Truman and the Nuclear Arsenal

In the stifling, relentless heat of summer in Washington, the Turnip Congress got reluctantly under way. Tension over Berlin increased almost by the hour. And to Truman’s extreme annoyance, James Forrestal launched a campaign behind closed doors to turn custody of the atomic bomb over to the military chiefs.

From testimony being given before the House Un-American Activities Committee by a woman named Elizabeth Bentley and a Time magazine editor named Whittaker Chambers, both former Communists, it also appeared a major spy scandal was unfolding.

Visitors to the President’s office found him looking tired and preoccupied. Bess and Margaret having made their annual summer departure for Missouri, he was feeling particularly alone again. “It is hot and humid and lonely,” he wrote the night after putting them on the train. “Why in hell does anybody want to be a head of state? Damned if I know.”

He had had no change of heart about Berlin. American forces would remain. That was his decision, he said again, meeting with Marshall and Forrestal on July 19, and he would stand by it until all diplomatic means had been tried to reach some kind of accommodation to avoid war. “We’ll stay in Berlin—come what may…. I don’t pass the buck, nor do I alibi out of any decision I make,” he noted privately. He was convinced, as was Marshall, that the future of Western Europe was at stake in Berlin, not to say the well-being of the 2.5 million people in the city’s Allied sectors. Stalin was obviously determined to force the Allies out of Berlin. “If we wished to remain there, we would have to make a show of strength,” Truman later wrote. “But there was always the risk that Russian reaction might lead to war. We had to face the possibility that Russia might deliberately choose to make Berlin the pretext for war….” The Allies had all of 6,500 troops in Berlin—3,000 American, 2,000 British, 1,500 French—while the Russians had 18,000 backed by an estimated 300,000 in the east zone of Germany.

With the airlift now in its fourth week, heavily laden American and British transports were roaring into Berlin hundreds of times a day, and in all weather. They came in low, one after another, lumbering just over the tops of the ruined buildings, as crowds gathered in clusters to watch. German children with toy planes played “airlift” in the rubble as the real drama went on overhead.

It had been General Clay’s initial estimate that possibly 700 tons of food could be delivered to the beleaguered city by air in what would be a “very big operation.” Already some days the tonnage was twice that and now, too, almost unimaginably, coal was arriving out of the sky by the planeload. Pilots and crew were making heroic efforts. At times planes were landing as often as every four minutes—British Yorks and Dakotas, American C-47s and the newer, much larger, four-engine C-54s, which had been dispatched to Germany from Panama, Hawaii, and Alaska. Most planes averaged three flights a day from Frankfurt to Berlin’s Gatow or Templehof fields, a distance of 275 miles. Ground crews worked round the clock. “We were proud of our Air Force during the war. We’re prouder of it today,” said The New York Times. Already, three American crewmen had been killed when their C-47 crashed.

Still, the effort was not enough. On July 15, a record day, 1,450 tons were flown into Berlin. Yet to sustain the city 2,000 tons of food alone were needed every day, plus 12,000 tons of fuel and supplies. In winter, the demands for fuel would be far greater. The mayor of Berlin had said it would be impossible to provide the necessary food and coal supplies by air. “But every expert knows,” reported a London paper, “that aircraft, despite their immense psychological effect, cannot be relied upon to provision Berlin in the winter months.” Allied officials in Berlin worried about the increased activity of Russian Yak fighter planes in the air corridors.

Secretary of the Army Royall ordered General Clay to fly home to Washington to report to the President, which Truman thought a mistake. (“My muttonhead Secretary [of the] Army ordered Clay home from Germany and stirred up a terrific how-dy-do for no good reason,” he wrote to Bess.) At a National Security Council meeting on July 22, Clay said the people of Berlin would stand firm, even if it meant further hardships. Probably the Russians would try to stop any attempt by an armed convoy to break through at this stage, but they were not likely to interfere with air traffic, unless, of course, they were determined to provoke a war. Did the Russians want war, Truman asked. Clay did not think so. No one could be sure. Truman rejected the convoy idea.

When Truman inquired what problems might result from increasing the airlift, General Hoyt Vandenberg, Air Force Chief of Staff, voiced concern that American air strength elsewhere in the world would dangerously be reduced. But that was a risk Truman would take. The airlift would be vastly increased, he decided, expressing again his “absolute determination” to stay in Berlin. More of the big C-54 transports would be sent. Clay ordered another Berlin airfield built and in response to his call, 30,000 Berliners went to work to clear the rubble and grade the runways.

“There is considerable political advantage to the Administration in its battle with the Kremlin,” James Rowe had written in his effort to outline a political strategy for 1948. “In time of crisis the American citizen tends to back up his President.” So by such reasoning, the Berlin crisis, if kept in bounds, was made to order for Truman. Yet in nothing he said or wrote is there a sign of his playing the situation for “political advantage.” Rather, the grave responsibilities he bore as President at this juncture seem to have weighed more heavily on him than at any time since assuming office. He felt the campaign and its distractions, the drain it put on his time and strength, could not be coming at a worse time, as he told Churchill in a letter on July 10:

I am going through a terrible political “trial by fire.” Too bad it must happen at this time.

Your country and mine are founded on the fact that the people have the right to express themselves on their leaders, no matter what the crisis….

We are in the midst of grave and trying times. You can look with satisfaction upon your great contribution to the overthrow of Nazism and Fascism in the world. “Communism”—so-called—is our next great problem. I hope we can solve it without the “blood and tears” the other two cost.

Only the day before the National Security Council meeting about Berlin On July 21, at the meeting arranged by Forrestal to discuss the custody of the atomic bomb, Truman had looked dreadful and in a moment of annoyance revealed as vividly as he ever would how much more he dwelt on the horror of the atomic bomb than most people, even those close to him, imagined, or than he wished anyone to know.

“The President greeted us rather solemnly. He looked worn and grim; none of the joviality that he sometimes exhibits, and we got right down to business,” wrote David Lilienthal in his diary that night, when the whole scene and everything said were still fresh in his mind.

It was an important session, and a kind of seriousness hung over it that wasn’t relieved a bit, needless to say, by the nature of the subject and the fact that even at that moment some terrible thing might happen in Berlin…. I rather think it was one of the most important meetings I have ever attended.

Present besides Truman, Forrestal, and Lilienthal were the four other members of the Atomic Energy Commission, plus Secretary of the Army Royall, Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington, and Donald F. Carpenter, an executive of the Remington Arms Company who was chairman of the Military Liaison Committee of the National Military Establishment.

It was Carpenter who opened the discussion by reading aloud a formal letter requesting an order from the President that would turn custody of the atomic bomb over to the Joint Chiefs, on the grounds that those who would be ultimately responsible for use of the weapon should have it in their possession, to increase “familiarity” with it and to “unify” command. Truman, who did not appreciate being read to in such fashion, cut him off, saying curtly, “I can read.” He turned to Lilienthal, who said the real issue was one of broad policy and that the bomb must not be the responsibility of anyone other than the President, because of his constitutional roles as both Commander in Chief and Chief Magistrate. Civilian control was essential, Lilienthal said.

But then Symington spoke, delivering an incongruously lighthearted account of a visit to Los Alamos where “our fellas” told him they should have the bomb just to be sure it worked, though one scientist had said he did not think it should ever be used.

“I don’t either,” Truman interjected, his face expressionless. He went on. “I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that…[and here, as Lilienthal recorded, Truman paused and looked down at his desk “rather reflectively”]—that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. [“I shall never forget this particular expression,” wrote Lilienthal.] It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this differently from rifles and cannon and ordinary things like that.”

In times past Truman had spoken of the bomb as a military weapon like any other. In times past he had spoken of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as military targets. Not any more. It was an extraordinary declaration, refuting absolutely—as Lilienthal understood—any thought that Truman was insensitive to the horror of the bomb or took lightly his responsibilities as Commander in Chief.

Yet Symington seemed not to understand Truman’s point or the mood of the moment. “Our fellas need to get used to handling it,” Symington repeated, referring now to the military.

They had to understand, Truman said sternly and solemnly, that he had other considerations to weigh. “This is no time to be juggling an atom bomb around.”

He rose from his desk. He had had more than enough. The discussion was ended. The others stood and departed.

“If what worried the President, in part, was whether he could trust these terrible forces in the hands of the military establishment,” wrote Lilienthal that night, “the performance these men gave certainly could not have been reassuring….”

Two days later, at the close of a Cabinet meeting dealing with domestic issues, Truman held Forrestal a moment longer than the others to tell him the bomb would continue in civilian custody.

Privately, Truman had been expressing concern about Forrestal, who, as Truman said, seemed lately unable to “take hold.”

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