Thrust into office during the climax of World War II, Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) once said he felt as though "the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me." Despite the calamity, our nation’s 33rd president managed to steer the country into a prosperous postwar era. Below are some things you might not know about the man who made the final call to deploy an atomic end to one of the world's greatest conflicts.
1. The S doesn't really stand for anything.
Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884, to mule trader and farmer John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen Truman. After some deliberation, John and Martha realized they couldn't decide on a middle name for their first child, so they settled on "S." His maternal grandfather was named Solomon, while his paternal grandfather had a middle name of Shipp. "S" was his parents' compromise. (And, since his S is a name of sorts rather than an initial, it can stand alone without a period, though stylistically, it's most often seen with one.)
2. Harry S. Truman owned a men's clothing shop that almost went bankrupt.
Upon graduating high school, Truman only briefly attended college, taking a variety of odd jobs and helping with the family farming business before eventually joining the National Guard, which he left in 1911. In 1917, he re-entered the fray during World War I and fought in France. Returning home, he and a friend, Eddie Jacobson, decided to open a haberdashery in Kansas City. Thanks to a rough postwar economy, the shop was only open three years before the partners had to close it in 1922. It took 15 years for Truman to pay back the money he owed to creditors. He refused to declare bankruptcy to wipe out the debt.
Fortunately, Truman was looking ahead to a career in politics. A wartime friend's uncle, Democrat Thomas Pendergast—the man in charge of the city's politics—suggested he run for an administrative judge position in Jackson County, Missouri. He lost reelection, but two years later he was elected presiding judge, where he served two terms before moving on to the Senate.
3. He served just 82 days as vice president.
Truman's reputation for fairness grew out of his stint in the U.S. Senate. He increased regulation of American shippers and studied defense spending for any signs of waste. His work caught the eye of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's campaign committee, which was prepping Roosevelt's fourth term as president. Fearing the ailing Roosevelt wouldn't survive through the term, choosing a vice president was perhaps more crucial than ever. Truman accepted, serving just 82 days after being sworn in on January 20, 1945, before Roosevelt died.
4. He learned of the atomic bomb minutes after being sworn in.
Roosevelt largely kept Truman out of the loop when it came to plans to bring a hasty end to the war. Only moments after being sworn in, Truman was pulled aside by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and told of a project that held immense and destructive power. Stimson later told him that the U.S. was probably about to complete the "most terrible weapon ever known in human history." Four months later, Truman gave the order to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively putting an end to the war. He never appeared too conflicted by the decision, later telling his sister he "made the only decision I ever knew how to make."
5. Harry S. Truman pushed for universal health insurance.
Truman anticipated much of the contemporary debate over health care spending. Just seven months into office, he began advocating for care facilities in underrepresented rural areas and more public health services. He wanted Americans to pay monthly fees that would go toward health care that would cover costs if and when they fell ill. It would not be "socialized medicine," he argued, since the doctors weren't government employees. But the American Medical Association resisted, instead promoting private insurance. With Democrats losing power in the Senate and the House, Truman's plans withered. He later referred to his failed attempt for national health insurance to be one of the biggest defeats of his presidency.
6. He almost doubled the minimum wage.
It might not seem like much today, but Truman's effort to raise the minimum wage in 1950 was, relative to inflation, a huge shift in the economy. As part of his Fair Deal financial program, Truman raised the minimum hourly wage from 40 cents to 75 cents, an increase of 87.5 percent. Some economists have proposed that this helped bring the unemployment rate down from 6.6 percent in January 1949 to 2.7 percent by December 1952, while others argue that events like the Korean War were more responsible.
7. Two assassins tried to kill Harry S. Truman outside the White House.
The morning of November 1, 1950 could have been the last of Truman's life. Two members of the Puerto Rican National Party, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, traveled from the Bronx to Washington with plans to assassinate the president. They believed the move would bring attention to Puerto Rico's struggle for independence. Both wielding guns, the two idled outside Blair House, the residence across the street from the White House where Truman and his family were staying during renovations. A gun fight ensued—a guard killed Torresola but later died of gunshot wounds himself. Collazo was shot but survived and later had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment by Truman (President Carter would later commute that sentence, too, and Collazo was released in 1979). Truman was napping upstairs at the beginning of the altercation; he woke up, went to the window, and was shouted at to get down.
8. No one thought he would win a second term.
Despite his accomplishments, Truman was an underdog in the 1948 presidential race, with most pundits and newspapers predicting a win for New York Governor Thomas Dewey. Truman decided to bypass press support entirely, mounting a railroad tour of the country that allowed him to mingle with the voting public in person. Arriving in Butte, Montana, he was greeted by a crowd of 40,000, a reception he later said emboldened him to believe he could win. He received 303 electoral votes, but thanks to a printers' strike, the Chicago Tribune had to go to press early that night, and they felt so sure of Dewey's victory that the headline proclaimed "Dewey Defeats Truman.” Truman held up one copy a couple days after his victory in a now-iconic image, smiling at the flub.
9. Truman's grandson portrayed him in a play.
For a 2017 run in Give 'Em Hell, Harry!, a play about Truman staged in Wilmington, North Carolina, the lead role went to someone who knew a little about the man—his grandson, Clifton Daniel. A part-time actor and the honorary chairman of the Truman Library Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, Daniel learned his relative's vocal inflections by listening to old recordings.
10. Truman tried to go on a road trip incognito.
Five months after leaving office in 1953, Truman and his wife, Bess, decided to take a cross-country drive. This was a time when presidents weren't required to have Secret Service agents or other government escorts shadowing them following their term. But the couple underestimated how low they could really fly under the radar. They were recognized constantly as they stopped at roadside diners, shocking patrons who couldn't understand why their former president was popping in at random locations like Decatur, Illinois, or Frostburg, Maryland. Driving home on their 19-day trip, Truman was even pulled over for driving 55 in the fast lane. He did not receive a ticket.
This article was originally published in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.