Truman Haunts Us

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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,
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
advisors 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 General
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Admiral William Leahy, General Douglas MacArthur,
Brigadier General Carter Clarke, General Carl Spaatz
as well
as Admiral
Ernest King and Fleet Admiral 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 post-war 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 advisors
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 its 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

But if such
an elite group of advisors 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. Mr. Olmert's choice to launch a war
against a nation in response to an action by non-state actors follows
Mr. 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 those civilians (explained as a tactic
to thwart Syrian support to Hezbollah), underscores Mr. Olmert's
willingness, after less than six short months in office, to join
Mr. Truman (and Mr. Nasrallah for that matter) on that dark rampart
of history.

is too important to be left to the generals," 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 advisors (but heavily influenced
by his civilian foreign policy guru James Byrnes) demonstrates the
equal and opposite danger of undue civilian dominance of the defense

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 Mr. Bush's war In Iraq was planned, connived,
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 they 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 — make decisions in isolation from the sunlight
and transparency of a democratic process, those decisions suffer
from such withdrawal with potentially disastrous results.

10, 2006

Jarecki is the director of the documentary Why
We Fight
, winner of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize,
which was just
released on DVD

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