On this day in 1945, Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day) is celebrated. Nazi Germany had finally surrendered to Allied forces. World War II was at an end—at least in Europe. The war against Japan would continue in the Pacific.
V-E Day was not without its share of behind-the-scenes drama.
For starters, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union could not agree on simple logistics. An unconditional surrender had been signed at Reims on May 7, in General Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was ready to hit the news waves with that piece of welcome news! But Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin refused. He wanted the victory announced on May 9, after a formal surrender in Berlin.
A Soviet officer was the ranking Allied commander in Berlin, you see. Stalin wanted to preside over the final victory lap.
President Harry S. Truman was disinclined to argue with Stalin. When Churchill called the White House, he was told that the United States “cannot act without approval of Uncle Joe.” Churchill soon called back, declaring his intent to proceed with an announcement on May 8 anyway. Unofficial word of the surrender had gotten out, he said, and the “crowds celebrating in the streets of London were beyond control.”
In the end, the United States and Great Britain announced V-E Day on May 8. The Soviet Union refused to make its announcement until May 9.
Reporters camped out all night to hear what Truman would have to say. At 8:35 a.m. on May 8, they were brought into the Oval Office. “[T]his press conference is held,” Truman began, “with the understanding that any and all information given you here is for release at 9 a.m. this morning.”
Truman was trying to time his announcement to coincide with Churchill’s 3:00 p.m. statement in London.
“General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations,” Truman told the press. “The flags of freedom fly all over Europe.” Truman cautioned against celebrating too soon. “Our victory is only half over,” he emphasized.
The war against Japan was still ongoing.
Then Truman did something that might be unexpected today: He called for a day of prayer: “I call upon the people of the United States, whatever their faith, to unite in offering joyful thanks to God for the victory we have won and to pray that He will support us to the end of our present struggle and guide us into the way of peace.”
The day of prayer was set for May 13—Mother’s Day! Interestingly, V-E Day marked two other milestones, too: Not only was it Harry Truman’s birthday, but it was also his first full day living in the White House. (Eleanor Roosevelt had taken several weeks to move out.)
What a series of overwhelming emotions for Truman? He was able to declare victory in the long European war—on his birthday—less than one month after he’d become President.
“I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day,” he told the nation.
Perhaps he felt that the European victory belonged more to Roosevelt than to him? Maybe so, but Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day) was still coming. That celebration would perhaps more truly belong to Truman.
Naturally, that is a story for another day.
David McCullough, Truman (1992)
Give ‘em Hell: The Tumultuous Years of Harry Truman’s Presidency, in his own Words and Voice (Terry Golway ed., 2011)
Harry S. Truman, Proclamation 2651—Victory in Europe: Day of Prayer (May 8, 1945)
Harry S. Truman, The President’s News Conference on V-E Day (May 8, 1945)
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (1991)
Martin Gilbert, The Day the War Ended: May 8, 1945—Victory in Europe (1995)
Peter Grier, V-E Day: how President Truman reacted on May 8, 1945 (Christian Science Monitor; May 8, 2015)