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Harry Truman’s Long Day on April 12, 1945

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.

Vice President-elect Harry S. Truman

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vice President-elect Harry S. Truman, and Vice President Henry Wallace in a car returning to the Capitol from Union Station during a downpour, Nov. 10, 1944. Truman Library photo

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.

 

Unexpected News?

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 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.

 

Cabinet Call

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.

Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman takes the oath of office at the White House after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, April 12, 1945. From left to right: Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor; Henry Stimson, Secretary of War; Henry Wallace, Secretary of Commerce; Julius Krug, War Production Board Administrator; James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy; Claude Wickard, Secretary of Agriculture; Francis McNamee, Department Chairman, War Manpower Commission; Francis Biddle, Attorney General; Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury; Harry S. Truman; Edward Stettinius, Secretary of State; Bess Wallace Truman; Harlan Stone, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House; Fred Vinson, Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion; Rep. Joseph Martin, House Minority Leader; Rep. Robert Ramspeck, House Democratic Whip; Rep. John McCormack, House Majority Leader. Library of Congress photo by Abbie Rowe

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.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-74424">

    I found a 16×13 cropped picture of the swearing in picture of Truman, in my father’s basement. He was a US history teacher from 1954-1975. A student gave it to him. On the back is paragraph stating what the event was and names of those present. The photo was taken by Elliott Service Co. 219 E 44th st. NY NY. It is the same one pictured in the Cabinet call section in your story above. I have some other pictures from this era as well. They are all laminated. Would you know anyone interested in purchasing them from me.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-117949">
    Kevin J. Street, Esq.

    My Great Uncle, William David Simmons, was FDR’s Chief Receptionist from 1940 until his death. He served Presidents Truman, Eisehower & Kennedy. I have seen video and the tall man with snow white hair and clipped mustache with thick glasses is my Great Uncle. If someone has this video clip,i would appreciate a copy.