On this day in history, December 26, 1972, President Harry S. Truman dies after suffering from pneumonia


Harry S. Truman, who was unexpectedly thrust into the presidency and a global leadership role at an extraordinary tipping point in human history, died at Kansas City Research Medical Center on this day in history, Dec. 26, 1972. 

The 33rd president of the United States was 88 years old. He was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia on Dec. 5 and suffered multiple complications. 

“Confronted during his presidency with a momentous series of challenges, his strength and spirit proved equal to them all,” President Richard Nixon said in announcing Truman’s death to the nation. 

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“His fortitude never wavered, and his faith in America never flagged.”

Vice President Truman ascended to the Oval Office following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. World War II was in its final weeks in Europe and in its final months in the Pacific. 

Funeral of Harry Truman as his casket lies in state at the Truman Library.  (UPI Color/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Truman spent the previous 10 years as a U.S. senator from Missouri and became vice president only three months earlier; he was the running mate of FDR, who was elected to his fourth term in the White House

The newcomer to the executive branch had been kept in the dark about the nation’s biggest military secrets, complex plans for peace and greatest geopolitical challenges in the coming post-war world.

“I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.” — Harry Truman

“During his few weeks as vice president, Harry Truman scarcely saw President Franklin Roosevelt, and received no briefing on the development of the atomic bomb or the unfolding difficulties with Soviet Russia,” his biography at WhiteHouse.gov states.

“Suddenly these and a host of other wartime problems became Truman’s to solve.”

“I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me,” Truman later said.

He handled the global responsibilities — a series of sudden existential challenges perhaps unprecedented in human history — with skill and decisiveness, and in rapid order. 

Truman in charge.

President Harry S. Truman seated in the White House with the sign “The Buck Stops Here” in the foreground, circa 1950.  (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

Truman oversaw the World War II defeat of Germany in May; led America into its leadership role of the United Nations, chartered in June; ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to hasten the end of the war in August; and celebrated the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II in September.

The nation’s achievements under his leadership proved a victory for homespun wisdom and common sense over personal pedigree and elite education

Truman’s studies ended with high school. He was the only president since the 19th century who was not college educated. 

Truman’s studies ended with high school. He was the only president since the 19th century who was not college educated. 

He honed his leadership skills during an unusual military career. Truman enlisted in the Missouri National Guard in 1905 and was elected lieutenant by his comrades on the eve of America’s entry into World War I in 1917. 

He led an artillery unit in combat in France during the war.

Truman served as a reservist for decades. He volunteered for active duty in World War II as a U.S. senator but was denied because of his age (57), poor eyesight and national leadership role. 

FILE Aug. 6, 1945: Photo released by the U.S. Army, a mushroom cloud billows about one hour after an atomic bomb was detonated above Hiroshima, western Japan.

File photo released by the U.S. Army: A mushroom cloud billows about one hour after an atomic bomb was detonated above Hiroshima, western Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945. (AP Photo/U.S. Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, HO)

Even so, he remained an Army reservist, at least on paper, until leaving the presidency on Jan. 20, 1953. 

World War I “was a transformative experience that brought out Truman’s leadership qualities,” writes the Truman Library Institute.

“Despite beginning 1917 as a family farmer who had been unsuccessful in several business ventures, Truman achieved a war record and leadership experience that supported his postwar political career in Missouri.”

World War I “was a transformative experience that brought out Truman’s leadership qualities.”

Those leadership experiences proved critical when he was thrust until the role of president of the world’s newly emerged superpower — and in the midst of the global geopolitical earthquake the came with the end of World War II. 

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For Truman, the post-war world would prove harder to negotiate.

Captain Harry S. Truman

A photographic postcard portrait of Harry Truman while he was a soldier in World War I. Truman was promoted to captain in April 1918; he was in charge of Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery.  (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

He won the 1948 presidential election, despite expectations he’d lose to New York governor Thomas Dewey, but gained less than half the popular vote. 

A long list of domestic and international trouble began to weigh on his administration and shatter his early popularity. 

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The deadly quagmire of the Korean War, which began in 1950, doomed his presidency.

Truman chose not to run for a second elected term in 1952, with approval ratings that bottomed at as low as 22% percent in some polls.

“Later presidents, regardless of political party, looked back on Truman fondly.”

“Over the next two decades, however, Truman’s standing among American presidents rose,” Britannica notes. 

“Truman had risen to the challenge and acquitted himself far better than nearly everyone had expected. Later presidents, regardless of political party, looked back on him fondly, admiring his willingness to take responsibility for the country (as a sign on his desk read, ‘The Buck Stops Here!’) and trying to emulate his appeal to the average voter.”

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Truman was buried on Dec. 28 at his presidential library in his hometown of Independence, Missouri, following a private service, rather than an opulent state funeral in Washington, D.C.

His interment befitted his legacy as a common-man president.

Dewey, Truman headline

President Harry Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune declaring his “defeat” to Thomas Dewey in the presidential election, St Louis, Missouri, in Nov. 1948.  (Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

The president was eulogized by American and foreign dignitaries, family and friends on Jan. 5 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C

“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities,” Truman is often quoted as saying. 

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“An optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

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