The Crucible of World War II: Harry Truman and the Atomic Bomb

By Lacy, Lee | Army, May 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Crucible of World War II: Harry Truman and the Atomic Bomb


Lacy, Lee, Army


The fundamentals of leadership that allow people to do extraordinary things under difficult and trying circumstances are both fascinating and complex. Why do some leaders succeed where others fail? Are leaders born or are they made? Is success a result of coincidence or chance, or is it a byproduct of one's training and experience? Harry Truman is an example of a leader who emerged triumphant, not by accident or coincidence but because of his experiences and preparation. He persevered to make one of the most difficult decisions in history-the use of atomic weapons to end World War II.

Legend has it that in 458 B.C., the great Roman consul Cincinnatus was tending his fields when word was sent from Rome that he was needed to defend the empire from its enemies. Cincinnatus heeded the call, was granted great powers and eventually led Rome to victory. Afterward, he quietly returned to the fields and resumed his life as a farmer.

Refiner's Fire

Truman's story was similar. His unlikely journey from Missouri farmer to citizen-soldier to the U.S. Senate and eventually to the White House is notable because of the enduring values he learned as a farmer, merchant, soldier and politician. Moreover, his consequential decision to use the atomic bomb to end World War II was, in part, the result of the crucible experiences he had gone through in the farm fields of Missouri.

We do not often think of great leaders rising from ordinary circumstances. Today, the cynical nature of contemporary politics might scoff at a man like Truman. Born in 1884 in rural Lamar, Mo., throughout his formative years he worked beside his father and brother in the fields. He matured into a man on the farm, became more assertive over time and gained good business sense.

Unfortunately, the farm also meant years of misfortune in the form of severe weather, death, injury and mediocre profitability. Farming was only moderately successful and proved difficult for Truman and his family, but it served as the refiner's fire in his development, providing valuable lessons that helped mold him into a respected leader, politician and statesman.

He knew hard work and patience were about all he could do to influence any situation. He also seemed fatalistic about life's events. Nature would have to take its course after his best efforts were applied.

From One Crucible to Another

To understand Truman's crucible experience as President, we must first examine the final months of World War II. By April 1945, the darkest days of the war had seemingly passed. The Allies were closing in on victory over Germany. On the other hand, Japan refused to capitulate in the face of Allied tactical victories. It appeared the war in the Pacific would drag on into 1946.

The first few days of the Truman administration were tumultuous. Truman's presidency began under the cloud of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death. Moments after Truman took the oath of office on April 12, 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson spoke with him about an "immense project." Stimson gave few details about the atomic bomb. The next day, Truman learned more details about the bomb but put off any major decisions about its use. The President had not made up his mind about any aspect of the Manhattan Project and thus showed himself to be his own man, not the Senate figurehead he was so often derided as being.

One can only imagine what was going on in Truman's head after he was elevated to the most powerful office in the world. He was not born a leader; instead, he developed these traits over time, through experience on the farm in Missouri, on the battlefields of France in World War I and through the rough-and-tumble of Missouri politics.

The issue of the atomic bomb resurfaced on April 24, when Stimson met with Truman and expressed confidence that using the bomb would shorten the war. In the meantime, any decisions regarding the use of the bomb were put off, but atomic research and development proceeded. …

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