Roosevelt’s footsteps echoed across the stage, but most of the actors sitting in the Oval Office on the morning of April 13, 1945 had changed since the war’s first dreadful weeks. Stimson was still there, but in the secretary of the navy’s chair sat Jim Forrestal. With Marshall was Admiral King, who had taken the place of the exiled Betty Stark. William Leahy had been ambassador to Vichy when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and Henry “Hap” Arnold, on inspection in Europe that day, was a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a name that did not exist in 1941.
And for the first time since the war began, the president’s chair was occupied by a man other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Leahy explained the function of the Joint Chiefs to the new president. At Stimson’s suggestion, Marshall and King gave short summaries of the state of the war. Marshall said Eisenhower would send Patton’s army into Czechoslovakia. Omar Bradley was driving toward the Elbe River for his rendezvous with the Red Army, and Bernard Montgomery was moving on Lübeck on the Baltic coast.
King described the Pacific. Air bases were operating on northern Luzon and cutting off Japan’s oil, food, and metal. Iwo Jima’s capture three weeks earlier had put American fighter escorts within range of Japan, and the Tenth Army was making steady progress on Okinawa. Total casualties for all services to date were nearly 800,000.
Truman told the group he was impressed by the high command’s effectiveness. “If the South had had a staff organization like that,” he said, “the Confederates would have won the Civil War.” He asked a few questions, then thanked the men for their help. He said he was satisfied with the war’s progress and wanted no major changes in its prosecution. The meeting was brief and efficient, and the war chiefs left the overwhelmed president to face his next meeting.
On their way back to the Pentagon, Stimson and Marshall quietly compared impressions of the new commander-in-chief. Stimson was cautious but optimistic. Marshall was more guarded. “We will not know what he is really like until the pressure really begins to be felt,” he said.
King, for his part, felt good about the new man. Truman was a straight-shooter, like himself, and apparently didn’t give a damn whose feathers he ruffled when he was right. King liked that. Three months into Truman’s tenure he would tell Lord Moran, “Watch the president. This is all new to him, but he can take it. He is a more typical American than Roosevelt, and he will do a good job, not only for the United States but for the whole world.”
Unlike FDR, Truman was an Army man. He had been a battery commander at the Meuse-Argonne in the First World War. He kept his commission in the Army Reserve, and between the wars, he commanded the reservist 381st Artillery Regiment. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he spoke with Marshall about resigning from the Senate to serve in the Army—a path Marshall advised against—and as chairman of the Truman Committee, he kept a watchful eye on military affairs.
That Army influence was felt as Truman put his stamp on the executive office. Naval scenes in the dilapidated presidential study were replaced with prints of airplanes; an Andrew Jackson bust took the place of a Dutch ship model. Knickknacks on FDR’s desk—pigs, donkeys, and other odd mementos—were swept away, replaced by a model cannon, a clock, and pen sets. From a glance around the study, Navy men like Forrestal and King could see that their greatest ally, the meddling, whimsical, late commander-in-chief, had vanished.
Truman also turned his broom on the old guard. Harold Ickes, Frances Perkins, and Francis Biddle were soon gone. Henry Morgenthau resigned shortly after Truman refused to bring him to Germany to meet with the Big Three. Others soon left. The country was the same, the policies were the same, but Harry Truman’s tone would be very different from the one Roosevelt’s New Dealers had grown up with.
While Roosevelt’s monumental ego had been at home among the Churchills, MacArthurs, and Montgomerys of the world, the humble Harry Truman didn’t cotton to showmen in uniform. He valued the Marshalls and Eisenhowers, men who put duty above status, far more than the “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur,” as he told his diary. “Don’t see how a country can produce such men as Robert E. Lee, John J. Pershing, Eisenhower, and Bradley and at the same time produce Custers, Pattons, and MacArthurs.”
But since the Pattons and MacArthurs were fighting the war’s battles for the moment, Harry Truman would leave that burden to Henry Stimson and George Marshall.
As Truman was meeting with his war chiefs, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler was informing Sweden’s Count Bernadotte that Adolf Hitler had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and had only a few days to live. Himmler was correct in a manner of sorts, though the cause of Hitler’s cerebral hemorrhage was a piece of lead spinning through his dark and troubled brain. On the second of May, Stalin announced the capture of Berlin, and General Alexander in Italy notified London that German troops there, some 600,000 in all, were being directed to surrender.
The collapse of lines east, south, and west impelled Hitler’s successor, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, to put out peace feelers to the west. Terrified of a Russian occupation, the German high command hoped to leave an open door for fellow Germans to escape a revenge-fueled spree of pillage, rape, and murder by Stalin’s conquerors. Dönitz’s emissaries begged Eisenhower for a truce in the west that would let them fight a rearguard action in the east.
Following to the letter the “unconditional surrender” formula laid down by Roosevelt, Eisenhower refused to accept a separate peace. The Third Reich’s will to resist crumbled, and General Alfred Jodl, on behalf of the German high command, signed the instrument of surrender. On the morning of May 7, Eisenhower cabled Marshall:
THE MISSION OF THE ALLIED FORCE WAS FUFILLED AT 0241, LOCAL TIME, MAY 7th, 1945.
Reprinted from American Warlords by Jonathan W. Jordan by arrangement with New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House company, Copyright © 2015