A Truman Library Institute blog, “Marching to Victory: WWII Highlights from the Truman Library’s Archives and Collections,” is about the major events of the last year of World War II, which was 70 years ago. Today’s post is about the death of Adolf Hitler.
70 years ago today – with the Red Army only blocks away – Hitler killed himself in the Führerbunker beneath the city streets of Berlin.
Two days later, on May 2, 1945, Truman met with the press in the White House for what was only his fifth press conference as president.
The press conference started with some relatively mundane announcements: Truman announced and responded to the resignation of Frank C. Walker, the postmaster general; he said he would nominate Robert E. Hannegan as Walker’s replacement. He said he nominated David E. Lilienthal to the board of directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority; and he said he had issued an executive order appointing Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson as America’s representative on an international military tribunal to try war criminals.
After the announcements, Truman opened the floor to questions.
Eighteen reporters peppered the president with 32 questions about wartime negotiations, plans for a V-E Day address, the Polish problem, if the president had lunch with the new ambassador to Argentina, Senator Murray’s bill for full employment, and a number of other topics.
It was not until the 22nd question that the 16th reporter called on finally asked about the death of the Axis leaders.
“Mr. President,” the reporter began, “would you care to comment on the death of Adolf Hitler reported, or Mussolini?”
Truman’s response indicated the looming problem of how to serve justice to Axis leaders who had wrought such havoc on Europe.
“Well, of course, the two principal war criminals will not have to come to trial,” Truman said, “and I am very happy they are out of the way.”
“Well, does that mean, sir, that we know officially that Hitler is dead,” the reporter pressed.
“Yes,” Truman succinctly responded.
The transcript of the press conference reveals that when the reporter pressed Truman for official confirmation of the details of Hitler’s death, Truman treaded cautiously.
Q. Do we know how he died, Mr. President?
A. No, we do not.
Q. Mr. President, I didn’t quite get that. Is it official? This is confirmation that Hitler is dead?
A. We have the best – on the best authority possible to obtain at this time that Hitler is dead. But how he died we are not – we are not familiar with the details as yet.
Q. Could you name the authority, Mr. President?
A. I would rather not.
Q. Mr. President, do you mean that the – you are convinced that authority you give is the best possible, but it is – but that it is true?
The next reporter called upon changed tactics, trying to get Truman to comment on details about the end of the war he had not yet been able to confirm. News traveled slower in 1945 than it does today. Even then, to paraphrase the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, “truth is the first casualty in war.” As Allied armies marched to victory over Nazi Germany in late April of that tumultuous year, Americans on the home front – even President Truman – struggled to keep up with the rush of events. Rumors of major war developments often took several days or weeks to be officially confirmed or denied, and Truman was careful not to spread false or premature information.
Q. Mr. President, do you care to comment at all on the situation in Germany today; that is, would you care to make any extension of your remarks on the surrender of the German army in Italy?
A. No, I would not.
Q. Mr. President, do you contemplate a radio broadcast imminently?
A. No, I do not.
Q. Mr. President, there have been reports late – later today, following the Italian announcement, that other groups of Germans are on the point of surrendering in the Dutch pockets?
A. I hope that is true. I don’t know that it is.
The last reporter called upon tried to get Truman to comment on Mussolini’s execution.
Q. Mr. President, is there anything you can give us in the way of background, regarding last Saturday’s situation and announcement?
A. What was that? (Laughter)
Q. I think that was the one.
A I can’t give you anything further on it, I am sorry to say.
Reporter: Thank you, Mr. President.
Six days later, Truman would announce to the world that Germany had surrendered. On Aug. 14, 1945, during his 18th presidential news conference, Truman would announce that the Japanese would surrender, and the war would soon be over.
For more information on the May 2 and August 14 press conferences, as well as the more than 300 hundred he held as president, explore the archives of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in person or online at TrumanLibrary.org.
More “Marching to Victory” at TrumanLibraryInstitute.org .