid on Tokyo on 13 August before the Japanese issued a formal statement of surrender on 14 August. Truman had calculated that by dropping the atomic bombs he could end the war swiftly—and by ending it, save hundreds of thousands of lives.
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