Truman pushed hard for the reorganization and modernization of the defense establishment to respond to modern warfare. In order to eliminate waste and inefficiency, he called for the unification of the services in a Department of National Defense with power centralized in a civilian secretary of defense. Because of opposition from the navy, he was forced to compromise. The National Security Act of 1947 gave the secretary of defense only a coordinating role. Yet it established the base upon which Trumancould build. He eventually won approval for a stronger secretary in 1949. In keeping with America's greater role in world affairs, the act established the National Security Council to coordinate defense and foreign policy. It also reorganized the American intelligence community into the Central Intelligence Agency.
The victory over Japan brought Truman his first major domestic problem—reconversion. Assuming that the conflict would continue for at least a year, government planners had not prepared for the major transition. Roosevelt and Truman, busy with the war, had also put off dealing with the problem. The confusion and turnover in personnel following Roosevelt's death hampered planning still further.
Truman approached reconversion with the primary goal of preventing a recession. Like many who could remember the economic problems after World War I, he feared that a short period of inflation would be followed by a long recession as men were thrown out of defense-related jobs and soldiers were demobilized. In addition, the president and the nation as a whole were haunted by memories of the Great Depression. Truman could remember that, as recently as 1939, 10 million persons were unemployed. In developing his reconversion policies Truman tried to steer a middle course, which he hoped would win the support of all important segments of the nation—labor, business, agriculture, and the consumer. His policies reflected his own background as a small businessman and as a midwestern progressive.
On the advice of John W. Snyder, who became his primary economic counselor, Truman announced on August 16 that most economic controls would end promptly except where needed. Reacting to demands by labor for increased wages to offset reductions in the work week, he asked union leaders to continue their wartime no-strike pledge and promised to call a labor-management conference to discuss outstanding differences. He announced that the government would legalize wage increases as long as they did not result in price rises.
On September 6 Truman presented a 21-point domestic program to deal with reconversion. While acknowledging that inflation might become a problem, he focused his attention on dealing with the expected recession. He asked for a full employment bill, an increase in unemployment compensation, a substantial though unspecified rise in the minimum wage, a comprehensive housing measure, legislation establishing permanent farm price supports, a law protecting and encouraging small business so that it could compete for scarce goods, an increase in public works projects, and a limited tax reduction. In addition, Truman requested the establishment of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to end discrimination in hiring.
During the fall and winter of 1945–46 Truman's reconversion program floundered, bringing an end to the honeymoon period and alienating many segments of the nation that he had tried to court. Truman, himself, was in part responsible for the defeat. When he assumed the presidency, he was still a regional politician and he had difficulty developing the national constituency needed to push his plans through Congress. Although many Americans admired his courage in tackling the problems of office, they quickly found his administration lackluster and his decisions inconsistent. His continued protestations of unworthiness focused attention on his faults rather than on his competence. Truman could not shake the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt, whose accomplishments during the depression became magnified and whose domestic failures during the war years minimized. Truman also lacked Roosevelt's ability to inspire. New Deal liberals, who might have been expected to back Truman, were reluctant to aid a man who had been closely associated with an urban machine and had surrounded himself with advisers whom liberals found unacceptably conservative.
Truman was unwilling to use the powers of the presidency to push his program. Hoping to avoid the impasse between Congress and the White House that had characterized the late New Deal, he left priorities up to Congress. Without guidance, the legislature destroyed his program, severely weakening the full employment bill, defeating the FEPC, and increasing the tax cut beyond that which Truman had requested.
Truman's advisers also contributed to his problems. Many seemed to have been chosen not because of experience or ability but because they were old friends of the president. One critic complained that the major criterion for receiving a high administration position was membership in Truman's old reserve unit. John Snyder, a small Midwest banker who became secretary of the Treasury had been Truman's friend since they had met in the U.S. Army Reserve. Secretary of Agriculture Clinton P. Anderson had been a friend in the Senate, as had Attorney General Tom C. Clark. At a time when labor problems were acute, Lewis B. Schwellenbach, a one-time senator and judge, became secretary of labor, although he had had no experience in labor negotiations. James K. Vardaman, jr., another Missouri businessman who had been a Truman friend and assistant, was appointed to the largely ceremonial post of naval aide. When Vardaman proved an embarrassment there, Truman, who did not have the heart to fire him, appointed him to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
Cabinet members bickered among themselves and often acted contrary to Truman's reconversion policy. Snyder, for example, a proponent of removing controls, feuded openly with Chester Bowles, director of the Office of Price Administration, who wished controls maintained. Clinton Anderson vigorously supported farmers' demands for price rises and backed moves to hold produce from market in the face of Truman's desire to keep down food costs and send food to famine-stricken Europe. Schwellenbach feuded with Wallace over wage and price increases.
Labor became one of Truman's constant worries during 1945 and 1946. The president was never able to win assurances from union leaders for a continuation of the wartime no-strike pledge. During the summer and fall of 1945, the number of strikes rose as labor, trying to recover income levels lost with the end of wartime overtime, demanded higher wages. At the end of October Truman retreated from his earlier stand that he would back only those wage increases that did not raise prices. He proposed a plan that would enable business to include the cost of wage increases in price rises after a six-month accounting period had demonstrated need. Neither labor nor management liked the suggestion. Truman's proposed Labor-Management Conference, convened in November, failed to settle differences. The president offered no guidance during the meeting, and labor, divided within itself, could not agree on a wage policy to present to management. Attempting to stop the rash of strikes, in late 1945 Trumanrequested legislation providing for fact-finding boards to investigate disputes and giving the president the power to impose cooling off periods before strikes could be called. The proposal further alienated labor because it limited the right to strike.
The number of strikes continued to grow during early 1946. In April coal miners, led by John L. Lewis, refused Truman's compromise on a wage increase and walked out at the same time that railroad workers threatened to strike. The public saw Lewis's action in particular as a challenge to the president and a test of Truman's ability to govern. The coal miners' strike crippled the nation. Many states and cities imposed dimouts and in some industries production halted. When both sides refused arbitration, Truman, in desperation, ordered the mines seized. Shortly thereafter the government gave in to most of Lewis's demands.
While negotiating the coal strike, Truman attempted to forestall a railroad strike by the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and the Brotherhood of Railroad Engineers. In May he seized the railroads and began bargaining with the two unions. When negotiations became deadlocked hours before the strike, Trumanissued a blistering attack against the unions. In an address before Congress he asked for the power to draft workers "who are on strike against their government." An agreement was reached as Trumanspoke. The president's handling of the labor situation was severely criticized. The dislocation caused by the strikes and Truman's apparent impotence before labor leaders hurt his standing with the public. His demand for draconian labor legislation lost him support not only among labor and liberals but also among conservatives such as Senator Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio), who declared that Truman's demands offended "every basic principle for which the American republic was established."
Truman's handling of the economy also proved inept. During the autumn and winter of 1945–46 he had become convinced that inflation and not recession would be the major postwar economic problem. In an effort to keep a ceiling on prices, during the spring of 1946 he asked for continuation of price controls and the extension of the life of Office of Price Administration. He refused to fight for the legislation, however. Congress passed a weak version of his proposal, which Truman signed only reluctantly. He did so hoping that the public would become discontented and pressure Congress into passing a stronger measure. His strategy backfired. As prices rose and a black market developed, the public blamed the president.
Truman did not understand the uses of fiscal or monetary policy as devices for controlling the economy. He looked at the federal budget and Federal Reserve Board policy from the narrowest financial perspective, as if he were still administering a Missouri county. He wanted surplus revenues and cheap debt. He insisted that the Federal Reserve continue its wartime policies and maintain interest rates at artificially low levels, a practice that fanned inflation.
By the 1946 elections Truman and the Democratic Party were in serious trouble. Many liberals had left the administration and were attacking Truman's foreign policy and lack of a strong domestic program. Labor was alienated by his reaction to wage demands and business by his handling of the economy. Shortages of foods angered consumers while low prices for agricultural products irritated farmers. Southerners attacked Truman's racial policies. Soldiers were angered by the slow pace of demobilization. Running on the slogan "Had Enough?&quoquot; the Republicans won decisive control of the House and a narrow margin in the Senate.
The fall of 1946 was the nadir of the Truman presidency. After the elections the domestic situation began to improve, and Truman, seemingly jolted into fighting by the results, took the initiative in domestic affairs. By the winter of 1946 the reconversion period was over: the number of strikes had declined; shortages had disappeared and wage and price controls had all but ended. On November 9, just four days after the election, Truman ordered the termination of all wage controls. He retained price controls only on rent, sugar, and rice.
Truman had also grown in office and became accustomed to the problems and duties of the presidency. He ended his defensiveness and protestations of inadequacy. In addition, a number of Truman's less competent advisers had left, and Clark Clifford, whose political insights were to prove an important influence on the Truman presidency, was gaining power. Just as important, Truman no longer felt himself restricted by a Democratic Congress that opposed his programs. Instead he used the adversarial relationship between the executive and legislature to present himself as a bold leader, hampered by a reactionary Congress. He offered the Republican-dominated 80th Congress a program of domestic legislation, challenging the legislature to destroy it.
Truman's newfound confidence was expressed in his confrontation with John L. Lewis during the winter of 1946. In October Lewis had accused the administration of breaking the contract with the miners it had made during the previous spring. He asked for a reopening of negotiations and hinted at the possibility of a strike. Truman, on Clifford's advice, refused to negotiate a new agreement. He asserted that it would be interpreted as another surrender. Instead, he notified Lewis that the government would return the mines to the owners shortly after negotiations resumed. Truman then ordered the Justice Department to obtain an injunction against the proposed termination of the agreement. When the miners struck in November, Lewis and the union were found guilty of contempt of court and fined $3.5 million. In December Lewis called off the strike.
Truman, on the advice of Clifford, proposed a program of social legislation during 1947 and 1948 that was designed to solidify the New Deal, establish the president's standing with liberals, and lay the basis for the 1948 presidential campaign. He suggested changes in agricultural laws to increase aid to farmers, proposed raising the minimum wage from 40 to 75 cents, asked for increases in Social Security coverage, called for the reenactment of price controls to cut inflation, and requested a tax cut to benefit primarily the lower and middle classes. He also called for a comprehensive housing program to increase the stock of new housing and aid slum clearance. In December 1946, in reaction to a series of vicious racial murders in the South, Truman appointed a President's Committee on Civil Rights. The panel's report, "To Secure These Rights," issued in October 1947, became the basis for his civil rights proposals presented in February 1948. Truman called for an antilynching bill, the elimination of the poll tax, and the establishment of a Fair Employment Practices Commission.
With the exception of the housing program, most of Truman's proposals were ignored. The 80th Congress voted for a tax cut, including relief to the rich, cut funds for crop storage, and enacted displaced person legislation that discriminated against Catholic and Jews. Truman countered Congress's attempts to trim back the New Deal by using his veto 62 times during 1947 and 1948. His most important veto was of the Taft-Hartley bill, which limited the rights of organized labor. Explaining his action on national radio, Truman termed the measure "bad for labor, bad for management, and bad for the country." Congress, however, passed Taft-Hartley over the president's veto.
Critics acknowledged that Truman had pulled his administration together and had grown in office. Still the feeling prevailed that he was not competent to do the job. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a normally Democratic paper, wrote that Truman had shown he lacked "the stature, the vision, the social and economic grasp, or the sense of history required to lead the nation in a world crisis." Prominent Democrats such as Claude Pepper led efforts to prevent Truman from securing the nomination. They hoped to replace him with General Dwight D. Eisenhower or Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When these men declined to run, the anti-Truman drive collapsed, and the president received the nomination on the first ballot. Conservative southerners opposed to the civil rights plank of the party's platform bolted and formed the States Rights' Democrats with J. Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate. Many liberals, discontented with Truman's foreign and domestic policies, rallied around Henry Wallace, the candidate of the newly formed Progressive Party.
The press, the public, and the professional pollsters predicted that Truman would go down to defeat to the Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey. Nevertheless, the feisty Truman remained optimistic. He was determined to use his status as the underdog and his quarrels with the 80th Congress to overcome Dewey's lead. Acting on the advice of Clark Clifford, he molded a campaign designed to maintain the New Deal alignment of poor, urban, and agricultural voters that had brought Roosevelt to power. Although Truman felt a moral obligation to recognize Israel upon its independence over the objections of Secretary of State Marshall, he hardly could have overlooked the gratitude that Jewish voters would extend to him at the polls. The president also initiated the desegregation of the armed forces, which won the hearts of the African-American electorate. On his whistle stop tours across the country, Trumanstressed his adherence to the New Deal tradition and denounced the "do-nothing" 80th Congress for failure to pass his social programs. He called Congress into special session in order to pass social legislation. Its failure to do so reinforced Truman's contention that it was "the worst Congress" in history. While Dewey ran a restrained campaign, Truman blasted the Republicans. "If you send another Republican Congress to Washington," he told his audiences, "you're a bigger bunch of suckers than I think you are." Crowds, enjoying the combative Truman, would yell back "Give 'em hell Harry."
In November Truman scored what appeared to be one of the biggest upsets in U.S. history. However, author Harold I. Gullman has argued that given the political configuration of the time, the real upset would have been if Dewey had won. The president received 24.1 million votes to Dewey's 22 million and 303 electoral votes to the Republican's 189. Thurmond received only 39 electoral votes while Wallace received none. Truman's victory was based, as Clifford had expected, on the continuation of the New Deal coalition. He received the support of African Americans, labor, and the new "blue-collar" middle class. The President regained many midwestern farmers, who that had been drifting toward the GOP in recent elections, because of anger at the agricultural legislation of the 80th Congress. To a large extent the victory was influenced by the memory of the depression and the fear that a Republican administration would be unconcerned with the problems of the working man.
President in his own right, Truman announced that "every segment of our population and every individual has a right to expect from his government a fair deal." He urged enactment of an extensive domestic program based in part on the one he had proposed to the 80th Congress. At his request Congress passed a comprehensive housing bill designed to aid lower income groups and veterans. It became the basis for most of the government's housing programs in the 1950s. Congress extended Social Security benefits, increased the minimum wage, kept farm price supports high, and expanded conservation programs. Many of these measures seemed little more than a continuation of the New Deal. Critics categorized the years of the 81st Congress as "Roosevelt's Fifth Term." Truman, however, was not content with extending Roosevelt's programs. He also introduced extensive proposals on civil rights, called for aid to education, asked for the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, and continued his appeal, first made in 1945, for national health insurance. Secretary of Agriculture Charles F. Brannan, in a dramatic policy departure designed to preserve the small farm, proposed a plan based on direct payments to farmers rather than a restriction of production. Congress, however, was reluctant to enact innovative legislation, and the president met defeat on these proposals.
Frustrated by the Congress's refusal to enact civil rights, Truman used executive power to increase the rights of African Americans. He appointed an African American to the federal judiciary and strengthened the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Under his direction, the department filed amici curiaebriefs in support of efforts to end segregation in public schools and stop enforcement of restrictive covenants. Truman also increased the pace of desegregation in the armed forces.
In foreign affairs Truman continued extending the containment policies of his first administration. Hoping to put his own imprint on foreign policy, long dominated by his secretaries of state, he proposed "making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas." The plan, known as the Point Four program, was enacted into law in May 1950. It was designed, as the European Recovery Program had been, to contain communism by eliminating the poverty that led to discontent. Unlike the earlier program, Point Four focused on the transmission of technical skill rather than the use of massive loans to aid developing nations.
Truman worked for the ratification of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, which committed the United States for the first time in its history to a mutual defense pact in Europe. To enable the United States to cope with its larger military role, he asked Congress to increase the power of the secretary of defense and support development of a modern air force, capable of delivering nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. Shortly after the Soviets revealed that they had exploded an atomic device, Truman ordered a crash program to develop the hydrogen bomb to maintain U.S. nuclear superiority.
A large portion of Truman's attention in foreign affairs was devoted to China, where Communists and Nationalists were engaged in a bitter civil war. Early in his first administration Truman had sent George Marshall on a mission to try to negotiate a truce and form a coalition government. Marshall had failed and returned predicting that if Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) did not reform his corrupt government no amount of American aid could save him. Truman, on his advice, had attempted to phase out aid to that nation to prevent U.S. involvement in a full-scale war. He was, however, forced to acquiesce to demands from right-wing Republicans for a new mission to China and continuation of some form of assistance. By the summer of 1949 it had become clear that Chiang was losing the war. In an attempt to explain American policy and extricate the United States from the situation, Truman ordered Secretary of State Dean Acheson to issue a White Paper on China. He blamed the imminent Communist takeover on corruption in the Nationalist regime.
The fall of China precipitated a storm of protest from the right, which accused Truman of having "sold-out" Chiang by concentrating U.S. aid in Europe. Influenced by the anticommunist hysteria of the time, the China Lobby insisted that the loss was the result of Communist influence in the State Department. After the formal proclamation of the Communist government, Truman was forced to assure China Lobby leaders that he would not recognize the new regime or permit its admission to the United Nations. Truman rejected demands from Senator William F. Knowland (R-Calif.) that the U.S. fleet protect Taiwan from the Communists and announced that he would not provide military aid or advice to the Nationalist Chinese. He would continue only economic aid. However, after the outbreak of the Korean War, he dispatched the Seventh Fleet to the straits between the two nations.
In light of the fall of China and the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb, Truman in January 1950 ordered a complete reassessment of American defense and nuclear policy. The report, NSC-68, recommended that the United States unilaterally accept responsibility for the defense of the world and begin an immediate large-scale buildup of America's defense forces. Truman initially rejected its recommendations and refused to have the report made public. He reasoned that without a major crisis he could not get Congress or the public to support large defense appropriations. When the Korean conflict began in June 1950, Truman began implementing the report's recommendations.
Truman's handling of the Korean situation undermined his domestic support. In response to the North Korean invasion of the South, he sent U.S. troops under UN auspices to conduct what was termed a police action. Because the United Nations and not the United States alone was officially fighting the war,Truman decided not to ask Congress for a declaration of war. The public initially supported Truman's action, believing that a strong show of force was necessary to contain communism in Asia. Yet, despite his seeming willingness to fight in Korea, Truman was unable to quiet charges that he was "soft on communism." Republicans pointed to a speech by Dean Acheson, in which he had failed to include Korea in the U.S. defense perimeter, as a major factor in the outbreak of the war. Within a few months of the outbreak praise gave way to grumbling as the Chinese Communists intervened and drove the Americans back down the peninsula and the Korean conflict became "Truman's War."
Truman became even more unpopular after he fired General Douglas Macarthur As supreme commander of UN forces in Korea in April 1951. Following the general's open opposition to a limited war and his politicking with Republican leaders in Congress, Truman announced that he could "no longer tolerate his insubordination" and dismissed him. Liberals supported his action as a necessary defense of presidential power, but members of the China Lobby and those who wanted an increased emphasis on Asia in foreign policy, denounced him. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wisc.) called the president a "sonofabitch" who made his decision while drunk on "bourbon and Benedictine."
Truman's problems increased as the war dragged on. The conflict fanned an inflationary boom that he failed to restrain. Reluctant to impose wage and price controls, he announced a partial mobilization in July 1950. In his message he called for tax increase, restrictions on credit and the allocation of scarce materials. He did not, however, ask for wage and price controls. The regulations proved ineffective and prices continued to rise.
Truman's inability to control the domestic anticommunist crusade undermined his administration still further. Throughout the 1940s Americans had become increasingly concerned about domestic communism. Revelations in 1945 of the disclosure of State Department documents to a left-wing journal and discovery of a Communist spy ring in Canada heightened tension. Truman was disturbed by secret FBI reports suggesting that there were Communists in high government offices. During the 1946 campaign Republicans ran on the pledge to "clean the Communists and fellow travelers out of the government." Truman, himself, contributed to the growing hysteria by couching his foreign policy pronouncements in terms of a crusade against communism.
In response to the growing pressure, Truman ordered a broad investigation of Communist activities in 1947 and established a stringent loyalty program for all federal employees. Under Executive Order 9835 every person accepting a civilian federal job was to undergo a loyalty check. If accused of disloyalty, an individual was entitled to a hearing with counsel present. However, he was not able to confront his accusers. During the Truman presidency the attorney general's list of subversive organizations was enlarged and used more formally in loyalty investigations.
Despite his own willingness to institute a loyalty program and to use the issue of domestic communism in his presidential campaign, Truman opposed much of the anticommunist crusade of the 1940s. In 1948 he termed the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation of Alger Hiss "a red herring" and in 1951 attempted to block a congressional probe of Owen Lattimore by refusing to produce loyalty files on the ground of executive privilege.
Truman opposed most of the anticommunist legislation of the period. He denounced the Mundt-Nixon bill of 1948, which would have required the registration of Communists. He asserted that it "adopted police-state tactics and unduly encroached on individual rights." Truman promised to veto any internal security bill. He sent to Congress a message on the issue and campaigned, unsuccessfully, for moderate legislation. Two years later Congress passed the Internal Security Act of 1950, which incorporated the Mundt-Nixon bill as well as provisions for the internment of suspected subversives in a national emergency. Truman, true to his word, vetoed the measure. In an effort to defeat attempts to override, he sent personal messages to each member of the House explaining his action. The House ignored him and voted to override.
Truman proved an ineffectual opponent of Senator McCarthy. He was angered at the senator's attacks on his administration and particularly the State Department. In addition, he was concerned by what he thought was McCarthy's growing power. During the spring of 1950 he set up a special task force in the White House to rebut every charge McCarthy made. Truman used his own press conferences and speeches to attack McCarthy. However, he never confronted McCarthy directly, asking him to substantiate his charges. Despite his efforts, Truman seemed unable to restrict McCarthy's power. In the 1950 elections several prominent opponents of the Senator lost their seats in Congress to candidates McCarthy had backed. Historians later pointed out that the defeats were primarily a result of local political conditions and opposition to Truman administration policies, but contemporary observers attributed it to support for the anticommunist crusade. Although the Democrats retained control of Congress, the margin was held by southern conservatives, ending hopes for the continuation of the Fair Deal. McCarthyism continued to grow, and the president failed to quiet charges that he harbored Communists in government.
Domestic scandals contributed to Truman's loss of prestige. As early as 1949 rumors had been spread of conflict of interest at the White House. That year a congressional investigation uncovered proof that men close to the White House were selling government contracts for 5 percent of the contract price. One of Truman's closest friends, Harry H. Vaughan, was implicated. During 1951 further probes revealed widespread corruption in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Truman's reluctance to reorganize these agencies and his fiery defense of his friends hurt his standing still further.
In March 1952, Truman, his legislative program stalled, and his administration under attack, publicly announced he would not run for reelection that year. He privately offered Adlai E. Stevenson, the liberal governor of Illinois, his support for the nomination. Stevenson, however, was reluctant to associate himself with the administration and refused to acknowledge his candidacy until the convention. After he received the nomination Stevenson took care to maintain a distance from the administration. His strategy offended the president who, as a vigorous political fighter, disliked Stevenson's low-keyed campaign. Relations between the two remained strained, and in subsequent years Truman maintained that Stevenson's loss was his own fault.
In his final State of the Union Message in January 1953, Truman warned Stalin against war with the United States and urged continued Western resistance to Communist expansion without plunging the world into nuclear conflict. He also cautioned against legislation aimed at domestic communism that would promote an "enforced conformity."
During the 1950s Truman frequently spoke out in opposition to the Eisenhower administration's foreign and domestic programs. He remained active in Democratic politics, backing Averell Harriman for the presidential nomination in 1956 and Stuart Symington in 1960. When John F. Kennedy received the nomination that year, Truman campaigned vigorously for him despite his personal dislike of the Kennedy family. He was a strong supporter of the Johnson-Humphrey ticket in 1964 and generally backed the Great Society legislative program. In 1965 President Johnson flew to Independence to sign the law creating Medicare at a ceremony honoring Truman, who had proposed national health insurance in 1945. Truman was a consistent supporter of the administration's Vietnam policy. He died in Kansas City, Missouri, on December 26, 1972, at the age of 88.
Historians' assessments of Harry Truman changed dramatically in the 25 years after his administration. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was lauded as the man who, thrown into the presidency, was able to lead the nation through the difficult period of reconversion with no severe social or economic dislocations. He was, in the words of Clinton Rossiter, a "highly successful Andrew Johnson." They particularly applauded his demands for aid to education, national health insurance, and strong civil rights legislation. "Truman encountered many reverses," historian William Leuchtenberg wrote, "but he at least raised new public issues that two decades later would still form part of the agenda of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society."
America's involvement in Vietnam and the growth of presidential powers engendered by the conflict strongly influenced assessments of Truman's foreign policy. New Left historians charged that Trumanhad overreacted to Stalin's legitimate desire for security on his western border and was to a large extent responsible for the development of the cold war. Some questioned his humanitarian motives in instituting the Marshall Plan and maintained that Truman was primarily interested in reestablishing important American markets. More conservative historians such as Arthur M. Schlesinger, jr., pointed out that Truman's actions in Korea increased presidential power, contributing to the development of "the imperial presidency."
During the 1970s historians' views of Truman again began to change. While still praising his domestic programs, writers pointed out that Truman's own weaknesses as chief executive contributed to their defeat. Historians have also charged that Truman, while opposing the anticommunist hysteria in the late 1940s, contributed to its development through his loyalty program and his decision to describe the struggle with the Soviet Union in terms of a moral and ideological conflict. He also failed to stop the development of McCarthyism because of inept leadership. Some historians, notably John Lewis Gaddis, became more sympathetic to Truman's cold war policies. They asserted that Truman, as the leader of a democratic society, was constrained by public opinion and congressional demands to pursue a firm policy toward the USSR. Stalin, he pointed out, had a greater opportunity to accommodate himself to the U.S. position because he lacked these restrictions. Therefore, blame for the cold war must be distributed more evenly.
In recent years a wide variety of interpretations of Truman's presidency have arisen, as archives opened more manuscripts for review. Three major biographies of Truman were produced as well as a myriad of monographs. David McCullough, in a sympathetic look at the 33rd president, painted Truman as a hero who had not lost his common touch. Alonzo L. Hamby contended that, despite Truman's snappishness, partisanship, and lack of charisma, he excelled in the usages of power. Despite his fiery campaign rhetoric, he could fashion bipartisan coalitions to meet goals. Truman evolved from an ideology of "insurgent progressivism" to "New Deal–Fair Deal liberalism." Yet his attempt to maintain the Roosevelt coalition led to "a politics of liberal promise and conservative gridlock" that hurt his credibility. His foreign policy suffered in the end because of the expanding commitments he incurred and diminishing military capabilities that his budget cuts imposed. Despite these problems, Hamby concluded that Truman was correct in his advocacy of civil rights and meeting the Soviet threat. Robert H. Ferrell saw Truman as a courageous man, devoted to public service, who stood up to the Soviets, but who could be hot-tempered toward those who disagreed with him.
"Truman, Harry S." In Uebelhor, Tracy S. The Truman Years, Presidential Profiles. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE52&iPin=TTY400&SingleRecord=True (accessed December 20, 2010).