Sunday, October 7, 2012
Nagasaki: 9 August 1945
Photograph of the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The photograph was taken from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack.
I have always viewed Truman as a monster because of his authorization of the use of atomic weapons. Only a monster—and a boob—would have approved the use of such an inhuman weapon at a time most military observers believed Japan was close to surrender.
However, the issue is a complicated one.
On July 29, Japan had refused to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, issued by the United States, Britain and Russia, demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender on threat of “prompt and utter destruction”.
As a result of Japan’s refusal, the first atomic bomb was unleashed on Hiroshima on August 6.
And yet Japan, after Hiroshima, still refused to surrender—to the surprise of the West.
It was only upon the unleashing of a second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, that Japan announced its surrender.
Many American military figures were appalled at Truman’s actions—and said so, publicly, for the rest of their lives.
Eisenhower, in particular, viewed Truman as a villain—and a boob—for using atomic weapons. Eisenhower displayed utter contempt for Truman for the remainder of Truman’s presidency—as well as throughout the eight years of the Eisenhower presidency that followed (eight years during which Truman totally disappeared from public view).
Truman’s place in history will be a black one.
His reputation, in the eyes of some, was partly rehabilitated by the foolish and unscholarly David McCullough hagiography—dismissed by one reviewer as “Harry Of Sunnybrook Farm”—that appeared in 1992.
Genuine historians, however, have not yet had a serious go at Truman.
Fresh appraisals will begin in another twenty years, perhaps slightly sooner.
It will not be pretty.
Still, without the mist, the rosy lenses, and the theme music, neither Truman's career nor his administration was quite so inspirational. He stumbled into politics after years of business failure, advanced by loyal service to a corrupt machine, became president by inheritance, unleashed the atom bomb without seriously considering alternatives, instituted a witch-hunt program within the federal government, proposed a doctrine that inspired decades of ideological crusades, involved the nation in a war with China that he could neither win nor end, and presided over the transformation of a political contest with communism into a global struggle for military supremacy that consumed the nation for the next forty years.
His record, like that of most presidents, was a mixed one, and it does no good either to our current politics or to a useful history to embellish him as a plaster saint. He was a decent man of limited talents who surmounted handicaps of temperament and parochialism to perform honorably in a job for which he was little prepared. It is a mark of our present distress that we have hoisted him to levels that he neither claimed nor deserved. Somewhere deep beneath the surface of Truman the icon lies another, more interesting Truman the man: angry, insecure, obstinate, ambitious, resentful, short-tempered, gutsy, determined, honest, shrewd, vain, and wily. But the key to that Truman will have to be found elsewhere than in the thousand pages of this genteel entertainment.
Ronald Steel, Professor, School Of International Relations, University Of Southern California (writing in 1992)