“Emperor” Truman

The fall of one empire, and the rise of another: Ending World War II—and beginning the Cold War

The only emperor we’ll be studying who actually held the title of emperor is Emperor Hirohito, nominal ruler of Japan during World War II (though the extent of his actual power over his military leaders has been debated). Both Adolf Hitler and Franklin Delano Roosevelt originally entered into elected office in 1933, and both died in April of 1945, leaving a power vacuum in Germany and the United States alike. Though the Allied Powers had defeated the Axis in Europe in May 1945, a week or so after Hitler’s suicide, the war in the Pacific raged on into the summer, as American troops captured islands within close bombing distance of Japan itself. 

Harry Truman, a more moderate Democrat than his predecessor as VP, had been serving as FDR’s vice president for just over 80 days when Roosevelt died of a stroke. Like President Andrew Johnson (whom I will dub “Emperor Johnson I”) taking the place of Lincoln in April 1865, in April 1945 Truman both had to officially finish a war as well as set the pattern for the tense post-war relationship—in Johnson’s case, with a “Reconstructed” Confederacy, but with the Soviet Union in Truman’s case. Though the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) had lost a record 20 million people in the Second World War, it was the strongest, most aggressive ally of the United States and the competing “empire” after the war. Aggressive military leaders like General Patton were arguing that the U.S. military should stick around in Europe to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding any further—and maybe even take some territory “back” from the Soviets—in effect, keeping the Second World War going right into a Third. (This latter perspective was clearly an extremist and minority view.) While the U.S., Britain, and France had liberated Western Europe from Nazi occupation, the U.S.S.R. had “liberated” the eastern half of the continent—and, in doing so, had set up socialistic regimes throughout Eastern Europe. Germany itself, as well as its capital Berlin, was divided into west (“capitalistic,” modeled on the U.S. and Western Europe) and east (“socialistic,” modeled on the U.S.S.R.).

As the Soviet Union and the rest of the Allies divvied up control of Europe from the collapsed fascist empire there, the Soviets were prepared to offer their brand of “help” to the U.S. in finishing the war in the Pacific against Japan. In the waning days of the Pacific war, the Soviet Union officially declared war on Japan and prepared for an amphibious landing, similar to D-Day, from its Pacific coast. As had happened with East Germany and West Germany, the former Japanese-held territory of Korea was divided into North Korea (occupied by the U.S.S.R.) and South Korea (occupied by the U.S.). Fear quickly arose that Japan itself would similarly be split up into a Soviet-controlled “North Japan” and American-controlled “South Japan.” Therefore, it was in the U.S.’s best interest to end the war quickly, not just to save lives but ideally to prevent an invasion and subsequent occupation of the Japanese Islands by the Soviet Union.

The Americans, however, had the biggest ace up their sleeves that the “game of warfare” had ever seen, the ace that would turn all these growing tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. into a “Cold War”—a war that never once in the next 46 years would feature active fighting between American and Soviet troops. Truman, the last president without a college education, was also not educated as vice president about the ace: the atomic bomb, developed in a top-secret initiative dubbed “The Manhattan Project.” Fearful that the Nazis were working on their own atomic bomb (they weren’t), the United States had invested in and expedited the development of three bombs in 1945. As president, Truman received word that a bomb was successfully tested in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, marking the first-ever detonation of an atomic bomb on the planet. By splitting (and, later, fusing) nuclei of unstable radioactive elements, scientists were able to unleash the energy of the stars here on Earth, causing massive destruction and release of deadly levels of radiation in a wide radius. The bomb ended not just World War II, but also the possibility of a World War III. If both countries fighting had nuclear weapons—as would be the case with the United States and the Soviet Union—a declaration of war would mean the end of cities, of millions of lives and, eventually, the end of all life on the planet for a few thousand years (at least).

The remaining two bombs were shipped to the Pacific. President Truman’s job, as he saw it, was to finish the war decisively and quickly, showing the Japanese—and the world—just what superpowers the new superpower/“empire” had. After delivering a vaguely-worded ultimatum to the Japanese emperor to surrender without condition immediately or face “fire raining from the skies,” Japan was slow to respond.

The next two moves proved to be the most controversial in judging “Emperor” Truman’s legacy. Could there have been a better way to show the bomb’s destructiveness than by targeting two populated Japanese cities? Would the Japanese surrender after seeing the bomb detonate over a nearby patch of the Pacific Ocean or an uninhabited island? We can only speculate on the course that the war—and the subsequent Cold War—would have taken.

As it was, the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and—still with no word from the Japanese government—the second was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. No invasion of Japan—either American or Soviet—was necessary. The Emperor of Japan announced the government’s surrender in mid-August, and the surrender papers were signed on September 2nd on an aircraft carrier under General Douglas MacArthur’s command. Even then, the U.S. did not get what it wanted: the surrender was conditional, as the Japanese government demanded that Emperor Hirohito remained the nominal “emperor,” though merely a figurehead without any real power. Both bombs killed a little less than a quarter of a million people—soldiers in uniform and civilians alike—through the immediate force of the blasts as well as the after-effects of radiation exposure over the years. (To put this in perspective, about 400,000 U.S. troops died in combat during the entirety of the war.) From the concentration camps to the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo to the nuclear bombs that ended it with two big bangs, the Second World War was the most destructive conflict to ever occur on Planet Earth… at least, we hope.

Attempting to continue FDR’s legacy on the home front

Potentially the largest effect of the returning soldiers from Europe and the Pacific was the “baby boom,” the rapid rise in population. The generation that fought the war, dubbed “Greatest Generation,” literally produced the Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, the largest demographic in the country. We will see in future chapters how the Boomers shaped the youth culture of the 1960s, the sense of “malaise” in the 1970s as they approached middle age, and the conservative revival of the ‘80s (through today) as they age further.

Men in uniform returned to the factories, in many cases replacing women who had worked in manufacturing throughout the war, and many young veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to return or continue their college educations, free of charge.

Americans were ecstatic about the end of the war, but the return to peacetime life did not resolve many lingering domestic issues that had been brewing since the Great Depression. President Truman planned to ride the “liberating wave” of the war by expanding freedoms for American citizens, including keeping wartime price controls for controlling inflation, plans for national health insurance throughout the late 1940s, and expanding civil rights protections for minorities and unions. These plans were repeatedly shot down by both Republicans and Democrats (especially those from the South) in Congress, and the resulting post-war inflation led to strikes. Republican victories in the 1946 congressional elections led to the Taft-Hartley Act, which limited union control and power. The Congress was powerless to veto President Truman’s most radical move in civil rights, however, as he used his power as Commander-in-Chief to fully integrate the entirety of the armed forces, including army bases all over the country, in 1948. (World War II, therefore, was the last war to feature segregated fighting forces.)

Given the failure of Truman’s extension of FDR’s domestic reforms, Republicans were so confident that their candidate, Thomas Dewey, would win the 1948 Election that the campaign was notedly muted and reserved. President Truman, meanwhile, toured the nation by rail, delivering fiery speeches and ultimately securing victory even as newspapers printed hasty predictions of his defeat.

Nonetheless, Truman’s popularity would sag as he launched the United States, five years out of war, into another—this time, a war attempting to contain “Communist aggression” around the world.

“Containing Communism”: the Second Red Scare, the Berlin Airlift, and the Korean War

Throughout the Second World War, wartime propaganda had supported the Soviet Union as a strong ally and the key to victory. After the war, the Soviet Union became the unseen but powerful enemy, seen as puppet-master of a worldwide conspiracy to “turn the world Communist.” As with the post-World-War-I “First Red Scare,” the “Second Red Scare” after World War II denounced those with liberal associations, especially after it was exposed that the secrets of the nuclear bomb were indeed smuggled out of the U.S. by Soviet agents—giving the Soviet Union the same superpower that makes the U.S. a modern-day “empire.”

The resulting paranoia inspired the House of Unamerican Activities Committee (and its later off-shoot in the Senate, which would come into more prominence during the Eisenhower era). The HUAC initially investigated those with fascist ties during the Second World War but, after the war, turned its critical gaze on those who had associated with socialism, communism, and/or unions during the Great Depression years. In public “hearings,” the HUAC would call forth individuals and attempt to expose them through intense grilling. Those who refused to “name names” of others with similar connections could face “blacklisting,” the loss of their jobs in their respective industries. In addition to targeting federal branches, the HUAC targeted Hollywood, accusing screenwriters with leftist leanings of “disseminating Communist propaganda.”

With Truman’s progressive leanings well evidenced by his domestic initiatives, Truman was targeted with “going soft on Communism.” While domestic witch hunts continued, the Truman Administration’s foreign policy was containment: to contain the Soviet Union and its allies in Europe and around the globe by offering incentives, especially economic aid, to countries still “on the side” of the U.S. The fighting ground for such economic aid, influence and, in the end, covert military support, was the “Third World”—countries unclaimed by the “First World” (the U.S. and “the free world”) or the “Second World” (the Soviet Union and “communist control”).

The containment policy—and the massive cost and military presence that such a policy requires—was tested first around the time of the 1948 Election and, perhaps, this timing is what inspired such a dramatic response from Truman. A little geography first: Berlin, the capital of Germany, is located in the eastern half of the country. As such, West Berlin was an “island” in the middle of Soviet-created East Germany. The Soviet Union insisted that all currency in East Germany be the same, including in West Berlin. However, the western democracies continued to require the Deutschmark as West Berlin’s official currency. As a result, in the summer of 1948, the Soviets cut off all railroads, streets, and canals going into or out of West Berlin, hoping to get what they wanted through this blockade.

As opposed to using warfare as a response—which would result in a nuclear war, given that the Soviet Union was on the cusp of developing its own nuclear weapon arsenal during this time—Truman and the western allies decided to use military planes to supply the people of West Berlin with everything they needed, therefore avoiding the land and water blockades. This ambitious project cost millions of dollars and a steady number of flights between West Germany and West Berlin for fifteen months, the total mileage of which turned out to be nearly the distance between the Earth and the Sun. By September 1949, the Soviets reversed their requirement. (Nonetheless, the Soviets took more extreme measures to prevent traffic between East and West Berlin by the early 1960s, building the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the “Iron Curtain” divide between eastern and western Europe.)

Though he had shown the Soviet Union his determination with the Berlin Airlift, Harry Truman’s downfall was to prove his conservative critics wrong and, instead of going soft, “go hard on Communism.” With the Soviet Union’s support, North Korea militarized at a rapid pace and, after China’s revolution in 1949, felt confident enough to invade South Korea in 1950. Though nominally at the lead of the “U.N. forces,” the Korean War became a proving ground for the U.S. in defending its interests overseas with direct military action. General Douglas MacArthur was pleased to return to action, leading U.S. and South Korean troops, among others, in defending the “free world” from such “Communist aggression.” In fact, MacArthur was, if anything, too successful: he led a counter-invasion which repelled North Korean troops nearly to the Yalu River, the border with China. China, fearing its own national security, responded by sending military aid to the North Koreans. MacArthur then made public statements indicating that it was not enough to “contain” Communism, but that the United States should be on the offensive, taking the war fully into China, if necessary—and, as this was post-WWII, with the threat of nuclear strikes. This was too much for Truman, and he stripped MacArthur of his command.

The Republican response to the disaster in Korea, in effect, pushed Truman not just out of office, but out of the running for the 1952 election. MacArthur’s name was briefly considered as the Republican nominee but, as it would turn out, another general—one who outranked MacArthur in World War II—would take it.

20 thoughts on ““Emperor” Truman”

  1. In chapter “emperor Truman”, my insight are for those two nuclear bombs: they represetned the revolutionary change of a new type of war. The nuclear weapon is one of the essential elements that illustrates the development of weapons that cause massive destruction. It also helped Americans to establish a sense of majesty in front of other countries during the mid-1900s. For Truman doctrine, after he became the president, he declared to “go hard on communism” in order to forbid the further development of the soviet union; Truman wanted to keep the American dominated position. He implemented support for other democratic countries that were under attack, and joined with other western countries to resist communism as a unit. He advocated extreme freedom and democracy.

  2. I knew about the Cold War however, I didn’t know that the reason for ending WW2 and the possibility of WW3 was because of the atomic bomb. It’s crazy that there was and still is a possibility of people being able to take our civilizations as well as life on earth for thousands of years. I feel like Trumans decision to bomb Japan not only once but twice, shows he was scared (rightfully so) but also wanted to feel dominant.

  3. I learned about the cold war a little bit at my old school, last year. I knew WWII was ended by the Atomic bombs being dropped but I did not know that the atomic bomb stopped the possibility of WWIII.

  4. I am still a bit confused on why Truman decided to drop the atomic bombs where he dropped them. I know you stated above that he could have dropped them somewhere away from all the people but this might not have worked, in terms of showing the Japanese the power of the bombs. I just find it strange that he would try to kill as many people as possible instead of taking out a military base or somethings else important to the Japanese military.

  5. Even though the atomic bombs are terrible and ended so many lives, it also saved many other lives and potentially the whole world by not starting WWIII. However, I am confused on how the U.S got pulled into WWII. I understand that pearl harbor was the last straw but did we not see the Japanese aircrafts coming toward Hawaii?

  6. I think the bombs show the United States dominance over other countries. I did not know about the possibility of WWIII and that the atomic bombs were what prevented that.

  7. Truman’s time in office was one to be remembered no doubt. After the death of Roosevelt and the beginning of his presidency, I think that Truman wanted to make a point. Therefore the reason for his decision to drop not one but two nuclear bombs in a span of less than a week. He wanted to prove to the rest of the world exactly how powerful the United States was and that our country was not one to be messed with. It is interesting to think that Truman could have shown this sort of power by a non-lethal attack that wouldn’t kill almost a quarter-million citizens and soldiers but nonetheless, his point was heard loud and clear.

  8. The deadly power of nuclear weapons exceeded my predictions. It did not only result in the loss of thousands of lives at the time, but its radiation also brought irreversible negative effects to the generations of Japanese. Likewise, even though the United States ended the war in a plain way, it did not immediately recover from the consequences of the war as well. Correspondingly, problems such as the Great Depression and inflation floated up. From my perspective, Truman was a short-sighted and eager monarch. Dropping the bomb was only a short-term solution. However, disadvantages in long term definitely weighed more than the immediate advantages. He thought those two nuclear bombs were the end of the war, but in fact, it was just the beginning of another destruction.

  9. I learned about the dropping of the atomic bomb last year in history but I found it very interesting that there was a possibility of WWIII after the end of WWII. I also didn’t know that the atomic bombs stopped the possibility of WWIII. I think, when it comes to Pearl Harbor, that the United States could have expected something like that to happen, since Japan was looking to control those islands.

  10. I always thought that the only reason Truman dropped both bombs on Japan was to avoid the deaths of more American soldiers. I never knew about the idea of splitting Japan into the north and the south with the USSR. I also never thought about how The Cold War could have been WWIII if it weren’t for nuclear weapons. I would like to learn about how Soviet spies were able to get the plans for nuclear weapons out of the United States.

  11. I find it interesting how the U.S. was the first to have and use the atomic bomb but later on, we end up living in fear that the same weapon we used to attack would be used against us.

  12. I find it interesting how these two bombs really set in stone that America is a Very Stong country. Without these two bombs would we be here today? Or even be considered a power house country? Without these bones I don’t believe America would be able to get to where we are as a society today.

  13. I was somewhat surprised as i continued reading and it just seemed like it was war after war with; WW2, the U.S.S.R, Japan, Korea, almost China, it seemed never ending. Although I do think the 2 atomic bombs did make the United States a dominant threat at the time. I think there were other decisions Truman made in his time that were more a tribute to his ultimate downfall.

  14. I learned that Truman wanted to save as many people as he could by stopping WW II and possibly WW III. The only way for him to do this was to make a very difficult decision about dropping the atomic bombs. I agree with his decision.

  15. I feel like I learned a lot of additional information from this time period because I never knew much about WWII or why the bombs were dropped. I didn’t realize that the USSR and US were allies that almost turned into enemies. Truman’s decision to drop the bombs was very bold and can be looked at in two different ways, each having valid information to support it. Personally, I think dropping them showed our dominance, despite the long term affects that were caused. If we think about a WWIII that could’ve caused just as much long term damage as well.

  16. This is my first time ever really learning about the bombs that Truman dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as World War 2. Since we thought, at the time, that the Germans had a nuclear bomb in the making, it was smart to drop the nuclear bombs before we were harmed. It saved lives as well as World War 3 and prevented invasion. I am still curious about the specifics of how this affected the world after. Also, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, did those places have innocent Japanese living there, or did they contain military bases?

  17. One thing that left me quite perplexed was when you said that Truman sent emperor Hirohito a “vaguely worded ultimatum”, because if Truman knew how destructive the bomb is and wanted to send a message if he used better phrasing he could’ve possibly sent a stronger message without having to cause such destruction. I could see how using the bomb was a sign of power to the soviet union to avoid a similar situation in Japan to the one in Korea.

  18. After reading this, my thoughts are centered around where and why Truman dropped the two bombs where he did. It could’ve been an option for him to drop one on a near by island, like you said, but I don’t think that Japan would have responded, because they didn’t respond to the one dropped on Hiroshima. I agree with his decision to drop the bomb in a populated area, rather a military base would’ve been a better option.

  19. Truman yes dropped the atomic bombs and it ended many lives, but it stopped WWII and made it so there was no WWIII. But when you think of it because of the wall in Berlin, and then the battle between South and North Korea. The war kind of has never stopped with North and South Korea. There needs to be a peace treaty between them so they have peace and to not hate one another.

  20. Although Truman basically prevented World War III by sending the bombs, he should’ve just sent one to show how destructive/intimidating the bombs, the USA possessed. I still don’t get why Truman sent the 2nd bomb, I know Japan wouldn’t surrender, but Truman knew he had more power than Japan and he just caused millions of innocent people to die.

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