10 Things You Might Not Know About Harry S. Truman

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

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. HE OWNED A MEN'S CLOTHING SHOP THAT ALMOST WENT BANKRUPT.

Harry Truman sits in a car next to Winston Churchill
Keystone, Getty Images

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 become senator.

3. HE SERVED JUST 82 DAYS AS VICE PRESIDENT.

Truman's reputation for fairness grew out of his stint at 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 ONLY MINUTES AFTER BEING SWORN IN.

Harry Truman examines paperwork while sitting behind a desk
Fox Photos, Getty Images

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 the atomic bomb 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. HE PUSHED FOR UNIVERSAL HEALTH INSURANCE.

Truman anticipated much of the contemporary debates 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.

Harry Truman signs a document
Fox Photos, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It might not seem like much today, but Truman's efforts 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 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 HIM 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.

Harry Truman celebrates his 1948 election win
Keystone, Getty Images

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. HIS 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. HE TRIED TO GO ON A ROAD TRIP INCOGNITO.

Harry Truman waves from the driver's seat of his car
Keystone, Getty Images

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.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

9 Outdoor Accessories for the Perfect Backyard Party

Amazon/OtterBox
Amazon/OtterBox

Hosting the perfect party in the great outdoors doesn't have to involve you moving any further than your own backyard. Whether you’re looking for games to play with friends, chairs to keep you comfortable, or tents to turn your yard into your own personal campsite, check out some of these essential products that will transform your own patch of nature into a true outdoor oasis.

1. Wine Tumbler; $20

Tumblers from Otterbox
OtterBox

These wine tumblers from Otterbox will make your backyard the toast of the summer. Made from 100 percent stainless steel and lined with copper, these 10-ounce cups will keep your wine at the perfect temperature until the last s’more is eaten and the fire is put out. Each tumbler holds two standard wine pours and has a sweat-resistant design so you can leave your coasters inside. And each tumbler is fitted with a press-in lid, keeping your drink secure whether you’re taking a walk or playing a game with friends.

Buy it: Otterbox

2. Wood-Burning Fire Pit; $300

Wood-burning fire pit from Wayfair.
Martha Stewart/Wayfair

This steel wood-burning fire pit is exactly what you need to create a little ambiance once the moon is out and friends and family are ready to unwind with some roasted marshmallows. The pit itself is only a few feet across, so you'll be able to build a cozy fire for a handful of people, and the mesh screen that secures over it will keep the sparks away from you and your party. 

Buy it: Wayfair

3. Kabob Grilling Baskets; $17

Kebob grilling baskets on UncommonGoods.
UncommonGoods

No backyard adventure is complete without a tasty meal, and these kabob grilling baskets will help you spend less time on the grill and more time enjoying the beauty of nature. These baskets can be packed with all the ingredients you could ever want for kabobs, and without wooden skewers involved, you’ll avoid any unwanted splinters in your meal. With the ability to customize each basket, you’ll have the flexibility to create the perfect portable dinner for guests (or just for yourself).

Buy it: UncommonGoods

4. Beer Caddy; $25

A beer caddy on Amazon.
LEGACY/Amazon

Beer lovers won’t have to worry about foregoing a cold one while spending some time outside. This soft cotton canvas caddy can hold up to six bottles or cans, and it comes with a removable inner divider, so you have the flexibility of mixing and matching different-sized beverages. Its attached bottle opener—which is hooked to the caddy via a retractable cord— can be stowed in a side pocket for quick access, allowing you to open your drinks with ease.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Outdoor Jenga; $119

A large outdoor Jenga game
Jenga/Amazon

Mix up the usual ghost stories and campfire singalongs with this giant game of outdoor Jenga. Fifteen times larger than the size of a standard Jenga game, these extra-large Jenga blocks can stack up to over 5 feet high and are the perfect size for a deck or beach towel. This set comes with a portable bag for all the blocks so you can easily transport the game from one spot in the backyard to another.

Buy it: Amazon

6. and 7. Camping Chair; $30 and Loveseat Camping Chair; $73

A Colman outdoor chair on Amazon.
Coleman/Amazon

If you’re not a fan of sitting on wet grass or getting bugs on your clothes, this camping chair from Coleman will help you kick back in style. The chair has a cushioned seat and back for maximum outdoor comfort, and it also has a built-in four-can cooler pouch to keep cold beverages handy. It even comes with a nifty side pocket for books, magazines, and newspapers.

An outdoor loveseat that's available on Amazon.
Goplus/Amazon

For anyone who hates toting multiple chairs outside, check out this loveseat-style camping chair! Its ergonomic design seats two people with ease, and it’s supported by a rust-resistant steel frame and weather-resistant fabric for withstanding the elements (or just a shower from a nearby sprinkler). Even though it can hold up to 400 pounds of weight, the chair itself weighs only 11 pounds, making it an ideal choice for anyone who wants to avoid making extra trips to the garage for gear.

Buy itAmazon (camping chair); Amazon (loveseat)

8. Camping Hammock; $29-$40

A hammock that's available on Amazon.
Wise Owl Outfitters/Amazon

If you're one to go a bit horizontal toward the end of a party, take a look at this hammock from Wise Owl Outfitters. Made from heavy-duty parachute nylon, this hammock is incredibly durable and can be secured to trees with a simple set of straps. The hammock comes in two different sizes, a twin and a full, so you can choose the size that's right for you. And best of all? The largest one weighs only 26 ounces, making it easy to take comfort on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Magnetic Door House Tent; $172

A magnetic door house tent on Wayfair.
Wayfair

Mosquitos, flies, and other outdoor pests don’t stand a chance against this portable screened-in porch from Wayfair. This outdoor sanctuary is big enough to fit a picnic table (and all of your friends) inside, and it features two magnetic-close front and back doors. This tent even comes with a 10-year warranty, so you can rest easy knowing that it will provide you with backyard adventures—and zero bug bites—for years to come.

Buy it: Wayfair

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.