Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, is most well-known for founding NATO, authorizing the use of nuclear weapons during World War II, and a surprise 1948 election victory that led to his first and only full term. His presidency came to be bogged down with accusations of corruption and the unpopular entry into the Korean War, causing him to be heavily criticized by his contemporaries.
While modern historians look on the Missourian’s tenure more favorably, the ignominy of one of the lowest-ever approval ratings for an incumbent president left many questioning his leadership. Though his presidency was undoubtedly troubled, Truman did possess fine leadership qualities, as evidenced by his remarkable record during the First World War.
Unable to afford a college degree, a young Truman decided to pursue a military career. Truman was legally blind in his left eye, which caused him to be rejected from West Point. He enlisted in the Missouri National Guard instead, passing the eye test by memorizing the chart beforehand. He served from 1905 to 1911 and achieved the rank of corporal. He rejoined Battery B when the United States entered World War I.
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After recruiting new soldiers to Battery B, he was elected first lieutenant. Truman spent six weeks training in Oklahoma, which he later said was more educational than six months of formal army training. His time spent in Oklahoma would also come to be influential on his later political life. Truman made some key connections at the base while he ran the camp’s canteen, which actually turned a profit, unlike most of its kind.
Truman was deployed to France in mid-1918. He quickly rose to captain and then commander of Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 35th Division. It was far from an easy task; he had little in common with the soldiers of Battery D, many of whom went to high school together, so Truman was disliked from the start.
Battery D also had a reputation for poor discipline, earning the nickname “Dizzy D.” On Truman’s first day, a fight broke out that sent four men to the infirmary. Truman gathered some of his subordinates together and told them, “I didn’t come here to get along with you. You’ve got to get along with me. And if there are any of you who can’t, speak up right now and I’ll bust you right back now.” The insubordination largely died down after that.
A significant moment in his career came in August 1918, when German artillery began firing at Battery D. When some of the men began to flee against orders, Truman was able to rally his troops with some colorful language that startled them into standing their ground. His own courage and apparent coolness in the face of danger inspired the rest of Battery D from that point on.
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The next month, Truman and the 129th marched to join the Meuse-Argonne offensive. It was a massive initiative; in three hours, more ammunition was spent than over the course of the entire American Civil War.
At one point, Truman noticed the Germans had moved to flank against some of the neighboring American divisions, coming within firing distance. Truman ordered his troops to open fire and managed to destroy the German battery, going against orders in the process. Threats of a court-martialing were made but never went anywhere, considering the many American lives that Truman saved with his quick thinking.
At this point, Truman began mentioning his desire to run for Congress in letters to Bess Wallace, the woman he was courting and who would eventually become his wife. Soon thereafter, Battery D received a commendation for their gun maintenance, a far cry from their reputation as “Dizzy D”; Truman gave all the credit to his troops.
Armistice soon followed, but the 129th remained in Verdun until January 1919. Truman enjoyed plentiful rest and relaxation in Paris and along the Riviera, returning 40 pounds heavier. By the end of April, the 129th had sailed across the Atlantic and boarded the trains to Kansas City. Battery D did not have a single combat death under Truman.
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Truman married Bess in June 1919 and opened a haberdashery in Kansas City with his friend and old camp canteen partner, Edward Jacobson. The 1921 recession ultimately caused the business to fail, but Truman soon had his first political opportunity when he was recommended as judge of the county court. Truman’s leadership experience and connections made during the war were decisive: many of the voting population had served under him, and he had become good friends with Jim Pendergast, nephew of powerful Kansas City Democrat Tom Pendergast.
With Pendergast’s backing and the support of his fellow soldiers, Truman was elected. He would lose reelection in 1924. In 1926, he won a bid to become presiding judge, and later rose to become a Missouri senator, following help from Pendergast and his avid backing of FDR’s New Deal.
After his reelection to the Senate in 1940, Truman toured military bases and was not impressed, citing budgetary waste and rampant profiteering. He set up a committee to fight corruption from within, again with overwhelming success. The committee saved as much as $15 billion, roughly $220 billion by today’s standards. The initiative put him on the cover of Time magazine and well into the public spotlight. Truman was put on the ticket as FDR’s running mate for the 1944 election; 82 days after being sworn in, FDR died, landing Truman in the Oval Office.
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His presidency was rocky, bringing controversy for his decision to drop the nuclear bombs over Japan and failing to ease the transition to a peacetime economy. In 1948, with his approval rating hovering around 36 percent, he seemed to have no hope of reelection.
After a grueling whistle-stop tour and a then-controversial backing of civil rights, Truman was able to appeal to Americans with passionate, personal talks that reflected his humble origins and helped him relate to fellow veterans of the Great War. In a stunning turn of events, he won the 1948 presidential election and served a full term, one that came with its own share of controversy. Though the reputation of his presidency has fluctuated with time, Truman’s capacity to connect to soldiers and civilians alike and inspire others with his leadership is uncontested.
Sources: National Park Service