The Oval Office was crowded. It was always crowded now during press conferences – the number of newspaper and radio correspondents in Washington had skyrocketed during World War II. An attendee could faint while listening to the president speak yet remain upright, supported by the crush of surrounding people.
And today, May 8, 1945, was special. A corps of reporters had camped out in the press room all night awaiting a breakthrough they knew was coming. German military commanders had already signed a surrender document at Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France. German officers had broadcast radio orders to their troops to lay down their arms. World War II in Europe was over. All that remained was the official announcement.
But unknown to them, Stalin was balking. He wanted the Germans to surrender in Berlin, where a Soviet commander would be the ranking Allied representative. Harry S. Truman had been president only a few weeks, and his inclination was to play along with the man his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt had tried so hard to cultivate.
Winston Churchill felt otherwise. The British prime minister had called the White House several times on May 7 to press for a more immediate announcement, saying that London’s celebratory crowds were already beyond the control of authorities.
Truman stuck to his position. He had his military chief of staff, Adm. William Leahy, inform Churchill that the United States “cannot act without approval of Uncle Joe."
Privately, the new US chief executive found this disagreement trying. He explained the whole back-and-forth to FDR’s widow Eleanor Roosevelt in a letter dated later that week.
“The difficulties with Churchill are very nearly as exasperating as they are with the Russians,” Truman wrote. “But patience I think must be our watchword if we are to have world peace.”
Churchill reluctantly acquiesced. The official announcement would be delayed until May 8, early in the day, Washington time.
Thus at about 8:35 that morning, Press Secretary Jonathan Daniels ushered reporters in the Oval Office. The official record notes that Truman’s wife, Bess, and daughter Margaret were present, as well as the cabinet, high US and British military officials, and top members of Congress. They were sitting in chairs around the president’s desk.
Truman began by informing them that he was about to read a statement which would be strictly off-the-record until 9 a.m., a few minutes hence, when he would broadcast its contents to the nation. The statement was short, he said – they’d have enough of a head start to write snap announcements.
“You needn’t be uneasy,” he said. “You’ll have plenty of time."
The reporters laughed. Truman added that it was an extra-special occasion because it was also his birthday. He was 61.
“Happy birthday Mr. President!” said voices from around the room.
Then Truman got to it. (He was like that. Once he started, it was straight to the point. “He was perfectly direct, like somebody driving a nail in a piece of wood,” said the Monitor’s Richard Strout in an oral history for the Truman Library.
“This is a solemn but glorious hour,” said Truman. “General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly all over 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,” the president continued.
He went on to note that World War II was not over, in that Japan and the US were still locked in a terrible Pacific war. He warned the Japanese that the full weight of the American military machine would now be directed against them.
“I want that emphasized time after time, that we are only half-through,” said Truman to the media.
Then the new president made his broadcast to the nation. It was largely the same as the statement that he had made to the media. But he added one thought – sorrow for the passing of his predecessor.
“I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day,” he said.
He had been leader of the US only a few weeks. He had told the media to pray for him when he heard the news that FDR had died, since he felt as if the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen upon him.
Truman and his family had just spent their first night in the White House. Margaret’s grand piano would be delivered later that day, swung by crane through a window.
Some savvy political observers thought his V-E Day announcements flat and too unemotional for the moment. The White House press corps did not hold him in high esteem. Later, while waiting out delays for press conferences to begin, they would joke that things were late because the staff was prying Truman’s foot from his mouth.
The Soviets weren’t entirely mollified by Truman’s attempts to bend to their concerns. They set their Victory Day as May 9 – going their own way in that, as in so many other things, in a big-power relationship that quickly soured.
But Truman would preside over V-J Day, in large part due to his momentous decision to use atomic weapons. And it was under Truman that the US enacted the Marshall Plan, formed NATO, and set in place the architecture of containment, the strategy which in the end outlasted the Soviet empire.