It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Jul 29, 2011

Harry “S-for nothing” Truman

My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there's hardly any difference.

Harry Truman

The United States presidential election of 1948 is considered by most historians as the greatest election upset in American history.

Harry Truman became our 33-rd president upon the death of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. Truman's presidency was considered a good one, rebuilding the United States, Japan and Europe after World War II, and the first to deal with the "Cold War."

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In 1948, he was challenged by Thomas Dewey, a rather charismatic orator. Truman was a common man, and considered by many to be too boring and uninteresting to win re-election against Dewey. His advisers told him that not only was he boring, so was his name. Since President Roosevelt popularized using his middle initial — Franklin D. Roosevelt — so should Truman. The problem was, Harry had no middle name. His advisors chose the letter "S," believing "Harry S. Truman" had a nice ring to it.

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During a news conference, a journalist asked what his middle initial "S" stood for. Truman answered honestly, "nothing." Thereafter, his unofficial campaign slogan became "Vote for Harry S-for-nothing Truman."

Being more accurate, the S as the middle letter was not invented from scratch, since it was indeed given to Harry Truman at birth, he just never actually used it before the public presidential campaign. In Truman's autobiography, he stated, "I was named for...Harrison Young. I was given the diminutive Harry and, so that I could have two initials in my given name, the letter S. was added. My Grandfather Truman's name was Anderson Shippe Truman and my Grandfather Young's name was Solomon Young, so I received the S for both of them."

On the eve of the election, Gallup polls showed Truman would lose to Dewey by a large margin — so much so that the Chicago Daily Tribune declared "Dewey Defeats Truman" on its front page before the final vote was tallied. Actually, almost every prediction (with or without public opinion polls) indicated that incumbent President Harry S. Truman would be defeated by Republican Thomas E. Dewey.

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However, Truman won, overcoming a three-way split in his own party. Truman's surprise victory was the fifth consecutive win for the Democratic Party in a presidential election. As a result of the 1948 congressional election, the Democrats would regain control of both houses of Congress. Thus, Truman's election confirmed the Democratic Party's status as the nation's majority party, a status it would retain until 1952.

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The photo of Truman holding the Chicago paper above his head is legendary and documents one of the biggest journalistic blunders of the 20th century.

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Harry "S-for-nothing" Truman, whether an intentional hoax or an accident, won him the election. This remained his nickname for the rest of his life.

Truman once joked that the S was a name, not an initial, and it should not have a period, but official documents and his presidential library all use a period. Furthermore, the Harry S. Truman Library has numerous examples of the signature written at various times throughout Truman's lifetime where his own use of a period after the "S" is conspicuous. The Associated Press Stylebook has called for a period after the S since the early 1960s, when Truman indicated he had no preference. The use of a period after his middle initial is not universal, however; the official White House biography does not use a period after his name.

Truman's bare initial caused an unusual slip when he first became President and had to take the oath of office. At a meeting in the Cabinet Room, Chief Justice Harlan Stone began reading the oath by saying "I, Harry Shipp Truman, ..."! (Truman responded using his actual name: "I, Harry S. Truman, ...")

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