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Is Hiroshima memorial a fair legacy for Harry Truman?

In Potsdam, Germany, debate rises over a memorial that marks President Harry Truman's 1945 decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 2009

Potsdam, Germany

Handsome villas on Karl Marx street here look out on the bending Griebnitzsee River. In one villa, occupied by Harry Truman in July 1945, history itself would fatefully bend.

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President Truman called it "the little White House" – and it was here, while he was in Berlin for the Potsdam Conference, that word arrived of the first atom bomb test in New Mexico July 14. With strong urging from Winston Churchill, the Americans sent a letter to Japan, asking for surrender, or a "terrible destruction." The reply: mokusatsu – roughly, forget it.

Thus a new history began, a cold-war era stamped with a mushroom cloud.

During the cold war, Truman's villa was a propaganda tool for Soviet East Germany – labeled "nightmare house" for the American imperialists' decision to drop the atomic bomb. The Berlin Wall ran through its back garden, adding symbolic punch. Yet when the wall fell, the East German view of the home and its meaning did not.

The Potsdam city government, former communists, tried to make it a Hiroshima memorial. American expats and diplomats lobbied against a depiction of Truman, who initiated the Marshall plan and rebuilt Europe, as someone whose central legacy is destroying two Japanese cities and their inhabitants.

The place was sold to a think tank for the Free Democrats, the liberal party now in a ruling coalition with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The dispute seemed to fade.

Truman Place or Hiroshima Place?

Yet not entirely. In 2006 a small triangle of turf at an intersection directly opposite the Truman house – home to two trees – was nearly named "Trumanplatz" (Truman Place) But Potsdam officials intervened, calling it instead "Hiroshimaplatz."

Next a Hiroshima memorial, to be privately funded, was approved; the project has a website with lecture notices and bank account numbers for donations. Text for the not-yet-built memorial is now tacked to a leaning 1-by-4-foot wooden slat, on site; it reads in part:

"[F]rom 17 July to 2 August the US President Harry S. Truman lived in the villa opposite. During this period the order to drop the Atomic Bomb was given … by the president. Its destructive power killed hundreds of thousands and brought terrible suffering to the people."

Sources at the "Hiroshima Platz Potsdam" say the group wants to finish the memorial for a "Mayors for Peace" conference next year. They've raised $15,000 of $45,000, with another $15,000 pledged from Japan – to keep "the memory of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki alive," as the website states.

Expat Robert Mackay, founder of Friends of Truman House, says the memorial is a "bad idea." He calls it provocative, a distortion of Truman and the history of the decision to drop the bomb, and possibly offensive to publics in East Asia and other places liberated from Japanese occupation when the war ended shortly after the Nagasaki atomic blast.