Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was the 34th Vice President and the 33rd President of the United States. During his time in office, he saw numerous wars, economic collapse and boom, McCarthyism, and the establishment of NATO. Though he was and is a controversial figure in American political history, his vast experience in politics resulted in insightful, timeless quotes that social servants everywhere can take inspiration from.
Harry S. Truman was a U.S. senator for ten years before serving as vice president for just four months. He then became president following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and remained in office until 1953. Truman’s years of experience put him in a unique position and gave him perspective on all aspects of governance.
“A leader has to lead, or otherwise he has no business in politics.” - Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman
“When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honors, the twenty-one gun salutes, all those things. You have to remember it isn't for you. It's for the Presidency.” - Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman
“I'm proud that I'm a politician. A politician is a man who understands government, and it takes a politician to run a government. A statesman is a politician who's been dead 10 or 15 years.” - As quoted in The New York World-Telegram & Sun (April 12, 1958)
“Every segment of our population, and every individual, has a right to expect from his Government a Fair Deal.” - Speech to Congress (September 6, 1945)
“No government is perfect. One of the chief virtues of a democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible and under democratic processes can be pointed out and corrected.” - speech to a joint session of the US Congress (March 12, 1947)
“At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.” - Speech to a joint session of the US Congress (March 12, 1947)
“I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.” - Speech to a joint session of the US Congress (March 12, 1947)
“One of the difficulties with all our institutions is the fact that we've emphasized the reward instead of the service.” - letter to Harold E. Moore (September 27, 1949) featured in Off the Record: The Private Papers
“Whenever you have an efficient government you have a dictatorship.” - Lecture at Columbia University (April 28, 1959)
“No nation on this globe should be more internationally minded than America because it was built by all nations.” - speech to the Irish Fellowship Club in Chicago (March 17, 1945)
“The people can never understand why the President does not use his powers to make them behave. Well all the president is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing, and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.” - letter to his sister Mary Jane Truman (November 14, 1947)
“Of course, there are dangers in religious freedom and freedom of opinion. But to deny these rights is worse than dangerous, it is absolutely fatal to liberty….Those who want the Government to regulate matters of the mind and spirit are like men who are so afraid of being murdered that they commit suicide to avoid assassination.” - Address at the National Archives dedicating a shrine for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights (December 15, 1952)
Truman’s time in office was one of the most eventful in American history. He fought in World War I, was a judge during the Great Depression, served as a senator and vice president during WWII, was the president during the Korean War and much of the Cold War, and was instrumental in the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). One of his most notable and controversial actions took place only months into his presidency — the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Additionally, he was nearly assassinated on November 1, 1950 by Puerto Rican nationalists. Unsurprisingly, Truman had a lot to say about all of these historic events and turning points.
“I never gave anybody hell. I just told the truth and they think it's hell.” - As quoted in My Fellow Americans: The Most Important Speeches of America's Presidents
“I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them ... that's all the powers of the President amount to.” - quoted in Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership
“I was the only calm one in the house. You see I've been shot at by experts.” - Comment about his World War I experience after an assassination attempt, quoted in Bess W. Truman
“Being criticized? He never did get it through his head that that's what politics is all about.” - Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman
“Some of my best friends never agree with me politically.” - Statement to a group of congressmen (2 July 1947), quoted in The Memoirs of Richard Nixon
“The Russians are like us, they look and act like us. They are fine people. They got along with our soldiers in Berlin very well. As far as I am concerned, they can have whatever they want just so they don't try to impose their system on others.” - quoted in The Memoirs of Richard Nixon
“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me. I've got the most terribly responsible job a man ever had.” - Comment on becoming the president after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt (13 April 1945), quoted in "Thoughts Of A President, 1945" at Eyewitness to History
“If you think somebody is telling a big lie about you, the only way to answer is with the whole truth.” - comments about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, quoted in Aspects of the Presidency
“It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in our country's efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to ensure that all Americans enjoy these rights. When I say all Americans, I mean all Americans.” - Speech to the NAACP (29 June 1947).
American history is full of fascinating and sometimes divisive figures who shaped the course of not only American history but the history of the world.