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True to his famous motto, the Berlin airlift buck did stop with President Harry Truman; he had to decide whether to risk war by breaking the Soviet blockade on land or approving an unprecedented effort to supply a city by air. Truman sided with airpower, and the resulting operation was the first key Cold War success for the U.S.
Finding His Way
Harry Truman was born on a Missouri farm and spent his youth trying both to please his father and chart a different path from him, a livestock trader and risk-taker whose ventures undercut his family's finances rather than strengthening them. Young Harry disliked farm life and considered becoming a pianist; when terrible eyesight ruined his chances of attending West Point, Truman drifted from job to job, dallying in business, banking, and being a mailroom clerk. His father's declining fortunes brought Harry back to the farm from 1906-1914, but he wasn't happy there -- local beauty "Bess" Wallace even refused Harry's offer of marriage. When his father died, Harry invested in zinc mines and oil wells, but always came out a loser.
A Natural Leader
Then the United States entered World War I, and Truman enlisted in the artillery. Made a captain, he proved surprisingly adept at command, not losing a single man in battles across France. Harry married Bess in 1919 and, thanks to an army buddy, Truman became involved with Tom Pendergast, the powerful political boss of the Kansas City Democratic Party. Through Pendergast's patronage Truman prospered, winning election as a U.S. Senator in 1934 and leading investigations of graft in the war effort. Selected as Franklin Roosevelt's vice-presidential candidate in 1944, he was woefully unprepared for FDR's death in April 1945. They had only met twice since the election, and now Truman was the nation's 33rd president.
The House, the Stars, and all the Planets
In the beginning Truman's inexperience showed; his legs shook during the first briefing he received in the White House map room, and meeting reporters on the morning after taking office, Truman admitted that he felt like "the house, the stars, and all the planets" had fallen on him. Fewer than three months into his term as president, Truman made his second trip to Europe in July 1945 for the Potsdam conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Vital issues concerning the post-war situation in Europe would have to be addressed, but Truman misjudged Stalin, deeming him "honest" and thought that he "would stand by his agreements."
A Tougher Stance
At the outset Truman did not push vigorously against the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, but he soon learned to take a tougher stance. In 1946 Truman wrote, "Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making." He was "tired [of] babying the Soviets." In March 1947 Truman requested millions to fight communist insurgents in Turkey and Greece, and the "Truman Doctrine" offered support to anyone under Soviet threat. When the Russian blockade of Berlin began in June 1948, Truman had established his credentials as a Cold Warrior. But his toughest challenge lay ahead.
Approving the Airlift
Berlin was more than 100 miles within the Soviet zone, and many of Truman's advisers thought the only U.S. course was to pull out of the city. Allied troops were vastly outnumbered there, supplies were limited, and any airlift would strain U.S. obligations elsewhere. But Truman would not back down: "We stay in Berlin -- period." He ordered additional transports to Germany and B-29 bomber squadrons to England so Stalin knew the U.S. meant business. That did not mean the president was eager for a shooting war, though; when the American commander in Germany, General Lucius Clay, advocated breaking the Soviet blockade with an armed ground convoy, Truman refused. Berlin would be supplied in a less provocative manner, from the air. The wisdom of Truman's decision was borne out less than a year later when Stalin abandoned his blockade without the Americans and Soviets exchanging a shot. And the resolve this bespectacled Missourian showed may have helped him win an upset reelection bid in 1948 against Republican Thomas Dewey.
Truman awarded Clay a medal in May 1949, but it would be nearly four years before the president followed the general into retirement. After leaving the White House, Truman focused on establishing a presidential library in his hometown of Independence, writing about his experiences, and stumping for Democratic candidates. The success of the Truman Doctrine was commemorated in the 1963 dedication of his statue in Athens, and on the domestic front, he hosted the signing of the landmark Medicare bill in 1964 -- Harry and Bess would receive the first two Medicare cards. Truman died in late 1972 and was buried in the courtyard of his presidential library.