President Harry Truman's Economic Policies

How Truman Made America a Global Leader

President Harry Truman
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Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Harry S. Truman was the 33rd U.S. president, serving from 1945 to 1953. During his tenure, he took America from isolationism to global leadership.

World War II

Truman took office on April 12, 1945, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. He had been FDR's vice-president for 82 days. Since they hadn't spent much time together, Truman was shocked by the secret preparations for the atomic bomb. He was also unaware of serious conflicts with America's ally, the Soviet Union. He later said, "I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Barely a month later, Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. But, despite heavy losses, Japan continued World War II in the Pacific. Truman forced Japan's surrender when he dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. Around one-third to two-thirds of the 330,000 Hiroshima residents, and 80,000 of the 250,000 Nagasaki residents died by the end of that year. There were also 3,000 U.S. citizens in Hiroshima on that day.

Deaths occurred from the bomb's brute force, burns, radiation sickness, and cancer. In 2007, there were at least 226,000 living survivors of the bombing. Most of these "Hibakusha" suffered from radiation-related illness.

Critics thought the bombing was unnecessary. Japan had signaled it was ready to surrender if it could keep its emperor. The Air Force had bombed Tokyo and most other major industrial cities. The Navy had blockaded Japan's imports of oil and other vital materials. Truman's Chief of Staff, William Leahy, wrote, "By the beginning of September, Japan was almost completely defeated through a practically complete sea and air blockade." Japan was also concerned about fighting the Soviet Union to its north.

But Truman believed the atom bomb was necessary. He wanted to avoid further U.S. losses like those sustained at the Battle for Iwo Jima. Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945. The war officially ended on September 2, 1945, when Japanese leaders signed the surrender document. 

Accomplishments

After the war, Truman continued to expand American influence in Europe. In 1945, he supported the formation of the United Nations. In 1947, he outlined the Truman Doctrine to contain the rising threat of communism.

Great Britain had withdrawn its support for Greece in its fight against communist forces. Truman believed the Russians were behind the communist movements in Greece and Turkey. He didn't want the Soviets to take over any more countries that were critical to U.S. interests. Truman thought Soviet control of Greece and Turkey would lead to destabilization in the Middle East.

The Truman Doctrine promised that the United States would assist any democracy attacked by authoritarian forces. The Doctrine shifted U.S. foreign policy from isolationism to a global defender of democracies. It laid the philosophical framework that led to today's $900 billion military budget.

The 1947 National Security Act consolidated the Army and Navy into the Defense Department. It created the Air Force, the National Security Council, and the CIA. Truman desegregated the military with a 1948 executive order. His commitment to civil rights made many Southerners leave the Democratic Party.

Truman supported Secretary of State George Marshall's plan to rebuild war-ravaged Europe. The Marshall Plan pledged $12 billion in food, machinery, and foreign direct investment. It would defend Western Europe from the spread of communism. It would also create a market for U.S. exports. The plan laid the groundwork for the formation of NATO in 1949.

At home, Truman vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 because it weakened unions. It also required union leaders to swear they were not communists. Taft-Hartley allowed the president to stop strikes if they endangered national safety. President Ronald Reagan used the act to stop an air traffic controllers strike and break union power.

In 1948, Truman airlifted food and fuel in West Berlin after the Soviets blockaded the city between June 24, 1948, and May 12, 1949. He recognized the country of Israel after it declared statehood in May 1948. He said it was a matter of justice for the Jewish people.

On January 5, 1949, Truman outlined the Fair Deal in his State of the Union. It called for universal health care and raising the minimum wage. It also proposed the Fair Employment Practices Act to make illegal any religious and racial discrimination in hiring. Congress rejected national health insurance but passed the rest of the Fair Deal.

In 1950, Truman added a cost of living adjustment to Social Security payments.

North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. General MacArthur led the U.N. forces that pushed North Korea back to the 38th parallel. That border held when the ceasefire was negotiated in 1953 during President Dwight Eisenhower's administration.

Truman vetoed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 because it continued quotas for immigrants based upon country of origin. It ended the exclusion of immigrants from Asia but continued to discriminate. It prioritized family reunification and desired skills.

Truman and the Debt

Truman only added $7 billion to the nation's $259 billion debt. This was a 3% increase from over FDR’s last budget, FY 1945.

Even though he battled two recessions, Truman did not end them with government spending because he didn't believe in Keynesian economic theory. In fact, Truman said, “Nobody can ever convince me that Government can spend a dollar that it’s not got.” By way of explanation, he added, “I’m just a country boy.”

Salary

When he took office in 1945, Truman received a $75,000 salary. It would be worth $1.1 million today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1949, Congress gave him a raise to $100,000.

Truman's Early Years

Harry Truman grew up in Independence, Missouri, where he prospered for 12 years as a farmer. He served in World War I. After his return, he married and opened a men's hat store. He never did very well. In fact, after he left the presidency, he struggled financially. Congress passed the Former Presidents Act of 1958 to provide for him. Since then, every president receives a pension and expenses for life.

In 1934, Truman became a senator. During World War II, he led an investigative committee run by the Senate to reduce waste and corruption. He saved $15 billion.

After Office

Truman could have been only the second president in history to run for a third term. After FDR served for more than three, Congress passed the Twenty-Second Amendment of 1950 to limit presidents to two terms. That law didn't apply to Truman because his first term was a continuation of Roosevelt's fourth. Truman decided not to run because he believed eight years was enough. He also realized the Korean War and some corruption scandals made him very unpopular. He and his wife Bess retired to Independence, where he jokingly referred to himself as "Mr. Citizen."

He wrote three volumes of his memoirs: "Year of Decisions," "Years of Trial and Hope," and "Mr. Citizen."

Truman often sided with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to promote Democrats' issues. They fought for universal health care, affordable housing, civil rights, and the protection of public lands. Truman died of organ failure the day after Christmas in 1972 at the age of 88.

Middle Name

Harry S. Truman's middle name is actually the letter "S." His parents could not decide whether they should name him after Anderson Shipp Truman or Solomon Young. As a compromise, they settled on S.

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