In 1998, The Truman Show was a major motion picture box office and critical success. It was the story of a young man living what appeared to be a normal life in his hometown of Seahaven, a tiny seaside village that was actually a complete television set built under a giant arcological dome.
Truman Burbank was the star of the show — but he did not know it. He didn’t realize that his quaint hometown was a giant studio set run by a an Oz-like “wizard” who was its creator, that all the people living and working there were actors, and that even his mother and wife were contract players. Gradually, Truman got wise. And, what he discovered had audiences laughing, crying, and cheering.
More than a century earlier began the story of another Truman, one that would have a profound impact on U.S. history and produce our 33rd President. On May 8, 1884 in Lamar, Missouri was born Harry S. Truman, the oldest son of John and Martha Ellen Truman. His parents chose S. as his a middle initial to please his two grandfathers who both had middle names beginning with the letter “S.”
A farmer and livestock dealer, John Truman would relocate his family several times before ultimately settling in Independence, Missouri where young Harry would spend most of his boyhood on the farm. John’s activity in the local Democrat Party provided Harry with political connections and helped to establish the ideals that he would hold for a lifetime.
As a boy, Harry was deeply interested in music, reading, and history and studied the piano until the age of 15 – all with the encouragement of his mother who remained his confidante well into his Presidency.
Coming from humble roots, Harry learned the value of hard work and his life experiences helped to shape his perspectives. At the age of 16, he secured a job as timekeeper on the Santa Fe railroad where he came in contact with down and out hobos at nearby camps. He then got a few clerical jobs and worked in the mailroom of the Kansas City Star before returning to the farm.
He dreamed as a child of attending the United States Military Academy. His eyesight, however, prevented his entry. He later enlisted in the Missouri Army National Guard, passing the vision examination by memorizing the eye chart and serving from 1906 until 1911.
With the onset of World War I, Harry rejoined the Guard and was sent to Camp Doniphan near Lawton, Oklahoma. At Camp Doniphan and later at Fort Sill, he would meet two men that would be intimately involved in his post-war life – Edward Jacobson, a Jewish clothing salesman from Kansas City with whom he ran the Camp’s canteen and Lieutenant James M. Pendergast, nephew of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast.
Harry attained the rank of Captain in the United States Army before being deployed to France as Commander of Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 60th Brigade, 35th Infantry Division. As Commander, Captain Harry Truman disciplined his poorly trained unit and led them through the war without a single casualty. His artillery unit supported General George S Patton’s tank brigade in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. On November 11, 1918, just before the 11th hour, his unit fired the last shots of World War I, a war in which Harry Truman distinguished himself as a leader.
After the war, Harry and his good friend Edward Jacobson opened a haberdashery in Kansas City, Missouri. During their partnership, Harry learned a lot about Zionism from his friend and, after initial success, they were forced into bankruptcy in the recession of 1921. Harry’s long-standing friendship with his Jewish partner, however, would leave an indelible mark on him.
Harry moved back to Independence Missouri, and married Bess Wallace on June 28, 1919, climaxing a long romance. The couple would later have one child named Margaret in 1924.
In 1922, with the help of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, Harry was elected as an Administrative Judge in the Jackson County court, this would be the first of the stepping stones that would carry Harry’s political career through the 1930s and into the world of national Democratic politics with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Unsatisfied with his judgeship, Harry aspired to the political office of Governor or Congressman, but his political boss Tom Pendergast rejected the idea. In 1934, however, Pendergast reluctantly backed Harry Truman in a bid for the U.S. Senate and was pleasantly surprised when Truman won.
Harry entered the Senate with the reputation as the ”Senator from Pendergast,” causing him great concern and leading him to state that ”although he offered patronage to Pendergast, he always voted his conscience.” He later defended his patronage statement by saying that by “offering a little to the machine, he gained a lot.”
As a new Senator, Harry spoke out against corporate greed, uncontrolled Wall Street speculation, and special interests groups gaining undue influence in government affairs, issues that were largely ignored by the Roosevelt Administration.
In 1940, Truman – politically weakened by his benefactor Pendergast’s imprisonment for income tax evasion – faced a strong Republican challenge for his Senate seat. Harry insisted that a Republican judge and not the Roosevelt Administration led to the downfall of the Pendergast machine. His future now looked dim, but support from St. Louis party leader Robert E. Hannegan helped pave the way for his reelection.
As a senator Truman visited military bases and noticed the waste and profiteering that existed. He formed the Truman Committee to investigate and expose the corruption, saving the government $15 billion dollars, elevating his national exposure with his picture on the cover of Time Magazine, and erasing from the public’s memory his association with the discredited Tom Pendergast. No other Senator to that point in time had ever gained more benefit from a special investigation committee than Harry S Truman.
In 1944, the Democratic Party – at its national convention – had to decide on a new running mate for incumbent President Roosevelt. With the strain of World War II and health problems plaguing the President, most party leaders considered he would not finish his term of office; thereby, making the selection of a Vice Presidential candidate even more critical.
The party favorite was Henry Wallace, but some party leaders thought he was too far to the left and eccentric. The President suggested Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas or Harry Truman as potential running mates. Ultimately, Truman received the nomination.
Truman’s nomination, referred to as the ”Second Missouri Compromise,” helped spur the ticket to a 432 – 99 electoral vote victory over New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey and his running mate, Ohio Governor John Bricker. And, on January 20, 1945, Harry S. Truman was sworn in as the Vice President of the United States of America.
In Truman’s short time as Vice President before Franklin Roosevelt’s death, the two met in private on only two occasions, and the President rarely consulted him on important decisions. As a result, when President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 – just 89 days into the term – Truman required extensive briefings to gain the knowledge he needed to assume the reins of power, including the top secret Manhattan project that built the atomic bomb.
As President, Truman requested that President Roosevelt’s cabinet remain, but made it clear that he was in command. His decision to use the atomic bomb in the Pacific theater of war against the Japanese was highly controversial but ended World War II and saved untold American lives that would have been required to subdue the Japanese.
His command also extended to international and race relations. He was a major supporter of the United Nations and even appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to serve on its first American delegation. He also was the first to recognize the State of Israel, just eleven minutes after it declared itself a nation on May 14, 1948 – despite fears that the Arab states would retaliate by cutting off oil exports to the U.S. At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Truman supported a strong civil rights platform plank as a means of uniting the northern and southern wings of the Party and, two weeks later, issued an Executive Order integrating the Armed Forces of the United States.
Perhaps best remembered for his stunning come from behind victory over Thomas Dewey in the 1948 Presidential Election, Truman was a man of strong character who took responsibility for his actions and never forgot his friends – regardless of the political costs. He was unambiguous in his speech and fearless in making the tough governmental and political decisions. And, like a fictitious character developed four decades after he left office, he learned from his experiences and recognized the opportunities to apply that knowledge. His story, like Truman Burbank’s will leave you laughing, crying, and cheering. His is certainly one of the greatest stories of the 20th Century.