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10 of Truman's Happiest Years Spent in Senate

By John W. McDonald
Former editor of The Examiner
Independence Examiner Truman Centennial Edition May 1984


Independence residents gave Harry Truman a big send-off when he left for the nation's capital after being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934.

Four hundred friends attended a farewell dinner in the dining hall at the First Christian Church. The tribute was sponsored by the three Democratic clubs of Eastern Jackson County: the Women's Jackson Democratic Club, the Junior Jefferson Democratic Club and the Young Men's Democratic Club.

Mrs. John Truman was dinner chairman. She was assisted by Mrs. James S. Craig, Mrs. W.B. Dickinson, Miss Agnes Fraher, Mrs. Paul Long, Mrs. E.I. Purcell, Miss Bernadette Brady, Russell Gabriel, Paul Long, Roy Layland and Ralph Stone.

Col. William Southern, editor of The Examiner and a longtime family friend and confidant, was master of ceremonies at the dinner.

The years that Mr. Truman spent in the U.S. Senate were by his own assessment "filled with hard work but which were also to be the happiest 10 years of my life."

They were years in which he grew in political stature and gained the experience that helped him shoulder the staggering responsibilities of wartime and postwar president of the United States.

They were years that provided the opportunity to perform invaluable service to his country as head of a Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. This committee saved billions in taxpayers' money by helping eliminate waste and fraud. It also contributed to bringing efficiency to the nation's war effort.

His role on this committee brought him into the spotlight and made him a figure of national prominence. The service performed in this capacity outstripped any contribution he might have made had he returned to the military, a move he once offered to make.

Had he not become the nation's chief executive, Mr. Truman no doubt would have regarded his career as a success because of his accomplishments in the Senate.

It was a big stride to make, from Jackson County administrative judge to membership in the august body of the U.S. Congress, but Mr. Truman made it eagerly and with anticipation, although at the same time with some trepidation.

How would he fit into a forum where Webster, Clay and Calhoun had debated the great issues of their day? He was familiar with those debates through his reading of history

Mr. Truman entered the Senate humbly and perhaps with a feeling of awe. Before going to Washington, he had read all the biographies and magazine articles he could find about his new colleagues. Most were college graduates. There were former governors and longtime House members, judges of state supreme courts, financiers and state political leaders.

But Sen. Hamilton Lewis, the Democratic whip from Illinois, soon relieved him of any feeling of inferiority. "Mr. Truman," he advised the freshman senator, "don't start out with an inferiority complex. For the first six months you'll wonder how you got here. After that you'll wonder how the rest of us got here."

At the start, Mr. Truman was assigned to two important committees, the Appropriations Committee and the Interstate Commerce Committee. He also was appointed to groups of lesser importance.

His approach to his work was characteristically methodical and he studied hard to gain all the background information possible on issues awaiting action.

With his good personality, he made friends easily, both on the Democratic and Republican side of the aisle. It was not long until he had gained the confidence and respect of most of his colleagues, even older members who had had reservations because of his connection with the Pendergast machine in Missouri.

Despite charges by his political foes and the press that he was "Pendergast's Man," political analysts have since said the situation was reversed. Pendergast needed a man with an "unsullied reputation" in politics, and found Harry Truman to be that man.

Mr. Truman won the Democratic nomination for his first term in the Senate over two other candidates he characterized as "experienced congressmen." They were John J. Cochrane of St. Louis and Jacob L. Milligan of Richmond, each of whom had served in Congress.

Later, in the fall of 1934, he ran up a majority of more than a quarter of a nlillion votes over his Republican opponent, Roscoe C. Patterson of Springfield. Mr. Truman was 50 years old when he was sworn in as a member of the Senate.

Mr. Truman's desire to return to the Senate for a second term grew out of a feeling he had more important business to finish there. He had found a satisfying position in public service. He had worked hard and had made a good record. He felt he had won the respect of that body.

It took a vigorous campaign for him to win in the primary over Gov. Lloyd Stark and Maurice Millligan.

As Mr. Truman began his second Senate term, the nation was in the midst of an allout effort to overcome its unpreparedness and to expand its national defense machinery. He was concerned over charges that huge contracts and immense purchases were being handled through favoritism, and over rumors of profiteering. He decided to launch a personal investigation.

"...I decided to take a closer look at it," he wrote later in his memoirs. ". . . I drove 30,000 miles in a great circle through Maryland and from there down to Florida, across to Texas, north through Oklahoma to Nebraska, and back through Wisconsin and Michigan. I visited war camps; defense plants, and other establishments and projects which had some connection with the total war effort of the country, and did not let any of them know who I was.

"The trip was an eye-opener, and I came back to Washington convinced that something needed to be done fast. I had seen at firsthand that grounds existed for a good many of the rumors that were prevalent in Washingtori concerning the letting of contracts and the concentration of defense industries in big cities."