Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Harry S. Truman: Where The Buck Stops


The results of the trivia question this week was a tie, so I decided to break the tie by publishing a piece on each men--both are excerpts from my Famous American Freemasons series.   The second piece will go up on Thursday.

33rd President Harry S Truman (1884 - 1972)
My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there's hardly any difference.

            His vision had been bad ever since he was a child.  When he was eight years old, his mother had taken him to be fitted with spectacles, which was a rarity in the 1890s.  The doctor somewhat over emphasized to his mother the dangers involved with breaking the glasses.  As a result, the young man was prevented from taking part in many of the rambunctious, rough-and-tumble games enjoyed by other boys his age.  He spent his youth learning to play the piano and reading history—pursuits he came to love greatly. 

The boy also dreamed of applying to West Point Academy and becoming an officer, but he knew his vision was bad—20/50 in his right eye and 20/400 in his left without glasses.  That was far too bad for the young man to get into the military as an enlisted man, let alone ever to become an officer, so he did perhaps the most dishonest thing he would ever do in his lifetime.  In order to pass the eye exam for the Missouri National Guard, he memorized the eye chart.  It worked.  He was accepted into the Guard in 1905.

            This young man—Harry S. Truman—would go on to become the thirty-third President of the United States.

Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in Lamar, Missouri, to John and Martha Truman.  His parents gave him the middle name “S” after both his paternal grandfather Anderson Shipp Truman and his maternal grandfather Solomon Young.  Although using a letter for a name was not an uncommon practice, his middle name often caused confusion.  Truman sometimes joked that since S was his middle name and not an initial, it should not have a period.  However, Truman himself used a period when he signed his name.  To this day, his name in print can be found written both ways.  Soon after Harry’s birth came a brother, John Vivian, and a sister, Mary Jane. 

            Harry’s father, John, was a farmer and livestock dealer.  John was known as a man quick with his words and handy with his fists when crossed.  Once he was called as a witness in a law suit.  During questioning by an over zealous attorney, John became angry that the attorney as much as called him a liar.  John jumped out of the witness chair and chased the attorney out of the courthouse.

            Harry’s mother was a self-admitted “un-reconstructed Rebel.”  She had a general distrust of Yankees.  Her family farm had been robbed by Northern soldiers during the Civil War—an act she never forgot nor forgave.  She was a very intelligent woman with a great fondness for reading as well as a very talent musician.  She was the one who encouraged young Harry in both of those pursuits.  He became a voracious reader and took piano lessons twice a week until he was fifteen, getting up at 5:00 each morning to practice.

            Truman’s education began when he was six.  His family had moved to Independence, Missouri, so that he could attend the Presbyterian Church Sunday School.  He did not attend a traditional school until he was eight years old.  Truman graduated from Independence High School in 1901.  After graduation, he took a job with the Santa Fe Railroad as a timekeeper, then worked a variety of clerical jobs until 1906, when he returned to the family farm near Grandview, Missouri.

Truman worked on the farm until 1917.  Later, he frequently spoke nostalgically about the years he spent toiling on the farm.  His formative years of physically demanding work on the farm and for the railroad gave him a real appreciation for the working classes.  It was also during these years that he met Bess Wallace.  He even proposed marriage to her in 1911—an offer she declined. 

Truman had served in the Missouri National Guard from 1905 – 1911.  At the onset of World War  in 1917, he rejoined the Guard.  Much to his delight, he was chosen to be an officer and later a battery commander in an artillery regiment in France.  When the Germans attacked his battery in the Vosges Mountains, the men in the battery started to run away from the fight.  Truman got their attention by letting loose with a string of obscenities he later said he learned while working on the Santa Fe Railroad.  The men, shocked by the outburst from this usually quiet, reserved officer, resumed their positions—and not a single man in the battery was lost.

The events of World War I greatly transformed Truman and brought to light his great leadership skills.  His war record would make his later political career possible. 

After World War I ended, Truman returned to Missouri as a captain.  Truman once said, “In my Sunday School class there was a beautiful little girl with golden curls. I was smitten at once and still am.”  Back home, he found the girl with the golden curls and proposed to her a second time.  Bess Wallace accepted the second proposal, and they married on June 28, 1919.  They had one daughter, Margaret, in 1924. 

Truman did not go to college until the early 1920s when he studied for two years towards a law degree at Kansas City Law School.  He did not complete the degree.  He worked as a judge in Jackson County, Missouri, and as Missouri’s director for the re-employment program, which was part of the Civil Works Administration. 

Then in 1934, Truman was elected as a Democratic senator from Missouri.  He owed a lot of his early success to Tom Pendergast, who led a very influential political machine—a machine that was about to be exposed as corrupt.  When the Pendergast machine crumbled about the time Truman assumed his Senate seat, Truman found himself under the Pendergast cloud.  He was called the “senator from Pendergast,” but Truman was never charged with any wrong doing.  While embarrassed by the fiasco, he did not try to distance himself from the scandal by renouncing Pendergast. 

Six years later, Truman’s re-election hopes were bleak.  The Pendergast cloud still surrounded him, and two Democrats, Lloyd Stark and Maurice Milligan, challenged his seat, using the Pendergast connection to try to oust him.  Their attempt failed—they only split the “anti-Pendergast” vote between them, giving Truman just enough votes to win re-election.  It was both a personal triumph and a vindication for Truman since at the time of the election, Pendergast was in prison for tax evasion.

One of Truman’s most celebrated accomplishments as a senator from Missouri was when his preparedness committee, known as the Truman Committee, began to look into the waste in military spending.  Since this investigation was taking place during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had originally feared the investigation would hurt the war effort.  Secretary of War Robert Patterson, was not pleased about the investigation either, and tried to derail the committee.  Patterson wrote to the President, saying it was “in the public interest” to suspend the committee.  But Truman was not about to allow his investigation to be suspended because it was in the best interest of the nation.  Truman wrote to the President himself, ensuring him that his committee was completely behind the President’s administration and had no intention of making the military look bad.  Roosevelt allowed the investigation to continue.  Truman’s no-nonsense approach to spending is believed to have saved more than 11 billion dollars. 

Truman’s ability to work on the bipartisan committee, to pose difficult questions to powerful people, and to be fair-minded earned him a great deal of public acclaim—he became a political celebrity.  His reputation as being tough but even-handed led to his nickname, “Give ‘em Hell Harry.”  Truman once said, “I never gave anybody hell! I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

            It was undoubtedly his achievements on the Truman Committee that drew the Democratic Party’s attention to him as a possible vice-presidential candidate for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth term re-election campaign.  Roosevelt had agreed to replace his current vice president, Henry Wallace, because he was seen as too liberal by the party.  A deal was brokered with Truman, a deal that would later be dubbed the “Second Missouri Compromise.”  In 1944, the Roosevelt-Truman ticket easily won the election.

            Truman was sworn in on January 20, 1945.  To the surprise of many and the utter shock of others, a few days after he was sworn in as vice president, Truman re-established his connection with his disgraced patron and friend, Tom Pendergast, by attending his funeral.  He was the only elected official there.  When asked about his decision to go, Truman said simply, “He was always my friend and I have always been his.” 

Truman was to serve only eighty-two days as vice president.  During that time, he had few conversations with Roosevelt.  He was left completely in the dark about the war, world affairs, and domestic politics.  In addition, there was one very big secret—a very large bombshell—he knew nothing about either, a secret that would play a central role in his political future.  The bombshell Truman knew nothing about was literally that—a bombshell.  America was about to test the world’s first atomic bomb as part of the top secret Manhattan Project. 

            On April 12, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died suddenly at his resort in Warm Springs, Georgia.  When Truman was urgently summoned by the White House, he assumed he was going for a briefing with the President.  Instead, he was informed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt that the President was dead.  When Truman asked if there was anything he could do for her, she responded, “Is there anything we can do for you?  For you are the one in trouble now.” 

Truman was sworn in the following day.   He said to the press corps, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. 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."

            Shortly after Truman assumed the Presidency, Germany surrendered to the allies.   Truman was briefed on the existence of the Manhattan Project.  Three months after he took office, the first successful atomic test called the Trinity test took place in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico.  The atomic bomb was a reality.  With Germany no longer a threat, the allies were anxious to end the war.  Truman approved the use of atomic weapons against the Japanese in order to force their surrender and to quickly bring about the end of World War II.  Truman once said, “Carry the battle to them. Don't let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive and don't ever apologize for anything.”  Harry S. Truman never did apologize for his decision to use the atomic bomb.

Although today the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan is considered by many to have been morally wrong, it was not a controversial decision at the time.  Neither the United States nor any of the Allied countries had any qualms about using any weapon available to end the war.  World War II had cost the allies billions of dollars, had wiped out entire cities, and had destroyed families, cultures, and economies.  Even after Adolph Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered, it would take decades before Europe recovered from the war.  The destruction on the Pacific side of the war was also great.  World War II had caused destruction and death on the largest scale the world had ever seen with more than 53 million lives, both military and civilian, lost. 

The Allies were anxious to see the end of the war at any cost.   A mainland assault of Japan, like the one launched against Germany on D-Day, would have driven the casualty numbers even higher and dragged the war on for possibly years longer.  According to Truman, the decision to use the atomic bomb was not a difficult decision; it was a necessary evil to end the war.  The technology had been made available, and even though it was known to be a terrible weapon of mass destruction, Truman and the Allied nations saw it as “merely another powerful weapon in the arsenal of righteousness.” 

The two bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, resulting in the deaths of more than 110,000 people.  Japan surrendered.  For a short time, the first time in a long time, there was peace on Earth.  The weapons of war were silent, and while mankind might never completely recover from the carnage of World War II, the rebuilding began.

         Truman would go on to serve another term as President.  His second election against Thomas Dewey was so close many national newspapers announced erroneously the following morning that Truman had lost the election.  There is a famous photo of Truman, grinning broadly while holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with the headline DEWEY WINS.  Truman’s administration would see, amongst other things, the end of World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, and a police action in Korea that would not be known until years later as the Korean War.  There were countless issues at home to deal with as well, including the beginnings of the civil rights movement, the “communist witch-hunts” of McCarthyism, and charges of corruption in his administration that, in one scandal alone, led to the resignation of 166 of his appointees.  He accepted both the credit for the good things he was able to do and the blame for the bad things that happened during his administration.  As he was so fond of saying, “The buck stops here.” 

            After his Presidency ended, Truman remained active in politics from the comfort of the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.  There, Harry and Bess Truman received such famous guests as John F. Kennedy (for whom Truman campaigned during the 1960 Presidential election), Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Chief Justice Earl Warren.  Harry S. Truman died at the age of eighty-eight on December 26, 1972. 


Brother Harry S. Truman was initiated on February 9, 1909, at Belton Lodge No. 450, Belton, Missouri. In 1911, several members of the Belton Lodge separated to establish the Grandview Lodge No. 618, Grandview, Missouri.  Brother Truman served as its first master. At the Annual Session of the Grand Lodge of Missouri in September, 1940, Brother Truman was elected by a landslide to be the ninety-seventh Grand Master of Masons of Missouri.  He served until October 1, 1941.
While President, Truman was made a Sovereign Grand Inspector General, 33°, and Honorary Member, Supreme Council in1945 at the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Masons Southern Jurisdiction Headquarters in Washington, D.C.  He was also elected an Honorary Grand Master of the International Supreme Council, Order of DeMolay. On May 18, 1959, the Illustrious Brother Truman was presented with the fifty-year award—the only U.S. President to reach that golden anniversary in Freemasonry. 

While President of the United States, Brother Truman once said, “The greatest honor that has ever come to me, and that can ever come to me in my life, is to be the Grand Master of Masons in Missouri."


Todd E. Creason is an author and novelist whose work includes the award-winning non-fiction historical series Famous American Freemasons and the novels One Last Shot (2011) and A Shot After Midnight (2012). He's currently working on the third novel expected to be released in 2014. All of Todd E. Creason's books are sold at major online booksellers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble and are available for both Nook and Kindle.

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