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Historically Speaking: His Accidentcy

By Tom Morrow

The 33rd U.S. President, Harry S. Truman, often was referred to as “His Accidentcy” by detractors. It was a mocking reference to his becoming the nation’s chief executive upon the April 12, 1945, sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Born May 8, 1884 to a Missouri farm couple, Truman was only a high school graduate, but he made some of the momentous decisions of the 20th century, including the biggest in world history: to drop the first two atomic bombs that resulted in the end of World War II.
But almost immediately in the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. found itself the most powerful nation in the world. Political tensions with the Soviet Union over the rebuilding of Europe increased, marking the start of the Cold War.
Truman spent most of his youth on his family’s farm. During World War I, he served in combat in France as an artillery officer in his National Guard unit. After the war, he briefly owned a haberdashery and joined the Democratic Party political machine of Tom Pendergast in Kansas City, Mo. Truman was first elected to public office as a county official and became a U.S. Senator in 1935. He gained national prominence as head of the Truman Committee formed in March 1941, which exposed waste, fraud, and corruption in wartime contracts.
During the 1944 Democratic convention, a fight broke out over who would be nominated as Roosevelt’s running mate. It was feared the President, if re-elected for a fourth term, would not live to see it through. Democrats didn’t want Vice President Henry Wallace, an avowed left-leaning socialist, taking over the presidency, especially during war time. Senator Truman was a compromise and ultimately became President in only 82 days upon Roosevelt’s death.
Roosevelt died less than a month before Germany surrendered, but the war in the Pacific dragged on. Truman had never been told about the ultra-secret Manhattan Project – the development of the atom bomb. When he was briefed on the enormity of the project and the potential of ending the war, the new president had a momentous decision. If the Japanese home islands had to be assaulted, an estimated one million U.S. troops could be lost, dragging the war on for another year. If the bomb was dropped, it could quickly end the war. Truman didn’t mull over the decision very long. He gave the order to use the bombs. After bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally.
Following the war, Truman assisted in the founding of the United Nations, issued the Truman Doctrine in an effort to thwart communism, and passed the $13 billion Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, including the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
In 1948, as the “Cold War” began, Truman oversaw the Berlin Airlift and in 1949 the creation of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, Truman immediately sent in U.S. troops and gained UN approval for the Korean War. But probably the most unpopular decision Truman made was the firing of five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to expand the war in Korea. History has mostly vindicated Truman on a decision that possibly avoided World War III.
Popular and scholarly assessments of Truman’s presidency were initially poor, but have become more positive in recent years. Truman’s upset victory over N.Y. Gov. Thomas Dewey is considered one of the great victories of American politics.
On Dec. 26, 1972, Truman at the age of 88. His wife, Bess, opted for a private burial service for her husband at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., rather than a state funeral in Washington.
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Historically Speaking: His Accidentcy