Truman Haunts Us

Sixty-one years ago this week, the United States became the first and (to this day) only nation ever to use a nuclear weapon. It happened twice. First “Little Boy” was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later (before the impact of Hiroshima could fully reverberate), “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki. An estimated 200,000 died, the age of nuclear peril was born, and America sent a message to the world that resonates to this day. But as war rages now in Iraq and Lebanon, just what is the message?

In my movie, Why We Fight, I’ve been criticized for allowing Gore Vidal to suggest onscreen that the bombings were intended as much to send a message of American nuclear primacy to Stalin as to compel unconditional Japanese surrender. No claim in the film has generated more controversy than Vidal’s assertion that “the Japanese were trying to surrender all that summer, but Truman wouldn’t listen, because Truman wanted to drop the bombs.” I left this bold claim in the film because it is supported by a tragic mountain of evidence that Truman indeed acted against the advice of a chorus of voices among his military advisers arguing that the use of weapons of mass destruction against Japanese civilians was an unwarranted, immoral, and gratuitous act.

I recognize this is a matter of intense historical debate that I do not intend to settle here, but I encourage skeptics to investigate the deep reservations expressed at the time by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Adm. William Leahy, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Brig. Gen. Carter Clarke, Gen. Carl Spaatz, Adm. Ernest King, and Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz. I also urge readers to consult Truman’s own diaries, in which he reveals his awareness both of Japan’s intention to surrender as well as the strategic importance of nuclear power to the growing prospect of competition with Stalin’s Russia in a postwar world. His diary entries betray an almost playful sense of rivalry with Stalin over America’s possession and planned use of the bomb.

I know proponents of the bombings will argue that the Japanese sought conditional surrender while Truman sought unconditional. To this I would note that the key condition sought by the Japanese was that their emperor (seen by them as a direct descendant of their god) be left in power and not be subject to a war crimes tribunal following the war, a condition ultimately granted them in any event by the U.S. I am also aware that, following the bloodbath at Okinawa, there was reason to fear another ground battle in which American lives would be lost. Internal communications between the Japanese emperor and his advisers suggest he indeed hoped to inflict such losses to strengthen Japan’s leverage in any surrender negotiations.

Still, the use of weapons of mass destruction (and the implicit launching of the nuclear age) is an action so extreme as to demand an extreme burden of proof. Proponents have long held it was a last resort, the only way finally to stop the Japanese war machine. Well, was it? I don’t know about you, but when men in positions of military leadership (particularly men unafraid of inflicting significant losses themselves) dissent, I listen. This means that, 61 years later, their voices suggest, at minimum, that there is reason to doubt the simple claim that the bombs were necessary to compel Japanese surrender. This doubt in turn challenges the moral underpinnings that have been historically used to justify the mass killing of civilians.

But if such an elite group of advisers objected, why did Truman do it? And more importantly, what message does it send to us today? Truman’s bombs indeed send two messages at once – one that undervalues civilians on the ground by making them a morally defensible target in war and the other that overvalues civilian decision-makers in Washington by presuming that their voices should dominate the formulation of foreign and defense policy.

The first message haunts the crisis in Lebanon. Ehud Olmert’s choice to launch a war against a nation in response to an action by non-state actors follows Truman’s example that targeting civilians is an acceptable form of warfare. His further choice to bomb roads through which humanitarian assistance could be provided to those civilians (explained as a tactic to thwart Syrian support to Hezbollah), underscores Olmert’s willingness, after less than six short months in office, to join Truman (and Hassan Nasrallah, for that matter) on that dark rampart of history.

“War is too important to be left to the generals,” Georges Clemenceau famously warned, suggesting that the interplay of states was too delicate a task to be handled by men inclined toward military action. The playful irony of the phrase masks a clear suggestion that civilians ought to lead the hierarchy. Certainly there is merit in the notion that civilians can bring to foreign policy decisions a measure of non-military thinking that challenges the tendency to solve all problems through force. Yet Truman’s decision to drop the bombs against the wisdom of his military advisers (but heavily influenced by his civilian foreign policy guru, James Byrnes) demonstrates the equal and opposite danger of undue civilian dominance of the defense establishment.

This second message haunts the ongoing crisis in Iraq, which, though temporarily knocked off the front page by other events, continues to deepen. Now that it is clear that President Bush’s war in Iraq was planned and implemented in secrecy by civilians who dismissed the reservations expressed by top brass, its disastrous consequences can be seen, in the shadow of Hiroshima, as history repeating, teaching us, hopefully once and for all, that contrary to Clemenceau’s view, it may be just as dangerous to leave war in the hands of trigger-happy civilians sequestered in air-conditioned conference rooms thousands of miles from the infernal consequences of their decision-making. After all, it is the generals who directly command young people into harm’s way from which they do not return. It is the generals who feel the destructive force of the bombs beneath their feet and who, once the smoke clears, hear the cries – from some distance certainly, but at least they hear them.

So as the events of 61 years ago haunt us today, perhaps the lesson that lies between Clemenceau and Truman may well be that whenever either sector – military or civilian – makes decisions in isolation from the sunlight and transparency of a democratic process, those decisions suffer from such withdrawal with potentially disastrous results.