Cell cycle regulation in hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) is tightly controlled during homeostasis and in response to extrinsic stress. p53, a well-known tumor suppressor and transducer of diverse stress signals, has been implicated in maintaining HSC quiescence and self-renewal. However, the mechanisms that control its activity in HSCs, and how p53 activity contributes to HSC cell cycle control, are poorly understood. Here, we use a genetically engineered mouse to show that p53 C-terminal modification is critical for controlling HSC abundance during homeostasis and HSC and progenitor proliferation after irradiation. Preventing p53 C-terminal modification renders mice exquisitely radiosensitive due to defects in HSC/progenitor proliferation, a critical determinant for restoring hematopoiesis after irradiation. We show that fine-tuning the expression levels of the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p21, a p53 target gene, contributes significantly to p53-mediated effects on the hematopoietic system. These results have implications for understanding cell competition in response to stresses involved in stem cell transplantation, recovery from adverse hematologic effects of DNA-damaging cancer therapies, and development of radioprotection strategies.