On this day in history, Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri.
Just shy of age 61, Truman became the 33rd President of the United States on April 12, 1945, following the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had been serving as Vice President for 83 days.
Only thirteen days after taking office, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson told Truman about the atomic bomb. It was Truman who had to make the decision to use this weapon on Japan.
Other notable events during Truman’s presidency included the founding of the United Nations, issuance of the Truman Doctrine to contain communism, passage of the $13 billion Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the Berlin Airlift of 1948, and the creation of NATO in 1949. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, Truman immediately sent in U.S. troops.
The 1948 presidential election is most remembered for Truman’s come-from-behind upset over Republican challenger Thomas Dewey. In the spring of 1948, Truman’s public approval rating stood at 36%, and was nearly universally regarded as incapable of winning the general election.
To campaign, Truman crisscrossed the nation by train, making “whistle stop” speeches from the platform of the car. He covered almost 22,000 miles, with his appearances drawing huge crowds. Nevertheless, the press kept predicting a victory by Dewey, largely based on polls that were conducted by telephone. As social scientists later pointed out, most of Truman’s supporters did not own telephones.
When the election was over, Truman had beaten Dewey by more than two million votes and carried 28 states (303 electoral votes) to Dewey’s 16 (189 electoral votes).
After leaving the presidency, Truman returned to Missouri, turning down a number of opportunities for corporate jobs or commercial endorsements. However, he had no savings, and his only income was his old army pension, less than $120 a month. At that time, former members of Congress and the federal courts received a federal retirement package but there was no such benefit package for former presidents.
Truman took out a personal loan from a Missouri bank shortly after leaving office, and then made a book deal for his memoirs of his time in office. For the memoirs, Truman received only a flat payment of $670,000, and had to pay two-thirds of that in tax. In 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, offering a $25,000 yearly pension to each former president, and it is likely that Truman’s financial status played a role in the law’s enactment.
On December 26, 1972, Truman died at the age of 88 from complications of pneumonia.
When he left office, Truman’s ranking as a president was low, but his reputation has climbed steadily in the ensuing years.