Episode 1 – It’s All Over

"To The Best of My Ability" Podcast Series

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About the Episode

Truman’s first few weeks in office were some of the most tumultuous in Presidential history. As Nazis forces experience blow after blow from Allied forces, fascism in Europe begins to crumble. Before the end of April, both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini are dead. After more than five years of total war, a ceasefire takes effect on May 8, 1945.

Celebrations surrounding V-E Day (Victory in Europe) broke out across Europe, with parades and parties in the streets as large crowds gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square and outside Buckingham Palace. In the United States, as flags still remained at half-staff from FDR’s death on April 12, 1945, Truman celebrated his 61st birthday by announcing to the nation that the war in Europe was over. Celebrations were bittersweet and short-lived, however, as the war in the Pacific still faced mounting casualties with no quick end in sight.

Both the trailer and this week’s episode, hosted by the Museum’s Dr. Kristen Burton and written by executive producer Gemma R. Birnbaum, were recorded over the last several months amidst the outbreak of Covid-19. Without access to the Museum’s recording studio or other tools, our producers worked to record segments and do archival research from their homes, creating make-shift studios out of their closets, bathrooms, and the occasional tool shed. This episode would not have been possible without assistance from the National Archives, the Harry S. Truman Library, and the Museum’s own Digital Collections team.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • The Death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • President Harry S. Truman Taking Office
  • Truman’s Upbringing and Early Life
  • The Big Three - FDR, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin
  • The Death of Nazi Party Leader Adolf Hitler
  • V-E Day and the Surrender of Germany

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Featured Historian

Dr. Robert M. Citino

Dr. Rob Citino is Executive Director of The National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy and the institution’s Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian. Citino is an award-winning military historian and scholar who has published 10 books including The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942, and The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich and numerous articles covering World War II and 20th century military history.

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"To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family and Bank of America.

Transcript

Archival Audio - Harry S. Truman Reflecting on His Time in Office

“Take One…”

“No vice president ever has the opportunity to become properly prepared to become president and succeed to that great office. Every president when he goes into office takes some time to familiarize himself with the duties. John Marshall said there was only one heartbeat between the VP and the White House, and he knew exactly what he was talking about and I experienced that situation. But when the vice president does take over, he must assume the office of the Presidency and do the very best he [inaudible] to make that work and most of the VP’s who have been forced to take over that office have done a good job. I don’t want to include myself in that because I was President myself after that.”

“Cut.”

Dr. Kristen Burton

At 7:09pm on April 12, 1945, Harry S. Truman was sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States, just 82 days after assuming the role of Vice President. His predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had dominated the political landscape for the previous 12 years. FDR’s death came as a shock to an already traumatized nation, who had come to view the ‘man from Hyde Park” as a kind of father figure, guiding them through the Great Depression and a war against the global threat of fascism -- a war that many Americans hadn’t even wanted to enter in the first place.

The unexpected president’s first few weeks in office were some of the most tumultuous in American history. As Nazi armies reeled from one Allied blow after the other, fascism in Europe began to crumble. Before the end of April, Axis leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were both dead, and on May 8, the Allies declared victory in Europe. The celebrations were short-lived, however, as the country continued to face mounting casualties in the Pacific.

Archival Audio

“I Harry S. Truman do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Dr. Kristen Burton

You’re listening to “To the Best of My Ability” from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and this is episode 1, “It’s All Over.” I’m your host, Dr. Kristen Burton. Our story begins on Truman’s first full day in office.

Dr. Rob Citino

What do you say...he’s drinking from a firehose on that first day.

Dr. Kristen Burton

That’s Dr. Rob Citino, Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian and Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.

Dr. Rob Citino

The meetings come fast and furious. On April 12, President Roosevelt dies, and on April 13, the Secretary of State comes into his office—that’s Edward Stettinius—and hands him, you know, the briefing paper. And it’s a mess. You know, the Germans seem to be on their last legs, but who knows, and there’s already—social chaos is breaking out in parts of occupied Europe. Food is in short supply. If the social order breaks down in any of our new conquered territories, we could be looking at a World War III right around the corner. I mean, this is before lunch on his first full day in the White House.

But I think we could also say, from the perspective of those who had just walked into the Oval Office, so perhaps this man isn’t quite the commanding presence the Franklin Roosevelt was, but he was a quick study. He took in information very, very rapidly. He shot back, almost always, very, very perceptive questions. He told you when the meeting was over. So in other words, I think there is maybe a bit of conscious roleplaying on Truman’s part in these first couple of days in office, that he knows the old cliché, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that the first impression he’s going to make on these men is going to be extremely important.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Truman, the son of a farmer and livestock dealer, came from humble beginnings --  a sharp contrast to his wealthy and well-traveled predecessor FDR. Born in the small town of Lamar, Missouri, Truman’s family moved to Independence when he was 6 years old. Located on the cusp of the West and the South, Independence was home to just 6,000 residents, and much like the Jim Crow south, black and white residents were segregated into separate parts of town. Young Truman experienced a tumultuous adolescence. His family struggled financially, he had difficulty fitting in at school, he survived a near-deadly childhood bout of diphtheria, and his ambitions of attending West Point were crushed because of his poor eyesight.

Truman’s first exposure to politics was as a high school student, working as a page for the 1900 Democractic National Convention -- a position he secured through his father’s friend who was a local leader in the Democratic party. The choice of Kansas City for the convention had been met with jokes from cartoonists and reporters, which depicted the city as old fashioned and outdated with a wild west mentality.

In taking office, Truman became the only President since William McKinley who had not earned a college degree, though he had attended Spalding’s Commercial College, a business school in Kansas City. He was enrolled for a year before leaving to help his father try to resuscitate the failing family business. He also assumed the Presidency with just $4,200 in the bank account he shared with his wife Bess, and $3,000 in debt owed to the Hamilton National Bank of Washington. The difficulties he faced as a young man and throughout his life would follow Truman for much of his political career, and greatly influenced the way he thought about himself and how others viewed him.

Dr. Rob Citino

He suspects they look at him and see some kind of bumpkin. I think that’s somewhere in the back of his mind. And I think any notion they may have had in that direction was probably dispelled after two or three days. He went home, you know, at night, and does things like stare at the occupation zones of Germany and the maps that have been drawn up, and looks at the various terms that are being demanded, and thinks about reparations. He can handle numbers with a piece of paper and a pencil, but he can also handle them in his head, and I think that helps him then come in the next day and impress the next gang even more so.

You know, he did a take on virtually everybody. He said, you know, “Stimson is a sharp character,” the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. He said Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury, he said was a blockhead. He also asked Morgenthau to stay on, but there was something—maybe some personality issues there. The two didn’t get along. So he’s not above making his own snap judgments, just as, you know, he’s aware that they’re probably doing that to him.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Truman also experienced a rocky start in his relationships with the other Allied leaders, never quite replacing Roosevelt in the “big three” triumvirate that also included UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. While Churchill supported him early on in his Presidency, the two never quite shared the same special relationship that Churchill and Roosevelt had cultivated.

Dr. Rob Citino

Churchill had a very warm personal relationship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, deliberately cultivated. As British power waned in the course of the war and US power grew, it was clear that the British were becoming a second-rate power, at least compared to the United States. They were the junior member of a three-member coalition. So being Franklin Roosevelt’s personal friend was value added to Great Britain, and Churchill knew that. But he was never really able to establish the same kind of warm relationship with Truman that he had—that he had with Roosevelt.

He and Roosevelt—Churchill and Roosevelt, that is—were both members of the old aristocracy. They enjoyed fine wines and cognacs and, you know, all the things that you would associate with that kind of lifestyle. And that’s not Truman. But let us also keep in mind that Truman comes into office in April, and within a couple of months, Churchill is going to be voted out of office. And so the personal relationship between Churchill and Truman is somewhat less important than the personal relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt.

Dr. Kristen Burton

As for Stalin, Truman took a harder line than FDR had with the Soviet leader. While the war in Europe was now solidly in favor of the Allies, Stalin had left a string of broken promises in the months after the February Yalta Conference. At the conference, the Soviets had promised that they would allow the recently liberated Poland to hold free elections so that the nation could enact its own democratic government -- what occurred instead was the establishment of  a puppet regime under Stalin’s control. It was becoming clear to Roosevelt and his administration that in addition to Poland, Stalin was attempting to gain full control over eastern Europe, including Hungary and Romania. Stalin refused to compromise, believing that Roosevelt had betrayed him and was trying to negotiate a Nazi surrender without Soviet involvement -- while the tension ultimately eased, the rift revealed the roots of what would lead to the Cold War some years later. While Truman didn’t meet Stalin himself until two months into his presidency, his early conversations with Stalin’s #2 Vyacheslav Molotov didn’t make him any friends.

Dr. Rob Citino

Now, the other big fella here in the coalition is Joseph Stalin. And Truman makes a very, very rough impression on Stalin—not personally. He does it through Stalin’s foreign minister, Vy Molotov. Molotov was the foreign minister that is in charge of foreign affairs, but was also kind of a deputy Stalin. He was seen as the number-two guy and Stalin’s closest advisor. And on April 21, Molotov’s in the White House, because Truman, who has been in office all of eight days, is already getting nervous about the Soviets apparently violating some of the things they promised to do at the Yalta Conference which was held in the previous month, late February and March, in terms of holding free elections and allowing democratic systems of government to be established in their occupied territories. And he’s already said in the presence of his aides, if the Soviets don’t start behaving, they can go to hell.

Now, he didn’t tell Molotov that when Molotov came to the White House. But he did lecture Molotov up and down about failing to live up to the promises that you’ve made at Yalta. And when Molotov—who, let’s face it, has blood on his hands. He’s Stalin’s second in command. He said, “I’m not used to being spoken to in this manner.”

And Truman shot back, “Well, keep your commitments and then nobody will speak to you in this manner.” And then more or less, that’s it. The meeting’s over.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Above all else, winning the war consumed Truman’s most every waking moment. While there was optimism in the administration that an Allied victory was forthcoming, news of Roosevelt’s death reportedly elicited glee from Adolf Hitler, according to Nazi Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer. As documented in Speer’s memoirs, Hitler believed Roosevelt’s passing meant the tides may turn and the war wasn’t inevitably lost for the Axis powers.

Truman understood that in order to continue on a trajectory of victory and save as many American lives as possible, the Allies needed to hold their coalition together at all costs.

Dr. Rob Citino

Well, there is still a war on, and his joint chiefs of staff have just come into his office and told him that the war might be on a lot longer yet. There’s some optimistic reports coming from the fronts, particularly in Europe, where the Germans—remember, we’re talking about mid-April. Hitler has a couple weeks to live before he shoots himself and the German army will collapse altogether. So we’re talking about a couple weeks out from the collapse. Now, no one knows that at the time. We have to remember that people at the time—we have all benefit of hindsight. But there are optimistic reports coming back from the front.

But he also has reports now from his joint chiefs of staff who say, oh, it could take six months, maybe longer. You know, that’s another—that’s another 300,000 casualties, if you’re sort of prorating casualties in 1945. That’s not good news. And as to the Japanese, well, they might be in the field another 18 months, another year and a half. And that too—you know, time is casualties in modern war, and it certainly was in World War II.

So that’s Truman’s big worry, and it had to be: winning the war. It seemed like we were on the edge and on the verge, and all the signs looked positive, but winning the war. And so what does that further mean, is you have to hold the coalition together. He’s already given Molotov a pretty good tongue-lashing, but he also wants honesty between the partners. There are peace feelers coming out of Germany that are being directed to Churchill, and Churchill has passed them on to Truman, but Truman wants nothing to do with them unless they talk to Stalin first. That’s all that they need, right, is to have the Western Allies accept a German surrender while the Soviets are left in the lurch, given the fact that the Soviets had done all the fighting.

Dr. Kristen Burton

As a war veteran himself, Truman also understood the demoralizing impact that losing the Commander in Chief in a time of war can have on those fighting. In the days following Roosevelt’s death, Truman was determined to speak directly to the Armed Forces. 

Archival Audio - Harry S. Truman Addressing the American Troops

Good evening from the White House in Washington. Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.

To the Armed Forces of the United States throughout the world:

After the tragic news of the death of our late Commander in Chief, it was my duty to speak promptly to the Congress, and the Armed Forces of the United States. Yesterday, I addressed the Congress. Now I speak to you.

I am especially anxious to talk to you, for I know that all of you felt a tremendous shock, as we did at home, when our Commander in Chief fell. All of us have lost a great leader, a far-sighted statesman and a real friend of democracy. We have lost a hard-hitting chief and an old friend of the services. Our hearts are heavy. However, the cause which claimed Roosevelt, also claims us. He never faltered--nor will we!

I have done, as you would do in the field when the Commander falls. My duties and responsibilities are clear. I have assumed them. These duties will be carried on in keeping with our American tradition. As a veteran of the first World War, I have seen death on the battlefield. When I fought in France with the 35th Division, I saw good officers and men fall, and be replaced.

I know that this is also true of the officers and men of the other services, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the Merchant Marine. I know the strain, the mud, the misery, the utter weariness of the soldier in the field. And I know too his courage, his stamina, his faith in his comrades, his country, and himself.

We are depending upon each and every one of you. (Applause)

Dr. Kristen Burton

Across Europe, Allied forces continued to liberate regions that were under Nazi rule. Though the Allies were winning the fight, the true extent of the death and destruction was coming to light, and the brutality was taking a toll on the troops. The scenes that the 89th Division discovered at Ohrdruf, the first concentration camp liberated by the United States Army, were so horrific that the reports led to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, to visit the camp with Generals Omar Bradley and George Patton. The visit had a powerful impact on Eisenhower, who became determined to make these atrocities public to the world. He received permission from Truman and Secretary of War Henry Lewis Stimson, to bring both journalists and members of Congress to the camp so they could broadcast what had been done to the Hungarian Jews, Poles, Russians, and others who had been imprisoned there. It was clearer than ever what was at stake if the Allies lost.

For Truman and his cabinet, it also became obvious that Stalin had not given up on his quest to control Eastern Europe, but in order to ensure defeat against the Axis, the United States had to continue to work with the Soviets, who were closing in on Berlin in the final days of April.

Dr. Rob Citino

The German army, by April of 1945, was somewhere just south of free fall. I’m not sure exactly what to call it. There’d been a gigantic battle of encirclement of most of the German fighting forces in the district known as the Ruhr, which is the big industrial heartland. We used to say the Pittsburgh of Germany at the time. And some two or three hundred thousand German soldiers had marched off into Allied, largely American, captivity—in fact, so many that there were—you could not even build camps for them all. They were left out in open-air encampments, so-called Rhine meadow camps, as they were sometimes called, at the mercy of the elements. It’s not really a great situation, but not much could have been done about it at the time. The German commander, Field Marshal Walter Modal, shot himself somewhere inside that encirclement. And so there’s the real collapse of the German army.

There was a joke in Germany at the time: you know, this isn’t really bad. You can now walk from the Western Front to the Eastern Front. It was a kilometer between the two—the two big armies coming in. So who knows, who knew at the time exactly when the war would end? But the military signs were all positive. There was fear that Hitler and his cronies would somehow spirit themselves off into the Alps somewhere, so-called Alpenfestung or Alpine Redoubt where they would lead some kind of last-ditch resistance surrounded by hardcore members of the SS. There was fear about that, real fear. And that was one of the reasons that it was so important for the Americans and Soviets to meet at Torgau, to prevent Hitler from doing that. We now know, of course, that Hitler had no intention of doing that.

Archival Audio - Radio Broadcast Announcing Adolf Hitler’s Death

We are interrupting our programs to bring you a newsflash--

This is London Calling. Here is a news flash. The German radio has just announced that Hilter is dead. I’ll repeat -  that the German radio has just announced that Hitler is dead.

Dr. Kristen Burton

The death of Adolf Hitler, as well as the brutal and public execution of his Italian counterpart Benito Mussolini just two days earlier, made the end of the war in Europe a certainty, as Allied troops continued to liberate those who had been held captive under these Fascist regimes.

The news was slow to spread to the United States. In a news conference days after Hitler’s suicide, Truman answered questions from reporters with brief but pointed answers. When asked if he would care to comment on the reports that Hitler and Mussolini were dead, he responded “The two principal war criminals will not have to come to trial; and I am very happy they are out of the way.”

The reporter followed up, asking “does that mean sir, that we know officially that Hitler is dead?”

The President replied “yes.”

Six days later, President Truman would announce that the war in Europe was over.

Archival Audio - Harry S. Truman Announcing Victory Over Europe, May 8, 1945

“This is a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.”

“For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity.

“Our rejoicing is sobered and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid to rid the world of Hitler and his evil band. Let us not forget, my fellow Americans, the sorrow and the heartache which today abide in the homes of so many of our neighbors—neighbors whose most priceless possession has been rendered as a sacrifice to redeem our liberty.”

Dr. Kristen Burton

In our next episode, “Death Stand,” we’ll hear more from Dr. Rob Citino as we delve into the war that continued to rage in the Pacific. On Okinawa, tens of thousands of American troops had landed just ten days before Truman took office, finding themselves in what would become one of the most furious and costly battles of the twentieth century. While the war in Europe was over, there was still a long road ahead.

From The National WWII Museum, I’m Dr. Kristen Burton. This episode was written by executive producer Gemma R. Birnbaum. Media production manager Jeremy Burson did the sound mixing. Archival audio is courtesy of the National Archives, the Screen Gems Collection at the Harry S. Truman Library, and the BBC.

If you like this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, which helps others to find the series. "To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series of programs commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family and Bank of America.