Harry S. Truman   (1884-1972)

By Harris and Ewing Studio, ca. 1945. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Thirty-third President, 1945-1953

When Franklin D. Roosevelt died suddenly in 1945, the war in Europe was nearing its close; but as Vice President Harry Truman moved into the White House, he found himself facing the war in the Pacific, where the Japanese were refusing to surrender. Rather than risk the lives of more U.S. servicemen, Truman made the agonizing decision to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At least 100,000 people were killed instantly, and the war was over within days.

Truman then faced the job of dealing with millions of returning service-people with the GI Bill, offering education and training for a peacetime economy. His Fair Deal initiative also included proposals for national medical insurance and civil rights legislation, but both were defeated in Congress and it would be long time before either were discussed again.

Truman went against the odds to win a second term in 1948, surprising everyone with his upset of popular New York Governor Thomas Dewey. With Europe rebuilding itself and Stalin establishing communist governments in Eastern Europe, Truman proposed to stop the spread of communism by promising American support to any country fighting communists, the Truman Doctrine. Later that year, secretary of state George Marshall proposed the Marshall Plan, which would provide grants to rebuild war-torn European countries. Stalin criticized these plans, and the seeds of the Cold War were sown.

When communist North Korea attempted to take over South Korea in 1950, the Truman Doctrine was called into play; American troops were once again sent overseas, this time under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, with orders to liberate South Korea. But the general went a step beyond his orders, invading the border of North Korea, which prompted the Communist Chinese to send their troops into the action. Truman angrily relieved MacArthur of his command for disobeying orders, an unpopular move which ultimately led to Truman's decision to decline his party's nomination in 1952.