The thirty-third President began his career in local Democratic politics in Missouri. Truman served in various capacities, including county judge and planning official, and helped coordinate employment and relief programs during the early 1930s. After his election to the United States SENATE in 1934, he supported the NEW DEAL programs and specialized in transportation policy. Declining President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT'S offer of an appointment to the Interstate Commerce Commission, he was reelected to the Senate in 1940. During the war years he attracted notice as the effective chairman of a Senate investigating committee established to oversee the efficiency and fairness of defense contracting. Elected vice-president in 1944, he succeeded to the presidency the next year when Roosevelt died. He returned to the White House in 1949 for a second term, following an unexpected election victory.
Truman believed in a strong and active presidency, operating within a Constitution sufficiently flexible to accommodate executive initiatives for the public good. The Framers of the Constitution, Truman said, had deliberately left vague the details of presidential power, allowing the "experience of the nation to fill in the outlines." He disagreed with scholars who claimed that history makes the man: "I think that it is the man who makes history." His roster of favorite Presidents included GEORGE WASHINGTON, THOMAS JEFFERSON, ANDREW JACKSON, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, GROVER CLEVELAND, THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WOODROW WILSON, and Franklin Roosevelt.
Although criticized at times by liberals for providing inadequate leadership and action on CIVIL RIGHTS, Truman's record is impressive. In 1946 he created the President's
Committee on Civil Rights. A year later it issued an important document, To Secure These Rights, that took a firm stand against various forms of RACIAL DISCRIMINATION. In 1948 Truman issued EXECUTIVE ORDER 9981, ending discrimination in the armed services, and in that same year delivered a powerful civil rights message to Congress and supported the inclusion of a civil rights plank in the Democrats' platform.
Truman's commitment to the BILL OF RIGHTS was tested by the issue of subversion that overshadowed his administration. As a student of history he was keenly aware of the hysteria that had fanned repressive episodes, from the Salem witch trials to the Red Scare of 1919. He felt prepared to handle the new cycle...