Happy birthday Mr. President! I’ll spare you my rendition of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy, after all, you’re dead. In fact, 46 years deceased. Regardless, happy birthday Mr. Truman. May 8, 1884; that’s quite a long time ago. May 8, 1884, to December 26, 1972, now that’s quite a life. A very distinguished life, as well. Fighting political corruption, V-E Day (on our birthday no less!), The Marshall Plan, Truman Doctrine, creation of NATO, creation of the United Nations, the integration of the military, recognition of Israel, the Berlin Airlift, the defense of Taiwan, the defense of South Korea, firing of General MacArthur, renovation of the White House, the firing of Attorney-General McGrath, and most importantly, the response to Paul Hume’s criticism of your daughter Margaret. A very distinguished life. I have admired you for many years, and I am very proud that we share a birthday, but there is that thing. You know that. It. The decision. The decision before Lebron James’ “The Decision.” The one that killed 199,000 humans immediately, thousands more hibakusha from radiation sickness and cancer, and has also infected later generations with residual effects, such as anxiety and somatization. That decision. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I know you think you made the best decision. And I’m sure it was not an easy decision. Nor do I envy that fact that you had to make that decision. And I get it; I’ve heard all the rationalizations: punish Japan for Pearl Harbor; “They started it first;” it saved American soldiers lives; it avoided a protracted invasion; it was a prescient warning to the Soviet Union; it prevented Japan from being divided as Korea and Germany were divided; it was a necessary evil; it had to be done, after all, what choice did we have? How about this one: we didn’t know how destructive it would be. Well, you know what? We should have. And, after August 6th’s bombing of Hiroshima, we surely ought to have known. After the bombing of Nagasaki, we knew. Tsutomu Yamaguchi knew. He survived both Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and later died of stomach cancer on January 4, 2010, at the age of 93.
Ask the Korean conscripted prisoners about the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Approximately 22,000 innocent Korean prisoners died in the atomic blasts. Mr. President, I know that the 9/11 Attacks happened many years after your death, but I assure you, it was a big deal. The attacks have seared a place in our national psyche. In denouncing the 9/11 attacks, it is often pointed out that -even if perpetrators were trying to kill Americans- more than 12% (372) of the fatalities from the victims were foreign nationals. Three hundred and seventy-two foreign individuals died because al-Qaeda was trying to kill Americans. And in August 1945, more than 22,000 non-Japanese died because Americans were trying to kill Japanese civilians.
I am particularly fascinated by those two terms, Mr. President. Let’s take the second one first: Civilians; non-combatants: women, children, the elderly, teachers, policemen, excetera, excetera. In fact, eight of those non-combatants were European prisoners-of-war (one British national, and seven Dutch nationals). And one American soldier, Joe Kieyoomia, was captured by the Japanese Imperial forces and only survived Hiroshima because the falling wall of his cell shielded his body from the blast. Now, I don’t want to get too Biblical on you here, because I know you’re a good Baptist man and you know your Bible. So you already know that, in Genesis Chapter 18, God decides to not destroy the “exceedingly grave…wicked” people of Sodom and Gomorrah to save just ten righteous people; would that you could have had the same compassion, my President?
And that is just the term, “civilian.” Honestly, I am even more concerned about the term “Japanese” when we discuss the almost quarter of a million Japanese civilians who perished in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I know that Germany had surrendered earlier that year, but I have to ask, would you have used an atomic bomb on Germany? Would you have utterly destroyed the great cities of Berlin, Hamburg or Munich? After all, Munich was the seat of Hitler’s early rise to power, perhaps “they deserved it too”? I know we fire-bombed Dresden and did incalculable damage, but would we have vaporized a German city of innocent women, children and the elderly? I feel that we would not. I feel there is an inherent bias in the decision to bomb Japan and not Germany. In the 1940s, a plurality of Americans were of German ancestry and most Americans were of European descent. Europeans are Christian Caucasians, just like the power brokers in Washington, DC, were in the 1940s.
US Civil War General Sherman said it best: “War is hell.” War is, by definition, violent and people die. Innocent people die. But, when you make decisions to spare the cities, civilian populations, and art work (think Albrecht Gaiswinkler and the real life Monument Men) of one racial/ethnic/religious group of people while, at the same time, not considering the human, historical, architectural and artistic heritage of another demographic group, it should start to become uncomfortable. It should make people squirm. It should start to raise questions.
Perhaps we shouldn’t condemn the leaders of the past. After all, we are all products of the context and cultural biases of our time. (For example, recently we have debated President Woodrow Wilson’s reputation and place in our history.) Hindsight is 20/20; ex post facto logic and all that jazz. Sparing condemnation, however, does not mean necessarily mean exoneration or impunity. Mr. President, you gave the authorization that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings in an instant. And you withheld that same bloodlust when it came to bombing European cities and population centers. You discriminated your actions, at least in part, on the unique demographics of the target populations.
A few years after your decision, the United Nations (which you helped usher into existence) created a new international law known as the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In this statute, genocide is defined as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2, 1948).
Mr. President, I know you don’t know me as well as I know you; but I have to tell you that, right now, there are people out there rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and saying something akin to “Oh, Tom; there you go again: genocide, genocide, genocide.” I know it, now you know it too. I get it. But I hope you get it too; that is, I hope you can connect the dots. As a people, as humans, we now have this term “genocide.” This term has a legal definition and, it says, genocide is defined as killing either in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. You, Mr. President, killed hundreds of thousands of people that all belonged to a national/ethnic/racial/religious group that was distinct, not just from your own and the majority of our country, but also distinct from the other belligerents in Europe who were treated much differently.
Much later, in 1964, a WWII veteran famously said that pornography was difficult to define, but, said LTJG Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” That Lieutenant Junior Grade officer was Potter Stewart and he went on to become an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Mr. President, I admire much of your work, but there is that one decision that I question. In this case, there is an elephant in the room and, as another expression would have it, your decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki has failed the Elephant Test.
Happy 132nd birthday, my birthday twin,