An excerpt from Harry & Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World (April 2016) by Lawrence J. Haas
“A Victory Against War Itself”
It was the evening of April 12, 1945, and Harry Truman, who had just taken the oath as America’s new president, was holding an emergency meeting with the cabinet he had inherited from FDR. Earlier in the day, Senator Tom Connally, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had issued a statement predicting that, in light of FDR’s death that afternoon, the United Nations organizing conference that was scheduled to begin in San Francisco in two weeks could be delayed. That Connally was not just the Senate’s top Democrat on foreign affairs but also a member of the U.S. delegation to San Francisco made his prediction particularly newsworthy. Reporters wanted to know what Truman would do, and they were asking Steve Early, who had been FDR’s press secretary.
As the cabinet meeting was starting, Early walked in to ask Truman what he should tell the reporters. In his first major decision as president, Truman said firmly that the San Francisco conference would start on schedule. He wanted no ambiguity about it. Concerned after the meeting that his response to reporters wouldn’t reach U.S. allies and other foreign audiences, he ordered White House aides to issue a statement in his name to that effect that evening. He also directed Secretary of State Edward Stettinius more than once over the next day to reinforce the point publicly.
“I wanted to make it clear,” Truman recalled, “that I attached the greatest importance to the establishment of international machinery for the prevention of war and the maintenance of peace. I knew many of the pitfalls and stumbling blocks we could encounter in setting up such an organization, but I also knew that in a world without such machinery we would be forever doomed to the fear of destruction. It was important for us to make a start, no matter how imperfect.”1
Arthur Vandenberg, who was also a member of the U.S. delegation to San Francisco, was relieved to hear the news. “I liked the first decision Truman made—namely that Frisco should go on,” he wrote in his diary the next day. Of Connally’s suggestion, he added, “Truman promptly stopped that mistake (which would have confessed to the world that there is an ‘indispensable’ man who was bigger than America).”2
Truman shared Vandenberg’s concern about how the nation and the world would react to FDR’s death. He knew that he needed to seize the role of president quickly and leave no doubt that he was now in charge. That was no small challenge, for the notion of anyone besides FDR serving as president was hard for many people to swallow. (On Truman’s second full day on the job, he called Jesse Jones, who ran the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to tell him “the President” had appointed his friend, John W. Snyder, to serve as a federal loan official. When Jones asked if “the President” had made that decision before he died, Truman snapped, “No. He made it just now.”3)
Truman and Vandenberg wanted the San Francisco conference to start on time for other reasons as well. They were both longtime UN enthusiasts who carried high hopes for what the new body could accomplish, and they were eager to see it established as soon as possible. They also recognized the symbolism behind San Francisco—that in hosting the conference and driving the proceedings, the United States was reassuring a nervous world that it did not intend to repeat its disastrous posture of the 1920s and 1930s when it refused to join the League of Nations, erected huge new trade barriers, slashed its military, ignored emerging threats in Europe and Asia, and retreated to its traditional isolationism. Instead, America now planned to actively participate in global affairs on a sustained basis.
1. Truman, Volume One, 271.
2. Vandenberg, Private Papers, 168.
3. Truman, Volume One, 29.