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The Month That Changed The World: July 16-August 15, 1945

[Originally posted in 2020 to mark the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II and the transformation of the modern world; Revised July 10-Sept. 2, 2023]

From the “Trinity” Test to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Japan’s Surrender:

The Month That Changed the World

The atomic bomb cloud over Hiroshima Source: National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov/id/542192

The July 21, 2023 release of Oppenheimer, the critically acclaimed film by director Christopher Nolan about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the development of the atomic bomb, has brought renewed attention in this chapter of American and world History. The successful test of the bomb in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945 set in motion a series of world-changing events in the final weeks of World War II.

The following timeline summarizes the momentous landmarks that helped make the modern world between July 16 and August 15, 1945.

On August 6, 1945, the New York Times asked:

“What is this terrible new weapon?”

(New York Times, August 6, 1945: “First Atomic Bomb Dropped on Japan”)

The story followed the announcement made that day by President Harry S. Truman:

“SIXTEEN HOURS AGO an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British ‘Grand Slam’ which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.”

August 6, 1945

President Harry S. Truman (Photo: Truman Library)

President Harry S. Truman
(Photo: Truman Library)

(“Statement by the President Announcing the Use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima”: Truman Library and Museum)

The use of the first atomic bomb followed the successful test detonation –the goal of the wartime Manhattan Project — and the beginning of a series of events that reshaped the world in the final weeks of World War II.

•July 16, 1945 the first atomic device, nicknamed “the Gadget,” is detonated in the “Trinity” test at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Read this account of the test in National Geographic.

New York Times reporter Dennis Overbye visited the site in 2021. His report “Touring Trinity, the Birthplace of Nuclear Dread”:

“The detonation created a crater eight feet deep, a half-mile wide and lined with glassy pebbles called trinitite: sand that had been swept up in the fireball, vaporized and then fell back down in molten radioactive droplets.

By many accounts, J. Robert Oppenheimer uttered a passage he recalled from the Hindu epic Bhagavad Gita:

“Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

The Trinity test, 15 seconds after detonation. Photo courtesy of David Wargowski Source: National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Read more about the test in “The First Light of Trinity” by Alex Wellerstein in The New Yorker.

One of Robert Oppenheimer’s biographers, Kai Bird, has also written “Oppenheimer, Nullified and Vindicated,” also in The New Yorker.

UPDATE July 18, 2023 “The Real History Behind Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer'” (Smithsonian)

“Oppenheimer provides an opportunity to revisit this charismatic, contradictory man and reconsider how previous attempts to tell his story have succeeded—and failed—at fathoming one of the 20th century’s most fascinating public figures.”

July 20, 2023:

“Trinity Nuclear Test’s Fallout Reached 46 States, Canada, and Mexico, Study Finds”

“A new study, released on Thursday ahead of submission to a scientific journal for peer review, shows that the cloud and its fallout went farther than anyone in the Manhattan Project had imagined in 1945. Using state-of-the-art modeling software and recently uncovered historical weather data, the study’s authors say that radioactive fallout from the Trinity test reached 46 states, Canada and Mexico within 10 days of detonation.”

“Trinity Nuclear Test’s Fallout Reached 46 States, Canada, and Mexico, Study Finds,” New York Times (July 20, 2023)

Over the next weeks, the world would be transformed, with the arrival of the Atomic Age, Japan’s surrender, the end of World War II, the charter of the United Nations, and the beginning of the Cold War.

The development, testing, and use of atomic bombs is documented by the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.

L to R: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Harry S. Truman, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the garden of Cecilienhof Palace before meeting for the Potsdam Conference in Potsdam, Germany. National Archives Identifier 198958

•July 17 In Potsdam, near Berlin in defeated Germany, President Harry S. Truman comes face to face with the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Truman had taken office upon the death of President Roosevelt on April 12, 1945 without knowledge of the Manhattan Project or the atomic bomb’s existence. Having been told about the potential weapon, Truman is informed of the successful “Trinity” test while meeting Soviet Strongman Stalin with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the European postwar conference.

 

Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin at Potsdam (Public Domain: President Harry S. Truman Library and Museum)

“I told Stalin that I am no diplomat but usually said yes or no to questions after hearing all the argument.”

In his diary, Truman adds: “He said he had and that he had some more questions to present. I told him to fire away. He did and it is dynamite—but I have some dynamite too which I’m not exploding now. . . . I can deal with Stalin. He is honest—but smart as hell.” (National Archives)

Read about Stalin’s rise to power in  Strongman

Following the New Mexico test success, the components of the atomic bomb are loaded onto the USS Indianapolis in San Francisco for transport to an airbase on Tinian Island in the Pacific. Many of the crew of nearly 1,200 men have no idea what the ship is carrying.

•July 19 In the United States, Congress approves the Bretton Woods agreement, an international pact designed to avoid postwar financial crises like those that followed World War I. The agreement creates the International Money Fund and what later becomes the World Bank.

The Japanese cities of Choshi, Hitachi, Fukui and Okazaki are struck by 600 B-29 Superfortress bombers dropping some 4,000 tons of bombs — the largest employment of the bomber to date.

The USS Indianapolis reaches Pearl Harbor in the first leg of its voyage to deliver the atomic bomb components.

https://catalog.archives.gov/id/515009

• July 21 “A senior US Army Air Force intelligence officer in the Pacific distributed a report declaring: ‘The entire population of Japan is a proper Military Target . . . THERE ARE NO CIVILIANS IN JAPAN.’” Richard B. Frank via World War II Museum.

Truman and Churchill at Potsdam
https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/photograph-records/63-1455-39

In Potsdam, Truman and Churchill privately agree to use the atomic bomb if Japan does not surrender. Read about Truman’s decision from the National Park Service Harry S. Truman National Historic Site. 

July 22 In what is described as the last surface battle of World War II, the U.S. Navy sinks Japanese supply ships in the “Battle of Sagami Bay” (“Tokyo Bay”). Naval bombardments of the Japanese mainland continue, along with B-29 bombing raids striking Japanese cities.

In China, the American Far East Air Force attacks Japanese troops, airfields, and shipping near Shanghai.

July 23 In Potsdam, Secretary of War Henry Stimson receives atomic bomb target list. In order of choice they are: Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata. He also receives an estimate of atomic bomb availability: “Little Boy” should be ready for use on Aug. 6, second “Fat Man-type” by Aug. 24. There are plans for a total of seven bombs available by December.

•July 24 Truman informs Stalin of a “new weapon of unusual destructive force.”

“In which I tell Stalin we expect to drop the most powerful explosive ever made on the Japanese. He smiled and said he appreciated my telling him–but he did not know what I was talking about–the Atomic Bomb! HST”

–Truman Library and Museum

Truman’s note on back of photograph from Potsdam Conference describing his conversation with Stalin about the atomic bomb. Source: Truman Museum https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/photograph-records/63-1456-46a

The Hidden History of America At War (paperback)

But Stalin already knows about the atomic bomb because of a network of spies inside the Manhattan Project. The Soviet push to capture Berlin in April and May 1945 was motivated in part by Stalin wanting to capture German scientists working on a Nazi atomic bomb and tons of uranium held in a Berlin lab. This episode is recounted in the “Berlin Stories” chapter of my book The Hidden History of America at War.

July 25  Truman writes in his diary that he has made the decision to use “the most destructive bomb in the history of the world… I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.”

Sources: Truman Library and Museum National Security Archive, George Washington University

• July 26 British general election returns are announced; Prime Minister Winston Churchill is defeated and replaced by Clement Attlee.

“The landslide victory comes as a major shock to the Conservatives following Mr Churchill’s hugely successful term as Britain’s war-time coalition leader, during which he mobilised and inspired courage in an entire nation.” —BBC

U.S. Propaganda poster (Source National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov/id/513563)

At the Potsdam Conference, the Potsdam Declaration demands an “Unconditional surrender” by Japan. Issued by Great Britain, China, and the U.S., it threatens:

“The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

The USS Indianapolis reaches Tinian that day.

USS Indianapolis 10 July 1945, after final overhaul and repair of combat damage. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives (Naval History and Heritage Command https://usnhistory.navylive.dodlive.mil/2017/08/24/lest-we-forget-uss-indianapolis-and-her-sailors/)

“Indianapolis departed San Francisco on 16 July 1945, foregoing her post-repair shakedown period. Touching at Pearl Harbor on 19 July, she raced on unescorted and reached Tinian on 26 July, covering some 5,000 miles from San Francisco in only ten days.”

After delivering the atomic bomb components, the ship departs for Guam and the Philippines.

July 27 American B-29 SuperFortress bombers drop 600,000 leaflets over eleven Japanese cities warning that they are targets of bombings.

“But, unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America’s humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives.” –from a “LeMay Leaflet,” named for General Curtis LeMay, architect of the Pacific bombing campaign. Image Courtesy Alex Wellerstein via Atomic Heritage Foundation)

In England, Winston Churchill has a final meeting with his joint chiefs of staff.

July 28 In New York City, an Army B-25 bomber on a routine mission flies into the Empire State Building –then the world’s tallest skyscraper. Three crew members and eleven people in the building are killed.

“B-25 Mitchell bomber smashed beyond recognition into Empire State Building. This is a picture of the wreckage-strewn 79th floor where the bomber tore a 18-foot hole in wall. Propeller is embedded in the wall at the left.” Source: New York Daily News

“I was at the file cabinet and all of a sudden the building felt like it was just going to topple over,” [office worker Gloria] Pall said. “It threw me across the room, and I landed against the wall. People were screaming and looking at each other. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know if it was a bomb or what happened. It was terrifying.” Source: National Public Radio

In Potsdam, newly-elected Prime Minister Clement Attlee of the Labour Party arrives to rejoin the talks which are nearly concluded. Attlee led post-war UK until 1951.

“As Prime Minister, he enlarged and improved social services and the public sector in post-war Britain, creating the National Health Service and nationalising major industries and public utilities. Attlee’s government also presided over the decolonisation of India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon and Jordan, and saw the creation of the state of Israel upon Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine.” Official UK Biography of Attlee.

•July 29 The Japanese government rejects the Potsdam Declaration surrender demand.

Just after midnight, the Indianapolis is struck by a Japanese torpedo.

July 30 Torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, the Indianapolis sinks in twelve minutes. Between 800 and 900 of the crew of nearly 1,200 are plunged into the shark-infested waters.

“What followed was an ordeal of hell on earth for those who survived the sinking. For a whole host of reasons, many related to the secrecy of her atom bomb mission, the rest of the Navy did not know that Indianapolis was missing.”

— Sam Cox (Rear Adm., USN, Ret.), “Lest We Forget: USS Indianapolis and her sailors” (inactive link)

–Read “The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis” via the National Archives including a film clip from the classic scene in Jaws in which Captain Quint describes the sinking of the ship and the shark attacks that followed.

•July 31 The assembly of the atomic bomb, code named “Little Boy,” is completed. The final arming of the bomb will be done in-flight.

In Potsdam, Truman is notified of the bomb being ready. He writes a message that concludes:

“Release when ready, but not sooner than August 2. HST”

According to the Truman Library:

The actual reply that President Truman wrote on July 31, 1945 (Photo taken by Dawn Wilson at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library)

“No known written record exists in which Harry Truman explicitly ordered the use of atomic weapons against Japan. The closest thing to such a document is this handwritten order, addressed to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, in which Truman authorized the release of a public statement about the use of the bomb. It was written on July 31, 1945 while Truman was attending the Potsdam Conference in Germany. In effect, this served as final authorization for the employment of the atomic bomb, though the expression ‘release when ready’ refers to the public statement.”

Source: Truman Library

August 1 The atomic bomb is ready and flight orders are prepared. But weather delays the mission. Of four potential target cities, Hiroshima is chosen as the primary target.

In Potsdam that day, the Big Three wrap up their meetings and discuss plans for the  trials of war criminals that later become known as the Nuremberg Trials.

Read my 2021 post on the Nuremberg Trials.

In the Pacific, hundreds of survivors from the Indianapolis desperately try to stay afloat in the shark-infested waters.

“In that clear water you could see the sharks circling. Then every now and then, like lightning, one would come straight up and take a sailor and take him straight down.” – Survivor of the Indianapolis sinking to the BBC.

•August 2 

The Big Three at the end of the Potsdam Conference: Front row (Left to Right) Prime Minister Attlee, President Truman, Generalissimo Stalin. Source: Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

Shortly after midnight, the Potsdam Conference concludes with a joint communique. It includes reference to the United Nations, whose organization and charter had been completed on June 26 at a conference in San Francisco.

Truman speaks of a future Washington meeting with the Soviet leader, but he and Stalin never meet again.

What was clear was that the Conference had solidified the Soviet Union’s domination over much of Eastern Europe, including the eastern half of a divided Germany. Admiral William D. Leahy, Truman’s Chief of Staff, later wrote:

“The Soviet Union emerged at this time as the unquestioned all-powerful influence in Europe….”

The U.S. Navy is still unaware that the Indianapolis has gone down. More than 800 men went into the water and the survivors are spotted by a reconnaissance plane four days after the sinking.

“Marks’s crew dropped rubber rafts and supplies as they witnessed continuing shark attacks. Disregarding orders not to land at sea, the pilot touched down and began taxiing to pick up survivors.

As darkness set in, and as Marks waited for rescue vessels, he pulled men from the water into his aircraft. When the plane’s fuselage was at maximum capacity, survivors were tied to the wings with parachute cord. The pilot and his crew rescued a total of 56 men. Once signaled, a total of seven Navy ships converged on the site and rescued the remaining men. Only 317 sailors survived.” –National Archives, “The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis”

Indianapolis’ survivors en route to a hospital following their rescue, early August 1945. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command

“Looking for a scapegoat, the US Navy placed responsibility for the disaster on Captain McVay, who was among the few who managed to survive. For years he received hate mail, and in 1968 he took his own life. The surviving crew, including Cox, campaigned for decades to have their captain exonerated – which he was, more than 50 years after the sinking.” —USS Indianapolis Sinking,” BBC

The commander of the Indianapolis,  Charles B. McVay III, was the only World War II U.S. Navy captain to be court-martialed for the sinking of his ship. McVay died by suicide in 1968. In 2001, he was exonerated by an act of Congress.

•August 4 Colonel Paul Tibbets briefs the men of the 509th Composite Group -the weapon delivery arm of the Manhattan Project. Tibbets is the commander of the unit. His men do not know the nature of the bomb they will carry.

•August 5 The bombing mission is confirmed and Colonel Paul Tibbets announces he will pilot the plane which he names “Enola Gay,” after his mother.

Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., Pilot of the Enola Gay, the Plane that Dropped the Atomic Bomb August 6, 1945 (National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov/id/535737)

•August 6 At 0245 local time on Tinian,

Enola Gay begins takeoff roll. [Pilot] Colonel Paul Tibbets says to co-pilot Robet Lewis, ‘Let’s go.’ He pushes all of the throttles forward. The overloaded Enola Gay lifts slowly into the night sky, using all of the more than two miles of runway.”

Atomic Heritage Foundation, minute-by-minute timeline of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. 

0730:

“Tibbets announces to the crew: ‘We are carrying the world’s first atomic bomb.’ He pressurizes the Enola Gay and begins an ascent to 32,700 feet. The crew puts on their parachutes and flak suits.”

0912: Control of the Enola Gay is handed over to the bombardier, Thomas Ferebee, as the bomb run begins. A Radio Hiroshima operator reports that three planes have been spotted.

0914 (0814 Hiroshima time): Tibbets tells his crew, “On glasses.”

–Atomic Heritage Foundation Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombing Timeline

8:15 AM (Hiroshima local time) The first atomic bomb is detonated over Hiroshima.

“In less than one second, the fireball had expanded to 900 feet. The blast wave shattered windows for a distance of ten miles and was felt as far away as 37 miles. Over two-thirds of Hiroshima’s buildings were demolished. The hundreds of fires, ignited by the thermal pulse, combined to produce a firestorm that had incinerated everything within about 4.4 miles of ground zero.”

Source: Hiroshima

The atomic bomb cloud over Hiroshima Source: National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov/id/542192

and Nagasaki Remembered.

“In the street, the first thing he saw was a squad of soldiers who had been burrowing into the hillside opposite, making one of the thousands of dugouts in which the Japanese apparently intended to resist invasion, hill by hill, life for life; the soldiers were coming out of the hole, where they should have been safe, and blood was running from their heads, chests, and backs. They were silent and dazed.

Under what seemed to be a local dust cloud, the day grew darker and darker.”

–John Hersey, “Hiroshima,” New Yorker (August 24, 1946)

In Hiroshima, the estimated death toll reaches eighty thousand people killed instantly; as many as 90 percent of the city’s nurses and doctors also die instantly. By 1950, as many as 200,000 die as a result of long-term effects of radiation.

“Historians say General Groves understood the radiation issue as early as 1943 but kept it so compartmentalized that it was poorly known by top American officials, including Harry S. Truman. At the time he authorized the Hiroshima bombing, President Truman, scholars say, knew almost nothing of the bomb’s radiation effects.”

Read: “The Black Reporter Who Exposed a Lie about the Atomic Bomb” New York Times

In his official announcement, President Truman said,

It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.

Aftermath of atomic bomb-November 1945  (Image: US Dept. of Energy”

Read Don’t Know Much About Hiroshima for more details about the bombing and its aftermath.

•August 7 A report to the Japanese Imperial Army General Staff reads:

“The whole city of Hiroshima was destroyed instantly by a single bomb.”  (Atomic Heritage Foundation)

On Guam, the decision to use a second device is made and the mission date set for August 10, then moved to August 9 over weather concerns.

Fat Man being lowered and checked on transport dolly for airfield trip Image Source: Heritage Foundation https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/little-boy-and-fat-man

•August 8 Fulfilling a pledge Stalin had made earlier at the Yalta conference, the Soviet Union declares war on Japan and invades Manchuria the next day, sending more than one million troops into Japanese-held territory.

The Japanese military leadership was still divided over the surrender demand, with some leading generals vowing to fight to the death. A coup against Emperor Hirohito began to be planned by members of the Japanese military.

A plutonium bomb code named “Fat Man” is prepared on Tinian. It will be carried by a B-29 called “Bockscar.” The primary target is the city of Kokura, home to a large munitions plant.

The crew of the B-29 called “Bockscar” taken after the Nagasaki bombing (Image: U.S. Air Force)

•August 9

0347: Bockscar, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney, lifts off from Tinian Island. The target of choice is Kokura Arsenal.

Clouds and smoke from nearby fires obscure Kokura, so “Fat Man” is dropped over the secondary target, the city of Nagasaki, with a population estimated at 263,000, a city that was home to two Mitsubishi military plants. It is also the site of a prisoner of war camp.

“Nagasaki was a city on the west coast of Kyushu on picturesque Nagasaki Bay. It was famous as the setting for Puccini’s beautiful opera Madame Butterfly. It was also home to two huge Mitsubishi war plants on the Urakami River. This complex was the primary target, but because the city was built in hilly, almost mountainous terrain, it was a much more difficult target than Hiroshima…

Atomic Bomb Cloud over Nagasaki Image Courtesy Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered http://www.hiroshima-remembered.com/history/nagasaki/image3.html

Image: “Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered”

Fat Man exploded at 1,840 feet above Nagasaki and approximately 500 feet south of the Mitsubishi Steel and Armament Works with an estimated force of 22,000 tons of TNT.

Unlike Hiroshima, there was no firestorm at Nagasaki. Despite this, the blast was more destructive to the immediate area, due to the topography and the greater power of Fat Man.”

Hiroshima & Nagasaki Remembered

The death toll in Nagasaki also reaches 80,000 by the end of 1945. Read a full account of this mission in “Nagasaki: The Last Bomb” by  Alex Wellerstein (New Yorker, August 7, 2015)

The National Archives “Unwritten Record” blog also offers resources on the atomic bombings.

Read this piece from Scientific America (August 6, 2023) about the American plan to study the effects of the atomic bombs

“On November 26, 1946, President Harry Truman authorized the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council to establish the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) ‘to undertake long range, continuing study of the biological and medical effects of the atomic bomb on man.'”– “Hiroshima’s Anniversary Marks An Injustice Done to Blast Survivors.

•August 10 After Nagasaki is bombed, Truman orders no more strikes without his authorization. Another plutonium core for a third weapon is prepared for shipment.

September 24, 1945, 6 weeks after  Nagasaki was destroyed by the world’s second atomic bomb attack. Photo by Cpl. Lynn P. Walker, Jr. (USMC) National Archives FILE #: 127-N-136176

Although an unofficial surrender message was sent by a Japanese news agency, the Japanese cabinet was divided and no decision was made. The Emperor would not surrender his sovereignty.

•August 11 The U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes rejects any conditional surrender and states that the Emperor and Japan’s government will be subject to the Allied Powers and declares that any future Japanese government must reflect the will of the people.

Soviet troops invade South Sakhalin island, Japanese-held territory.

•August 12-13 Soviet troops advance into the Korean peninsula.

Emperor Hirohito agrees to accept the terms of Secretary Byrnes’s note and orders the suspension of military activity. He records a surrender announcement. Military officers began to plot against Hirohito in a coup known as the “Kyujo incident.”

•August 13 The bombing of Japan, including firebombing, resumes with more than 1,000 B-29s taking part.

 

Residential section of Tokyo after the March 1945 air raids. (Wikimedia commons http://www.kmine.sakura.ne.jp/kusyu/kuusyu.html/

Japanese officers continue to seek allies in their planned coup against the Imperial government.

•August 14 (August 15 in Japan):  The military coup fails and several plotters commit suicide.

In an extraordinary address recorded earlier, the Emperor of Japan is heard on the radio for the first time and accepts the provisions of the Potsdam Declaration, agreeing to the unconditional surrender. 

Read: “The Emperor’s Speech” by Max Fisher (The Atlantic, August 15, 2012)

At a White House conference, according to United Press International, Truman says:

“This is the day when Fascist and police governments cease to exist in the world. This is the day for democracy.”

-Source: “Japan Surrenders Unconditionally, World At Peace” UPI archives

“Japan surrendered unconditionally tonight, bringing peace to the world after the bloodiest conflict mankind has known.” (UPI Archives)

Truman announces Japan’s surrender to reporters in Oval Office.
Credit: Rowe, Abbie National Park Service Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

 

Across America and England, jubilant crowds fill the streets once more for an unofficial V-J (Victory over Japan) Day, as they had three months earlier on VE Day, May 8,1945, after Germany’s surrender ended the war in Europe.

A video clip of Truman’s August 14 announcement from C-Span.

V-J Day Times Square August 14, 1945 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c19650

•September 2, 1945 A formal surrender ceremony is performed in Tokyo Bay and that date is also referred to as V-J Day.

Formal surrender aboard USS Missouri Sept. 2. 1945 https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/us-navy-ships/battleships/missouri-bb-63/USA-C-2719.html

Almost since the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, critics have second-guessed Truman’s decision and motives. A generation of historians and commentators have defended or repudiated the need for unleashing the atomic weapon. Admiral William D. Leahy, who was with Truman at Potsdam, later wrote in a memoir:

Once it had been tested, President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it. He did not like the idea, but he was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives. It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.

–William D. Leahy, I Was There (1950)

On the same day, in colonial French Indochina, Ho Chi Minh –who had been supported by the American OSS in its fight against Japan– declared Vietnam’s independence from France. On the occasion, Ho Chi Minh cited Thomas Jefferson:

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

-Source: Council on Foreign Relations

In  China, however, the Japanese surrender ended the wartime alliance between the Communists and Nationalists. The Chinese civil war began anew, with the US supporting Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Stalin’s USSR backing Mao Zedong’s Communists.

Read about Mao’s rise to power in Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy.

Many historians contend that preventing death and casualties in an invasion of Japan was only a partial explanation for the use of the two atomic bombs. The United States was already wary of Stalin and his designs on Japan’s wartime territory. They argue that the use of the two devices was meant to end the war quickly to prevent Stalin from capturing territory held by Japan. It may have also been a signal to Stalin and the Soviet Union that the United States possessed these weapons and was willing to use them.

In other words, the dropping of the atomic bombs became the first volley in the Cold War.

READ about the debate in this Smithsonian article.

In 1952, Albert Einstein –whose 1939 letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt had set the Manhattan Project in motion — wrote a brief essay published by a Japanese magazine Kaizo in which he stated:

I was well aware of the dreadful danger for all mankind, if these experiments would succeed. But the probability that the Germans might work on that very problem with good chance of success prompted me to take that step. I did not see any other way out, although I always was a convinced pacifist. To kill in war time, it seems to me, is in no ways better than common murder.

He concluded:

Gandhi, the greatest political genius of our time has shown the way, and has demonstrated the sacrifices man is willing to bring if only he has found the right way. His work for the liberation of India is a living example that man’s will, sustained by an indomitable conviction is stronger than apparently invincible material power.

–Source Hiroshima & Nagasaki Remembered

You can read more about Hiroshima and the dropping of the atomic bombs in Don’t Know Much About History and more about President Truman in Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents and in The Hidden History of America At War. Read more about Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin in STRONGMAN published on October 6, 2020.

 

Don't Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion paperback-April 15, 2014)

Why Labor Day? Check out this Ted-Ed animated video

“Why do Americans and Canadians Celebrate Labor Day?”

This Ted-Ed animated video explains the history of the holiday is a few years old. But it still matters today. (Reposted from 9/1/2014)

You can also view it on YouTube:

 




You can read more about the history and meaning of Labor Day in this piece I wrote for CNN a few years ago:

“The Blood and Sweat Behind Labor Day”

Read more about the period of labor unrest in Don’t Know Much About® History.

Don't Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Don’t Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

 

Who Said It? (Labor Day edition)

Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

(Reposted from 2014)

Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

Abraham Lincoln (November 1863) Photo by Alexander Gardner

Abraham Lincoln (November 1863) Photo by Alexander Gardner

Abraham Lincoln, “First Annual Message to Congress” (“State of the Union”) December 3, 1861

 

It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights.

Source and Complete text: Abraham Lincoln: First Annual Message,”  Read more about Lincoln, his life and administration and the Civil War in Don’t Know Much About® History, Don’t Know Much About® the Civil Warand Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents

Labor Day became a federal holiday on September 3, 1894.

Read about the history of Labor Day in this post.

Don't Know Much About the Civil War (Harper paperback, Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About the Civil War (Harper paperback, Random House Audio)

 

Don’t Know Much About® Edith Wharton

(Originally posted on 1/24/2013; revised 8/11/2022)

 

Photo courtesy The Mount https://www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/

 

You may have been assigned to read Ethan Frome in high school. Or you have read or seen the grand dramas of New York Society, The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence. That’s how you know the name Edith Wharton.

 

Edith Wharton Plaque

A plaque honoring Edith Wharton in Paris (Photo: Courtesy of Radio France International)

 

Born in New York City, January 24, 1862: Edith Newbold Jones, who achieved fame as Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 (for The Age of Innocence).

But the other lesser-known aspect of Wharton’s life is her experience in France during World War I, where she founded hospitals and refugee centers for women and children.

Romance, scandal and ruin among New York socialites—long before this was the stuff of People, and “Gossip Girl,” it was the subject matter for Edith Wharton’s most famous works. In such novels as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920)Wharton painted detailed, acid portraits of high society life. In doing so, she created heartbreaking conflicts beneath the façade of wealth and manners. Again and again, characters like Newland Archer and Lily Bart were forced to choose between conforming to social expectations and pursuing true love and happiness. Her most famous work set outside the realm of high-tone New York was Ethan Frome (1911), set in wintry, rural Massachusetts.

 

Edith Wharton in France during World War I (Photo: Courtesy The Mount Edith Wharton’s Home)

 

Wharton had spent years in Europe as a child and teenager. But she moved to France in 1910 while war in Europe was on the horizon and her marriage to socialite Teddy Wharton disintegrated.

Once the war broke out, she also wrote urging the United States to join the war. Then she saw the hardship caused as the fighting that tore across Europe starting in August 1914 created masses of refugees.

 American novelist Edith Wharton set up workshops for women all over Paris, making clothes for hospitals as well as lingerie for a fashionable clientele. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for refugees and tuberculosis sufferers and ran a rescue committee for the children of Flanders, whose towns were bombarded by the Germans. Her friend and fellow author Henry James called her the “great generalissima”.

Source: Radio France International: “Edith Wharton-The American novelist who joined France’s WWI effort”

She started in her neighborhood with sewing workshops that eventually employed more than 800 women, opened hostels for tuberculosis patients and refugee children, hosted benefit concerts, sent dispatches from the war front.

Elaine Sciolino, “Edith Wharton’s Paris,” New York Times

In the first year of her work, her Children of Flanders Rescue Committee could record:

Refugees assisted: 9,229
Meals served: 235,000
Refugees for whom employment has been found: 3,400
Garments distributed: 48,333

For her wartime work, in 1916 Wharton was awarded France’s highest decoration – a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

Edith Wharton died in Paris in 1937 and is buried in Versailles. Here is her New York Times obituary.

Edith Wharton is one of 58 writers featured in Great Short Books 

The Mount is Wharton’s restored home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.

Don’t Know Much About® Herbert Hoover

[Originally posted August 10, 2015; updated 8/10/2023]

 

index-150x150

 “We are challenged with a peace-time choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines— doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. . . . Our American experiment in human welfare has yielded a degree of well- being unparalleled in all the world. It has come nearer to the abolition of poverty, to the abolition of fear of want than humanity has ever reached before.” –Herbert Hoover, “Campaign Speech” (October 22, 1928)

Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover in their Washington, DC home the morning after he was nominated to run for president (1928). (Courtesy: The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum)

Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover in their Washington, DC home the morning after he was nominated to run for president (1928). (Courtesy: The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum)

Born on August 10, 1874, Herbert Clark Hoover, the 31st president of the United States.   Herbert Hoover was born into a Quaker family in Iowa,  and orphaned at nine. He went to live with relatives in Oregon. A college education at Stanford led to a career in the mining industry and a great personal fortune. You may know that he was the Republican president when the Stock Market crashed in 1929 and he attempted to lead the country through the first years of the Great Depression. Hoover was defeated by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

But you may not know that Hoover was considered a hero and savior to millions of people. First during World War I, he had organized food relief programs in war-torn Belgium.

According to the Herbert Hoover Presidental Museum and Library, Hoover was named to head the U.S. Food Administration, which guided the effort to conserve resources and supplies and to feed America’s European allies.

National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov/id/512516

“Hoover became a household name—‘to Hooverize’ meant to economize on food. Americans began observing ‘Meatless Mondays’ and ‘Wheatless Wednesdays’ and planting War Gardens.”

Later, in the aftermath of World War I, Russia was in the throes of Europe’s greatest calamity since the days of the Black Plague. More than five million died in the new Soviet Russia when famine struck. In 1921, Herbert Hoover led America’s response to the “Great Famine,” subject of a PBS documentary and is credited with saving millions of lives.

Hoover gets hard knocks for the hard times of the Depression and his flawed response to the problems confronting America. But others assess him more generously. Historian Richard Norton Smith once noted:

“Herbert Hoover saved more lives through his various relief efforts than all the dictators of the 20th century together could snuff out. Seventy years before politicians discovered children, he founded the American Child Health Association. The problem is, Hoover defies easy labeling. How can you categorize a ‘rugged individualist’ who once said, ‘The trouble with capitalism is capitalists; they’re too damn greedy.’ ”

“Remembering Herbert Hoover,” New York Times, August  10, 1992

During the food scarcity in the height of the Covid pandemic, I wrote about Hoover’s wartime efforts in this post: “Where Is Herbert Hoover When We Need Him?”

Some Fast Facts about Herbert Hoover:

✱ Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi.

✱ His wife, Lou, was the only female geology major at Stanford when they met. They later collaborated on a translation from Latin of a mining and metallurgy text, De Re Metallica, published in 1912. While they lived in China, the Hoovers lived through the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and both learned Chinese, and they sometimes spoke to each other in Chinese at the White House.

✱ Hoover’s inaugural in 1929 was the first to be recorded on talking newsreel.

✱ Hoover was the first of two Quaker presidents. (The other was Richard M. Nixon.)

President Hoover died on October 20, 1964 in New York City. He was 90 years old. Hoover’s New York Times obituary. The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum offers archival materials and online exhibitions.

You can read more about Hoover in Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Books/Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About Executive Orders 9980 and 9981

[Repost; originally posted 7/26/2013; revised 7/26/2021]

When Lloyd Austin III, a retired general, was confirmed by the Senate as defense secretary in January 2021, he became the the first Black Pentagon chief.

This historic landmark is a reminder that on July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued two Executive Orders that ended official discrimination in the United States military and the federal workforce.

After Truman’s order. the U.S. military was desegregated and integrated units fought in Korea. (Photo: U.S. Army-November 1950)

 

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.

Coming in an election year, it was a daring move by Truman, who still needed the support of southern segregationists. It was also a controversial decision that led to the forced retirement of the Secretary of the Army when he refused to desegregate the Army.

President Truman, the first President to speak to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had based part of his platform on civil rights. Successfully elected but stymied by the 80th Congress, President Truman—armed with documentation from his Committee on Civil Rights—called for a special session for Congress. They were to convene on July 26, 1948.

On that hot, summer day in July, Truman signed his name to two documents: Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, integrating the Armed Forces and the Federal workforce.

Source: National Archives

Truman’s decision reflected the deep racist discrimination that plagued the country, including the celebrated G.I. Bill, passed to help veterans of World War II with education, housing, and job training. The program, while profoundly significant in American history, was largely closed to Black veterans.

Civil rights groups, frustrated by the lack of progress, continued to press Truman on legislation for racial equality. Knowing that civil rights legislation would stall in Congress, and with the reputation of the United States as a great democratic nation being questioned as racism continued to flourish during a nascent Cold War, on July 26, 1948, Truman signed two Executive Orders, 9980 and 9981, desegregating the federal work force and armed services — practices that would take years to be fully carried out.

Source: “Returning From War, Returning to Racism,” New York Times (July 30, 2020)

As historical documents go, ““Executive Order 9980” and “Executive Order 9981” don’t have quite the same ring as “Emancipation Proclamation” or “New Deal.” But when President Harry S. Truman issued these Executive Orders, he helped transform the country. The first desegregated the federal workforce, segregated by President Woodrow Wilson.

The second order began the gradual official process of desegregating America’s armed forces, which was a groundbreaking step for the American civil rights movement.

It is worth noting that many of the arguments made at the time against integration of the armed services  — unit cohesion, morale of the troops, discipline in the ranks– were also made about the question of homosexuals serving in the military, a policy effectively ended when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was overturned in 2011.

In a Defense Department history of the integration of the Armed Forces, Brigadier General  James Collins Jr. wrote in 1980:

The integration of the armed forces was a momentous event in our military and national history…. The experiences in World War II and the postwar pressures generated by the civil rights movement compelled all the services –Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps — to reexamine their traditional practices of segregation. While there were differences in the ways that the services moved toward integration, all were subject to the same demands, fears, and prejudices and had the same need to use their resources in a more rational and economical way. All of them reached the same conclusion: traditional attitudes toward minorities must give way to democratic concepts of civil rights.

Integration of the Armed Forces: 1940-1965 (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

 

Here is the text of the Executive Order 9981 (Source: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum; dated July 26, 1948)

 

Who Said It (7-17-2022)

I can deal with Stalin.

President Harry S. Truman (Photo: Truman Library)

President Harry S. Truman
(Photo: Truman Library)

President Harry S. Truman (Diary Entry July 17, 1945)

 “Promptly a few minutes before twelve I looked up from the desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway. I got to my feet and advanced to meet him. He put out his hand and smiled. I did the same. . . . After the usual polite remarks we got down to business. I told Stalin that I am no diplomat but usually said yes or no to questions after hearing all the argument. It pleased him. I asked him if he had the agenda for the meeting. He said he had and that he had some more questions to present. I told him to fire away. He did and it is dynamite—but I have some dynamite too which I’m not exploding now. . . . I can deal with Stalin. He is honest—but smart as hell.”

(Source: The National Archives)

Stalin and Truman
Source: National Archives, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer [111-SC-209221-S]

“On July 17, 1945, two months after Germany surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War II, President Harry S. Truman came face to face with Marshal Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, one of the most brutal autocrats of all time.

The meeting between Truman and Stalin took place in a suburb of the devastated city of Berlin just before the opening of the Potsdam Conference. Truman, Stalin, and Great Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, leaders of the three largest Allied nations, were gathered there to discuss the political future of Europe and the conduct of the war still raging in the Pacific.”  (Eyewitness: The National Archives)

The day before this meeting, the atomic bomb had been successfully tested in New Mexico. A week later, on July 24, Truman informed Stalin of a “new weapon of unusual destructive force.” Through his network of spies, Stalin already knew about the atomic bomb.

Read my post, “The Month That Changed the World,” a complete account of events in the final days of World War II.

I discuss Truman’s presidency in greater detail in Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents and the post-World War II beginnings of the Cold War in Don’t Know Much About History and The Hidden History of America at War. For more about Stalin read Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy.

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Don't Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Don’t Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

 

Posted on July 16, 2023 Comment Share:

“Lives, Fortunes, Sacred Honor:” Whatever Became Of 56 Signers? (1st in a series)

(Post updated 6/20/2023)

Now that Juneteenth has become a national holiday observed as the other “Independence Day,” it is time to look back to the first Independence Day — July 4th, 1776.

As we approach Independence Day, we should rightly celebrate the ideas articulated in the nation’s founding document:

…that all men are created equal…

… they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

Source: National Archives Declaration of Independence: A Transcription

These were radical ideas that changed the nation and the world. But as the nation is going through an examination of the role slavery played in American History, it is important to recognize its role to the Founders at Philadelphia.

You cannot teach American History without acknowledging the role slavery played. And talking about the men who signed the Declaration is one way to do that.

Read: “The American Contradiction: Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles” (Social Education, March/April 2020)

This is the first in a series of posts about the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and what became of them. Most of these men remain somewhat obscure. They have also been mythologized in some online forums. Many of them played a significant role in the early republic before, during, and after July 4, 1776. The entire series is posted in this site’s Blog category.

Slavery existed in all thirteen of the future states and at least 40 of the 56 signers enslaved people or were involved in the slave trade. One focus of the series is to show which of these men enslaved people or otherwise participated in the slave trade. A “YES” after their listing means they enslaved people; a “NO” means they did not.

 

Declaration of Independence (Source: National Archives https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration

…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.

Those strong words concluded the Declaration of Independence when it was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Then what happened?

There is little question that men who eventually signed that document were putting their lives at risk. The identity and fates of a handful of those Signers is well-known. Two future presidents — Adams and Jefferson— and America’s most famous man, Benjamin Franklin, were on the Committee that drafted the document.

But the names and fortunes of many of the  other signers, including the most visible, John Hancock, are more obscure. In the days leading up to Independence Day, I will offer a thumbnail sketch of each of the Signers in alphabetical order. Some prospered and thrived; some did not: How many of those Signers actually paid with their Lives, Fortunes, and Sacred Honor?

John Adams (Massachusetts) Aged 40 when he signed, he went on to become the first vice president and second president of the United States.

Adams was very smart. But he misjudged the nation’s birthday. After Congress voted on a resolution in favor independence on July 2, he was convinced that would be a day of celebration:

“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
–John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776 (National Archives)

By 1790, Adams was convinced that his place in the history to be written would be diminished.

“The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other,” he wrote fellow Founder Benjamin Rush in 1790.

“The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod –and thenceforward these two conducted all the policies,

Portrait of John Adams at age 88 by Jane Stuart, after Gilbert Stuart, 1824. (National Park Service)

negotiations, legislatures, and war.”

Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration in 1826 at age 90. (Jefferson died that same day) NO

The Adams house is a National Historical Park.

Samuel Adams (Mass.) Older cousin to John, Samuel Adams was 53 at the signing. He went on to a career in state politics, initially refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights, and was governor of Massachusetts. He died in 1803 at 81. NO

Josiah Bartlett (New Hampshire) Inspiring the name of the fictional president of West Wing fame on TV, Bartlett was a physician, aged 46 at the time of the signing. He helped ratify the Constitution in his home state, giving the document the necessary nine states to become the law of the land. Elected senator he chose to remain in New Hampshire as governor. Three of his sons and other descendants also became physicians. He died in 1795 at age 65. YES

Carter Braxton (Virginia) A 39-year-old plantation owner, Braxton was looking to invest in the slave trade before the Revolution. Initially reluctant about independence, he helped fund the rebellion and lost a considerable  fortune during the war — not because he was a signer, but because of shipping losses suffered during the war itself. He later served in the Virginia legislature and died in 1797 at age 61, far less wealthy than he had been, but also far from impoverished. YES

Charles Carroll of Carrollton (Maryland) A plantation owner, 38 years old and one of America’s wealthiest men at the signing, Carroll was the only Roman Catholic signer and the last signer to die. With hundreds of enslaved people on his properties, Carroll considered freeing some of them before his death and later introduced a bill for gradual abolition in Maryland, which had no chance of passage.  At age ninety-one, he laid the cornerstone of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as a member of its board of directors. He died in 1832 at age 95. YES

Update: Carroll’s cousin was John Carroll, a Jesuit priest, first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, and a founder of Georgetown College. The New York Times has reported how, in 1838, Georgetown sold 272 enslaved people to keep the college financially afloat.

 

Whatever Became of 56 Signers? (11 of 11)

[Post revised 6/30/2023]

 

declaration_numbers

The Declaration Mural by Barry Faulkner (National Archives)

Key to Numbers in “The Declaration Mural”  by Barry Faulkner

The final entry in a blog series profiling the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. The series begins here. The previous posts can be found in this website’s Blog category. 

AS THE NATION examines the role slavery played in its history, it is important to recognize that slavery was an issue in 1776. Among the men who eventually signed the Declaration, at least forty of them enslaved people or took part in the slave trade.

…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes , and our Sacred Honor.declaration_of_independence_630

A New Hampshire slaver. A forgotten founder who died in debt and disgrace. A college president. A legendary bullet maker. Jefferson’s teacher –and a murder victim. Last but not least among the 56 signers. A “YES” following the entry means the Signer enslaved people; “NO” means he did not.

•William Whipple (New Hampshire) Often described as a 46-year-old “merchant,” he was more precisely a sea captain who made a fortune sailing between Africa and the West Indies — in other words, the merchandise was human cargo.

He also enslaved people and one of those men, known as Prince, accompanied Whipple throughout his illustrious career as an officer in the Revolution. It was thought that Prince was the Black man depicted in the famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting. But that is not accurate because Prince and Whipple were far from the action that night. Whipple later served in a variety of state offices in New Hampshire and legally manumitted Prince –who also went by the name of Caleb Quotum — in 1784. Whipple died in Portsmouth in 1785. YES

Gravestone of Prince Whipple https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/whipple-prince-1750-1796/

•William Williams (Connecticut) A 45-year-old merchant, he was a veteran of the French and Indian War who was under command of his uncle Ephraim Williams, who was shot and killed in the war. (Ephraim Williams’s will provided funds for the founding of what became Williams College in Massachusetts.) Planning to follow his father as a minister, he attended Harvard but instead opened a store and became a successful merchant.

Williams married Mary Trumbull, the daughter of Connecticut’s Royal Governor. Governor Trumbull was a Royal Governor who supported the patriot cause and was a friend and adviser of George Washington. One of Mary Trumbull’s brothers, John Trumbull, became the most famous painter of the American Revolution, and another later became Connecticut’s Governor.

William Williams was not present for the July vote but signed the Declaration and was a tireless supporter of the war effort. After a long career in public service, he died in 1811, aged 81. NO

•James Wilson (Pennsylvania) Scottish-born, he was a 33-year-old lawyer at the time of the signing and one of the most important Founding Fathers you probably never heard of. A key supporter of the Declaration, Wilson was among the signers and Philadelphia elites who were attacked in his home during the war in a riot over food prices and scarcity.

Wilson was also a key member of the Constitutional Convention, credited with several significant compromises. Although hopeful to be made Chief Justice of the new Supreme Court, he was appointed an associate by Washington. But land speculation ruined him and he ended up in debtor’s prison, like his colleague Robert Morris (See series post #7) before his death in disgrace at age 55 in 1798, an embarrassment to his Federalist friends and colleagues. NO

https://dontknowmuch.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=8045&action=edit The official portrait of Supreme Court Justice James Wilson.

•John Witherspoon (New Jersey) Another profoundly influential immigrant, the Scottish-born minister was the 53-year-old president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) where his hatred of the British influenced many students including notable schoolmates Aaron Burr and James Madison. He lost a son at the battle of Germantown in 1777, but continued his career in Congress. After the war, he attempted to rebuild the college and was a prime mover in the growth and organization of the Presbyterian Church. He died in 1794 in Princeton, where he is buried, at age 71. YES

A photograph of Maclean House, also called the President’s House, at Princeton University. Built 1756. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maclean_house.jpg

•Oliver Wolcott (Connecticut) A 49-year-old lawyer, he was also a veteran of the French and Indian War who was not present for the vote and signed at a later date. Wolcott was in New York when Washington’s troops tore down a statue of King George III after hearing the Declaration of Independence read. He is credited with the plan to melt down the lead statue and turn it into bullets for the war effort. He served in the Connecticut militia during the Revolution and held a series of state posts after the war including as governor of Connecticut at his death in 1797, aged 71. YES

•George Wythe (Virginia) A 50-year-old lawyer at the signing, he may have made his greatest mark as a teacher of law to Thomas Jefferson who lived with Wythe while at the College of William and Mary –as well as later students including James Monroe, future Chief Justice John Marshall, and congressman Henry Clay, earning him the title “America’s first law professor.”

He died in 1806 , around 80, apparently murdered by a nephew by arsenic poisoning. The nephew was perturbed that Wythe had emancipated his enslaved people and planned to give half his estate to one of those emancipated people. The nephew was acquitted of murder after the testimony of a formerly enslaved woman was disallowed because she was black. The nephew was convicted of forging his uncle’s checks. YES

George Wythe, Signer of Declaration of Independence New York Public Library Digital Gallery (Digital Image ID: 484381)

Read the story of James Wilson and the Philadelphia Riot in America’s Hidden History.

America's Hidden History, includes tales of "Forgotten Founders"

Read more about slavery in the founding in my book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Whatever Became of 56 Signers (Part 10 of 11)

[Post revised 6/29/2023]

This is Part 10 of a blog series profiling the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. The series begins here. The previous posts can be found in the website Blog category.

As we approach Independence Day, we should rightly celebrate the ideas articulated in the nation’s founding document:

…that all men are created equal…

… they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

Source: National Archives Declaration of Independence: A Transcription

The men who ultimately signed this document were taking an enormous risk:

…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes , and our Sacred Honor.

Declaration of Independence (Source: National Archives https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration

But we must also acknowledge another fact: You cannot teach American History without acknowledging the role slavery played. And talking about the men who signed the Declaration is one way to do that.

A victim of the British. Two Irish immigrants, one an indentured servant. A reluctant lawyer. An orphaned carpenter.  (A Yes after their name means they enslaved people; a No means they did not.)

•Richard Stockton (New Jersey) Of the signers who paid for their actions, this successful and much-admired 45-year-old attorney at the signing, may have suffered most. Betrayed by Tory Loyalists in his home state, he was captured by the British in 1776, although later released in a prisoner exchange, not for having sworn allegiance to the King, as reported in a much-disputed rumor of the day. His New Jersey home was occupied and damaged by the British but later restored. Stockton was in poor health after the experience in captivity but lived until 1781, when he died of throat cancer.

Stockton is also credited with recruiting John Witherspoon, an influential Sottish minister, (See next installment in series) to become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). His daughter, Julia, was married to Benjamin Rush, another signer.

“Stockton’s home ‘Morven’ had been occupied by British General Cornwallis. Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote: ‘The whole of Mr. Stockton’s furniture, apparel, and even valuable writings have been burnt. All his cattle, horses, hogs, sheep, grain and forage have been carried away by them. His losses cannot amount to less than five thousand pounds.’” (Source: The Society of the Descendants of the Signers.)

His home Morven, later served as the New Jersey Governor’s Mansion from 1954-1981. Today, his name is familiar to most people because there is rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike named in his honor. YES

•Thomas Stone (Maryland) Among the conservatives in Congress, he was a 33-year-old attorney at the signing, reluctant about independence, but then joining in the favorable vote. He wrote:

“I wish to conduct affairs so that a just and honorable reconciliation should take place, or that we should be pretty unanimous in a resolution to fight it out for independence. The proper way to effect this is not to move too quick. But then we must take care to do everything which is necessary for our security and defense, not suffer ourselves to be lulled or wheedled by any deceptions, declarations or givings out. You know my heart wishes for peace upon terms of security and justice to America. But war, anything, is preferable to a surrender of our rights.” (Source: The Society of the Descendants of the Signers)

Thomas Stone’s home is a National Historic site. Habre de VentureFront View, September 2009 (Photo via wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Habre_de_Venture_Front_Sept_09.JPG

Another son of a wealthy planter, he had a low profile after the signing, helping write the Articles of Confederation but not signing them. He also declined to take part in the Constitutional Convention, when his wife, who fell ill following an earlier inoculation against smallpox, died in 1787. Apparently despondent, he died four months later in 1787 at age 44. YES

•George Taylor (Pennsylvania) Arriving in America as an indentured servant from Ireland, he was a 60-year-old merchant and iron maker at the signing. He had risen at the foundry where he worked to become bookkeeper, later purchased the business after his employer’s death, and then married the late owner’s widow.

Taylor was not in the influential Pennsylvania delegation for the July vote, but joined Congress when Loyalists in the Pennsylvania delegation were fored to resign. He signed the document in August. During the war, his foundry provided cannon and cannonballs for the war effort, but Congress was notoriously slow to pay its bills and his business suffered. He died in 1781 at age 65. YES

•Matthew Thornton (New Hampshire) An Irish-born physician, he was around 62 at the signing, a veteran surgeon who had served with the New Hampshire militia in the French and Indian War. A latecomer to Congress, he joined in November 1776 and was later permitted to add his name to the document. He later served as a state judge and then operated a farm and ferry before his death in 1803 at about age 89. NO

•George Walton (Georgia) Orphaned and apprenticed as a carpenter, he was a 35-year-old, self taught attorney at the signing. Although his exact birth date is unknown, some claim that he was the youngest Signer – a distinction usually given to Edward Rutledge (See previous entry).

Serving with the Georgia militia, he was shot and captured by the British in 1778. He was held for a year before being exchanged for a British officer –even though it was known he was a Signer. He later served in a variety of state offices, including governor and senator from Georgia, and built a home on lands confiscated after the war from a Tory, or Loyalist. He is implicated in the events that led to the duel that killed fellow signer and political rival Button Gwinnet (see Part 3 of series). He died in February 1804, presumably aged 63. NO

Update 6/29/2021:

“Unlike most men of property and influence in Georgia, Walton did not own slaves. There is little record of his public views on slavery, but it is known that shortly after leaving the governor’s mansion, Walton spoke out against what he called ‘barbarian’ treatment of members of an African-American Baptist congregation in Yamacraw, Georgia, in 1790.”

Professor James Klinger 

Read more about slavery in the founding in my book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY

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