Wednesday, July 16, 2008

American Experience: Harry Truman

I watched the PBS American Experience biography on Harry Truman recently. It was very well done (although quite long). To me, the best part of the discussion of the atomic bomb. I really found it informative and plan to use that section in my history classes. I think that it easy to talk about this in hindsight, but we often forget to really think about in context of the time (at least that is what I often see my students). I also use two articles from HNN, one by Maley and Mohan and one by Gruhl in my classes.
I also found the text of leaflets dropped on Japan on the PBS site and am sharing one with you here:
Because your military leaders have rejected the thirteen part surrender declaration, two momentous events have occurred in the last few days.

The Soviet Union, because of this rejection on the part of the military has notified your Ambassador Sato that it has declared war on your nation. Thus, all powerful countries of the world are now at war with you.

Also, because of your leaders' refusal to accept the surrender declaration that would enable Japan to honorably end this useless war, we have employed our atomic bomb.

A single one of our newly developed atomic bombs is actually the equivalent in explosive power to what 2000 of our giant B-29s could have carried on a single mission. Radio Tokyo has told you that with the first use of this weapon of total destruction, Hiroshima was virtually destroyed.
Before we use this bomb again and again to destroy every resource of the military by which they are prolonging this useless war, petition the emperor now to end the war. Our president has outlined for you the thirteen consequences of an honorable surrender. We urge that you accept these consequences and begin the work of building a new, better, and peace-loving Japan.

Act at once or we shall resolutely employ this bomb and all our other superior weapons to promptly and forcefully end the war.


The show also used pieces of Harry’s diary and correspondence to talk about his opinion of the other leaders as he met them at Potsdam. The biography discussed Harry’s opinion of Stalin as well as Stalin’s of him.

Harry’s diary entry after talking with Stalin:
July 17, 1945
Just spent a couple of hours with Stalin. Joe Davies called on Maisky and made the date last night for noon today. Promptly at a few minutes before twelve I looked up from my desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway. I got to my feet and advanced to meet him. He put out his hand and smiled. I did the same, we shook, I greeted Molotov and the interpreter and we sat down.

After the usual polite remarks we got down to business. I told Stalin that I am no diplomat but usually said yes and no to questions after hearing all the arguments. It pleased him. I asked him if he had the agenda for the meeting. He said he had and that he had some more questions to present. I told him to fire away. He did and it is dynamite -- but I have some dynamite too, which I am not exploding now. He wants to fire Franco, to which I wouldn't object and divide up the Italian colonies and other mandates, some no doubt that the British have. Then he got on the Chinese situation told us what agreements had been reached and what was in abeyance. Most of the big points are settled. He'll be in the Jap war on August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about.

We had lunch, talked socially, put on a real show, drinking toasts to everyone. Then had pictures made in the backyard.

I can deal with Stalin. He is honest, but smart as hell.

Then this section from the video of Stalin and Truman is also very revealing:
ALONZO HAMBY: Truman was rather impressed by Stalin. He thought that here was a tough guy. Stalin struck him as frank and straightforward, a sort of political boss type, who would keep his word once he gave it.

NARRATOR: Truman said later that Stalin reminded him of the Missouri kingpin Tom Pendergast.

DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Joseph Stalin was nothing like Tom Pendergast. This was one of the most blood thirsty, murdering, evil men of our time. But Truman had that very American idea - that old, American idea - that if he could just meet the fellow, shake his hand, look him in the eye, size him up - that they could work together, work things out. And everything would be o.k.

NARRATOR: "I can deal with Stalin," Truman wrote. "He is honest but smart as hell." Stalin was less sanguine. He told an aide that Truman was worthless. The Soviet dictator had already determined that he would surrender nothing of any consequence when the bargaining began. That evening - July 17 - Truman, Stalin and Churchill sat down to discuss the fate of Eastern Europe.

A few other comments of mine from the video:
  • I found that Harry wanted to be a concert pianist as a child fascinating considering his background. Then his daughter, Margaret, got into singing, but it seemed she wasn’t very good at it! She got very bad reviews after a concert in DC and Harry exploded at the commentator, although it sounds like the commentator was on the mark.
  • I really came away from the video with a dislike of Bess Truman. She just seemed selfish and very inconsiderate of Harry. I realize that she didn’t like the limelight of politics, but still it seemed that she really deserted him when he needed her. He just seemed to go on adoring her anyway.

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