Harry Truman, despite his current status as one of America’s greatest Presidents, found his second term dogged by the lowest Presidential poll numbers ever recorded.
After his breathtaking victory against Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election, President Truman dove headfirst into his second term.
Unfortunately, he would find this term quite different from the first, which was filled, for the most part, with great successes and increasing popularity among the American people.
The Rise of Communism
The vast majority of Truman’s second term would consist of the very beginning of that pseudo-conflict which would remain present in America’s consciousness for nearly four more decades – the Cold War.
It didn’t take long after the end of World War II for America to realize that the Communists of the Soviet Union – formerly allies – had become a great threat. This realization led to the “red scare” in America, leading to McCarthyism and other reactionary measures, all of which only act to take away from the fact that the threat itself was certainly very real.
Just over a year after being inaugurated for his second term, Truman found himself facing perhaps the most important event of his entire Presidency – the invasion of South Korea by the Communists to the North.
The Korean War
When the North Koreans invaded on June 25, 1950, Truman responded quickly, not waiting for congressional approval (which hurt his approval rating, but this was only the beginning). He ordered a naval blockade of North Korea and asked the U.N. to intervene militarily, which it did (for the first time in history).
American forces, not entirely ready for such a conflict (Truman had issued a roll-back of the armed forces after World War II), were hastily sent at first simply to defend South Korea. When this was realized, Truman fired Defense Secretary Louis Johnson and replaced him with General George Marshall. Under Marshall’s leadership, the strategy in Korea changed into one in which North Korea itself would be invaded.
In September of 1950, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, the U.N. forces performed a brilliant amphibious landing in North Korea, beginning the Battle of Inchon. The war appeared to be successful.
Unfortunately, the course of the war changed drastically when, in November, Chinese forces invaded North Korea and repelled the U.N. forces back across the 38th parallel (the modern North/South Korean border).
When General MacArthur spoke out in favor of a U.S. attack on China against direct orders from the administration, Truman had no choice but to fire the popular General, in a move which was almost universally panned at home. Because of this action – which the American people may not have fully understood – Truman’s poll numbers plummeted, and even more so as victory in the war seemed to grow even further out of reach.
The Steel Strike
To make matters even worse for Truman’s poll numbers, a general steel industry strike in April of 1952 threatened to hurt the American economy. Like he did before with the railroads, Truman threatened to take control of the steel mills if the strike wasn’t resolved.
Unlike the railroad situation, however, this time Truman was moved to actually take such actions. He declared government control over a number of steel mills, as the strike was hurting production of the much-needed munitions for the ongoing war in Asia.
Despite the public disapproval Truman faced over this action, he also found this action being defeated by the Supreme Court, who declared such an action unconstitutional.
Embattled Final Days
By the final year of Truman’s Presidency, he found himself facing poll numbers from the American people lower than any President in history (a record which still stands as of mid-2008), his approval rating dropping as low as 22% (several points lower, even, than President Nixon on the verge of his resignation).
Although he technically could have run for reelection under the law (the 22nd amendment, limiting a President to two terms had been ratified in 1951, and did not apply to the sitting President), he declined, for obvious reasons, instead backing Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who went on to lose the election to General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Leaving the White House, Truman’s poll numbers had increased slightly, though many still considered him a failed President. As the years have passed by, however, his ranking has grown steadily, as historians have been able to look at his record more and more objectively, viewing his great many successes and weighing them against those decisions which were seen as failures.
Today, it is very rare that Truman is not ranked in the top ten Presidents of all time. Justice, in this regard, is perhaps being served. Proof that a President’s approval rating is not always an accurate representation of success or failure.