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October 3rd, 2019

Ranking the Presidents: Harry Truman

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), how would you grade Harry Truman, based on the performance of his duties as President? You can go to this link to vote. When Harry Truman left office he had the lowest approval ratings imaginable since George Gallup had started tracking such things. Truman's approval ratings sunk to 22% in February of 1952. Two others have dropped into the 20's (Nixon at 24% and George W. Bush at 25%), but none had ever dropped this low. But years later, Truman would be praised by such reputable historians as David McCulloch and others, and he would be consistently ranked among the top 10 Presidents.

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Harry S. (no middle name, just a middle initial) Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri in 1884, the son of a farm couple. He served in the army in the first world war, rising to the rank of Captain. He shouldn't have been allowed to join the army because he had poor eyesight, but he cheated by memorizing the eye chart and was able to pass his eye exam. It was while serving in the army that he met the nephew of Kansas City Democratic boss Tom Pendergast. When Truman returned home he was able to use this connection to be elected as County Court Judge in Jackson County, Missouri. This was a non-legal position, similar to a county commissioner. In that capacity Truman helped to administer many of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs in his region.

Truman was elected to the United States Senate in 1934, once again with Pendergast's help. At first his colleagues in the senate were skeptical about Truman's abilities, but Truman gained national prominence as chairman of the Truman Committee, whose task was to identify and eliminate waste and inefficiency in wartime contracts. In 1944, Vice President Henry Wallace was considered to be too far to the left and too flaky in the opinion of many of Roosevelt's advisers and party bosses. The President wanted to replace Wallace with someone more acceptable, knowing that Roosevelt might not live out a fourth term. Roosevelt told party leaders that he would accept either Truman or Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. State and city party leaders strongly preferred Truman, and Roosevelt agreed. Pundits called Truman's nomination the "Second Missouri Compromise". The Roosevelt–Truman ticket won a 432–99 electoral-vote victory in the election, defeating the Republican ticket of Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York and running mate Governor John Bricker of Ohio. Truman was sworn in as vice president on January 20, 1945.

Truman had been vice president for 82 days when President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. That day Truman had been presiding over the Senate. He had planned to have a drink in House Speaker Sam Rayburn's office when he received an urgent message to go immediately to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt told him that her husband had died as the result of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Truman asked her if there was anything he could do for her; she replied, "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now!"

Soon after succeeding to the presidency, Truman made the most monumental decision of his Presidency as he authorized the first and only use of nuclear weapons in war. Truman's administration engaged in an internationalist foreign policy and renounced isolationism. He struggled with the transition from wartime to peacetime economy as the nation was roiled with strikes and labor unrest in 1946. Almost everyone wrote Truman off in the 1948 election, everyone except Truman himself. He rallied his New Deal coalition during the 1948 presidential election and won a surprise victory, perhaps the most surprising in history. The Chicago Tribune was so confident of Truman's defeat that they ran the erroneous headline "Dewey Defeats Truman" on the morning after the election.

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In his full term in office, Truman oversaw the Berlin Airlift of 1948. When Communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he gained United Nations approval for what was technically a "police action" but what was actually the Korean War. Lives were lost as the War would later end in a draw. The war preserved South Korea as a democracy, but when Chinese intervened, the UN/US forces were pushed back, preventing a rollback of Communism in North Korea. Truman also took political heat for firing popular General Douglas MacArthur, but it was a decision he did not regret. Truman also recognized the fledgling state of Israel, a decision that was controversial for its time.

On domestic issues, bills endorsed by Truman faced opposition from a conservative Congress as his administration guided the U.S. economy through the post-war economic challenges. In 1948 he submitted the first comprehensive civil rights legislation and issued Executive Orders to start racial integration in the military and federal agencies.

Truman was the subject of an assassination attempt in 1950. He had ordered an addition to the exterior of the White House: a second-floor balcony in the south portico, which came to be known as the Truman Balcony. The Truman family moved into nearby Blair House during the renovations. The Oval Office remained open and Truman walked to and from his work across the street each morning and afternoon. On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo attempted to assassinate Truman at Blair House. On the street outside the residence, Torresola killed a White House policeman, Leslie Coffelt. Before he died, the officer shot and killed Torresola. Collazo was wounded and stopped before he entered the house. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in 1952. Truman later commuted his sentence to life in prison.

Allegations of corruption in the Truman administration became a central campaign issue in the 1952 presidential election. Truman knew that he could not pull off another electoral miracle, amid low approval ratings and he decided not to seek re-election. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was an electoral victory against Democrat Adlai Stevenson II.

Truman was never a rich man and he experienced considerable financially difficult after leaving office. This led to the creation of a pension for former presidents. In his retirement, his presidential library was opened in Independence, and he published his memoirs. After a fall in his home in late 1964, his physical condition deteriorated. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Medicare bill at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum and gave the first two Medicare cards to Truman and his wife Bess to honor Truman's fight for government health care. On December 5, 1972, Truman was admitted to Kansas City's Research Hospital and Medical Center with pneumonia. He developed multiple organ failure, fell into a coma, and died at 7:50 a.m. on December 26, at the age of 88.

Truman's unpopularity at the time he left office stemmed from a number of things, including divisions within the Democratic Party, the ongoing Cold War, and the boom and bust economic cycle at the time. In 1952, journalist Samuel Lubell wrote this postmortem of Truman's presidency: "After seven years of Truman's hectic, even furious, activity the nation seemed to be about on the same general spot as when he first came to office. Nowhere in the whole Truman record can one point to a single, decisive break-through. All his skills and energies — and he was among our hardest-working Presidents — were directed to standing still." His job approval rating remained at 22% in the Gallup Poll of February 1952.

But how the public thought of Truman became steadily warmer as time passed. In 1962, a poll of 75 historians conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. ranked Truman among the "near great" presidents. Schlesinger was a strong Democrat and so his ratings must be taken with a grain of salt. But in the period that following Truman's death, there was a rehabilitation of his legacy among both historians and members of the public. At the time Truman died, the nation was consumed with two serious crises: Vietnam and Watergate. Truman's passing brought nostalgia for simpler times, and his death brought a new wave of attention to his political career. He was now thought of as a kind of political folk hero, a president who was thought to exemplify an integrity and accountability which many observers felt was lacking in the Nixon White House. The reconsideration of his presidency was helped by a popular book of reminiscences Truman had told to journalist Merle Miller beginning in 1961, with the agreement that they would not be published until after Truman's death.

But Truman still had his critics, even within in his own party. Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that Truman was "almost wilfully obtuse" concerning the danger of U.S. communism. Liberals were critical of Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb, opening a Pandora's box that would leave an everlasting fear. But in 1991, the Dissolution of the Soviet Union caused many Truman supporters to claim vindication for Truman's decisions in the postwar period. Truman biographer Robert Dallek wrote of Truman, "His contribution to victory in the cold war without a devastating nuclear conflict elevated him to the stature of a great or near-great president." The 1992 publication of David McCullough's very popular and very favorable biography of Truman further enhanced the view of Truman as a great President.

In his book on the Truman Presidency, historian Donald R. McCoy wrote: "Harry Truman himself gave a strong and far-from-incorrect impression of being a tough, concerned and direct leader. He was occasionally vulgar, often partisan, and usually nationalistic. On his own terms, Truman can be seen as having prevented the coming of a third world war and having preserved from Communist oppression much of what he called the free world. Yet clearly he largely failed to achieve his Wilsonian aim of securing perpetual peace, making the world safe for democracy, and advancing opportunities for individual development internationally."

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In rankings of the Presidents, Truman ends up anywhere from 6th to 9th. C-Span and APSA's 2017 and 2018 rankings place him 6th while Siena's 2018 ranking places him at 9th. It is a remarkable accomplishment for someone who entered federal politics considered to be a political hack and a puppet for his boss, who was never considered to be a great mind, who was believed to have become Vice-President and later President by blind luck, and who was remarkably unpopular during much of his time in office. But it seems that throughout all of that, Harry Truman fooled them all.

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