At a midtown bar, Wolcott Wheeler, whom I call a historian without portfolio, tells me a story about Robert Oppenheimer: how the physicist, meeting President Harry Truman in the Oval Office, said, “Mr. President, I have blood on my hands.”
The episode is a famous one, and I know it. But Wolly goes on.
In response, Truman took a handkerchief out of his pocket and, offering it to him, said, “Would you like to wipe them?” After the scientist left, Truman turned to Dean Acheson and said, “Blood on his hands! Dammit, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have! You just don’t go around bellyaching about it.”
That’s a story I hadn’t heard. Had Truman felt some guilt?
As standard reference books have it, he was “enthusiastic” about the use of the bomb. And I remember a front-page article in a Japanese daily — and this was 35 to 40 years ago — saying that Truman rejected the idea of apologizing for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Apparently, the daily had sent a correspondent to interview the former president.
Indeed, Truman doesn’t figure in any way as a man of contrition in “Hiroshima’s Shadow” (Pamphleteer’s Press, 1998), a large compendium of “writings on the denial of history and the Smithsonian controversy.” As may be recalled, in 1995 the Smithsonian Institution touched off waves of indignation when it tried to mount an exhibition designed to place the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in a larger historical context.
So I ask Wolly where he got the Truman story. The next day he gives me a copy of a few pages from a book called “To Win A Nuclear War: The Pentagon’s Secret War Plans,” by Michio Kaku and Daniel Axelrod (South End Press, 1987). Sure enough, the passage in question is almost exactly as he quoted it.
I brought up the Hiroshima bombing with him because of Bob Greene’s “Duty: A Father, His Son, And the Man Who Won the War” (Morrow, 2000). Shigeaki Tsutsumi, the head of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Chicago, sent the book to me after I visited that city at his invitation.
The “father” in the title of Greene’s book is the author’s, and “the man who won the war” is Paul Tibbets. Tibbets piloted the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb, on Hiroshima — “the single most violent act,” to quote Greene, “in the history of mankind.” He famously named his bomber after his mother: Enola Gay.
Greene’s father used to tell him he would see Tibbets from time to time (but never spoke a word to), in his hometown, Columbus, Ohio. As a young reporter, Greene had sent Tibbets a request for an interview a number of times but gotten no response. But he finally does, when his father is close to death. Perhaps his current status as a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune has helped.
Tibbets turns out to be a genial man amenable to any question. There follow a string of meetings, which culminate in an invitation to a reunion of all three surviving members of the 12-man crew of the Enola Gay. So Greene gets to talk to the two other men as well: the bombardier Tom Ferebee and the navigator Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk.
As may be expected, Greene’s underlying quest is the moral one of finding out how Tibbets — and Van Kirk and Ferebee — really felt in view of “the ramifications” of their action. The responses of the three men are even-keeled and uniform: Not a single night’s sleep lost.
Tibbets: “Do you have any idea how many American lives would have been lost had we launched a ground invasion of Japan, instead of dropping the bomb? And how many Japanese lives? I sleep so well because I know how many people got to live full lives because of what we did.”
Ferebee: “But it’s just a part of war.”
Van Kirk: “I don’t [have doubts]. I never have. It’s never bothered me any. I really think it was a necessary act.”
Greene portrays these men against the backdrop of his father’s death, along with the old man’s recollection of his youth, in particular his experience as a soldier on the Italian front. This in effect strengthens Tibbets’ argument for lives saved.
Greene’s narrative does have moments that suggest the psychological resistance, if that’s what’s involved, may break down. One occurs when Tibbets’ is told of a 12-year-old boy waving to the B-20 from a rooftop who “was burned alive by radiation.” And another, when Shoji Tabuchi tells Tibbets he was near Hiroshima when he dropped the bomb. The Japanese-born Tabuchi is an entertainment phenomenon who has his own theater in Branson, Missouri. But such moments pass, apparently changing nothing.
Can we take these men to task on moral grounds? Probably not. Paul Fussell, who has detailed the stupidities of war in “Wartime” (Oxford, 1989), has also written an essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” to describe how a combat soldier felt. Perhaps one has to be at one remove from the scene to form political, theological, judicial or simply humanistic objections, such as those found in “Hiroshima’s Shadow.”
I also think of the specter that was the last article of the Potsdam Declaration of July 1945. It said: “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the surrender of all Japanese armed forces. . . . The alternative for Japan is prompt utter destruction.”
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