Was Truman unpopular because of the atom bomb?

I don’t know if this one represents BBC bias or simply shows how little I know. Perhaps better-informed readers can tell me.

Here’s the item: the answer to question 3 of this BBC quiz on the US presidency says:

“President Truman had an 85% approval rating at the beginning of 1945, but that sank to a little over 30% after he ordered two atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan.”

I was very surprised at this. My impression was that the news of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing the surrender of Japan within days, was greeted in the US (as it was in the UK) with awe and a certain amount of heartsearching, but that the overwhelming reaction was relief; relief that the war was so suddenly over without the need for a massive attack on a fanatically-defended Japan. In support of Truman’s decision, Churchill said:

“To avoid a vast, indefinite butchery, to bring the war to an end, to give peace to the world, to lay healing hands upon its tortured peoples by a manifestation of overwhelming power at the cost of a few explosions, seemed, after all our toils and perils, a miracle of deliverance.”

While I am certainly aware that there were a few on the Allied side who opposed the Bomb in 1945, in general my impression was that Churchill’s reaction was atypical only in its eloquence. I wondered if the BBC’s explanation of Truman’s unpopularity was not an attempt (possibly unconscious) to impose modern BBC disapproval of the atom bomb onto the Americans of a previous generation.

UPDATE: Good heavens! Whoever reads this site for the Beeb, congratulations on your fast response. I had just pressed “publish” and clicked the link to check it worked – and found the reference to the atomic bomb had gone. It now reads:

President Truman had an 85% approval rating at the beginning of 1945, but that sank to a little over 30% in the wake of the Korean War and domestic problems.

Thing is, now I know I was right and it wasn’t true that the the reason for Truman being unpopular was the Bomb. The question remains how this error came to be made in the first place. Know what I think? I think it was BBC bias.

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16 Responses to Was Truman unpopular because of the atom bomb?

  1. stan says:

    These Guardianistras really do want to re-write history to suit their agenda.


  2. John says:

    It doesn’t matter what these people think. All it matters is that most historians rank Harry S Truman as one in the the top tier of Presidents; right up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR.

    And where does their hero, bill clinton, rank? Right between average and below average (consensus is mixed, due to how recent his administration is).


  3. John says:

    I just went to the bbc’s website and saw another error in their question:

    their question was based on the premise that these presidents serve only one term. Harry S Truman served 2 terms: he served out FDR’s term after FDR died and was re-elected in 1948 when the pundits predicted that Dewey would win.


  4. John says:

    Another error they wrote:

    “President Truman had an 85% approval rating at the beginning of 1945, but that sank to a little over 30% in the wake of the Korean War and domestic problems.”

    In the beginning of 1945, Harry S Truman was still Vice President. He didn’t become president until April of 1945. These people should get their facts straight.


  5. Nigel Holland says:

    stan wrote
    “These Guardianistras really do want to re-write history to suit their agenda.”

    Here’s one of those wonderful Fabians celebrating New Labour revisionism.

    “His Future of Socialism stands out as a milestone, and has relevance today. His insistance on revisionism as the political tactic of the left became New Labour’s credo.”


  6. Susan says:

    Truman’s administration was dogged with accusations of corruption and graft. That was the source of his unpopularity; not The Bomb.

    Give me a break. The US lost 300,000 men in WWII at a time when our population was only 1/2 of what it is today. Judging from the newspaper editions my parents saved, the overwhelming emotion exhibited on V-J Day was insanely ebulliant joy. The BBC thinks that these tearfully joyous Americans were angry that Truman brought the war to an end?

    The BBC really is Pravda-on-the-Thames.


  7. amir says:

    What a poll! Death, impeachment, assassination, low ratings, perks

    … and the ultimate crime, intervention in the middle east.

    Is this about the Borgias or about the US presidency ?

    Anyone expect such questions ?


  8. Alex Bensky says:

    Well, it’s possible that the original statement was just a matter of editorial carelessness. Of course, it’s possible that Lucy Lawless is about to ring my doorbell and ask if she can come in and get out of these wet clothes.

    Anyone interested in the issue, by the way, should take a look at Richard Frank’s book, Downfall. Truman had no feasible alternative to dropping the bombs. It’s worth noting that after Nagasaki the Japanese war council still couldn’t vote to end the war and the Emperor’s intervention was required.


  9. Michael says:

    Another little known fact is that when extremists in the Japanese Military found out that the Emperor had recorded a speech ordering his people to surrender, to be broadcast the next day, they ordered the Imperial Palace invaded.

    With the Palace occupied and the Emperor under arrest, the recording was secreted out and made it to broadcast or the war might have gone on much longer and millions more would surely have died.

    Obviously, without the bomb, Japan was nowhere near to surrender, revisionist journalists to the contrary.


  10. S. Callahan says:

    The BBC can’t even get the easily verified details correct. According to the Truman Library, Truman’s high was 87% approval in July 1945, just prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his low was 23% in December 1951, a month before he left office.


  11. Dave F says:

    I’m afraid that my expert eye detects editorial incompetence and/or laziness (off-the-top-of the head commentary), both widespread in current mass media journalism.

    Of course, being haphazard in a way that supports one’s prejudiuces goes hand in hand with that attitude.


  12. Squander Two says:

    This is a popular trick in news-writing: the use of the word “after”. To say that Truman’s approval rating “sank to a little over 30% after he ordered two atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan” is absolutely correct. It is also correct to say that Leni Riefenstahl died after Tony Blair was re-elected, and that I moved house after Alex won Fame Academy. It’s great for journalists: everyone who reads it infers causation, but no causation is strictly being implied. It gets used a lot when a teenager dies after taking drugs: that way, the writers don’t have to bother with petty details like post-mortems before they tell everyone what the cause of death is.

    The fact that the BBC have corrected it in this instance shows that they know full well it’s underhand journalism.


  13. D Geyer says:

    Truman was also highly unpopular due to his sacking of General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. Truman was never afraid to take on the army and had done so before over desegregation early in his presidency. Unfortunately, taking on the army wasn’t the way to court popularity during the early years of the Cold War.


  14. Joe says:

    The comments by the beeb all have that air of envy abou them – like a “democrats abroad” american who was interviewed and (in no context) was asked: “aren’t you ashamed to be an American?”.
    She was stymied, and I would gather to guess that for reasons unrelated to american politics, she may not be voting democrat much longer.


  15. Susan says:

    Good point D. Geyer, I had forgotten about the MacArthur controversy.

    Truman stepped on a lot of toes. I read that he was QE2’s favorite president though.


  16. Joshua says:

    Actually, Truman wasn’t even Vice President at the beginning of 1945 — just Vice President-elect (and a Senator). On January 1, 1945, Henry Wallace was near the end of his stint as FDR’s VP, and was soon to be replaced as VP by Truman, effective on Inauguration Day, January 20, 1945.