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

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.

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.

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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.

"It's ironic," says Mr. Mackay, former head of the US Chamber of Commerce in Berlin. "Truman ordered the Berlin airlift, he supported the German Constitution, he brought the UN to the US. It would be a very different Germany in 1949 without his leadership. Usually George Marshall gets credit for rebuilding. But Truman is key; he withstood efforts in the State Department to turn Germany into an agrarian society."

Yet some local German advocates say the memorial fits. A German scholar who works near the site argues that "You make historic decisions and they have consequences. That's life. You live with it. I'm not sympathetic with the American critics. This is where the bomb decision was made; it's an East German context."

No memorial for Stalin's victims?

Mackay counters by saying that Joseph Stalin also lived a few houses away during the Potsdam Conference. But the city has not remembered millions of victims of Stalin's Gulag. (The conference divided Europe into zones of Allied responsibility after the war, and arguably initiated the cold war.) "There is no rush to put a plaque up at Stalin's villa, protesting that he killed 30 million kulaks. But there is approval for an 'anti-Truman memorial,'" Mackay says.

During an earlier debate, Friends of Truman House cited historians that said that once the atomic test at Alamagordo, N.M., was successful, it was unlikely anything would stop the Allied use of a weapon to end the Pacific war against a state that vowed never to quit. Had the US public discovered a war-ending weapon that Truman did not use, his presidency would have ended, is another argument posed. (The issue is not one of historical consensus.)

At Potsdam, Truman cautiously told Stalin about the weapon, without giving many details. Stalin feigned ignorance. What was not known until the 1990s was that Stalin was aware of the bomb through a German-born scientist named Klaus Fuchs, who worked at Los Alamos, N.M., and fed information to a Soviet spy network. The Friends say the decision to drop the bomb was conditional – that Japan was given the option to surrender (though the offer did not describe the new bomb).

The 'most terrible bomb'

The issue has arisen amid a significant popular spike in stature of Truman himself during the 1990s, following the Pultizer Prize-winning biography by David McCullough. In his day, and after, Truman never matched the popularity or appeal of his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. But Mr. McCullough illustrates an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things with a philosophy of "work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear."

Columbia University historian David Brinkley says McCullough does not grapple with the decision to drop the bomb. But, "Perhaps most important, Mr. McCullough argues, he was a decent man with common sense. Knowing that about himself, he relied on his instincts, which were usually (although not always) correct," Mr. Brinkley finds.

Truman did not sleep well at Potsdam, according to McCullough's account. On July 25, the day the order went to the Air Force to deliver the bomb to the Pacific air command, Truman wrote in his diary, "We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world."

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