Chapter 1: “Whither Harry S. Truman?”
“ALL IN,” A SECRET SERVICE man said.
It was 7 p.m. on August 14, 1945. A White House usher closed the door to the Oval Office and Harry Truman stood from behind his desk, staring out at a crowd of some two hundred perspiring radio and newspaper reporters who had just pushed their way in. Klieg lights from newsreel cameras glared off the president’s wire-rim spectacles. A row of cabinet officials stood behind him, and at the edge of the room, the First Lady, Bess Truman, was seated on a couch, her hands folded in a ball on her lap. Truman held up a statement in his right hand and began to read. All in the room knew what this address would communicate, but still, the words had the effect of an electric shock.
“I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese Government,” Truman said, “in reply to the message forwarded to that Government by the Secretary of State on August 11. I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan.”
The president’s full statement took a few minutes to read. His final words were, “That is all.”
When the doors to the Oval Office opened, reporters holding notepads dashed out to spread the news around the globe. World War II—the most destructive conflagration ever, a war that had consumed some sixty million human lives—was over.
Within minutes the news hit the radio. Outside on the streets of the nation’s capital, the doors of churches, offices, theaters, and bars burst open, pouring frantic Washingtonians into the hot August night. Impromptu jitterbug contests broke out on street corners. Drunks swung bottles while standing atop cars. At the White House gates, people began to amass, and within an hour of Truman’s declaration, a crowd bigger than the capacity of Yankee Stadium—some seventy-five thousand people—stood out on Pennsylvania Avenue. They began to chant: “We want Harry! We want Harry!”
Inside the executive mansion, Truman was busy making phone calls. He called his ninety-three-year-old mother, at her home in Grandview, Missouri. (“That was Harry,” Truman later recalled, “that in this hour of triumph I wished that it had been President Roosevelt, and not I, who had given the message to our people.”
Meanwhile, the “We want Harry!” chanting grew in decibels. The din became irresistible, and so Truman and his wife stepped out onto the White House lawn. Looking fit in a creased and buttoned double-breasted blue suit, the sixty-one-year-old president made a V sign with his fingers as Secret Service men hustled around him. A news photographer jumped forward and froze the moment in black-and-white celluloid. “[Truman] was on the White House lawn pumping his arms like an orchestra conductor at tens of thousands of cheering Americans who suddenly materialized in front of the mansion,” recalled one person present in the crowd. It was “the wildest celebration this capital ever saw.”
White House aides brought out a microphone and a loudspeaker and placed them in front of Truman. He had always been an awkward public speaker, but on this occasion, it did not matter. No one cared. When he began to speak, the crowds instantly hushed.
“This is a great day,” Truman said, “the day we’ve been waiting for. This is the day for free governments in the world. This is the day that fascism and police government ceases in the world. This is the day for Democracy.” He paused, taking in the moment. He had spent a lifetime reading history, studying the sagas of past presidents, never in his wildest dreams imagining that he would become one of them. He knew then that the challenges awaiting him in the near future were beyond anything any president had ever confronted before.
“We are faced with the greatest task with which we have ever been faced,” Truman said into the microphone. That task was to bring freedom to humanity all over the world and cultivate peace and prosperity at home. “It is going to take the help of all of us,” the president stated. “I know we are going to do it.”
All around the globe on this night, chaos reigned.
In the Far East, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still smoldered under radioactive clouds from the atomic bombings on August 6 and 9. Two days before Truman announced Japan’s unconditional surrender, the first aerial photos of Hiroshima post-detonation appeared on the front page of the New York Times. It was almost impossible to understand what this new weapon was, how it could harness the power of the universe, and what it would mean for the future. The secretary of commerce, Henry Wallace, put the situation in perspective, writing in his diary the day after the Hiroshima bombing, “Everyone seemed to feel that a new epoch in the world’s history had been ushered in. The scramble for the control of this new power is going to be one of the most unusual struggles the world has ever seen.”
In Europe, surviving populations clawed out of the rubble from nearly 2.7 million tons of bombs dropped by Allied airpower between 1940 and 1945. Huge numbers of people were without food and water. In France, according to the nation’s Ministry of Public Health, more than half of the children living in industrial areas had rickets. A third of the children in Belgium were tubercular. The US State Department estimated that nine million displaced persons were homeless in Europe—many of them Jews who had survived Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Some of the most gruesome death camps—Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück—had only recently been liberated, revealing the true depth of Nazi madness. At Auschwitz, the liberating Red Army had discovered more than fourteen thousand pounds of human hair.
In June 1945 the State Department had sent a lawyer named Earl G. Harrison to investigate the concentration camps, and his now-famous report—delivered to Truman just days after the president announced the surrender of Japan—painted a picture of a desperate situation. The occupying Allied forces in Europe had little resources to help the hundreds of thousands of displaced Jews, who were still dying in large numbers, right before their eyes. “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them,” Harrison wrote.
In the Middle East, Soviet, French, British, and American troops occupied the homelands of increasingly bitter ethnic and sectarian tribes. China was on the brink of a Communist revolution. The British government was destitute and desperate for loans. The United States and Soviet Union, meanwhile, were emerging from the war as history’s first two global superpowers, and relations between the two were declining profoundly.
“Secular history offers few, if any, parallels to the events of the past week,” reported CBS radio news anchor Edward R. Murrow, at the time of Japan’s surrender. “And seldom, if ever, has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertain...