Harry TrumanHe was a farmer, a haberdasher gone bankrupt, an unknown politician from Missouri who suddenly found himself President. Of all the men who had held the office, he was the least prepared. Yet Harry Truman would have to end the war with Germany and Japan, decide whether to use the most terrible weapon ever devised, confront the Soviet Union, and wage war in Korea. Many feared he wasn't up to the job, including Truman himself. Likable, modest, hardworking, he would prove them all wrong with a stubborn determination that would earn him a stunning political upset and the rallying cry "Give 'Em Hell, Harry." In 1945 as WWII rumbled to a close Truman suddenly found himself filling the shoes of the great Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Vice president for only 82 days and excluded from Roosevelt's inner circle, Truman knew nothing about the war raging across three continents and two oceans except what he read in the papers. He knew nothing of the project to develop the atomic bomb.

At first, Americans were won over by their new President's simple, straightforward approach -- a striking contrast to FDR's patrician manner. "After a diet of caviar," an aide said, "you like to get back to ham and eggs."

"I'm here to make decisions," Truman once said. "Whether they prove right or wrong, I'm going to make them." In his eight years in office, he faced some of the most difficult decisions any president would have to make.

Raised in the rough-and-tumble prairie town of Independence, Missouri, Truman was a slight boy with thick eyeglasses who dreamed of being a concert pianist. Rising at five o'clock every morning to practice, Truman by the age of six demonstrated the dogged perseverance that would later distinguish his public life. Throughout his youth, Harry had only one love -- Elizabeth Wallace-Bess -- a popular girl from one of Independence's prominent families and a member of Harry's Sunday school class. For eight years, he worked to convince her to marry him.

While Bess never wanted Harry to be president, Harry grew to like the job. But after his second term and his failure to get his Fair Deal through Congress, he decided he would not seek reelection in 1952. When he returned to Independence, crowds of thousands cheered him -- one of their own who had risen to great heights and then come home.

Over time, Harry Truman's qualities as a tough-talking, decisive president would gain him international respect.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH