In 1922, Harry Truman, with the backing of Kansas City political boss Thomas Pendergast (1873-1945), was elected district judge in Jackson County, Missouri, an administrative position that involved handling the county’s finances, public works projects and other affairs. In 1926, Truman won election as the county’s presiding judge. Earning a reputation for efficiency and integrity, he was reelected in 1930.
In 1934, Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate. As a senator, he supported President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, designed to help lift the nation out of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted about a decade. Additionally, Truman was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which established government regulation of the burgeoning aviation industry, and the Transportation Act of 1940, which established new federal regulations for America’s railroad, shipping and trucking industries. From 1941 to 1944, Truman headed the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, which worked to reduce waste and mismanagement in U.S. military spending. Commonly known as the Truman Committee, it saved American taxpayers millions of dollars and propelled Truman into the national spotlight.
In 1944, as Roosevelt sought an unprecedented fourth term as president, Truman was selected as his running mate, replacing Vice President Henry Wallace (1888-1965), a divisive figure in the Democratic Party. (Truman, a moderate Democrat, was jokingly referred to as the “second Missouri Compromise.”) In the general election, Roosevelt easily defeated Republican Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York, and was sworn into office on January 20, 1945. Less than three months later, on April 12, 1945, the president died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 63.
Several hours after learning of Roosevelt’s death, a stunned Truman was given the oath of office in the White House by Chief Justice Harlan Stone (1872-1946). The new president later told reporters, “I don’t know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”