Truman may have entered the war in 1917 as a farmer with only clerical jobs behind him, but he came out well-connected and an experienced leader.
It was at Fort Sill that Truman met Lieutenant James M. Pendergast who was nephew to Tom Pendergast, a Kansas City political boss. This association proved a major influence on Truman in later years.
Truman, along with Edward Jacobson, ran a camp canteen that was funded by unit members. Normally a money-loser, theirs turned a profit and returned each soldier’s initial $2 investment along with $10,000 in dividends in six months.
In France, Truman was promoted to Captain and became commander of a unit known for its discipline problems. Truman was unpopular with his men because of his efforts to restore order, and they attempted to get him to quit. Rather than give up, Truman made his corporals and sergeants responsible for discipline. He would back them up if they performed well and return them to the ranks as private if they did not. Problem solved.
On one occasion, during a surprise night attack by Germans, his men began to run. Truman ordered them to stay and fight using profanity from his railroad days. His men were so surprised to hear such language from him that they obeyed at once.
Truman was honorably discharged on May 6, 1919, and the following month on June 28, he and Bess Wallace were united in Holy Matrimony.
In 1922, with the backing of Tom Pendergast and Kansas City’s political machine, Truman was elected County Court judge of Jackson County’s eastern district. Administrative rather than judicial, the position was equivalent to county commissioner. He lost reelection in 1924 and, after selling automobile club memberships for two years, decided life as a public servant was a better deal.
In 1926, again with the help of Pendergast, he was elected presiding judge and became president of the National Old Trails Road Association. He was reelected presiding judge in 1930.
In 1933, Postmaster General James Farley named Truman Missouri’s director for the Federal Re-employment program. This was payback to Pendergast for delivering the KC vote to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election, thus confirming Pendergast’s control over federal patronage jobs in Missouri. It also created a relationship between Truman and Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins.
Truman next set eyes on the Governor’s office, but Pendergast had other ideas. In 1934, Truman found himself running for US Senator and winning. He was dubbed “the Senator from Pendergast.”
A member of the Committee on Military Affairs, Truman visited various military bases, and saw plenty of waste and profiteering. He used his subcommittee chairmanship and started investigations into abuses while the nation prepared for war. His initiative convinced Senate leaders the committee was necessary and his skill in managing it gained him national recognition. The committee saved $15 billion and put Truman on the cover of TIME magazine. According to the Senate’s historical minutes, “Truman erased his earlier public image as an errand-runner for Kansas City politicos,” and “no senator ever gained greater political benefits from chairing a special investigating committee than did Missouri’s Harry S. Truman.”
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News for over ten years. She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.email@example.com.