On May 8, 1884, Harry S. Truman is born in Lamar, Missouri. The son of a farmer, Truman could not afford to go to college. He joined the army at the relatively advanced age of 33 in 1916 to fight in World War I. After the war, he opened a haberdashery in Kansas City. When that business went bankrupt in 1922, he entered Missouri politics. Truman went on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1934 until he was chosen as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third vice president in 1945; it was during his Senate terms that he developed a reputation for honesty and integrity.
Upon FDR’s death on April 12, 1945, Truman became the 33rd president of the United States, assuming the role of commander in chief of a country still embroiled in World War II. With victory in Europe imminent, Truman agonized over whether or not to use the recently developed atomic bomb to force Japan to surrender. After only four months in office, Truman authorized the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. He and his military advisors argued that using the bomb ultimately saved American and Japanese lives, since it appeared that the Japanese would fiercely resist any conventional attempt by the Allies to invade Japan and end the war. The use of the new weapon, dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August, succeeded in forcing Japan’s surrender, but also ushered in the Cold War. From that point until the late 1980s, the U.S. and Russia raced to out-spend and out-produce each other in nuclear weaponry.
After the war, the long-term and deadly effects of radiation fall-out on human beings were bleakly illustrated in pictures of the Japanese who survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Images and information released after the war regarding illnesses and environmental devastation related to nuclear weapons shocked the world and earned Truman lasting criticism for ushering in the possibility of complete global annihilation through nuclear warfare.
Although best known—and reviled by some—as the only president to choose to use nuclear weapons against innocent civilians in combat, Truman’s time in the executive branch was also notable in other areas. In 1941, Truman drove 10,000 miles across the country in his Dodge to investigate potential war profiteering in defense plants on the eve of World War II. After World War II, Truman helped push the Marshall Plan through Congress, which provided desperately needed reconstruction aid to European nations devastated by the war and on the verge of widespread famine. He also supported the establishment of a permanent Israeli state.
Truman was also known for his explosive temper and fierce loyalty to his family. In December 1950, his daughter Margaret gave a singing recital that was panned the following day in the Washington Post. Truman was so furious that he wrote a letter to the editor in which he threatened to give the reviewer a black eye and a broken nose. This was just one of many events that illustrated Truman's feisty, no-nonsense style, for which he was earlier given the nickname “Give ’em hell, Harry.”
Truman served as president for two terms from 1945 to 1953, when he and his wife Bess happily retired to Independence, Missouri, where he often referred to himself jokingly as “Mr. Citizen.” He died there on December 26, 1972.
Incidentally, Harry Truman's middle name really was just “S.” According to the Truman Library the “S” was a compromise between the names of his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young.