Masonic Spotlight: MW Harry S. Truman – Grand Master, U.S. President, Haberdasher

Richard H. Ryder, 2017

When the world awoke on April 12, 1945 no one knew it would be a date all adult Americans at that time would remember.  This included Harry Truman, who was just a few weeks short of his 61st birthday and less than three months into his term as Vice President of the United States.  The International News Service broke the news at 5:47 P.M. Eastern War Time – Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead, succumbing to a cerebral hemorrhage at Warm Springs, Georgia. And so, the reins of power, guided by the 25th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, shifted as they have on numerous occasions.

That evening, as Truman sat in the cabinet room of the White House, he appeared “absolutely dazed” according to those present.  He placed his hand on an inexpensive Gideon edition bible, the only bible available, to take the oath of office as the 33rd President of the United States.  The time on the mantel clock was 7:09 P.M., just 2 hours and 24 minutes after FDR’s death.  To many in the country – Washington D.C., the military high command, and elsewhere – the future seemed bleak.  The country had just lost the iron leader who had brought America out of depression and through four grueling years of war, only to be replaced by the likes of Harry Truman.  As David McCullough states in his book, Truman, “To many it was not just that the greatest of men had fallen, but that the least of men – or at any rate the least likely of men – had assumed his place.”  This was the atmosphere in which Harry S. Truman found himself as he became the most powerful man in the world.

Early Biography

Harry Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri on May 8, 1884 to John Anderson Truman, a farmer, and Martha Ellen Young Truman.  Born of Scotch-English descent, Truman had a brother, John, and a sister, Mary Jane.     As a boy, Harry was, according to McCullough, fascinated by trains, especially the Kansas-Nebraska Limited, which stopped in his home town of Independence.  McCullough also tells us that “He was never popular like other boys, never one of the fighters as he called them.”  Reminiscing long afterward, he spoke of the teasing he endured because of his glasses. “To tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy”.  Married on June 28, 1919 to Elizabeth Virginia Wallace, Harry and “Bess” had one child, Margaret, who became popular and well-known to the American public.

Before his career in politics, Truman held several occupations: railroad timekeeper, bank clerk, and farmer.  But the occupation most influencing his impeccable well-dressed image was that of a haberdasher, although this career ultimately proved unsuccessful. He also briefly served in the Missouri National Guard and was captain in the 129th Field Artillery from 1918 – 1919.

Prior to becoming President, Truman’s political experience was relatively uneventful.  At the state level Truman was County Judge for Eastern District of Jackson County, Mo and Presiding Judge, County Court, Jackson, County, Mo.  He served as United States Senator from Missouri before being elected Vice-President of the United States in 1945.  

Masonic Biography*

Most Worshipful Harry S. Truman began his Masonic career in 1909 when he was raised at Belton Lodge No. 450 in Grandview, Missouri and two years later he became the Worshipful Master of the new Grandview Lodge No. 618.  As U.S. Senator from the state of Missouri he was also the state’s Grand Master from 1940 – 1941.  Then, while serving as the 33rd U.S. President, MW Truman was Master of the Missouri Lodge of Research. During his Masonic career he held the positions of Masonic ritualist, district lecturer, and Deputy Grand Master. He was buried with Masonic rites in Independence, MO in a televised ceremony.

Wartime President

In addition to the political, economic, and social problems Truman faced upon becoming President, he also had to end a world war.  Hitler was still fighting in Europe, though the end seemed near; Japan was still a formidable force in the Pacific.

Against this backdrop Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin were looking ahead to post-war Europe, especially the carving up of Germany and the future of Poland.  Each of the three had their own vision of post-war Europe; each had their own interests in mind and what was in the best interest of their respective countries.  Truman suddenly found himself in the middle of this high stakes game and was totally unprepared.  Michael Beschloss mentions in his book, The Conquerors, that on April 13, 1945 “when Harry Truman sat down behind Roosevelt’s maple Oval Office desk, he was befuddled. He had no idea what Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin had said or agreed to at Yalta.”

In the Pacific the war with Japan raged on and this too was Harry Truman’s burden.  The magnitude of the situation was brought home to him when, on April 24, 1945, Secretary of War, Harry Stimson, alone with Truman at the White House, handed the President a typewritten memorandum.  The first sentence read as follows: Within four months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb of which could destroy a whole city.  This is how Truman learned of the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A few years later, fighting broke out on the Korean peninsula as the cold war continued to entrench itself in the far east.  Truman found himself at the helm of another world conflict, The Korean War, when once again his strength of wartime leadership would be tested, most famously during his much-publicized disagreement with General Douglas MacArthur.  MacArthur insisted the U.S. should attack Chinese supply bases north of Yalu.  Truman disagreed.  When MacArthur went public with his stance, Truman relieved him of his command in the belief that the general did not respect the authority of the President.

Harry Truman clearly faced almost insurmountable challenges in the early days, weeks, and months of his presidency, but none so consequential as his wartime decisions.  Today, America and the world still debate whether the atomic bombing of Japan was necessary; the breakup of Germany and Berlin and decades of strife still resonate with citizens throughout the world.  Later, in his second term, his steadfast actions during the Korean War serve as a testimony to his strong leadership.

Truman’s Legacy

Harry Truman has gone down in U.S. History as one of the most respected American leaders of modern times.  Three phrases are forever linked to our 33rd President: “Give ‘em hell Harry”, “The buck stops here”, and the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune, incorrectly announcing the winner of the 1948 presidential election.  Also, Truman is forever linked to the Marshall Plan, The Truman Doctrine, and the formation of NATO.  After leaving the presidency, Truman retired to his beloved Independence, MO, where he continued to be an outspoken political figure.   On December 5, 1972, Harry Truman was hospitalized, and his condition worsened.  After falling into a deep coma on Christmas Eve he died on December 26th at 7:50 A.M.