The Sudden Presidency
While political insiders had noticed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s physical decline, the country was in shock when their President – for twelve years and counting – died suddenly in Warm Springs, GA. His failing health had been generally hidden from the public.
It had also been hidden from VP Harry Truman, who had only seen him once or twice since the inauguration on January 20, 1945. FDR and Truman had never been more than pleasantly cool acquaintances. Truman had never been included in important decisions.
Now, on April 12, 1945, when Harry Truman received an urgent summons to the White House, he could guess the reason. He later claimed that he felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets fell on him at once.
He had little idea of the momentous decisions on his plate.
The Presidential Plate
When HST was sworn in, it was obvious that World War II was ending in Europe. Within weeks, Hitler committed suicide; by Truman’s 61st birthday on May 8, the war would be officially over in Europe. But the war in the Pacific was still raging, and the Japanese showed no signs of relenting.
On his first day in office, Truman was told about the Atomic Bomb. He had no previous knowledge, and it would fall to him to make a monumental decision a few months later.
He would meet with Stalin and Churchill to determine the “aftermath” of the War in Europe.
Then there was the daunting task of trying to assimilate the returning military, take care of the wounded, and incorporate everyone as seamlessly as possible into a post-war society.
Equally daunting, he needed to steer a wartime economy into a peacetime economy.
He had to deal with unions, veterans’ bureaus, a devastated Europe, a huge influx of new immigrants, ominous tensions between Washington and Moscow, and with a population whose regard for him (especially following the huge regard and popularity of Roosevelt) was less than enthusiastic.
All had multi-levels of sub-problems. Then there were lesser problems, all with their own multi-levels. There would be many more to come.
But mostly, he catapulted the world into the Atomic Age.
All in a space of a few months.
Bess Truman, a homebody by inclination, was now center stage in the most powerful country in the world, at a crucial time in history. It was not her preference nor style, and was not to her liking. But she had little choice.
Within a very short time, she felt marginalized and pushed out of her husband’s life. Aides and bureaucrats, military officers and foreign ambassadors clamored for a few minutes on the President’s schedule, and he had no time for his wife. She was superfluous. They had always been close, and now she was a spectator rather than a partner, and she was very angry.
Her preference was to return to their home in Independence, Missouri, which she did frequently. It was her house. She had her lifestyle. She had her friends. According to their daughter Margaret, the Truman presidency was a low ebb in the Truman marriage: a serious emotional separation, that neither one could do anything about.
Christmas, 1945: Part 1
In many ways, Christmas 1945, was the happiest the country had experienced in more than a decade. The Great Depression had ended. The War had ended. And while there were thousands and thousands of “empty chairs,” there were even more thousands of chairs that had been empty, and were now filled.
Christmas trees were decorated. Stores displayed all the goodies that spell holiday. Churches were filled to capacity. Families were together. The USA had been spared the physical devastation that had decimated most of Europe. There was a lot to celebrate.
Bess Truman went home for the holidays. The President, beset by pressing matters, was not comfortable leaving Washington. Besides, if he left, more than a dozen Secret Service agents and as many newspaper reporters would have to go along, and be away from their families on Christmas Eve.
Christmas, 1945: Part 2
Late on December 24, HST received some optimistic news from his Secretary of State, and decided to spend at least part of Christmas with those he loved best. The weather was horrible; most planes were grounded by a terrible blizzard. It took more than four hours before the presidential plane took off, and it was a wild ride. When the newspapers got wind of his unexpected and dangerous flight, they took him to task for “taking chances with his personal safety.”
When he arrived at their house, presents in hand, Bess Truman did not help matters. Her chilly reception, commenting that he “might as well have stayed in Washington” was infuriating, especially after all the trouble he had taken to get home.
Truman returned to Washington the next day and sent his wife a hot-tempered letter. The following day, upon reflection, he telephoned Margaret to go to the local post office, retrieve the letter, and burn it – which she did.
Then he sat down and wrote Bess another letter – which was never sent, and only discovered after his death twenty seven years later.”
“You can never appreciate what it means to come home as I did the other evening after doing at least one hundred things I didn’t want to do, and have the only person in the world whose approval and good opinion I value look at me like I’m something the cat dragged in…”
Bess was never happy in the White House fishbowl, but the Trumans would learn to adjust better.
When they retired permanently to Independence, it got better. Much better.
Truman, Margaret – Harry S Truman – William Morrow & Co., 1973
Truman, Margaret – Bess W. Truman – Macmillan Publishing, 1986