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Alternate Trumans: Who Would Have Dropped the Bomb?
Ever since seeing Oppenheimer, there’ve been two questions on my mind. One: why did they give Oppenheimer so many nude scenes? And two: would the men who almost ended up as president instead of Truman also have dropped the bomb?
Harry Truman was an accidental president, chosen at the 1944 Democratic National Convention to replace Henry Wallace, the incumbent Vice President who had served for FDR’s previous term. Truman was relatively unknown and didn’t even particularly want the job (even once he became VP, he insisted on staying in his Senate offices instead of moving into the VP’s office in the West Wing). Famously, he wasn’t even informed about the Manhattan Project until after Roosevelt died and he ascended to the presidency. That he ended up in the position to unilaterally make perhaps America’s most important foreign policy decision of all time is a true quirk of history.
Was our use of the atomic bomb inevitable? Or would the other men who could have been president instead have potentially made different decisions? This seemed like a fun thing to look into, mostly because the alternate Trumans were a real cast of characters.
Henry A. Wallace
Henry Wallace may have been the most interesting person to ever have such a boring name. An Iowa entrepreneur, he started a corn company (that’s amazingly still around), then became FDR’s agricultural secretary and, eventually, Vice President. One of the most liberal VP’s of all time, he was an early proponent of racial equality, anti-poverty programs, and foreign aid. (Opponents of foreign aid hilariously claimed that Wallace wanted “to give a quart of milk to every Hottentot,” which is a word you really don’t hear anymore these days.) He was even friends with Roald Dahl, of all people, though they often fought over Wallace’s support for decolonization.
Wallace was also a total kook, the kind of guy who today would be into astrology and own multiple Goop products. Most notably, he was a longtime follower of the Russian mystic Roerich, who allegedly helped him connect to the Spirit Realm, where he received guidance on government policy from the spirits. (I swear I am not making this up.)
Letters from Wallace discussing his Spirit Realm advisors almost derailed his political career when they were leaked to Republican operatives, but FDR’s team managed to suppress the letters by agreeing not to publicize the fact that Wendell Willkie, FDR’s Republican opponent in 1940, was having an affair. This was the first time in recorded history that an extramarital affair was kept hidden thanks to intervention from the spirit realm.
Wallace was booted from the Democratic ticket in 1944 when party leaders feared that his left-wing views and general instability might cost them the next election. They also knew that FDR didn’t have great odds of surviving his fourth term, and were worried about what might happen if Wallace became president. Even one of Wallace’s best friends and most prominent public supporters, the columnist Walter Lippmann, believed he was unsuited for the presidency because he would probably “go crazy” under the pressure.
After a failed third-party campaign in 1948, Wallace returned to his first passion: farm-related entrepreneurship. He spent the rest of life developing and marketing new kinds of seed corn and chickens. Every year for Christmas, he sent his friends in Washington a package of his “special fertilizer.” I couldn’t find any details on what was in this special fertilizer, but I think this means he was sending people boxes of poop, right?
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Everything about Wallace screams “not the kind of guy who would use atomic weapons.” Or so I assumed—until I learned that it was Wallace who made one of the earliest recommendations to Roosevelt to proceed with atomic weapons research in the first place. Doesn’t necessarily mean he would’ve used the bomb, though, so I’m giving this one even odds.
Bomb-dropping odds: 5/10, depending on what the Spirit Realm says
William O. Douglas
They really don’t make Supreme Court Justices like William Douglas anymore.
The longest-serving justice in Supreme Court history, Douglas was impeached twice (both times unsuccessfully) and married four times—the latter two to women in their twenties when he was in his sixties. He met his third wife when she was a college student writing her thesis on him, which is messed up in so many ways. (I hope she at least got an A.) While serving on the court, he somehow found time to write eight travel books about Asia and the Middle East. Oh, and he established the constitutional right to privacy, was the only justice to dissent on opinions upholding the legality of the Vietnam War, and authored Roe v. Wade. (Real shocker that a man who had four wives and dozens of extramarital affairs would want abortion to be legal.)
He was also a strident environmentalist, arguing in Sierra Club v. Morton that the natural world itself should be given legal personhood just like corporations, and therefore have standing to sue in court, an idea that was considered nuts then but is seen as slightly less nuts now.
Despite this impressive career, Douglas spent his entire life unhappy that he never achieved his true ambition of becoming president. He made multiple failed attempts to enter electoral politics, the most successful of which was when he ran a behind-the-scenes campaign to replace Wallace on the 1944 ticket, before ultimately losing out to Truman. (FDR, in a written letter, had endorsed both Truman and Wallace, and great hay was made of the fact that Truman’s name was listed first—the Kendall Roy “underlined or crossed out?” of midcentury Democratic politics.)
Historians generally consider Douglas to be the most liberal and most anti-war Supreme Court justice of all time. But he mostly developed that philosophy in the latter half of his life. Early on, he was more of a conventional New Deal liberal, and if he’d ended up as president in 1945, I think he probably would’ve gone along with whatever the military recommended—a.k.a, used the bomb.
Bomb-dropping odds: 7/10. Wife-dropping odds: 10/10
FDR’s Republican opponent in 1944, Dewey lost in a 99-432 electoral vote landslide, which amazingly was still the best any of FDR’s general-election opponents had ever done against him. Today he’s mostly remembered for having a sick moustache and for losing again in 1948, to Truman this time, in an election he was heavily favored to win—hence the famous photo of Truman holding up the newspaper with the inaccurate “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline.
A moderate, Dewey campaigned mostly on domestic issues, since he didn’t have many disagreements with the Roosevelt administration’s World War II policy. I think his military would’ve bombed as hard as his campaign did.
Bomb-dropping odds: 9/10
John Bankhead II
The third-place runner-up for VP at the 1944 Democratic convention, Bankhead was an ardent segregationist with an uneventful Senate career who’s mostly known for having been the actress Tallulah Bankhead’s uncle. Given that she was an outspoken liberal who was open about her bisexuality, drug use, and voracious sexual appetites, their family get-togethers were probably pretty awkward.
I couldn’t find much information about his foreign policy beliefs, but I’m going to assume someone devoted their life to preventing Black people from voting probably wouldn’t have had any qualms about killing a bunch of people in Japan.
Bomb-dropping odds: 10/10
Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 of an intracerebral hemorrhage. (Allegedly, his last words were “I have a terrific headache,” which is a pretty cool way to go.) We bombed Hiroshima on August 6 of that same year. While FDR had been in bad health for a long time and was widely expected to not make it through his fourth term (by insiders; the general public didn’t know), it’s not inconceivable that he could’ve held on for a few more months, in which case the decision on the bomb would’ve been his and not Truman’s. Given that it was his administration that had spearheaded the bomb’s development, I don’t see any reason to think he wouldn’t have used it.
Bomb-dropping odds: 10/10
Here’s the thing, though: even asking this question is a little misleading, because it implies that there was ever any debate about whether to use the bomb. At the levels of government that actually mattered, there wasn’t. It was assumed by pretty much everyone in power that of course we’d use these new weapons. The debates were one level down, about where, when, and how they’d be used.
The possibility of giving the Japanese a few days warning to evacuate the target cities—which, in high school, I thought should have been the obvious ethical move—was briefly considered, but rejected because we were worried it would make us look weak if the bombs were defective and failed to go off, which seemed like a real possibility at the time.
Personally, I think it was inevitable that once we discovered atomic weapons could be built, they would be built and used at least once. Inventions have a way of willing themselves into the world eventually, regardless of the actions of specific people. After all, almost all of the top scientists at the Manhattan Project joined because they were afraid Nazi Germany would get the bomb first—but when Germany surrendered before the project was complete, only a single one of them quit.
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