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The Moment Of Decision
When Harry Truman was President of the United States he kept on his desk a little sign with the reminder: “The buck stops here.” This was his way of telling himself that when the responsibility for decision conies to a President, he has to meet it all alone. He can ask for all kinds of advice, and any amount of briefing, but he has to make up his mind by himself. Once in a generation or so his decisions send powerful echoes down the years. They may take the country along a path never before followed, enlarge the powers of the American government itself, or commit the whole nation to a policy or a program that will have permanent and vital effect. At such moments the President has to have vision, courage, and a sense of historic mission. To illustrate the matter, we consider below five moments in time in which a President made a decision whose consequences to the republic still endure.
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
Truman became President on April 12, 1945, and the next day he learned for the first time that the United States was perfecting the atomic bomb. Final tests were yet to be made, but it was clear that if the tests succeeded, the nation would (as Truman later put it) be “in possession of a weapon that would not only revolutionize war but could alter the course of history and civilization.”
Then things happened fast. On May 8 Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe was over. Truman went to the Potsdam Conference, to do what could be done to arrange for peace in Europe; and at this meeting he, Winston Churchill, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek issued a statement warning Japan to stop fighting or suffer “the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and … the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.” The Japanese ignored the threat—and on August 6 the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, to be followed three days later by another one dropped on Nagasaki. On August 14 Japan surrendered.
The point was that during the Potsdam Conference Truman had been notified that the bomb had been perfected. His military advisers urged that it be used, in the belief that it would shorten the war by a year and save perhaps half a million American lives. And Truman, who had the final decision in the matter, decided that the bomb should be used. It was used, and a new era in international relations had begun.
Truman made his choice without hesitation and without dramatics. He was the man appointed to decide, he did decide, and he said afterward that he “never had any doubt” that the bomb should be used.
True enough. But it was also Harry Truman who wrote, later, in a preface to his memoirs:
“To be President of the United States is to be lonely, very lonely at times of great decisions.”