After being sworn in as president, Truman held a press conference. “Boys,” he told the assembled reporters, “if you ever pray, pray for me now. I feel like the moon, the stars, and all the planets have fallen on me.”
Truman had not even wanted to be vice president. Roosevelt had to engage in a little arm-twisting before he reluctantly agreed to run. With no executive experience, he suddenly found himself president in the middle of world war... after less than 4 months as vice president. Within a month, Truman had to make a decision with enormous ramifications. Germany and Italy had finally surrendered, but Japan was a different story. Massive bombing campaigns over Tokyo and other major Japanese cities had little effect. Japanese soldiers and civilians were under orders to fight to the death, rather than surrender. Although the Allies suffered almost 340,000 casualties fighting Japan, Japan’s losses, including civilians, numbered almost 2 million. Based on the extraordinarily bloody fighting so far, experts estimated that a full-scale invasion of Japan would result in several million more Japanese - and at least a million more American - deaths. There was another option, however, Truman was informed. For the first time, he was briefed on a frightening new weapon, an invention called an “electronic” or “atomic” bomb, which had the power to destroy an entire city.
Three days later, the second bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. Uncertain that the Japanese would surrender, even after the second bomb, the U.S. prepared for a massive invasion of Japan to follow if necessary. Russia had just declared war on Japan, which meant that Japan faced attack from both sides at the same time. Even so, the Japanese War Council was split, with half voting to surrender, half against. Finally, against all tradition, the Japanese emperor broke the tie in favor of surrender. World War II had finally ended.
Although his decision has been criticized, Truman likely saved the lives of tens of thousands of POWs held by the Japanese, who were scheduled for mass executions later that month. Millions of Japanese lives also were almost certainly saved. The unlikely president had proved equal to the task.