Harry Truman was just shy of his 61st birthday when he became President.
HST: The Unprepared Vice President
Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was elected Democratic Senator from Missouri in 1932, the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt was first elected Democratic President. Over the next twelve years, the two men had casual opportunities to meet, but it was neither close nor meaningful. As the protege of Tom Pendergast, the powerful political boss of western Missouri, FDR gave Truman little respect, and certainly no place in his inner circle.
Nevertheless, HST made a solid name for himself once World War II was underway, as the champion of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, specifically waste, mismanagement, corruption and similar. The intense investigations and their positive results were important enough for people to call it “The Truman Committee.” FDR couldn’t help being somewhat impressed.
By 1944, when Roosevelt was semi-coerced into running for an unprecedented fourth term, the political insiders were seriously concerned about the position of Vice President. FDR looked ill, and the likelihood that he might not survive another four years was strong. The front runners for the second spot created deep chasms among various factions of the Democratic Party, and finally, as a middle-ground accommodation, Truman’s name came up as a viable alternative.
Truman did not seek the office, and was disinclined to accept, partly because he did not believe FDR favored his candidacy. But once Roosevelt personally told Truman that indeed he would be happy to have him on the ticket, HST acquiesced. They won easily enough.
During the next several months, Roosevelt handled the cares of the world (literally) on his own, and/or with his select group of trusted advisors. Truman was not among them. In fact, HST claimed he only saw FDR twice during the six months following their election. The last time, at a pleasant but inconsequential lunch-for-two, he noted that the President appeared to be drawn and frail.
HST: The Unprepared POTUS
FDR was definitely not well, and on April 12, 1945, only three months into his fourth term, he died. Harry Truman was now President, with the weight of the universe (his suggestion) falling on him. He had received no briefings from Roosevelt nor his staff during that interim.
Vice Presidents, were still considered geopolitical accommodations. The position itself was mostly ceremonial: ground-breaking, ribbon cutting, funeral-going, serving on an occasional board, and perhaps some mild liaison on the Hill, etc. There were few specifically designated functions.
But one of the items on the Presidential Agenda that was known to everyone, was the imminent conclusion of the War in Europe, which, after six hard years for Europe, four hard years for the USA, and millions of deaths, was coming to an obvious and exhausted end.
The Allied Forces had encircled most of the Nazi Army, and were at last entering the war-ravaged German cities. Adolph Hitler, looking frail and old in his last photographs, had secluded himself deep within a bunker in Berlin, determined to hold out to the end. The end came on April 30, with the news that he had committed suicide.
The rest was paperwork.
And then, of course, there was the War in the Pacific, whose outcome was less certain and less imminent.
Happy Birthday Harry
Having offered the Roosevelt family whatever time they required to make their personal arrangements (they only needed two weeks), the Trumans moved into the White House on May 7, and spent their first night.
The following day, only twenty-six days into his presidency, was also Harry Truman’s 61st birthday. Coincidental to his private “significant event” was a far more important one: word had come that Germany had surrendered unconditionally. The war was over in Europe. The end had come at 2:45 a.m. on May 7 – Germany time.
Naturally President Truman was alerted within moments after it had occurred. Since few things are ever easy, the delighted President was beset by the ego-problems of the victorious British, who wanted V-E Day to be May 7. After some back-and-forth messaging with Churchill, who could not contain the British celebrations, they decided on a declaration of early morning, May 8. The equally victorious Russians, with their own massive ego problems, refused to declare V-E Day until May 9.
Knowing that the momentous announcement was near, a crush of newspaper and radio reporters had literally been camped out overnight at the White House, waiting for the news.
In a brief 7-minute press conference/radio address, specifically scheduled for release at 9 a.m., May 8, war-time, to co-ordinate with telegrams of congratulations to Allied war leaders, President Truman announced the following:
“This is a solemn but glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly all over Europe.”
Then there was a slight pause.
“It is celebrating my birthday too. Today, too.”
Around the globe, millions of people took to the streets, celebrating and singing and rejoicing and kissing total strangers. Church bells rang everywhere. In New York City, the iconic news banner that circled the New York Times Building on 42nd Street electrified thousands of citizens with the wonderful headline!
Later in the day, the President celebrated quietly with friends and aides and his closest family as they originally had planned. No birthday present could have been more welcome. People were literally dancing in the streets! All over the world.
And of course there was cake.
Truman, Margaret – Harry S Truman – William Morrow & Co., 1973
csmonitor.com (May 8, 2015)