“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.

43 thoughts on ““Emperor” Truman”

  1. When they decided to launch the first bombs were other countries in agreement or knowing about it? Also, had they made the bomb for this particular event, or had they just had it already?

  2. Why would “emperor” Truman feel the need to show boat against Japan with our new catastrophic weapons. Did he fire the Nuclear Missiles based on pride?

  3. Did dropping the atomic bombs make other countries see us as more powerful or more aggressive? Were countries now cautious of us because we had nuclear weapons or because we weren’t afraid to use them?

  4. Though his defeat was expected, President Truman was re-elected into office in 1948. He toured different States “delivering fiery speeches” ultimately securing his spot in Office. Truman led the US into yet another war after his re-election. What does this teach us about using our right to vote as citizens in the US? How big is our role in researching and making sure to choose the right candidate to serve us right? Should we always listen to what people promise?

  5. Was Truman’s decision to finish the war quickly in the best interest of our country? Was it the decision driven by military strategy or fear? After the first bomb dropped, was it necessary to drop another three days later? Looking back on this point in history, do you think if given the chance to do it again, would Truman have made the same decision?

  6. I never knew about the possibilities of the third world war. It puts a different perspective on choices that were made back then.

  7. How might have the circumstances changed if the U.S. knew that the Soviets were not aware of the atomic bomb? Would they have ended up investing so much into it and dropping it?

  8. Was this attack planned or was it short notice? When dropping this bomb did other countries see us as a fool or superior or scared? Was this something Truman would do or did no one expect this from him?

  9. The reading talked about how Truman was poorly educated and was also a poorly educated vice president. With this being said how did he get into office if he did not meet the standards to be in the office?

  10. After the U.S.S.R. agents “stole” the U.S. atomic bomb idea, and started manufacturing their own, why did both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., knowing the drastic damages only two atomic bombs had caused, would feel the need to produce thousands?

  11. When they dropped the atomic bomb, did it make them stronger, braver, or the opposite? Also, how long did it take to create the bomb?

  12. What were, if any, the unexpected effects of the first bomb dropped as a test in New Mexico? When Truman released the two bombs on August 6th and August 9th, who else was involved in the decision? Was anyone left out that should have been represented in this destructive decision?

  13. Truman was successful with the atomic bomb because it ended World War II and the possibility of starting World War III.

  14. I find it interesting that even after the U.S.A. did many things similar to the Soviet Union (like taking control of souths and norths of Korea and Japan) they feared it even more.

  15. How much did other countries change their perspective of us after the bombings? How did Truman feel about his leadership skills after the bombings? How did Russia get to creating atomic bombs so quickly?

  16. When the bombs were dropped how did the other countries feel about it? Did their views become worse, the same, or possibly better?

  17. Did the dropping of the atomic bombs make Truman feel that the United States would be seen as dominant over opposing countries? Did he think about the potential target he put on the United States’ back as we were the only country firing nuclear weapons?

  18. Could there have been a better way to end WWII instead of using bombs? If so, would America still be seen as a powerful and feared country without this new destructive invention?

  19. I think the U.S. worried too much about the “communism attack,” and that led to a poor decision: “The North Korea war.” MacArthur’s success on the Asia field in WW2 led to his arrogance in thinking they would easily beat the union of China and North Korea. However, the result was that they lost to the Chinese and North Korean volunteer militaries, who were far less well-equipped and supplied than they were. Before that, from the founding of the United States to more than a hundred years after World War II, the United States basically never lost a major war on a foreign scale. In World War I or World War II, the United States was the winner. This also eventually became the “Dark history” that many people have closed their mouths to mention.

  20. What did the United States want from Japan after its surrender?
    Other than dropping the atomic bomb, what else could the United States have done to end World War II?
    Why didn’t the U.S. drop bombs on important cities like Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan?

  21. Why did the American people decide to pick Truman for president after he was defeated? What did they see in Truman that would make him a great leader? What type of leader did America want at this time?

  22. After we already showed our power by using the atomic bombs, Why did Truman think it would be good idea to “go hard” on communism?

  23. Did Truman drop the bomb in a search for power and respect from other countries? Was the bomb just a way of him trying to get the American people and others to respect him and his power or was it truly the “solution” that everyone wanted?

  24. Was dropping the atomic bombs on Japan a necessary action to end World War II? If president Truman could do it again would he?

  25. If Truman knew how powerful the bombs were and how many people they would kill, why did he think it was a good idea to use two of them just to show the power of our “empire”? Do you think he could have used a different strategy to finish the war “decisively and quickly”?

  26. Was the outcome of using the atomic bomb worth the risk? All the innocent people that died and the future of the world are in question because of this decision. What would have happened if he used it in an isolated area? Or threaten to use it?

  27. Did the use of nuclear weapons cause other nations to view us as more assertive? If the bomb was so powerful, why did they think we should employ it to project more authority onto ourselves?

  28. How did Americans initially react to Truman dropping the atomic Bomb? Did they agree with it or disagree with his actions?

  29. If the U.S. wanted to end the war quickly to save lives and prevent invasion, why would they think dropping a bomb wouldn’t cause any tension?

  30. Was President Truman’s decision to drop the two bombs on Japan worth it? the decision to drop the bombs put the United States in the spotlight and arguably put a target on our backs. the bombs also killed thousands upon thousands of people. America surely could’ve ended the war a different route, so why didn’t they? this only raised paranoia and anxiety among American civilians. with a rise in the USSR, we simply didn’t know when we were going to be attacked.

  31. The thought that keeps coming back to me as I listened to this chapter was, if “Emperor” Roosevelt had never died would those bombs had ever been launched?

  32. Why didn’t Japan respond after the first atomic bomb was dropped? If Truman wanted to end the war “quickly and decisively, ” why was his first thought to use atomic bombs? Did dropping the bombs on Japan really make America powerful, as Truman had hoped it would?

  33. Why is it that once a country/nation “wins” a war, they become so paranoid, it would make more sense for it to be the other way around and all the other countries be scared of them right?

  34. What did the United States want that they did not get from bombing Japan? Why did Truman decide to end “Communist aggression” when the US was still working on the economy post-war?

  35. 1. Why did the U.S.A. want to prevent the Soviet Union so much from invading Japan and creating division in the country? Japan and the U.S.A. were enemies during WW2 and that time as well, with the Soviets being allies, so why would they prevent them from growing? Was this mainly due to the “world communism” conspiracies that Truman disliked? Or was it also because the U.S.A. wanted to be the main powerhouse of the world?

    2. If Truman had never dropped these bombs and they weren’t as effective as they were, would the production and possible use of nuclear weapons have not been as much over the future years?
    Was Truman’s decision to hurt these Japanese cities the main reason we saw such an increase in nuclear weapon production over the Cold War years?

  36. The most obvious theme between the USSR and U.S was a battle for who could control the most land and nuclear warfare.

  37. If Korea had not split into North and South Korea would America have acted the same; would they have feared that Japan might also split into a North and South Japan.

  38. Why didn’t Truman want our military to stay in Europe after ‘finishing’ the war? Was it solely because he was scared of a third war being started/ continued… or did he just not know his next move? I believe he made the right decision to bring those troops home, but I can’t help but think of what would’ve happened if the US had stayed longer. What if Truman listened to those military leaders? Would there have been a third war?

  39. I feel that he dropped the bomb not only out of being scared for the country. But also because at the time it felt like thats what everybody wanted. We didn’t want Russia to get the upper hand on us. And we didn’t want other countries to see us as weak so by dropping the bomb. It set the U.S as a countries that is strong and that should not be taken lightly. But I do think that it should have be thought about more before it happened.

  40. I think Truman handled the end of WWII well. I think some of his post-war decisions were not the best, but I believe things may have ended up much worse if it weren’t for Truman. A question I have about the dropping of the atomic bomb is, what would have been the U.S.’s reaction if another country like the USSR had dropped the atomic bomb on Japan before America developed the bomb? Would America react the same way as the soviets or differently?

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