On January 15, 1953, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) gave his farewell address after serving as the Thirty-Third President of the United States. He had taken office on April 12, 1945, after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). At the time of Roosevelt’s death, allied forces were pushing further into German territory to bring the Third Reich to its knees. In the Pacific, the war against Japan continued to rage but in less than six months, it too surrendered after the devastation left by two atomic bombs. In the first four months that Truman was in office, the entire world changed in ways no one could have imagined. Had Roosevelt lived, the war might have ended differently, and domestically, America might have moved forward at a different pace. He did not live to see his post-war plans come to light and for Truman, the title of president was thrust into his lap. He had never wanted the presidency but due to circumstance, he had become what author A.J. Baime calls the accidental president.
In contrast to a standard biography, the focus of the book is on the four months between Truman taking office and the surrender of Japan. The story begins with Roosevelt’s last day alive. Following his death, all eyes become fixed on Truman who is largely unknown to the American people. Washington insiders knew of his background but even within those circles, he was somewhat of a mystery. His unassuming look and plain-spoken Midwest nature made him appear as just another person in the room. But little did anyone know that the next president would usher in a new era in warfare and set the course for future domestic programs and U.S. foreign policy.
Before entering the lengthy discussion of the war and Truman’s role in it, Baime provides a short biography about his early life in Independence, Missouri, and his entry into politics that culminates with his arrival in Washington. One aspect that stood out is Truman’s military service in World War I which is often not discussed. I believe his experiences in combat surely helped his ability to make decisions during World War II. After we learn of Truman’s unusual entry into politics and nomination for vice-president, the author shifts gears and takes us right into the war with a heavy focus on Japan where the U.S. Air Force is conducting firebombing raids under the legendary and controversial General Curtis E. LeMay (1906-1990). Despite the fierce allied attacks, Japan would not surrender but in Europe, the Third Reich was on life support. Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) dream of a master Aryan nation spread across continents had collapsed and the tyrant himself was hiding in his bunker. The Red Army was closing in and the German people knew that retribution from the Soviets was not something any of them wanted to experience. On April 30, 1945, Hitler met his demise and escaped punishment at Nuremberg. Washington breathed a sigh of relief at the German defeat but knew that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) could not be fully trusted. The seeds of the Cold War had been firmly planted as World War II reached its shocking and brutal conclusion. With Germany no longer a threat, the story moves to the war in the Pacific where allied forces are determined to crush the Japanese military.
As the book progresses, it really splits into two stories; the race to finish the bomb and the negotiations at the Potsdam, Cecilienhof conference between Truman, Stalin, and British leader Winston Churchill (1874-1965). The debate over whether Truman should have used the bomb will continue but the author does a good job of showing what was being discussed behind the scenes. Truman knew the decision he had to make was unlike anything a president had faced before. He also knew that he would be judged throughout history for it. Baime summarizes Truman’s historical recognition with this accurate statement:
“Truman is remembered first and foremost for his decision to employ atomic weapons—Little Boy and Fat Man, the only two nuclear bombs ever used against human targets. More than seventy years later, this decision remains almost certainly the most controversial that any president has ever made.”
However, the war with Japan needed a conclusion, and allied forces had already begun to plan the full-scale invasion of the island on November 1, 1945. The bomb was the ace up Truman’s sleeve, but until a test was conducted, questions surrounding its efficacy remained. All of that changed on July 16, 1945, in Los Alamos, New Mexico when the first successful test was conducted and the outcome of World War II began to take shape.
Remarkably, throughout the reports of carnage, the tension surrounding the bomb program, and interactions with the Soviets, Truman always comes across as incredibly calm. And what we see is that for a man who was the accidental president, he rose to the occasion and showed no hesitation when action was required. The power of the bomb was not lost on Truman or others with knowledge of its existence. Lead scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) also makes an appearance in the story as the full gravity of the bomb’s creation comes down on all of them. No one knows for certain exactly when Truman decided to use the bomb and as Baime explains, there is no written record of it. Eventually, the moment in the book we know is coming arrives on August 6 when the city of Hiroshima receives the first atomic bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki suffered similar devastation which finally convinced the Japanese Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) (1901-1989) that to continue the war would mean Japan’s ultimate destruction.
Finally, the war was over but the destruction and death that ensued were permanently seared into the memories of all who witnesses man’s savagery. Truman personally observed Berlin for himself and the experience is revisited in the book. Survivors of the nuclear bombs provide additional feedback regarding the immediate impact of the detonation. Their words provided a chilling effect to the introduction of atomic weapons. Back in America, Truman’s popularity soared and the little-known senator from Missouri became an American hero. This stands in stark contrast to his wife Bess (1885-1982) whose disdain and avoidance of the public spotlight are also part of the story. The book concludes after the formal surrender of Japan but Baime provides an epilogue that takes a closer look at Truman’s time in office following the war. He never again reached the level of popularity that he enjoyed during the war era but he remains one of the most important leaders in world history. Few knew who he was when took control of Washington on April 12, 1945, but in just fourth months, he cemented his legacy and showed that even an accident president can be just what the country needs.
“No President could ever hope to lead our country, or to sustain the burdens of this office, save as the people helped with their support. I have had that help–you have given me that support–on all our great essential undertakings to build the free world’s strength and keep the peace. Those are the big things. Those are the things we have done together. For that I shall be grateful, always.” – Harry S. Truman, January 15, 1953