Harry Truman’s rise to political power, first in Missouri and then nationally, was certainly unlikely. Despite the uphill battle, this man fought his way to success.
The “S” in Harry S Truman’s name doesn’t actually stand for anything. It was given to him as a sort of “compromise,” representing the initials of both his maternal and paternal grandfathers (Solomon Young and Anderson Shippe Truman, respectively).
Born in Lamar, Missouri in 1884 to a modestly successful farming family. They moved to Independence, Missouri (which was thereafter always considered to be Truman’s “home town”) when he was six.
Truman’s First Employment Experiences
Unlike most future Presidents of the United States, Harry Truman did not seem driven by great aspirations as a young man. He did not begin attending school until the age of eight, and graduating from Independence high school in 1901, at the age of 17.
Truman was the last President to date to have never received a college degree (though he would much later attend two years of law school), his life after high school being mainly filled with various types of work, including for the Santa Fe railroad (which saw him living in hobo camps), and other menial jobs in Missouri.
In 1905, Truman returned home to work on the family farm for the next dozen years. Farming, in fact, would become his chief occupation prior to entering politics.
Also during this post-high school time, Truman joined up with the Missouri National Guard. He had actually dreamed of attending West Point after high school, but his terrible eyesight had prevented this. Truman’s enlistment in the guard ended in 1911, though he rejoined in 1917 with the onset of World War I.
Truman as Soldier and Businessman
Harry Truman’s entry into the Great War (it is said that he was able to pass his military eye exam by secretly memorizing the eye chart) saw him train in Oklahoma, where he met James Pendergast, nephew of Tom Pendergast, the “Boss” of Kansas City politics. This would be profoundly important in Truman’s later life.
From Oklahoma, Truman’s artillery unit (in which he would be promoted to Battery Commander) was sent to France, where it participated in several key battles without losing a single man. Truman achieved a war record which would enable his later popularity as a politician.
Returning from war in 1919, Truman married his longtime love interest, Bess Wallace (who had previously rejected a proposal from young Harry in 1911) and, together with his army friend Edward Jacobson, went into business and opened a Haberdashery in downtown Kansas City.
This business venture began successfully, but, partly as a result of the declining midwest economy due to recession within the farming communities, the business went bankrupt after a few years, and Truman was left in debt.
Truman as Part of the Political Machine
The good fortunate of Truman to have befriended James Pendergast during his military training led him during the mid-1920’s to a relationship with Tom Pendergast himself – the man who practically ran all of Missouri politics.
With the help of Pendergast (whose corrupt practices would both hurt and help Truman in his political career), Truman was, in 1925, able to be elected judge in the Jackson County court, despite his rather limited training in law.
For the next nine years, Truman’s relationship with the Pendergast machine tightened, and he was elected to several local judicial positions of prominence, which allowed him to engage in efforts to transform Kansas City into a modern big city of national prominence. With the onset of the Great Depression and President Roosevelt’s New Deal program, Truman was put in charge of the local Federal Re-Employment program as a patronage position which was intended to thank the Pendergasts for delivering Kansas City to Roosevelt in the 1932 election.
Truman in the Senate
In 1934, Tom Pendergast reluctantly supported Truman’s election to the U.S. Senate (he did not think Truman was ready for national politics). Truman won the election handily, despite many claims of voter fraud and improper practices on election day by the Pendergast machine.
As Truman entered national politics, the Pendergast connection turned from a benefit to a liability. He was known as the “Senator from Pendergast,” and as such it took him time to actually be taken seriously in national politics. In his first term, however, he spoke out openly for Roosevelt’s New Deal and against the corporations and Wall Street speculators the President so opposed.
Despite a large amount of political opposition at home, Truman was able to eke out a reelection win (thanks in part to a split ticket by the Missouri Republicans) and begin his second term in the senate in 1940.
It was in this second term where Truman achieved his greatest success in the Senate. In heading up the Preparedness Committee (which would become known as the “Truman Committee”), Truman made a name for himself in congress by rooting out military wastefulness and corruption as America entered into World War II.
So successful was Truman’s committee (saving the military an estimated $15 billion), that the previously unknown Senator’s name earned recognition and popularity, finally bringing him out of the Pendergast shadow.
This all played a role in the decision by the Democratic party, in the election of 1944, to choose the popular Truman as Vice President as President Roosevelt vied for his unprecedented fourth term in office. Little did the nation know that even then, as they handed the incumbent victory in the election, Roosevelt’s health was dramatically declining, and the national icon entered into his final months of life.