He first saw her in Sunday school when he was six years old and she was just five. "She had golden curls and beautiful blue eyes," he recalled. They graduated from high school together in 1901, but went their separate ways -- he moved to Kansas City and she to Colorado for a year -- until becoming reacquainted nine years later. It was then that Truman, who once wrote of Bess, "I thought she was the most beautiful and the sweetest person on earth," began his first and longest campaign -- to win the heart of Bess Wallace.
Bess lived in her family home in Independence, Missouri. Harry was a hard-working farmer from Grandview, twenty miles away. So he courted her, in part, by mail. Their correspondence would continue for nearly fifty years -- an exciting ride through nine years of courtship, fifty-three years of marriage, family, career changes, and political fortunes that thrust them to the very center of the world stage. More than 1300 letters from Harry to Bess Truman survive in the Truman Library collections.
Sadly, most of her letters to him have been lost to history. After showering Bess with attention and letters for more than a year, Harry proposed to her in 1911, but she turned him down. He persisted, and eventually she fell in love with him. He had a standing invitation to dinner at the Wallace home on Sundays, often sleeping across the street, afterwards, on the floor of his cousins' house because travel between Grandview and Independence was arduous. To win her favor -- she was from a wealthy family -- and better his prospects, he entered into a series of business ventures -- mining, drilling for oil, and other speculations -- most ending in disappointment. Although he also served as Grandview postmaster and as a county road overseer, his future remained uncertain.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Harry Truman joined a Missouri National Guard field artillery regiment. Federalized as the 129th Field Artillery Regiment of the 35th Division, the unit trained for combat in Oklahoma. Arriving in France in April 1918, he had additional training before taking command of Battery D, a unit known for rowdiness and intransigence. He won respect for his leadership and courage under fire, seeing action in the Vosges Forest, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and near Verdun. Throughout his military service, Truman carried Bess Wallace's picture in his breast pocket. Writing to her frequently, his spirits were buoyed by her promise to marry him upon his safe return.
Harry Truman returned from World War I determined to make changes in his life. He and Bess Wallace married in June 1919 and moved into the Wallace family home. In 1922, Truman entered politics with his election as a Jackson County judge, serving all but two years until 1934. The birth of their daughter Mary Margaret in 1924 brought joy and fulfillment to the Trumans, and her childhood coincided with the growth of Harry Truman's reputation and political career.
Harry Truman jumped at the chance to run for the U.S. Senate when it was offered to him in 1934. Elected, he served for what he called "the happiest ten years of my life."
He soon built a reputation for hard work and dedication, concentrating on transportation and interstate commerce during his first term and investigating the national defense program in his second term. Loyal to the New Deal, but also accepted by more conservative party members, Truman became Franklin Roosevelt's vice-presidential running mate in 1944. During these years, Bess Truman often returned to Independence for extended periods, leaving the Senator lonely in Washington, but giving them both an incentive to correspond in lengthy and endearing letters.
On April 12, 1945, with the death of FDR, Truman was thrust unexpectedly into the presidency, but soon adjusted to the awesome responsibility that had been placed on his shoulders. The end of World War II, the use of the atomic bomb, the establishment of the United Nations and the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall plan, and the beginning of the Korean War are just some of the momentous events he would preside over during his eight years in office. Living in the White House, and in the Blair House during the White House renovation from 1948 to 1952, the Trumans were a close-knit family that preferred not to entertain extensively or to hold grand state dinners. When he traveled or when she was away in Independence, Harry and Bess Truman continued to correspond on an almost daily basis in letters containing warmth, gossip, humor, and insight on world events. As they had both grown up around the turn of the century, they preferred writing letters to making phone calls, and used notes to keep abreast of each other's lives as well as to remind each other of their affection.
Typical of their relationship, they wrote to each other whenever circumstances kept them apart on June 28th, the anniversary of their marriage. Often they even wrote these anniversary notes when they were together, hand-delivering the letters to each other. These anniversary letters changed little over time, showing the same devotion after decades of marriage that they had shown from the beginning of their union. Click here for samples of the Trumans' legendary correspondence and journey with them from Missouri in the early years of their courtship to the White House in the waning days of World War II.