Book review: The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman, the bomb and the four months that changed the world

While in Washington DC, I made a pilgrimage to the large “Prose and Politics” bookstore in Connecticut Avenue NW. As one would expect, it was bursting with political books. I would have quite happily walked away with an entire wheelbarrow load of books, if my airline baggage weight limit had allowed it. In the end, I bought one paperback, which was “The Accidental President” by A.J.Baime about Harry S. Truman’s first four months as President in 1945. I was not disappointed. It is a brilliant book – a real page turner. By coincidence, Harry Truman lived with his family from 1941 until 1945 (including for the first few days of his Presidency) at 4701 Connecticut Avenue, which I passed on my way to the bookshop.

Harry Truman took over as US President in the most extraordinary circumstances. A.J.Baime quotes a Boston Globe reporter who wrote that Truman’s elevation to Vice Presidential candidate in 1944 was “one of the most amazing stories in American democracy”, adding:

It is the story of an average man, swept to dizzy heights against his will, a little bewildered by it all and doubting whether it is really true.

Just 82 days after being elected Vice President, Truman was thrust into the President’s seat by the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Arguably, Truman then had more power than any human being at any point in history. In the four months covered by this book, the Germans surrendered, the Atom bomb was completed, tested and dropped twice, the Japanese surrendered, the United Nations was founded, Stalin commenced the establishment of the USSR and Churchill was replaced with Atlee. These were breathtakingly tumultuous and historic times. And yet, this failed haberdasher and partially failed farmer from deepest rural Missouri, of whom most people said “Harry who?” at his inception as President, took on all this and made a reasonably good fist of it, albeit that many of his decisions cause fierce controversy even today.

It is quite a story and A.J.Baime tells it brilliantly. There is dense detail from original sources, strung together in a compelling narrative which well explains the key events.

The book starts with four chapters describing events of April 12th 1945. This was the day that President F.D.Roosevelt died in the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Atlanta. In one sense, it was well known that Roosevelt’s health was not good. He was in Warm Springs specifically to improve his well-being. But it was generally a surprise that he went so soon after his fourth election as President.

Winston Churchill has his detractors and he failed to gain re-election in 1945 perhaps partly because he was hated in some quarters of the UK. However, we are generally used to Churchill being feted as a war hero. Well, it seems that the reputation of Franklin Roosevelt was and is even higher in the USA. He was and is regarded as a huge god-like figure who ‘saved America from the Depression and won the Second World War for the free world’. So, in 1945, as President, he basically got on with his job in his little bubble. Harry S.Truman, as Vice President, was not consulted and was completely out of the loop. It seems he spent most of his time in the US Senate building talking with old colleagues and often “striking a blow for liberty” (a code which is used, throughout the book, for sharing a few glasses of Bourbon).

For example, Harry S Truman knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about the development of the Atom bomb when he was sworn in as President on April 12th 1945. It was only a few minutes later that the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, elliptically and briefly mentioned “an immense project…looking to the development of a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power”.

I find that staggering. But the whole Atom bomb development was an incredible thing. $2 billion was spent on creating three towns across the USA, with thousands of people working on the project, but only a few knowing what was actually being developed.

I always assumed that President Harry S.Truman decided to drop the Atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I mean “decided” in the sense that he sat down and heard advice and the latest info, then thought it all through and finally came up with the decision.

In fact, it seems more plausible to suggest that the decision to drop the bombs was made years earlier on August 2nd 1939. On that day, Roosevelt received a “curious missive” from Albert Einstein, telling of how:

the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future…This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.

On receiving this letter, in the words of A.J.Baime:

The president called in an assistant and pronounced three words that set the atomic bomb project in motion: “This needs action.”

It seems that, from that moment, the “Manhattan project” gained an unstoppable momentum. In 1945, there did not seem to be much of a question as to whether the bomb would be used or not. It appeared to be assumed that it would be used. Indeed, it would be fair to say that many top American officials were desperate to use it. The main questions were: when would it be ready? Would it work? How much power would its detonation produce? Where in Japan will it be used? and What warning will be Japanese be given?.

In the end there was the Trinity test explosion in New Mexico on July 16th 1945. Until that time, the Americans were not sure the bomb would even work and certainly had no definite idea how much destructive power it would produce. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the laboratory producing the device, conservatively guessed it would produce 3,000 tons. Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist, thought it would produce 45,000 tons. Scientists in the laboratory actually took bets on what the power would be and they all had different guesses within those ranges. In the event it produced 22,000 tons of TNT.

The “Potsdam Declaration” was used to warn the Japanese, although it wasn’t very specific. It talked of “utter destruction” rather than “atomic bomb”.

On July 25th 1945, Truman noted in his diary that he had, the previous day, authorised the use of the new weapon between then and August 10th, and that it be used so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target, not women and children. The target should be “purely military”. Hiroshima had a military base. But, my goodness me, one wonders what happened to Truman’s “purely military” order, if indeed his order was as simple as that. In the two bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki 129,000–226,000 people were killed, most of them civilians. One of the reasons Hiroshima was chosen was because the Americans had not previously bombed it, so there was a clean sheet there so that they would be able to clearly discern the damage caused by the new bomb. That seems frighteningly callous in retrospect.

A.J. Baimes’ book does not record any specific decision by Truman about bombing Nagasaki. It appears that the military just went ahead with it on the strength of the July 24th decision.

So the book gives the impression that the dropping of the two atom bombs was more or less a fait accompli, well before the events. The Americans had readied an enormous land invasion of Japan which would have probably gone on for years and cost countless numbers of lives. The Americans had already been horrendously fire-bombing Japanese cities (a decision apparently taken by General LeMay sitting in Guam, which was not referred to the President because of fears he would have to veto it!). But still the Japanese were fighting on determinedly, mainly because of loyalty to their Emperor. Russia was poised to attack Japan from the west. And if any further justification for using the A bomb was required, it seems the answer was usually “Pearl Harbor”.

I really recommend this book. It is an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary man.

I should declare an interest. I am a very biased observer of the events described in this book. My father was earmarked as one of the sailors who would have invaded the many Japanese islands if the war continued past August 1945. If the Atom bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima/Nagasaki then it is highly likely that my father would have been killed (the average life expectancy of an invading sailor against the Japanese being about two minutes after setting foot on sand). So, please count me as a biased observer. I have always found it an existential, mind-boggling question – was it right to drop the Atom bomb? – when I probably wouldn’t be here to consider the question if it had not have been dropped.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Richard Underhill 18th Feb '19 - 6:00pm

    Modern historians say that FDR encouraged Stalin to declare war on Japan, which he did late in the war with Germany defeated. The Japanese politicians were incapable of taking the decision to admit defeat and surrender, so they passed the decision upstairs. Stalin nibbled off a little bit of Japan, which is still resented.
    FDR had concealed his heath problems for years, mainly polio.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Feb '19 - 9:53pm

    Joseph Bourke
    “His unit was given training in the use of explosive vests that they were to strap on and detonate (kamiKaze style) …
    Let’s hope future generations will never see madness of that kind again.”

    Um. I don’t know how to tell you this…

  • Thank you for your review. I too am a fan of American political history and would enjoy reading this book.

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