Paul  Kengor

In an unexpected, frightening moment in April 1945, Vice President Harry Truman got the news: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead.

For many Americans who suffered through the Great Depression and World War II, FDR was more than a president; he was their political savior. Now, Truman, a former farmer and failed haberdasher from Independence, Missouri, had some giant shoes to fill. Shell-shocked, he candidly told a group of reporters that he felt like he had just been hit by a bale of hay, plus the moon and the stars.

Truman knew next to nothing about the nation’s foreign policy. FDR had woefully, irresponsibly left his vice president completely uninformed on the paramount issues of the day, on matters of enormous consequence to the entire world, from wartime negotiations with Churchill and Stalin to the development of the atomic bomb. “It was a terrific job to try to prepare himself because the Potsdam Conference was scheduled,” recalled General Harry Vaughan, a close Truman aide. “He talked to everybody that had been to Yalta; everybody that had been to Tehran and everybody that had been to Casablanca, to any of those conferences; he talked to Mrs. Roosevelt and even talked to Anna Roosevelt, the president’s daughter, because she had accompanied the president.”

Truman rapidly educated himself in the foreign policy he needed to know. He became the architect of America’s Cold War strategy for decades to come. He also ensured that no vice president ever again would be so clueless in foreign policy.

President Truman established a formal protocol for all vice presidents: the vice president was made a statutory member of the National Security Council, newly created by the 1947 National Security Act; the vice president would attend all NSC and Cabinet meetings; the vice president would preside over NSC and Cabinet meetings in the absence of the president; the vice president would receive copies of presidential papers dealing with foreign policy and national security; and the vice president would take part in the president’s daily intelligence briefing.

These changes became standard operating procedure. A vice president who entered the job with no knowledge of foreign policy would need little time, maybe mere weeks, to soon become more informed than most experts.