Published August 6th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
President Harry Truman’s 1945 use of atomic weapons likely represents the 20th century’s most profound military decision.
For the past decade, the former president’s eldest grandson has engaged in a continuing public dialogue with those who survived it.
Since 2010 Clifton Truman Daniel has met with those possessing personal memories of the Aug. 6 and 9 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That dialogue continues upon the bombings’ 75th anniversary in service of peace and reconciliation, Daniel said recently.
“The suffering in any war does not belong to any one side,” Daniel said.
“The best thing you can do is acknowledge it. I want to acknowledge that this happened and that it caused harm, great harm, to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“The war ended and Grandpa always said that he did it to end the war and save the lives of Americans and Japanese.”
In June Daniel discussed the atomic bomb’s impact during an online program sponsored by the World War II Museum in New Orleans. Motivated browsers also can retrieve several other online interviews featuring Daniel on this topic.
Daniel traces his involvement to 1999, when he returned to his Chicago home one night to discover his 10-year-old son Wesley captivated by a book from school.
“Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” chronicled Sadako Sasaki, a 2-year-old Hiroshima girl who survived the bombing but who, years later, was diagnosed with leukemia attributed to radiation exposure.
She began folding hundreds of origami paper cranes, honoring a Japanese tradition that promised if she produced 1,000 cranes, she would be granted a wish.
Although she folded some 1,300 cranes, Sadako died in 1955 at age 12.
Daniel later described his son’s fascination with the story to a Japanese journalist. The subsequent news article caught the eye of Masahiro Sasaki, Sadako’s older brother, who tracked Daniel down and called him, proposing a meeting.
That was in 2005.
In 2010 the two met in New York, where both attended anniversary observances of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
During the meeting Masahiro’s son Yuji opened a box containing the last paper crane Sadako had folded, dropped it into Daniel’s hands and invited him to attend ceremonies marking the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
“I mean, what do you say to that?” Daniel said.
“I said, ‘Yes.’ ”
Daniel became the first Truman family member to travel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
He had played no role in the sometimes contentious debate that accompanied the 50th anniversary observances of the bombings in 1995.
Some historians had held that Truman authorized use of the bombs to end the war and avoid the mind-numbing estimates of both American and Japanese casualties expected in a traditional assault on the Japanese home islands.
Others have argued that Truman perhaps had other options.
In 1995 the dialogue was sufficiently charged to prompt the cancellation of a planned exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington devoted to the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber used to deploy the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.
Exhibit plans had angered World War II veterans who believed the presentation highlighted the horror of the bombing at the expense of Japan’s aggression.
Some Kansas City area veterans formed the Harry S. Truman Appreciation Society, whose members every year laid a wreath at the Truman Library grave of the former president and saluted him for “using every weapon available” to end the war.
Although Daniel had not added his voice to this dialogue, he began serving as an unofficial family spokesman in the mid-1990s. In 2010 Daniel helped host a 60th anniversary commemoration of the Korean War at the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence.
In 2012 Daniel – accepting the invitation of the Sasaki family – flew to Japan with his wife Polly and their sons Wesley and Gates.
While he has shaken hands with hundreds of American World War II veterans who told him they would not be alive had his grandfather not authorized the bombs’ use, Daniel said he also wanted to acknowledge the experience of the Japanese survivors.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” Daniel said.
In Hiroshima Daniel, trailed by a pack of photographers, walked the length of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, accompanied by Masahiro Sasaki.
At some moments, they walked arm in arm.
“First of all I want to thank you, Mr. Daniel, for making a decision to come to Hiroshima,” Sasaki said in videotaped remarks today archived online.
“I thank you very much for your courageous decision. Perhaps while there are various differing views and opinions, Mr. Daniel has embraced them all in his big heart.”
Ultimately Daniel met with about two dozen survivors, or “Hibakusha,” a Japanese term meaning “bomb affected person.”
Daniel traveled to Japan as a private citizen, not as a government representative. Still, some wondered about his intentions.
One Japanese broadcaster repeatedly pressed Daniel if he had come to apologize for his grandfather’s decision.
He had not, Daniel replied, saying he was there to honor the dead and listen to the living.
“I took my lead from Grandpa who in 1947, while on a state visit to Mexico, placed a wreath at the tomb of six Mexican army cadets who had fought to the death against U.S. forces 100 years previously in 1847,” Daniel said.
A reporter, Daniel said, had questioned the president regarding the decorum of placing a wreath at the graves of former enemies.
“Grandpa said: ‘They had courage, and courage does not belong to any one country. You honor courage wherever you find it.’
“That seemed to me what I was doing,” Daniel said.
The question of apology had come up before.
About 20 years after the bombings, Daniel said, a Japanese delegation came to Truman Library to meet with the former president, and one of the delegates broached the topic.
“Grandpa said something like, ‘We had a disagreement, but our two countries have been friends for a long, long time.’
“He just went around it, politely.”
Daniel’s own research into that delegation revealed that the group had included Hiromu Morishita, a Hiroshima survivor who had met with Daniel in 2012.
“When I met him, he told me: ‘We asked your grandfather for an apology and he politely declined. But that is not why I am here. I just want to tell you my story.’
“And that about sums up the attitude of the survivors.”
Japan’s Aug. 14, 1945 surrender, following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made a planned invasion unnecessary.
There has been no debate regarding the terrible human cost of such an assault, then scheduled for late 1945.
As detailed in his 2009 book, “Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947,” Kansas City area author and historian D.M. Giangreco detailed how estimates of the casualties expected during an invasion had been prepared for both the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman administrations.
Truman became president following Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, in what was then believed to be the middle of the war.
In July, officials estimated that the U.S. Army by then had suffered more than 945,000 casualties.
Meanwhile, some War Department estimates indicated the number of Japanese dead, during an invasion of Japan, could reach between 5 million and 10 million, with the possibility of from 1.7 million to as many as 4 million American casualties lost to combat, disease and accidents if the worst case scenarios came true, according to Giangreco.
That included perhaps 400,000 to 800,000 American soldiers killed.
“How do you wrap your head around such numbers?” Giangreco said recently.
Giangreco’s research offers a compelling way to understand the scale of the estimated American casualties.
Imagine almost a half-million Purple Hearts.
“(U.S. Army Chief of Staff) George Marshall insisted that if somebody was going to get a medal, they needed to get it soon as possible, for the good of morale,” Giangreco said.
In anticipation of an assault on Japan, American military officials authorized the manufacture of a vast number of Purple Hearts, the combat decoration received by American service personnel wounded in combat or presented to the families of those killed in action.
Ultimately, according to Giangreco, the United States built an inventory of about 495,000 Purple Hearts.
But the Japanese surrender – making the planned invasion unnecessary – left the almost half-million Purple Hearts unused. The military then stockpiled the medals, which met its needs through the Vietnam War, Giangreco said.
“There are many Americans and Japanese who are alive today because that invasion didn’t happen,” Giangreco said.
One of those, perhaps, is Ben Nicks of Shawnee.
A former B-29 pilot, Nicks was among those World War II veterans who organized opposition to the Enola Gay exhibit in Washington.
Nicks’ perspective on the topic is personal.
On Aug. 6, 1945, Nicks and his B-29 crew took off from Tinian, the same island from which the Enola Gay’s crew departed. The airmen had been assigned to drop mines at the port of Rashin, in what’s now North Korea.
Near the end of the 21-hour mission, the crew heard a bulletin over the aircraft’s radio of a “big bomb” that had been dropped over Hiroshima.
“They weren’t calling it an ‘atomic’ bomb, just a ‘big bomb’ that could end the war,” Nicks said.
After the war Nicks and his late wife, June, who died in 2005, reared seven children while he built a 36-year career working in various posts for Trans World Airlines before retiring in 1981.
He doesn’t care to dwell on what might have happened if the atomic bombs had not been used.
“What would have happened?” said Nicks, who is now 101 years old.
“We would have been returned to the United States for rest and training, and then been returned to combat in the Pacific,” said Nicks, who today is the only surviving member of his B-29 crew.
“As you can imagine, we didn’t want that to happen. Our whole crew completely supported President Truman.”
Daniel’s dialogues with survivors have continued in context of high profile acknowledgement of the bombings and their impact.
President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima when he spoke there, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in May 2016. Both visited the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor that December.
When Harry Truman died in 1972, Daniel was 15 years old. Daniel never spoke to his grandfather regarding his decision.
For the past decade, however, he has immersed himself in that topic.
In 2015 Daniel joined Masahiro Sasaki during a Truman Library ceremony, which included a presentation by Sasaki to the library of one of his sister’s cranes.
In the renovated Truman Library, scheduled to reopen in late fall, the crane will be one of the two artifacts that will represent the culmination of Truman’s first four months as president in 1945.
That dramatic stretch, which began with Truman becoming president in April, ended with the August surrender of Japan following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
A safety plug from the Nagasaki bomb will be juxtaposed with Sadako’s crane, which itself will be accompanied by paper cranes folded by children from across the Kansas City area.
“It is probably going to be, from an artifact perspective, the single most emotive moment in the entire museum,” said Kurt Graham, library director.
The exhibit will be richer for Daniel’s dialogue with survivors, Graham said.
“This is not a political thing for Clifton,” Graham said.
“What he is trying to do, much like his grandfather did in other situations, is to say, ‘Here is a group of people who suffered because of something that happened – we need to acknowledge that suffering, try to understand it and be empathic to it.’
“There is an empathy gene that courses through Clifton that is genuine. He doesn’t try to represent the country but I would argue that he is one of the best ambassadors that we have.”
Daniel recently organized a nonprofit organization called the Paper Crane Foundation, to encourage healing and reconciliation.
“We want to speak with groups and talk honestly about the bombings and their effects, and how to prevent it from happening again,” he said.
Daniel also has completed a screenplay. Co-written with collaborator Kevin Podgers, the script entitled, “Hibakusha,” imagines a young girl who survives the Hiroshima bombing and grows up to be a political activist, ultimately encountering former president Truman.
Daniel also, since 2017, has portrayed his grandfather in the one-man show, “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!,” popularized by actor James Whitmore in 1975.
Although the pandemic has postponed some appearances, this summer Daniel still was scheduled to perform in September in New Orleans and, in November, in Jefferson City.
The production includes a brief interlude, Daniel said, in which Truman imagines an exchange with his by-then-deceased predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt.
“My own military advisors were telling me that we could expect a million casualties on both sides if we invaded Japan,” Daniel said, mimicking his grandfather’s clipped vocal cadence.
“We dropped the first one. We heard nothing. We dropped the second one and they capitulated.
“Hell yes, it bothered me – it bothered me a great deal.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.