Harry Truman was a relatively unknown politician from Missouri who suddenly found himself president of the United States. Of all the men who held the office, he was probably the least prepared. Yet Truman would be the one to lead America during an era of tremendous growth and change, as it emerged from World War II. He ended the war with Germany and Japan, made the decision to use the atomic bomb, confronted the Soviet Union, and waged war in Korea. Truman's tough stand against the Soviet Union engaged the world in a Cold War for decades to come. Although Truman was not a popular president when he left office, his "buck stops here" philosophy made him a hero to many ordinary Americans and his reputation continues to be re-examined today.
Program Chapters: The entire program is streaming on the PBS and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE websites. The total viewing time is 4.5 hours. For your convenience, we have described the program in chapters. You may want to use specific chapters to focus classroom discussion and activities.
Part One -- An Accident of Democracy
Chapter 1 -- Introduction
FDR dies and Truman is sworn in as president -- Truman is perceived as incompetent
Chapter 2 -- Early Years
Truman's difficult childhood, he's bookish, loves to play the piano, called a "sissy" -- family moves to Independence, Missouri -- close to his mother, Martha -- exhibits his trademark characteristic -- perseverance -- even as a child -- Truman's young adulthood, idolizes his domineering father, John, who symbolizes integrity and morality -- father gambles on grain futures and loses everything -- Truman goes to Kansas City to find a job to support his family
Chapter 3 -- The Family Farm
Truman enjoys Kansas City -- joins the National Guard -- gets a good job with a bank -- returns home to help his father run the farm -- begins writing letters to his high school acquaintance, Elizabeth "Bess" Wallace -- Bess Wallace's family is wealthy and snobbish -- Bess's father is an alcoholic who commits suicide and her mother, Madge, disdains Truman
Chapter 4 -- Love and Death
Bess refuses Truman's marriage proposal -- Truman moves to Oklahoma after his father's death -- although not yet married, Truman and Bess invest in an oil company that loses money -- Truman fails at every business venture he tries
Chapter 5 -- World War I
Truman serves in World War I as captain, commands Battery D -- stands tough in battle and earns the loyalty of his men -- continues to write Bess -- Truman returns to Missouri after the war
Chapter 6 -- Marriage and Politics
Truman marries Bess -- they move into the Wallace home -- Truman fails as haberdasher -- daughter, Margaret, is born -- political boss Tom Pendergast nominates Truman for county commissioner -- Pendergast is associated with mobsters and Truman is involved in a scandal -- considers Pendergast the "price to pay" for being in politics
Chapter 7 -- Senator Truman
Truman is elected U.S. senator -- nicknamed the "senator from Pendergast" -- Bess returns to Independence -- Truman homesick without her
Chapter 8 -- Truman Proves Himself
Pendergast is convicted for tax evasion -- Truman is re-elected in 1940, without FDR's support -- Truman investigates national defense effort in 1941 and moves to stamp out corruption in the "largest war machine ever assembled" in popular hearings -- takes on Wall Street and the leaders of industry
Chapter 9 -- The 1944 Election
Rumors begin that Truman will be nominated for vice president -- despite failing health, FDR is re-nominated at 1944 Democratic convention but fails to express a preference for vice president -- although FDR dislikes Truman, he is nominated as vice president -- Bess worries national spotlight will reveal her father's suicide
Chapter 10 -- Vice President for 82 Days
Truman remains uninformed and unprepared to take over the presidency -- FDR dies in 1945 and Truman becomes president
Part Two -- The Moon, The Stars and All the Planets
Chapter 11 -- A Man of the People
Truman takes office under FDR's shadow -- dubbed a "man of the people" -- press praises his honesty -- Truman's style is straightforward and decisive -- threats from the Germans and Japanese grow -- Truman learns of the atomic bomb
Chapter 12 -- Endgame in Japan
Nazi Germany surrenders -- Japan refuses to surrender -- Truman decides the atomic bomb is a way to end the war and save American lives (Note: This segment contains graphic war scenes. We recommend that you preview it before using it in class.) Bess dislikes the national spotlight and life in the White House -- spends most of her time in Independence
Chapter 13 -- On the World Stage
Truman meets with Churchill and Stalin -- U.S. scientists test the atomic bomb -- Truman tries to get Soviets to retreat from eastern and central Europe
Chapter 14 -- Nuclear Diplomacy
Truman must decide whether to drop the atomic bomb -- Potsdam Declaration is rejected by Japan -- Truman heads home
Chapter 15 -- Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima -- when Japan still does not surrender, a second bomb is dropped on Nagasaki -- the Japanese surrender, ending the war (Note: This segment contains graphic images. We recommend that you preview it before using it in class.)
Chapter 16 -- Credits
Part Three -- Hell
Chapter 17 -- Introduction Part 2
Introduction and overview of Truman's life -- his status at the end of World War II -- U.S. postwar economy is in turmoil -- rail strike -- Truman loses the support of the unions when he proposes drafting striking rail workers
Chapter 18 -- The Mid-term Elections of 1946
Strike is settled -- Inflation threatens the economy -- disastrous Democratic campaign in 1946 allows Republicans to gain a majority in Congress -- Bess still unhappy in the role of first lady
Chapter 19 -- The Truman Doctrine
Communism spreads throughout Eastern Europe -- conflict with communists in Greece and Turkey -- Truman gains support by scaring the American people about the communist threat -- the Truman Doctrine is adopted
Chapter 20 -- American Power
Starvation and poverty leave Western Europe vulnerable to communism -- U.S. responds with the Marshall Plan, which also boosts U.S. economy -- "loyalty program" is instituted to deal with communism in the U.S. -- the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, the CIA, and NATO are established
Chapter 21 -- A Stand for Human Rights
Truman campaigns vigorously for re-election in 1948 -- addresses the NAACP, supporting equality for all Americans -- calls for anti-lynching laws, abolition of poll taxes, desegregation of armed forces -- establishes the Commission on Civil Rights -- Civil rights divides the Democratic party -- Truman recognizes the new Jewish state of Israel
Chapter 22 -- The Conventions
Dewey runs against Truman -- Truman nominated at a dispirited Democratic Convention
Chapter 23 -- Truman Defeats Dewey
Truman campaigns with the "Give ‘em Hell, Harry" slogan -- Henry Wallace is the Progressive party candidate -- Truman wins the election despite polls that predicted his defeat -- is shown holding up the Chicago Tribune with the headline "Dewey Defeats Truman"
Chapter 24 -- Fighting Communism
Congress won't pass Truman's "Fair Deal" (high minimum wage, civil rights, aid to education, national health insurance) -- Truman learns the Soviets have nuclear weapons -- China falls to Mao Zedong -- Truman begins Berlin airlift -- the U.S. becomes involved in the Korean War -- defense budget rises despite Truman's desire to curtail military spending
Chapter 25 -- Crossing the 38th Parallel
General Douglas MacArthur convinces Truman to continue fighting in Korea -- the Chinese enter the war, damaging the U.S. effort
Chapter 26 -- Under Pressure
Unpopularity of war growing as casualties mount -- Truman meets with advisors, pressure mounting -- Truman reacts angrily to critical reviews of his daughter's concert
Chapter 27 -- Dismissing MacArthur
War stalemated -- hostility between Truman and General MacArthur escalates and MacArthur is relieved of his command for insubordination -- despite criticism Truman stands by his decision
Chapter 28 -- The Last Years
Truman decides not to run for re-election -- Eisenhower wins -- Truman leaves office with the lowest approval rating of any president ever -- Bess and Truman return to Independence and remain there for the rest of their lives
Chapter 29 -- Credits
To find more film resources and classroom activities, visit the Teacher's Guide for Truman.
A biography of the 41st U.S. president, from his service in World War II to his days in the Oval Office. Part of the award-winning Presidents collection.
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