Nation Still at War, Truman Is Suddenly President
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THE MAKING OF A NATION – a program in Special English by the Voice of America.
The House of Representatives of the Congress closed for business early on the rainy afternoon of April twelfth, 1945. The House Democratic leader, Sam Rayburn, stepped down from his chair and invited a friend to come by his office for a drink. "Be there around five o'clock," Rayburn said. "Harry Truman is coming over."
The Second World War was not yet over. But it was a quiet afternoon in Washington. President Franklin Roosevelt was in the state of Georgia. He was resting after his recent trip to Yalta to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The president's wife, Eleanor, was at the White House, working on a speech supporting the new United Nations organization.
Vice President Harry Truman was at the Senate. But he was not interested in the debate. He spent most of his time writing a letter to his mother and sister back in the state of Missouri. When the debate finished, he went to the office of House leader Rayburn to join him for a drink. It was an afternoon Truman would never forget.
Rayburn and his other friend were talking in the office before Truman arrived. Suddenly the telephone rang. It was the White House. A voice asked whether Vice President Truman had arrived yet. "No," Rayburn replied. "Tell him to call the White House," the voice said, "as soon as he gets there."
Truman entered a minute later. He immediately called the White House. As he talked, his face became white. He put down the phone and raced out the door to find his car.
Truman arrived at the White House within minutes. An assistant took him up to the private living area for the president. Mrs. Roosevelt was waiting for him there. "Harry," she said to Truman, "the president is dead."
Truman was shocked. He asked Mrs. Roosevelt if there was anything he could do to help her. But her reply made clear to him that his own life had suddenly changed. "Is there anything we can do for you?" Mrs. Roosevelt asked the new president. "You are the one in trouble now."
Within hours, the world knew the news. Franklin Roosevelt was dead. Americans were shocked and afraid. Roosevelt had led them since early 1933. He was the only president many young Americans had ever known. Who would lead them now.
The answer was Harry Truman, the vice president. Truman had been a surprise choice for vice president. Delegates at the Democratic presidential convention of 1944 chose him to be with Roosevelt only after considering several other candidates. Roosevelt and Truman easily defeated their Republican Party opponents. And, when Roosevelt died, Truman became president.
Truman lacked the fame, the rich family, and the strong speaking voice of Franklin Roosevelt. He was a much simpler man. He grew up in the central state of Missouri. Truman only studied through high school and some night-time law school classes. He worked for many years as a farmer and a small businessman, but without much success.
Truman had long been interested in politics. When he was almost forty years old, he finally won several low-level jobs in his home state. By 1934, he was popular enough in the state to be nominated and elected to the United States Senate. And he won re-election six years later.
Most Americans, however, knew little about Truman when he became president. They knew he had close ties to the Democratic Party political machine in his home state. But they also had heard that he was a very honest man. They could see that Truman had strongly supported President Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs. But they could not be sure what kind of president Truman would become.
History gave Truman little time to learn about his new job. In one of his first weeks as president, Truman signed a paper on his desk without reading it completely. Only later did he learn that his signing the paper had stopped the shipment of American goods to Britain under the "lend-lease" program.
Truman's mistake caused problems for people in both the United States and Britain. But it also taught the new president how much power he now had, and how carefully he must use it.
The most important power he now possessed was the power of atomic weapons. And, soon after he became president, he faced the decision to use that terrible power or not.
Truman understood the tragic importance of using atomic bombs to end World War Two. Yet he firmly believed that using such bombs was the only way to force Japan to surrender. So in August, 1945, he gave the orders to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The war in Europe had ended several months earlier. Truman met in Potsdam, Germany, with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to plan the peace.
The three leaders agreed that their nations and France would occupy Germany jointly. They also agreed to end the Nazi party in Germany, to hold trials for Nazi war criminals, and to break up some German businesses.
Foreign ministers of the Allied nations later negotiated peace treaties with Germany's wartime allies and other countries, including Italy, Hungary, and Romania.
The east European nations all agreed to protect the political and economic freedom of their citizens. However, western political experts were becoming more fearful each day that the Soviet Union would block any effort for real democracy in eastern Europe.
Truman did not trust the soviets. And as he made plans for Asia, he promised himself that he would not allow Moscow any part in controlling Japan. For this reason, the Allied occupation of Japan was mainly American.
The American leader in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, acted quickly to hold a series of trials for Japanese war crimes. He also launched a series of reforms to move Japan toward becoming a modern Western democracy. Women were given the right to vote. Land was divided among farmers. Shinto was ended as the national religion. And the educational system was reorganized.
Japan began to recover very soon, becoming stronger than ever before as an economic power.
While Truman and other world leaders dealt with the problems of making peace, they also were trying to establish a new system for keeping the peace.
The United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and the other Allies had formed the United Nations as a wartime organization. But soon after Truman took office, they met in San Francisco to discuss ways to make the United Nations a permanent organization for peace.
At the same time, many of the world's economic experts were meeting to organize a new economic system for the world. They created the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to help nations rebuild their economies.
At the center of all the action was Harry Truman. It was not long before he showed Americans and the world that he had the ability to be a good president. He was honest, strong, and willing to make decisions.
"I was sworn-in one night and the next morning I had to get right to the job at hand," Truman remembered years later. "I was afraid. But, of course, I didn't let anybody know that. And I knew that I would not be called on to do anything that I was not able to do. That's something I learned from reading history.
"People in the past have had much bigger problems. Somehow, the best of them just went ahead and did what they had to do. And they usually did all right.
"The job I had in the White House was not so very different from other jobs," Truman said. "I didn't let it worry me. Worrying never does you any good. So I have never worried about things much. "
You have been listening to THE MAKING OF A NATION, a program in Special English by the Voice of America. Your narrators have been Harry Monroe and Rich Kleinfeldt. Our program was written by David Jarmul. The Voice of America invites you to listen again next week to THE MAKING OF A NATION.