The date was April 12, 1945, and earthshaking news spread throughout the world: Franklin Roosevelt, who had begun his 4th term as president only a few months before, had died. Suddenly, the president who had led America through the Great Depression and World War II, the only president many people remembered, was gone. Roosevelt’s vice president, Harry S Truman, asked the newly-widowed Mrs. Roosevelt what he could do for her. “Is there anything we can do for you?” she answered. “You’re the one in trouble now.”
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.
After pondering all his options, Truman finally made his decision. An American bomber flew over the city of Hiroshima. After dropping the bomb, the pilot and his crew saw a huge fireball erupt over the city, and a massive shock wave slammed into the plane, knocking the men over. On the ground, the results were terrible: devastation, buildings and trees gone in an instant, and almost 150,000 people killed instantly or wounded. That day, Truman made a radio address, warning Japan that if they didn’t surrender, they would face “a rain of ruin from the air.” Unbelievably, Japanese military leaders were unfazed. They advised that America couldn’t have more than three of the new bombs in stock. “There will be more destruction, but the war will go on,” they declared.
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.