What kind of day was Thursday April 12, 1945 for Harry S. Truman?
The afternoon was gray outside, the light fading, as Vice President Harry S. Truman arrived close to 5:00 p.m. at the office of House Speaker Sam Rayburn, where the plan was to enjoy a bourbon and branch water after work. Someone told Truman that he should dial the White House phone number, NAtional 1414.
“Jesus Christ and Gen. Jackson!”
Truman apparently never got to sip the drink. He put down the phone, turned to Rayburn, and gasped, “Jesus Christ and Gen. Jackson!”
He’d been summoned. He apparently believed he’d been summoned to a rare meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on no notice to boot, almost certainly for some kind of upbraiding.
At about 5:25 p.m., transported in a black Mercury sedan with a driver but no Secret Service detail, Truman arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He said later he was puzzled as to why he’d been called in. “I thought that maybe he wanted me to do some special piece of liaison work with the Congress,” Truman said, according to biographer David McCullough. Other historians believe Truman knew the truth from the moment he’d picked up the phone.
Ushered to the second floor of the White House, Truman was greeted by Eleanor Roosevelt and press secretary Steve Early.
“Harry, the president is dead,” said the woman who was no longer First Lady.
Roosevelt had died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his summer home in Warm Springs, Georgia. He had been chief executive for 13 years. Many Americans had no living memory of any other president.
“Harry, the president is dead.”
The challenges facing the new president may have been the greatest any ever confronted.
- In Europe, Allied troops had reached the Rhine and the Elbe and Adolf Hitler‘s Third Reich was crumbling, but the war was not over. The United States’ relations with its British ally, Winston Churchill, were always being challenged and those with its Soviet ally, Josef Stalin, were worse than strained.
- In the Pacific, the outcome of the war with Japan remained uncertain. In the greatest logistical achievement in history, the U.S. and its allies were preparing to shift more than a million men and all of their gear from Europe to the Pacific to prepare for the two-pronged amphibious invasion of Japan, scheduled to begin in November.
- In the Pentagon, that sprawling new building to which the Navy had initially refused to move, rivalry between the Army and the Navy was kept somewhat in check by the needs of the war but was simmering beneath the surface. The Navy’s Adm. Ernest J. King was prickly and difficult, the Army’s Gen. George C. Marshall a quiet and competent source of strength who was more laid back.
- In New Mexico, a team of scientists with total government support and unlimited resources were working on a super weapon Truman knew little or nothing about.
At 7:08 p.m., minutes after being sworn in – although it was Roosevelt’s death, not the ceremony, that made him president – Truman convened a cabinet meeting. It was all very preliminary. Afterward, Secretary of War Henry Stimson lingered for a private chat. Stimson wanted Truman “to know about an immense project that was under way – a project looking to the development of a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power.” Truman wrote in his memoirs that this left him puzzled. Apparently, he did not retain the significance of what Stimson was trying to tell him. In fact, Stimson perceived his reaction as a snub.
Two weeks later, the Secretary of War sent his new boss a very personal “Dear Mr. President” letter that began, “I think it is very important that I should have a talk with you as soon as possible on a high secret matter.” They met on April 25, 1945, and for the first time the new president received a detailed briefing on the development of the atomic bomb. Often overlooked by historians is the fact that Truman had gotten inklings of the project while in the Senate. It’s possible he initially brushed off Stimson not because he didn’t want to know but because he already knew.
Truman was far from a familiar face to most Americans. Almost none realized that, as an artillery battalion commander at the Meuse-Argonne, he was the first combat veteran to become president since the advent of modern war.
Truman later wrote that his first day in office was “full of surprises,” although he probably came to the job knowing more than many historians realize. He may have been little known, but his humility, his integrity, and his habit of occasionally cussing up a storm endeared him to all around him.
Talking to Troops
In his first few days in office, Truman delivered a radio address to the armed forces. He wanted those participating in the war to understand where he was coming from. He referred to the commander-in-chief, Roosevelt, having fallen, and then he drew upon experience:
“When I fought in France with the 35th Division, I saw good officers and men fall and be replaced … I know the strain, the mud, the misery, the utter weariness of the soldier in the field. And I know too his courage, his stamina, his faith in his comrades, his country and himself.”
“As a veteran of the First World War, I have seen death on the battlefield,” said Truman. “When I fought in France with the 35th Division, I saw good officers and men fall and be replaced … I know the strain, the mud, the misery, the utter weariness of the soldier in the field. And I know too his courage, his stamina, his faith in his comrades, his country and himself.”
Ahead of Truman lay Hiroshima, the Marshall Plan, the Cold War, the nuclear age, and Korea. From his very first day as chief executive, even his strongest detractors knew that the modest man from Missouri had something to offer. April 12, 1945 was a milestone for Harry S. Truman – and a beginning.