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.

5 Controversial Facts About Melvil Dewey and the Dewey Decimal System

iStock/TerryJ
iStock/TerryJ

Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, was born on December 10, 1851. Among other things, Dewey was a self-proclaimed reformer, so when working for the Amherst College library in the 1870s, he began to reclassify the facility’s books and how they were organized.

Though the system has gone through plenty of changes over the years, it’s still in wide use all over the world today and forever changed how libraries categorize their books. It has also caused a handful of controversies. In honor of Dewey Decimal Day, we dug into the organizational system—and its creator’s—dark side.

1. Melvil Dewey co-founded the American Library Association, but was forced out because of offensive behavior.

Melvil Dewey was an extremely problematic figure, even in his time. Though he co-founded the American Library Association (ALA), his often-offensive behavior—particularly toward women—didn’t make him a lot of friends.

In Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, author Wayne A. Wiegand described Dewey’s “persistent inability to control himself around women” as his “old nemesis.” In 1905, Dewey and several fellow ALA members took a cruise to Alaska following a successful ALA conference, with the purpose of discussing the organization’s future. Four women who were part of the trip ended up publicly accusing Dewey of sexual harassment—a rarity for the time. Within a year, Dewey was forced to step down from his involvement with the organization he helped to create.

2. Dewey required applicants to his School of Library Economy to submit photos.


A History of the Adirondacks, by Alfred Lee Donaldson (1921) // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1887, Dewey founded the School of Library Economy at Columbia College, where 90 percent of his students were female. It was long rumored that in addition to basic information like name, age, and educational background, Dewey required that prospective female students also submit their bust sizes. While this rumor was eventually proven to be false, Dewey did ask women to submit photos, often noting that “You cannot polish a pumpkin.”

3. A Howard University librarian reorganized Dewey's original system because of its racial bias.

Dewey’s personal biases spilled over into his creation, too, and it has taken sincere effort and work to right those wrongs. In the 1930s, Howard University librarian Dorothy Porter helped create a new system to undo the racist way Dewey’s system treated black writers. As Smithsonian reported:

All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”

In addition to charges of racism, the DDS has also been accused of being homophobic. Early editions of the system classified books on or regarding LGBT issues under Abnormal Psychology, Perversion, Derangement, as a Social Problem, or even as Medical Disorders.

4. Its 'religion' section is skewed heavily toward Christianity.

The DDS section on religion starts at 200, and no other religion besides Christianity is covered until 290. Given that there are more than 4000 religions in the world, saving a mere 10 numbers for their classification doesn’t leave a lot of room for thorough coverage or exploration. Though some changes have been made as new editions of the system have been introduced, the process of restructuring the entire 200s is a project that has yet to be undertaken.

5. Critics of the system would prefer libraries take the Barnes & Noble approach.

The Dewey Decimal System is the most used library classification system, with the Chicago Tribune estimating that more than 200,000 libraries in 135 countries use it. But it’s far from a perfect system. As such, many libraries are experimenting with other organizational techniques, and many are dropping the DDS altogether.

The main complaint that public libraries have is that the Dewey Decimal System does not make reading exciting, and that there are other ways of categorizing and organizing books that are more like that of general bookstores. By doing away with the numbers (which are hard to remember for general library patrons), some libraries are classifying books simply by category and organizing by author—a system they've begun referring to as "Dewey-lite."

6 Fast Facts About Nelly Sachs

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Today, on the 127th anniversary of her birth, a Google Doodle has been created in memory of writer Nelly Sachs, who died of colon cancer in 1970 at the age of 78. The German-Swedish poet and playwright wrote movingly about the horrors of the Holocaust, which she narrowly escaped by fleeing her home and starting a new life in a foreign land. Here are six things to know about Sachs.

1. She was born in Germany.

Sachs was born in Berlin on December 10, 1891. As the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, she grew up in the city's affluent Tiergarten section. She studied dance and literature as a child, and also started writing romantic poems at age 17.

2. She almost ended up in a concentration camp.

Sachs's father died in 1930, but she and her mother Margarete stayed in Berlin. In 1940, the Gestapo interrogated the two women and tore apart their apartment. They were told they had a week to report to a concentration camp, so they decided to flee the country. Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf, with whom Nelly had corresponded for years, saved their lives by convincing the Swedish royal family to help the two women escape to Sweden.

3. She worked as a translator.

Once Nelly and her mother reached Stockholm, Sachs began learning Swedish and ultimately took up work as a translator. She translated poetry from Swedish to German and vice versa.

4. She was nearly 60 when she published her first book of poetry.

Sachs’s first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), was published in 1947. In this anthology as well as later poems, she used religious imagery to evoke the suffering of her time and the Jewish people.

5. She won the German Book Trade's Peace Prize.

In 1965, Sachs won the Peace Prize from the German Book Trade. She shared a message of forgiveness when she accepted the award from her compatriots. “In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you,” she said.

6. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature on her 75th birthday.

Sachs and Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. According to The Nobel Prize’s website, Sachs was recognized "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength.”

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