No senator ever gained greater political benefits from chairing a special investigating committee than did Missouri's Harry S. Truman.
In 1940, as World War II tightened its grip on Europe, Congress prepared for eventual U.S. involvement by appropriating $10 billion in defense contracts. Early in 1941, stories of widespread contractor mismanagement reached Senator Truman. In typical fashion, he decided to go take a look. During his 10,000-mile tour of military bases, he discovered that contractors were being paid a fixed profit no matter how inefficient their operations proved to be. He also found that a handful of corporations headquartered in the East were receiving a disproportionately greater share of the contracts.
Convinced that waste and corruption were strangling the nation's efforts to mobilize itself for the war in Europe, Truman conceived the idea for a special Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. Senior military officials opposed the idea, recalling the Civil War-era problems that the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War created for President Lincoln. Robert E. Lee had once joked that he considered the joint committee's harassment of Union commanders to be worth at least two Confederate divisions. Truman had no intention of allowing that earlier committee to serve as his model.
Congressional leaders advised President Franklin Roosevelt that it would be better for such an inquiry to be in Truman's sympathetic hands than to let it fall to those who might use it as a way of attacking his administration. They also assured the president that the "Truman Committee" would not be able to cause much trouble with a budget of only $15,000 to investigate billions in defense spending.
By unanimous consent on March 1, 1941, the Senate created what proved to be one of the most productive investigating committees in its entire history.
During the three years of Truman's chairmanship, the committee held hundreds of hearings, traveled thousands of miles to conduct field inspections, and saved millions of dollars in cost overruns. Earning nearly universal respect for his thoroughness and determination, Truman erased his earlier public image as an errand-runner for Kansas City politicos. Along the way, he developed working experience with business, labor, agriculture, and executive branch agencies that would serve him well in later years. In 1944, when Democratic party leaders sought a replacement for controversial Vice President Henry Wallace, they settled on Truman, thereby setting his course directly to the White House.
Riddle, Donald H. The Truman Committee. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1964.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., and Roger Bruns, eds. Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792-1974. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1975.