To many Americans, he was the commander-in-chief who had the mettle to end the second world war quickly and save countless lives. To many in Japan and elsewhere, he was the perpetrator of a war crime that pushed the world into a perilous new age. And to Clifton Truman Daniel, Harry Truman was just grandpa.
“He expected decent behavior out of his grandchildren but there are pictures of me climbing on him when I was small and he’s laughing,” says Daniel, grandson of the 33rd US president.
“He was remarkable in a lot of ways and, at the same time, unremarkable. He was a small-town, midwestern, farm-raised, solidly middle-class American with boundless curiosity about the world. He had faith in humanity and he retained that the rest of his life despite this decision and others,” Daniel said.
Forty-four men have held the American presidency but only one has used nuclear weapons.
Seventy-five years ago on Thursday, Truman gave the order for the B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay to drop the atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. In a blinding flash it incinerated tens of thousands of people, melted buildings and streetcars and reduced a 400-year-old city to dust.
The use of the bomb, and one that followed in Nagasaki three days later, has been the subject of anguished debate for three-quarters of a century. Advocates say the war in the Pacific had no end in sight and the planned US land invasion of Japan would have resulted in massive casualties on both sides.
But Truman’s successor as president, Gen Dwight Eisenhower, was among those who thought Japan was close to surrendering anyway. And as the decades have gone by, Truman’s decision has been condemned as an act of barbarity that killed innocent children, paved the way for American imperialism and put humanity under a nuclear sword of Damocles.
Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, told the CSpan network in 2015: “The confusing things is why Truman, who was not bloodthirsty – he was not a Hitler, he did not take pleasure in killing people – would use the atomic bombs, knowing that the Japanese were defeated and trying to surrender, knowing that they were not militarily necessary.
“What we assume as historians is that a big part of his motivation was that he was sending a message to the Soviets that if the Soviets interfered with American plans in Europe or in Asia then this was the fate they were going to get. And the astounding thing is the Soviets interpreted it that way.”
Daniel is keenly aware of that legacy: his youngest son works as a teacher in South Korea, just 25 miles from the border with the North under the volatile dictator Kim Jong-un. Daniel himself grew up blissfully unaware of his grandfather’s fame or, in some eyes, infamy. “My parents always said they were trying to keep our lives as normal as possible, so they didn’t say anything,” he recalls of school.
“It was, I think, the first day of first grade and the teacher went around the room asking everybody to say a little bit about themselves, and I probably just stood up and said, ‘Hi, I’m Clifton Daniel,’ and sat back down again. She said, ‘Wasn’t your grandfather president of the United States?’ I said, ‘First I’ve heard of it!’ I probably didn’t know what that meant at that point.”
Daniel was only 15 when his grandfather died and had not discussed the bomb or other policy decisions from his presidency. “I was much more interested in playing outside if the weather was nice or getting into trouble in the attic and climbing on the roof, so I just didn’t ask.
“I felt pretty stupid about that but over the years, reading about my grandfather, I would not have learned anything that you could not have gotten out of books. He was a remarkably open and consistent human being.”
Truman, who was thrust into the presidency just four months earlier by the death of Franklin Roosevelt, wrote about his reasoning for dropping the atom bomb: “My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a human feeling for the women and children of Japan.”
Daniel, 63, a student of presidential history who plays Truman in a stage show and is honorary chairman of the Truman Library Institute, recalls that photographer Joe O’Donnell “asked my grandfather point blank, ‘Did you ever have any regrets about that?’ My grandfather said, ‘Hell, yes’. You don’t do something like that without thinking about it.
“He didn’t want to have to do it but he felt that he had to, to stop the war and to save both American and Japanese lives. The reports they were getting were that, in a land invasion of the Japanese main islands, the Japanese were building up forces to resist. Now we know that the Japanese knew where we planned to land and they were massing troops.”
Estimates of the possible casualties have been debated, Daniel notes, with a quarter to half a million most often quoted. “In fact the United States minted half a million purple heart medals in anticipation and I believe that we are still using those medals. So they were expecting a bloodbath, of course much worse for the Japanese because these were civilians armed with sticks.
“What gets me especially is people trying my grandfather as a war criminal in absentia, saying that it was a cruel gambit to keep the Russians out of Japan, which it was not. Russian expansionism was certainly on his mind, but he wanted the war over for humanitarian reasons.”
“He met Colonel Paul Tibbets [pilot of the Enola Gay] after the bombing and asked Tibbets if he was taking any grief from anyone about having used the weapon. Tibbets, said, ’No, I haven’t,’ and Grandpa said, ‘Well, if you do, if anybody gives you a hard time about it, you refer ’em to me because it was my decision. I take responsibility.’ So he owned it.”
Truman had a sign that said “The buck stops here” on his desk. But the legacy of his decision that day in 1945 has passed down generations. One day Daniel, who has worked in journalism and public relations, got a phone call from Masahiro Sasaki, the brother of Sadako Sasaki, who survived Hiroshima but, aged 12, was diagnosed with leukaemia and told she had a year to live. Based on a Japanese legend that folding a thousand origami cranes allows the granting of a wish, Sasaki started folding, wishing for a world without nuclear weapons. She died before she had folded 600.
Her brother Masahiro and his son met Daniel in New York, showed him the last crane that Sadako folded before she died and invited him to Japan. Daniel visited in 2012 and 2013, conducting interviews with survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two of which will appear in a Truman Presidential Library and Museum exhibit in Independence, Missouri, along with one of Sasaki’s cranes.
How did he feel in Japan? “It’s going to sound odd, possibly, but in Hiroshima and Nagasaki there’s an odd feeling of peace. When you get to the peace park or any of the memorials, you’re on hallowed ground because the ashes of the victims are underfoot. There is one survivor in Hiroshima who calls it the sad layer of the soil. If you dig down about three feet, you’ll find a thin white layer and that’s ash, bone, human remains and it’s under the entire peace park. So you’re really standing in a cemetery.”
He adds: “I never felt at any point that going was a bad idea, that I was in any kind of danger or trouble, but I was surprised at how good it felt to be there and I don’t mean good in an ‘Oh, boy, I’m happy’ kind of a way, but it’s like going to church on Sunday. You’re on hallowed ground and it just feels right to be there and to be doing what you’re doing.
“A lot of Americans go and apologise. They’re overcome emotionally. I was too, several times. You’re hearing these horrific stories but it’s not the horror that sticks with me. It’s the people who’ve been through this and yet here they are telling you in kindness and all they want is for this not to happen again. ”
By the end of 1945, the atom bomb was estimated to have killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima, where a museum contains scorched school uniforms, a lunchbox of carbonized food and a pocket watch stopped at 8.15am. At the Truman presidential library, a stone plaque dedicated in 1995 is inscribed: “In gratitude to President Harry S Truman for saving many lives by using atomic weapons to end World War II.”
With the benefit of 75 years’ hindsight, what does Daniel himself think?
“My viewpoint has sort of evolved and then not. It’s gone back and forth. I’ve never ever wanted to tell either side that it was a good or a bad thing to do. I have shaken hands with world war two veterans, Pacific war veterans, who have told me with tears in their eyes that if it hadn’t been for my grandfather’s decision, they would not be standing in front of me – they were getting ready to invade Japan.
“And yet I know survivors. I’ve held that little girl’s last paper crane in my hand. So I can’t tell a survivor that it was the right thing to do. It was an awful decision to have to make. It was a decision in war. The discussion still goes on, but I think the best discussions are the ones where you look carefully at how it happened, how we came to this, and also historians trying to put themselves in the shoes of the people involved.”
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