Thrown into the US presidency in 1945, Truman faced one of the hardest decisions in his country’s history.
On the morning of April 12, 1945, Harry Truman got up as usual, dropped his daughter at school and went to the office. He had little to do, and passed his time arranging a poker game with a former army friend. After lunch, he strolled into the Senate, where he was due to preside over the afternoon session.
To the amazement of many political observers, the unheralded Truman had spent the past four months as Franklin D Roosevelt’s vice-president, an obscure, bespectacled little man in a dead-end ceremonial job. While the senators droned on, he began a letter to his mother and sister. “Dear Mamma and Mary,” he wrote, “I am trying to write you a letter today from the desk of the president of the Senate … We’ve had a week of beautiful weather but it is raining and misting today.”
At 5pm, the Senate adjourned and Truman went backstage for a drink. He had just picked up his glass of bourbon when he had a message to call the White House. Come as quickly as possible, said the voice on the other end of the phone. A few minutes later, he was shown into Eleanor Roosevelt’s study. “Harry,” the formidable Mrs Roosevelt said gently, “the president is dead.” Truman almost burst into tears. As he later put it: “I had hurried to the White House to see the president and when I arrived I found I was the president.”
The story of Truman’s accession to the presidency is worthy of a Hollywood melodrama, and AJ Baime’s zippy, well-judged and hugely readable book more than does it justice. One moment Truman was a bit-part player in the great drama of the Second World War. The next, he was standing centre stage, the eyes of the world burning into him. Never had he dreamt of such attention.
Born in 1884, in small-town Missouri, a farmer’s son who had never been to university, Truman had worked as a bank clerk and set up a haberdashery shop, which went bust. He got into local politics, becoming a faithful servant of the corrupt Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast, who picked him to become US Senator from Missouri. Then, in 1944, FDR offered Truman the vice-presidency. Few people outside the state had heard of him.
In his first four months in the job, Truman went to baseball games, played poker with his Senate cronies and worried about something happening to the exhausted Roosevelt. Then FDR dropped dead and his worst nightmare became real. America was at war, the Japanese were holding out, Stalin was tightening his grip on Eastern Europe, and Truman, the Missouri haberdasher, was the most powerful man in the world.
Even as the news was sinking in, he rang his wife, who started crying, and his elderly mother, who was “terribly, terribly distressed”. It was not the most auspicious beginning.
And there was something else. Late on that first evening in the White House, Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, asked to speak to Truman alone about a “most urgent matter”. In the last few months, Stimson said, scientists had been working in secret on a “new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power”, which could end the war almost overnight. It was nearly ready. But it was so secret that Stimson could not divulge any more details. “His statement left me puzzled,” Truman recalled, but he took it in his stride. The important thing, he told himself, was to stay calm and get on with it.
Although there are plenty of good biographies of Truman, few are as entertaining as Baime’s, which focuses on the four months between his unexpected accession and the end of the war with Japan. There are some memorably Pooterish details: after a few weeks, Truman complains to his wife Bess, who has gone back to Missouri to visit her family, that the White House is a “lonesome place”, and that he has “no one to raise a fuss over my neckties, and my haircuts, my shoes and my clothes”.
Yet all the time, Truman is wrestling with the question of the bomb. “I am going to have to make a decision which no man in history has ever had to make,” he tells one aide. “It is terrifying to think about what I will have to decide.”
The morality of Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 will be debated for the rest of time. But as Baime shows, the new president had few doubts. Japan was already subject to horrendously punishing US air raids, which killed at least 330,000 people, while the Pentagon estimated that hundreds of thousands of Americans would be killed if they tried to invade. When the first bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Truman was reportedly delighted, hailing the news as “the greatest thing in history”.
Later, he justified his decision with typical bluntness. “It occurred to me,” he wrote, “that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood were worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are.”
What is not in doubt, though, is that Truman was a far greater president than anybody had believed possible. By the time he stepped down in January 1953, the Cold War was in full swing, yet American power and prestige were at their all-time peaks. As Baime’s book shows, history offers few examples of a “little man”, as Truman was often called, rising to the challenge of high office with such humility and seriousness. One way or another, most occupants of the White House have been pretty extraordinary figures. But Truman was nothing if not ordinary. And that, in the end, was his greatest asset.