Truman & Eisenhower: Poverty to Power

The lives of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower present inspiring stories of rising above humble beginnings to become powerful, world-changing leaders. Growing up in poverty in the obscure mid-west, they had almost no hope of doing anything of significance. Yet, they led the free world to succeed in the most threatening crises of our nation’s history. Still today, they are models of unlimited opportunity inherited by every American.

This year, I’m on a presidential library kick. These libraries enhance my hope for America. A previous post highlighted visits to the Nixon and Reagan libraries with my wife, Linda. Last week, we had the privilege of touring the Truman library in Independence, Missouri, and the Eisenhower library in Abilene, Kansas. Although these two gentlemen differed greatly in their political ideologies and leadership styles, I was struck by the similarities of their life stories.

Harry S Truman (no period after “S,” because that’s his middle name–“S”) was a nondescript son of a poor Missouri farmer. At age six, he and his family moved to Independence, Missouri, seeking a better life. As a teenager, he worked many odd jobs and enrolled in college after graduation. Frustrated with his disappointing academic performance, he left the campus, got a job with the railroad, and lived in a hobo camp. He soon became disenchanted with the city life and moved back to the farm. When WWI broke out, he felt he didn’t have anything to lose and joined the National Guard. His discipline and determination earned him officer rank and command upon his infantry unit’s deployment to France. He quickly earned the reputation of a tough commander and recognition for heroic performance. At the conclusion of the war, he returned to Independence and opened a clothing and hat shop in Kansas City. The business failed during the depression. However, his wartime accolades and business contacts won him an invitation to run for county judge. His success in leading infrastructure improvements in the county resulted in the Missouri Democratic Party urging him to run for the Senate.

As WWII raged, Senator Truman’s no-nonsense, plain-spoken political savvy impressed the Party so much, they nominated him to be the Vice President candidate for President Roosevelt’s fourth term. President Roosevelt died soon after his election to a fourth term, and the non-elected 33rd president, Harry Truman, soon announced victory in Europe. But Japan still had to be dealt with. He made the agonizing decision to drop the mother-of-all-weapons, the nuclear bomb, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan to surrender. Truman’s victory and subsequent international negotiations shaped the future of the entire world.

Dwight David Eisenhower grew up literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway ran just north of Eisenhower’s small boyhood home and separated the elite from the commoners in the little town of Abilene. His father, David, worked in the local creamery for a wage that kept the family economy at the poverty level. Dwight shared the house with his parents and six brothers. He was just an average student in high school, but loved to study history. Upon graduation, without funds for college, he and an older brother agreed to alternate years in college so that one worked for tuition while the other took classes. Just before his first opportunity to enter college, a friend who had been appointed to the Navy Academy urged Eisenhower to apply for an Academy appointment. Realizing that this education option might be the only way he could afford college, he secured an appointment to West Point.

Although “Ike,” as he became known, never saw action in WWI, he commanded a tank crew training unit earning several awards and impressing the generals. He served directly under some generals between the wars, and was a highly respected planner in the Pentagon at the beginning of WWII. Ultimately, he became the commanding general of all allied forces and received credit for leading the alliance to victory. His reputation for winning the war probably sealed his election as the 34th U.S. President succeeding Truman. His mild-mannered, but visionary presidency transitioned America from a wartime footing to an unparalleled industrial period within just a few years.

These two men are prime examples of the limitless opportunity afforded to Americans. We hear constant references to maldistribution of wealth, an uneven playing field, unfair advantage, as well as educational and economic disparity. But, these two men, and thousands like them, made their own opportunity in spite of great adversity. America, with all its faults and issues, still offers abundant fruits from individual freedom and initiative found nowhere else in the world.

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