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Harry S. Truman was a fearless President who revelled in power

Posted in America, Communism, Historical articles, History, Weapons, World War 2 on Tuesday, 30 October 2012

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This edited article about Harry S. Truman originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 775 published on 20th November 1975.

Hiroshima, picture, image, illustration

Truman took the momentous decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The first thing important visitors to Harry S. Truman, President of the United States, saw when they entered his huge, plush office in the White House in Washington was the simple, four-word motto displayed on the President’s desk. It said: “The buck stops here.”

Having “the buck” passed to him and not being allowed – as chief man in the land – to pass it on to anyone else, involved Truman in one of the most vital decisions ever taken in the history of mankind. It happened only weeks after he became President that his advisers presented him with the task of deciding whether or not to drop the first ever atomic bomb – on Hiroshima, in Japan, as the war in the Far East moved inexorably through the year 1945.

“We faced half a million casualties trying to take Japan by land,” Truman said later. “It was either that or the atom bomb and I didn’t hesitate a minute. And I’ve never lost any sleep over it since.”

That Truman was able to make such a historical decision was in itself something like the great American dream come true. On April 11, 1945, hardly anyone outside America had ever heard of him. Although he was America’s Vice-President, he was firmly implanted deep in the shadows of Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the greatest statesmen of all time.

Then, next day, Roosevelt was dead, and Truman the unknown was President. He was a little man in stature, a former shopkeeper whose business had failed, from Independence, Missouri. The world reeled back in disbelief of such a man shaping nations and their peoples’ way of life after the end of the Second World War.

The doubts they had about Truman were, however, soon to be totally shattered. After authorising the atomic destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and receiving Japan’s surrender in return – Truman sent American troops into Korea to tackle Russian-backed Communist aggression, thereby pitchforking America into the Korean War.

Then, when war hero General MacArthur, renowned for his toughness and uncompromising attitude, tried to extend air warfare into Manchuria, Truman fired him. “He got what was coming to him,” Truman said, without so much as blinking an eyelid, as the General packed his uniforms away.

Truman seemed utterly fearless. He recognised the importance of putting impoverished nations back on their feet after the Second World War and, in the face of American criticism, he was generous and swift with aid to these needy countries. When the Russians blockaded Berlin, preventing the Allies from getting supplies to the city by road, Truman lent planes and support to create the airlift that finally broke the Russian blockade.

All these decisions made in the first erratic three years after the Second World War were vital to the creation of a lasting world peace and could very easily have gone wrong. But Truman seemed to revel in them. “If you can’t stand the heat,” he once remarked, “get out of the kitchen.”

Some of his other sayings became models for bluntness and determination. Addressing the American Congress in 1947 Truman declared: “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

A year earlier he had written to U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes: “Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language, another war is in the making. Only one language do they understand – ‘How many (army) divisions have you?'”

In his mother’s words, Harry Truman “could plough the straightest furrow in Jackson County, Missouri.” But by the time he was 38 that ability as a ploughman constituted his greatest success in life. That was the age at which he found himself penniless after the failure of the Kansas haberdashery business in which he was a partner.

Jobless, Truman obtained work as a minor county official – a first foot on the ladder of politics which eventually led him to election as a United States Senator.

In 1944 Franklin Roosevelt was preparing to run for his last term as President. His principal problem in what was considered to be a likely easy victory was the choice of his vice-presidential running mate. The President’s Democrat Party were disagreed about who should be candidate for Vice-President and the dilemma was eventually solved by choosing a compromise candidate. The compromise was Harry Truman.

He was, he said, “flabbergasted.” So, too, was most of America. They knew, as Truman knew, that he had not been chosen for his political skills but simply because he offended no one.

The war in Europe was over when in the following year, 1945, Roosevelt died. By American law, in such circumstances the Vice-President becomes President for the remainder of the dead President’s term of office.

The jokers sneered when the mild-mannered Truman took the centre of the stage. No one guessed that in the post-war years he would handle, with great credit, problems as grave and as complex as any that faced his brilliant predecessor.

His decision to drop the then virtually unknown atomic bomb on Japanese civilians was undoubtedly the grimmest one he made. “It wasn’t easy,” he recalled long afterwards. “I did not like the weapon. But I had no qualms if, in the long run, millions of lives could be saved.”

At home, Truman emerged as a great reformer. His “Fair Deal” programme embodied provisions for cheap housing, farm subsidies and considerable concern for the American poor. Abroad, he revolutionised American foreign policy by providing cash and arms for anti-Communist countries and by launching the life-saving “Marshall Aid Plan” which provided cash and goods for the impoverished post-war countries of Western Europe.

For all this, it was clear that geniality, shrewdness and courage were carrying the day for Harry Truman. What he was short of was experience, training and outlook. He took speech training but he was always a mediocre speaker, usually hurrying his words and frequently reading them straight from the script. He never ceased openly to regret what he called the “terrible inadequacy” of his education.

By 1948, when his term of office was over, most of Truman’s personality problems were transparently obvious. When the new presidential election began in that year Americans seemed slightly amused that Truman should be so optimistic as to ask the nation to vote him in for a second term – this time in his own right.

In that year, too, the great American bogey was Russia. How could a man like Truman, so noted for his ordinariness, possibly have the physical and mental ability to stand up to such a challenge?

Half-way through the campaign the polls were showing consistently what they were to show for the rest of the campaign – that Truman was the biggest write-off in history and that he was about to lose by an overwhelming landslide.

The predicted winner, the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey, was a lawyer, tough, wordly and confident. The press, the radio and America’s multimillion dollar big businesses were solidly behind him. He was going to win, the opinion polls proclaimed, with laughable ease.

Against such odds. Truman decided to go out and talk to the American people – as many as he could in the time at his command. He started off on a whistle-stop tour aimed at presenting himself to the country’s little men as one of themselves. It didn’t matter if his jokes were lacking in wit and his general philosophy was folksy – Truman knew well enough that the bulk of the population consisted of unsophisticated men and women. Dewey could have the big cities – the Democrats would have the men sitting at drug store counters, in pool rooms, hunched over the wheels of tractors.

These were the men Truman had grown up with. These were the people he understood.

For 35 gruelling days he travelled from coast to coast, covering thousands of miles and averaging 10 speeches a day. At the end of it the Gallup Poll still forecast Dewey to win in a canter.

At midnight on polling day, when the votes were being counted, Truman woke up in his Kansas City hotel room and switched on the radio. He was, the commentator said, over a million votes ahead – but he couldn’t possibly win.

Four hours later the announcer was still saying that Truman couldn’t avoid defeat, but for some unexplained reason he now had two million more votes than Dewey.

By 10.30 the following morning, it was all over. Little Harry Truman, in his own right, was back in office as President.

The election result, however, rocked America to its political foundations. Some newspapers had even gone so far as to print Republican victory issues. These had to be hastily recalled, while the opinion polls found themselves facing the uncomfortable fact that it would be years before anyone believed them again.

In his second term, Truman consolidated the greatness he had achieved. He courted the widest personal unpopularity by dismissing Far East Commander General MacArthur in 1951. Although MacArthur was still a national hero, Truman acted unhesitatingly when he decided that the General’s policies could end only in a third world war. Afterwards, his action was endorsed by the military Chiefs of Staff.

The next year an astonished America watched Truman deliver a televised after-dinner speech in which he announced that he would not stand for a third term. He had won his battle against Russia and against the reactionary forces in America, but he was then fighting a new battle against failing health.

He finally lost that battle on Boxing Day, 1972. The little man who “made it big”, the failure who became one of the great successes of the modern world, was buried in a rose garden in a simple, private ceremony which was all that he had asked for.

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