On this day in 1972, former President Harry S. Truman dies in Independence, Missouri.
Then-President Richard Nixon called Truman a man of “forthrightness and integrity” who had a deep respect for the office he held and for the people he served, and who “supported and wisely counseled each of his successors.”
Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, in 1884. The son of a farmer, he could not afford to go to college, so he too worked as a farmer before joining the army in 1916 to fight in World War I. After the war, Truman opened a haberdashery in Kansas City. When that business went bankrupt in 1922, he entered Missouri politics. Truman went on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1934 until he was chosen as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth vice president in 1945; it was during his Senate terms that he became known for his honesty and integrity.
Upon FDR’s death on April 12, 1945, Truman became the 33rd president of the United States, assuming the role of commander in chief of a country still embroiled in World War II. With victory in Europe was imminent, Truman agonized over whether to use nuclear weapons to force Japan to surrender. Just four months into his tenure, Truman authorized the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. He and his military advisors argued that using the bombs ultimately saved American and Japanese lives, since it appeared that the Japanese would fiercely resist any conventional attempt by the Allies to invade Japan and end the war. The use of the new weapon, dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August, succeeded in forcing Japan’s surrender, but also killed, injured and sickened thousands of Japanese and ushered in the Cold War.
Although harshly criticized by some for his decision to use the devastating weapon, Truman also displayed integrity and humanitarian virtues throughout his political career. In 1941, Truman drove 10,000 miles across the country in his Dodge to investigate potential war profiteering in defense plants on the eve of World War II. As president, Truman pushed through the Marshall Plan, which provided desperately needed reconstruction aid to European nations devastated by the war and on the verge of widespread famine. He also supported the establishment of a permanent Israeli state.
Truman served as president for two terms from 1945 to 1953, when he and his wife Bess happily retired to Independence, Missouri, where he referred to himself jokingly as “Mr. Citizen.” He was hospitalized on December 4, 1972, with lung congestion, heart irregularity, kidney blockages and failure of the digestive system. He died on December 26. A very subdued and private funeral, fitting for the down-to-earth Truman, was held in Independence according to his and his family’s wishes.
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