Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. This is the Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. It is Wednesday, February 28th, 2018. I have with me a special guest, Clifton Truman Daniel, who is here in Washington, D.C. I wanted to ask him to say his full name and spell it.
Clifton Truman Daniel: Okay. Clifton Truman Daniel. C-L-I-F-T-O-N T-R-U-M-A-N D-A-N-I-E-L.
Kelly: That middle name rings a bell. Truman. Now, would you be related to the president?
Daniel: I would. Oldest grandson, which is why I got the “Truman” as my middle name.
Kelly: And your mother is?
Daniel: Mother was Margaret Truman.
Kelly: Tell me about growing up with such a famous middle name.
Daniel: People sometimes ask about that. I don’t know any other life. I don’t know any other way to be, or how to describe it. Mostly, my parents tried to keep it low-key. They didn’t, in fact, tell me that my grandfather had been President of the United States. I found out in school. I walked into first grade one day and the teacher said, “Wasn’t your grandfather president?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
My mother loved telling the story for years afterward. I walked home that afternoon and dropped my bag and marched up to her and said, “Mom, did you know that Grandpa Truman had been President of the United States?”
She said, “Yes, but just remember something. Any little boy’s grandfather can be President. Don’t let it go to your head.” It didn’t. It went right over my head. I didn’t know what that meant.
They kept it low-key. She meant it: “Don’t let it go to your head. Don’t get a swelled head about it.” So he was Grandpa.
In 1964, when Secret Service protection was extended to ex-Presidents, it got a bit more noticeable that he had been a President of the United States, because you had armed guards around him and us when we were with him. But the first ten years of his retirement, there was no Secret Service. They would meet us at the train station, and take us back to the house in Independence when we were there on visits. It was just Gammie and Grandpa.
Kelly: To let people have a sense, in what years were your grandfather, Harry S. Truman, President, and then when were you born, so we can get a sense?
Daniel: Grandpa became President on April 12, 1945, with the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he served until the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower, January of 1953. I was born in 1957 in June. I am one month older than the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri.
Kelly: That’s great. So you never lived in the White House?
Daniel: No, no. I’ve been a number of times, but I’ve never lived there. No, that was before my time.
Kelly: How did you get interested in your grandfather and speaking about his role in World War II?
Daniel: When I was a kid—when I was a teenager, especially—it was hard sometimes being related to an ex-President, because you’re an adjunct to somebody else. You are the grandson of. I imagine it was even harder for my mother, the daughter of. I think it gets easier with more generational buffers away from the actual person. There’s always a bit of a conflict, at least there was for me. Proud of it, but also, “Here we go again, talking about Grandpa,” and nobody cares what I do in school or what sport I play. It’s a kid’s view.
I came back to it in my mid-thirties after I had established a career. I was married, I had children, and I rediscovered my grandparents, starting through David McCullough’s 1993 book, Truman. Then I reread my mother’s two books, one on my grandfather and one on my grandmother, and just began to rediscover them as people. Not necessarily as President and First Lady, but as people that I liked.
At the same time, my mother was stepping back from her role with the Truman Presidential Library. She had been the Honorary Chairman of the Board for a number of years. She was getting older, and she really didn’t want to engage that much anymore, and she thought it was time for the next generation. She kind of pushed me into the breech, as it were. I joined the Board of the Truman Library I think in ’95 or ’96, and I served three three-year terms. Since my mother passed away in 2008, I have been the Honorary Chairman of the Board. I had to come back to it as an adult, and just get re-interested in my grandfather’s presidency.
Other children and grandchildren of presidents that I speak to, we all have a similar outlook. It’s sort of a two-part job. The first part is, you do what you can to preserve and protect your ancestor’s legacy. But just as importantly, you do what you can on your own to use what you’ve inherited to do the best you can with it. To do what you can, to sort of make it your own. That seems to be true for all of us—most of us anyway, the ones I know.
I have given speeches about my grandfather on a variety of topics: the recognition of Israel; Hiroshima and Nagasaki; my grandmother’s letters to my grandfather, only a few of which survive because she burned most of them. He caught her one day in 1955 burning the letters that she had written to him. He said, “You shouldn’t do that.”
She said, “Why not? You’ve read them, haven’t you?”
He said, “Well, yeah, but think of history.”
She said, “Oh, I have.” And she kept tossing them in.
The Truman Library has 1,361 letters, I think, that he wrote to her between 1910 and 1959. We only have 184 of hers back, and she just missed them. They were stuck in backs of drawers, and they were bookmarks. If she had found them, they would be gone, too.
I’ve written about that. I gave a lecture about that, what it was like growing up in a presidential household. The restoration of the White House is another lecture I give. I started building up lectures on my grandparents. Talking about them, finding ways to connect them to modern times, talking to schoolchildren, talking to different groups.
Also, more recently, playing my own grandfather on stage. There’s a one-man show called, “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” that James Whitmore originated in 1975. It was written by a man named Sam Gallu. As I got older, people at lectures began to say, “You’re kind of beginning to look a little bit more like your grandfather.” The lightbulb went off. Through one thing and another, I wound up with a director, a friend of mine, doing a show in Wilmington, North Carolina, where I used to live, at the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts. We did it October for eight shows, and we’re going to try and take it on the road. It may be my retirement to play my own grandfather for a few years. So, a variety of things.
Kelly: That’s wonderful. Why don’t we switch back for a second to your mother, when she was a child growing up in the White House, and whether you can share what a challenge that must have been.
Daniel: Well, she wasn’t a child in the White House. When Grandpa became President, she had just turned twenty-one. She was getting out of college that year at George Washington University. She was in and out of the White House as she began her own career as a singer, as a performer. She was in the White House, but not all the time, and she didn’t grow up there. She was already full-grown.
She used to tell stories about trying to ditch the Secret Service, which I think every presidential child has tried to do at one time or another. Maybe not the Obama kids [Malia and Sasha], and maybe not Chelsea Clinton. They seem to be pretty level-headed. She told stories about being an adult at that time. She didn’t have any kid stories.
Kelly: But having a spotlight on you as a young adult is not the easiest thing.
Daniel: No, it isn’t. I didn’t have any appreciation of that for her until I was older, and I began to notice. As she got older, she really just didn’t like to be noticed. I don’t know if she ever did that much, but I think it comes with the territory when you’re a President’s daughter, and you’re a performer and a writer. She did all these things that made her a public figure. But as she got older, she stepped away from that. She liked things to quiet down.
My father and my mother and I went out to dinner one night in New York years ago. We were coming out of the restaurant. A woman, who was also coming out of the restaurant, turned to my mother and said, “Excuse me, aren’t you Margaret Truman?”
My mother smiled and said, “No,” and walked away.
I thought Dad was going to get himself killed, because he said, “No, no. She is, really.”
I thought, “Just stop.”
She just wanted a nice, quiet life. I think that years and years and years of being a public figure and being “the daughter,” the child of a president, can take a toll on you.
Kelly: You find that happens to you now, that you’ve made—
Daniel: Yeah. But I’m another generation removed. I see working for the Truman Library as a duty, as a happy duty, and I enjoy what I do. I don’t feel as much of an adjunct to my grandfather as, perhaps, my mother might have. I enjoy talking about him. I enjoy playing him. The only nerve-racking part is trying to make sure I get it right, so that people don’t say after the show, “He doesn’t sound a thing like his grandfather. It was terrible.”
I think I’m luckier in that I’m another step away. But after you do a full day of work and interviews, I understand my mother. You want it quiet. You want to go home and sit on your couch.
Kelly: What did your grandfather sound like?
Daniel: Oh, God. He had an interesting accent. It wasn’t quite Midwestern, and it wasn’t quite Southern. He said, “Ah” instead of “I” most often. It’s hard to gauge his actual voice, because those early recordings, [nasal tone] they have him talking up. Because it was tinny. They didn’t have the sound quality. But he had that—I don’t know, what did he sound like?
“I never wanted to be President. I was just in the right place at the wrong time. Lots of folks could do a better job, but it became mine to do, and as long as you put me here, you’ll get the best I’ve got.” Something like that. A little nasal, and a little weird combo of Southern—but very clipped. He didn’t have that nice, you know, Southerners have a tendency to—it’s all very smooth. It flows. Grandpa liked to clip words, so it’s an interesting combination.
Whenever I do the show, I still have to go back and try and find the best recordings I can. We’ve got some at the Truman Library online that have him speaking for them, explaining things. They sat him down like this with a camera and a recording, and then said, “Tell us about the bombing. Tell us about the Truman Doctrine.” You’ve got him talking conversationally. But they’re still older recordings, and it’s still not perfect.
Kelly: Since you brought it up, maybe we ought to talk about his involvement, what he knew when about the Manhattan Project, that there was a bomb in the works. And then we can go on to its use.
Daniel: In 1942, when the Manhattan Project was just getting started, Grandpa was the head of the Truman Committee investigating waste and fraud in military production. He got word that millions and millions of dollars were disappearing into the middle of nowhere on what was then Black Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington.
He arranged to send inspectors out to find out why the government was pouring all this money into what—as far as anybody knew—was a collection of family farms in Oak Ridge. Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, took my grandfather aside and said, “Stop. It’s legitimate, and it’s top secret.” Times being what they were in the middle of a war, my grandfather agreed.
Of course, years later, when he became President in 1945, and Stimson told him about the Manhattan Project, the lightbulb went off. Grandpa remembered that this is what Secretary Stimson had told him to step away from.
I think his full briefing didn’t come until almost two weeks after he assumed the Presidency. He was told that we had this weapon. But then a little less than two weeks later, the full briefing, that’s when the Interim Committee was formed to decide how to use the bomb and where and when. That was his first inkling of it as a senator, but he didn’t know what he had until Stimson briefed him fully.
Kelly: What year did he become Vice President?
Daniel: He became Vice President in 1944, formally inaugurated in January of 1945. Put on the ticket as a compromise candidate, because it was felt by the party power guys that Henry Wallace was a little too friendly with the Russians, a little too liberal. They needed somebody else, and Grandpa was a good compromise. He was acceptable to the Southern Democrats and acceptable to the Northern Democrats. He had a national reputation from the Truman Committee, and was a good compromise choice. But, still, most Americans had no idea who he was.
Kelly: What was his relationship to the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt?
Daniel: Grandpa was a loyal New Deal Democrat. He had very high regard for President Roosevelt. Did not know much of anything. President Roosevelt played his cards very close to the vest with everybody. I think he only met with my grandfather twice, and at neither meeting was anything of substance discussed.
In fact, a few years ago, when I met David Roosevelt, FDR’s grandson, we started talking about their various relationships. I joked with David, I said, “Your grandfather didn’t tell my grandfather a damn thing.”
David came down to breakfast the next morning. I said, “Good morning, David. How are you?”
He said, “I’m not going to tell you.”
But he didn’t. Grandpa didn’t know anything. I mean, he had to hit the ground running in 1945 when FDR died, because he had to catch up on every single thing. Foreign policy, domestic policy, the bombs, all of it. All of it he had to learn quickly.
Kelly: Has there been, in retrospect, any change in the way presidents and vice presidents collaborate or don’t collaborate?
Daniel: Well, very much. There were two things that I always liked they said about vice president. The first one was a vice president just sits around waiting for a funeral. That’s all he does. I think my grandfather made this statement. He said, “A woman had two sons. One became a sea captain, the other became Vice President of the United States, and neither was ever heard from again.”
People didn’t pay any attention to the vice president. He wasn’t told anything. He had to sort of make his own work. My grandfather spent two and a half months kissing babies and posing for photos. For a workaholic, I have the sense that it was a nice break for him. He kind of enjoyed it. But I think if Roosevelt had lived and it had been four years of vice president, Grandpa might have gone nuts. Because he hated being idle, and that’s what vice president was in those days, idle.
These days, not at all. Vice president is very actively engaged.
Kelly: Now let’s go back to April of 1945. He is President, and then learns about the bomb. So what did he think about this?
Daniel: Again, forming the committee to decide how to use it, they had to figure out what they were going to do with it. It was almost complete. The only thing left was testing, which finally took place on July 16th, 1945, successful testing at Alamogordo. They had to decide what they were going to do with this weapon, whether or not to use it.
There’s been interesting theories about that, back and forth. In addition to the traditional, “Bombs ended the war,” period, there’s been the theory that the bombs and the entry of the Russians ended the war. The double punch, the double whammy of the Japanese forces in Manchuria facing the entire Russian army, and the home front facing the prospect of destruction from nuclear weapons.
Also, that the government, having spent $2 billion on this and having put this massive research effort in, that the weapon was going to be used if there was still an enemy to use it against. That it had its own momentum because we had spent so much time, so much trouble, so much money on it.
What he thought at the time—he’s quoted as saying that, “It was just another weapon in the arsenal of righteousness.” He always said it was no great decision to use it, which makes him sound like, “Eh. Sure. Of course, I would have used it.”
But he had to agonize over that, because they had some idea of the destructive power that it was going to cause, but nobody really knew. Some of the early thoughts was, that if they set one off, it would ignite the atmosphere and destroy the whole planet. They were still working with something that was very unknown.
Grandpa always wound up saying that he used the weapon to end the war and save American lives, primarily, that they were predicting would have been lost in an invasion of the main islands of Japan.
At the same time, he regretted having to use it because of the destruction it caused and the loss of life among civilians, among women and children.
He said he would do it again if he had to, but it was never a snap decision or something that he gave no thought to.
Kelly: What exactly was the point in which he decided? Was it that he made a decision? There was all this momentum. Was it his role? Did it have to be kind of, intervene and stop it, as opposed to authorize its moving forward? Because, obviously, it had this momentum.
Daniel: That’s hard for me to answer. The historians know better than I do about that. The people who have studied this and looked at all the paperwork and read all of the written memoirs of folks involved, my grandfather included.
Grandpa, in any decision that he made, always surrounded himself with people that he thought knew what they were doing, and, generally, that was true. He picked people whose opinion he valued and who were smart folks. In deciding whether or not to use the bombs and how, it was a matter of discussion with him. He didn’t just do it and table it. It was ongoing discussion over a period of weeks and months leading up to the actual use of the weapon.
It was the second day of Potsdam when the test at Alamogordo was successful. The only written thing we have that he authorized the use was, “Release when ready, but not before”—I think it was, “August 2nd or August 3rd.” You know, just scribbled on the back of a memo. “Release when ready.” That’s all we have of his written authorization of the use of the bombs.
He took back that authorization after the bombing of Nagasaki, fearing that they would just keep being used indiscriminately. We only had the one more at that time, but were developing others. He was once quoted as saying that, “He didn’t want some dashing lieutenant colonel to be the one to decide whether or not to use a nuclear weapon.” He took civilian control back of nuclear weapons, where it’s been ever since.
Kelly: There’s a famous meeting in which [J. Robert] Oppenheimer visits Truman. Well, in a nutshell, Oppenheimer says, “I have blood on my hands.”
Daniel: That’s it.
Kelly: And your grandfather dismisses him, and then tells his secretary not to let Oppenheimer back ever again, something like that.
Daniel: Okay. Yeah, I’ve heard of that.
Kelly: He was not pleased.
Daniel: No, no. Probably from Grandpa’s point of view: you know, they were fighting a war, and in a war, you use what you have to, to win the war. As far as Grandpa was concerned, maybe Oppenheimer seemed to him to be backing away from that, or worrying about what he had created now that he had done all the work. So, no, “You’re on a course. Don’t back out on me. Don’t start this now.” He wanted the war to be over.
Kelly: When you meet with the Japanese, which you’ve done many times, and they probe your grandfather’s role in all this, what is that repartee like?
Daniel: That hasn’t happened a whole lot. When I went to Japan in 2012, we mostly listened. My son and I went back the following year and listened and recorded survivor testimony. The only thing the survivors asked us was to please help keep telling these stories, so that the rest of us understand what it’s like to live through a nuclear holocaust, that we don’t do it again.
There wasn’t a lot of, if any, probing about what my grandfather’s thoughts were. I’ve never had that kind of full discussion. Some survivors, they would ask, “Why did he do it?”
“To end the war,” is what he always said. I would tell them what my grandfather would have told them. Point blank.
In fact, Grandpa was even a little cagey about it. In 1964, a group of peace activists from Japan visited him at the Truman Library. There’s actual film clips of part of this. When I was in Hiroshima, I met one of the men who went on that mission as a young man. When he sat down in front of me, he told me, “I met your grandfather. We went on a peace mission. We asked him for an apology for the bombings, and he wouldn’t give us one. But that’s not what I’m asking you. I just want to tell you my story.” That’s how our conversation started, Hiromi Morishita.
Asking for an apology is not on those clips at the Truman Library, but there are some grainy—he’s talking to the head of the delegation, “I know why you’re here.” I forget his exact wording, but he said, “You know, we thought we were enemies, but we weren’t, really.” He just kind of goes around it.
Afterward, a local American television reporter interviews the head of the delegation outside, in front of the Truman Library. The head of the Japanese delegation is very effusively, very nice about the whole thing. “Oh, no, we’re not mad.” That kind of made me squirm, but those were the times. He really couldn’t come out and say what he might have really been feeling. It was a peace mission. He was trying to smooth things over. It was very staged.
But Grandpa had no problem meeting with Japanese and talking to them about it. He was very blunt with the Hiroshima City Council in writing in the 1950s. He said on television that faced with the decision again, would do exactly the same damn thing. Perhaps nuclear weapons might have to be used again someday, something like that.
Of course, the City Council of Hiroshima wrote him a letter and said, “Don’t say that! Take that back!”
And Grandpa wrote them a polite but bluntly worded letter ending with, “The bombings wouldn’t have been necessary if you hadn’t shot us in the back at Pearl Harbor.” He maintained that throughout his life.
He was invited at one point—and the research on this is a little sketchy—but I think he was invited to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki at one point, and agreed to it in principle. But the trip disappeared, and I don’t know why. It might have been the Japanese government thought it wasn’t a good idea. But somebody invited him, suggested that he might want to visit Hiroshima. And he didn’t say no.
Kelly: This is after he was president?
Daniel: Post, yeah. This is in the ‘50s, ’50s or early ‘60s, maybe.
Kelly: What year did he die?
Daniel: ’72, December 26.
Kelly: He lived a long life after—
Daniel: Eighty-eight, yeah. Twenty years. He was retired twenty years afterwards.
Kelly: What kind of conversations had you had with him? Did he talk about this at all?
Daniel: Nope. No, no. It was very grandpa/grandson conversations. “Get your feet off the table. Don’t run in here with that. Out, out, out, out!” The same conversations everybody has with their grandfather when they’re small and running around the house. No serious discussions about his presidency.
One short conversation about the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, because I had pulled all of his Gettysburg books off the shelf. I had been to see the battlefield with my parents on the drive to Independence from New York, and I was fascinated. I pulled everything I could, and made a mess on the floor.
Of course, Grandpa came in and said, “What are you doing?” I explained that I had been interested in the battle, and we talked about it for a couple of minutes. Of course, Grandpa, being—I guess I should call him an amateur historian, but being the historian that he was, it sounded to me like he’d been there. He talked about the tactics and what was going on, all of which I had just seen in Gettysburg, so it was great.
But other than that, no conversations about history, no conversation about the bombings. I learned about the bombings in school like everybody else. From my teachers.
Kelly: Did others of your teachers kind of try to put you on the spot?
Daniel: Yeah. Yeah, I had one. One of my history teachers when I was fifteen, sixteen years old, I was probably a junior in high school, a junior or senior in high school. One of the teachers, when we got to the bombings, suggested that I write the paper taking the view that the bombs were unnecessary.
I declined. I think declined out of family loyalty, but also, at that point, I’d never heard that. “What do you mean, they didn’t end the war? What do you mean, there’s another opinion?” None of what we call “revisionist history” today had gotten into my prep school at that point. I had no idea that there was another view of whether the bombings had been unnecessary.
Kelly: This was in the ‘60s?
Daniel: This was in the mid-‘70s. I was in high school, ’71 to ’75.
Kelly: When did you first become aware there was another whole line of thought?
Daniel: I’m not sure. That was probably the first time I became aware of it, when the teacher asked me, and in trying to set this up, he said, “Well, you know, some people think—.” I think that was the first time I became aware that there was another point of view.
But I had never seen it fully until I went to Japan in 2012, until I met Masahiro Sasaki and started talking. It didn’t come from the survivors. It came from American historians, it came from disarmament activists in this country. Only one survivor presented that view to me, Setsuko Thurlow. First time Setsuko and I met, she said, “Your grandfather did not need to use that horrible weapon. It was unnecessary.”
Kelly: She meant for both cities?
Daniel: Well, she was in Hiroshima. She meant, not at all.
Daniel: Setsuko has been working on disarmament issues almost all of her life. She’s a Canadian citizen. She married a Canadian after the war and spent most of her life in Toronto, I think, as a social worker. She’s always been outspoken about the bombings, but lately, the last eight, ten years, she’s been very outspoken.
In fact, it was Setsuko who gave the acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize given to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. She’s the only survivor who has confronted me in that fashion. And, politely, I mean. Setsuko and I are friends. But most of what I learned about the opposing view came from Americans, to start with.
Kelly: What would you say to them, or what do you say to them, when they confront you?
Daniel: That evolves. You can get into a fight real quick with folks like that. I understand it. I avoid it, frankly. I don’t see any upside in arguing to somebody that, “Flat out, no question, the bombs ended the war.” I can say that my grandfather, given what he was facing, given what we were facing as a country, that it seemed to be the only way to do it. You have a weapon like that, you use it. There’s no good decision in war.
Dan Carlson, a historian who does podcasts and he writes. I listened to a two-hour podcast he did a few years ago on the bombings, and one thing he said struck me. He said, “The atomic bombings were certainly an atrocity, but they were the last atrocity in a war full of atrocities.” It’s a war. People historically will do anything they can to win, and then some. Some of the things that were happening—I mean, good lord, the Holocaust, the treatment of prisoners by the Japanese. There’s no good spot in any war. The only bright spot comes if you decide not to go to war in the first place.
I try not to get into arguments. I just try to listen. It doesn’t always work. I’ve had Pacific War veterans very angry with me for even going to Japan. One Pacific War veteran in Oak Ridge wouldn’t attend the speech that I gave there because he said that by simply going to Japan, I had apologized. Just by putting a toe in the country. It doesn’t always work, but you have to look at both sides.
I loved and respected my grandfather, and he always did what he thought was best for this country. He always put the country first. Very unusual in a politician. He always put the country first. He did what he did to save American lives.
Yet, I can also say that I have friends who I love and respect who were very badly hurt by that decision, survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m right in the middle, which I think is a sensible place to be.
Kelly: If you’re asked about, “What do we do going forward?” It’s 2018. How do we deal with weapons? What would your grandfather say about nuclear weapons? Modernization proposals on the one hand, or the disarmament proposal on the other hand?
Daniel: It’s hard to know what he would have thought. They had great hope. He did, [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower did, for the positive use of nuclear energy. That hasn’t worked out as perfectly as we might have hoped it, anyway. We really let the genie out of the bottle. We’ve created something that is dangerous and hard to control, and I think we need to spend a lot of time thinking about how to control that, how to dispose of the waste carefully.
You’d have to be in the military to know tactically about nuclear weapons. Certainly, we don’t need 17,000 of them the world over. There are so many nuclear weapons on this planet. We’ve been saying this since I was a kid, that there are enough nuclear weapons to destroy the whole planet several times over. That was true then, it’s even more true now. It’s been more true and less true. There were more, now there are fewer nuclear weapons due to treaties, primarily between the United States and the former Soviet Union. But there’s a lot of dangerous material out there.
It makes sense, I think, to safeguard those that we have, keep them from going off, keep terrorists from getting ahold of them, keep people from using them. But some of the latest proposals, making smaller ones that we might be able to use, just seems to give people license to use them. It won’t stop there. You can’t start using battlefield tactical nuclear weapons and expect that everybody else will play the same game, they won’t up the stakes. It’s tough.
I don’t normally think of it on a day-to-day basis. I don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Oh, my God. There’s all this firepower just out there, primed, pointed at targets, waiting.” But people do. Disarmament activists do, survivors do. Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki worry about this all the time. They’ve been through it.
Kelly: Can you talk about the movement that the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—
Daniel: Mayors for Peace.
Daniel: Yeah. That’s great. It sometimes seems that that’s the only way things happen, if people take it into their own hands. The recent school shootings in Florida. You’ve got all of those kids now who have the moral weight to force politicians to do something, to rethink how they’re doing this.
You have mayors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and around the world—I think there’s several hundred members of Mayors for Peace. You have it much more of a grassroots level. They argue that mayors aren’t really grassroots folks, but they’re closer than presidents and congressmen and senators. That’s a great movement. Because they call these things, as one of the slang for nuclear weapons, is city busters. They’re aimed at cities, so cities might as well take the lead in doing something about it.
One of the former mayors of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba, Mayor Akiba was very active in Mayors for Peace. In fact, I ran into him after he was out of office at the U.N. at a peace conference, at a disarmament conference at the U.N., so he’s still at it. I believe he was a college math professor before he became mayor. Interesting man. That’s a great movement.
Kelly: Do people try to recruit you? Get you up on a podium? Get you to take a side?
Daniel: Yeah, they try to recruit me, but I’m not going to take a stand. My whole stand is understanding, that both sides talk to each other. It just makes me crazy when people think that if they just shout at each other, and that one side’s right, the other side has to be wrong.
We, humanity, have created these things, and it’s a threat to our very existence. You can argue tactically, “Well, we should have them as a deterrent,” and, “No, we don’t need them at all.” How do you get rid of them? How do you get people to get rid of their nuclear weapons? That’s beyond my paygrade. But we created it. We have to be responsible for understanding what could happen, and, hopefully, someday getting rid of them. I don’t know that that day will ever come, but there have been strides. I am not a disarmament expert. I just know disarmament experts.
Kelly: Tell us a little bit about the Truman Library, and what people can see when they go there about this subject.
Daniel: Right now, the exhibit at the Truman Library, we are at the start of a multimillion-dollar campaign to raise the money to redo the library. About every twenty, twenty-five years an institution, has to. There’s building wear and tear in general. You also want to be able to put a fresh perspective on things. It’s to build modifications to the building, modifications to the exhibits.
The exhibit now follows my grandfather’s presidency linearly, from beginning to end. In keeping with Grandpa’s wishes, it’s not about him. It’s about his times; it’s about the history. You’re not getting just, “Truman did this, and Truman did that, and Truman did this.” It’s what was going on around him, and what he managed to do about it.
The bombings are near the beginning of his presidency, because he came in in 1945 at the end of the war. They’ve got some old film clips of the fighting on the islands, Iwo Jima, I think, and a bit about the bombings themselves. Then there is a logbook. People can write their impressions. It’s not huge. It’s a smallish room.
I don’t know exactly how they’re going to redo that, but when they do, I would like them to include at least two things. One of those is testimony from actual survivors that I collected in Japan with my son, Wesley, in 2013, so you have actual survivors talking about the bombings, about what happened to them.
I don’t know if everybody knows the story of Sadako Sasaki and the thousand paper cranes. Sadako was two years old when the bomb destroyed her home in Hiroshima. She and her family survived pretty much unscathed, but Sadako developed radiation-induced leukemia nine years later. She followed a Japanese tradition that says if you fold a thousand origami paper cranes, you are granted a wish or health or long life. Sadako folded, I think, 1300 cranes, some with the help of friends and family, but she died of the leukemia in 1955. There’s a monument to her and to all of the children who were killed or wounded or sickened by the bomb in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.
My son brought that story home from school. Wesley brought it home from school when he was ten years old. That was the first human story of Hiroshima or Nagasaki that I had ever seen. It had all been history books. It had been casualty figures, a picture of the atomic bomb. It had been from the American perspective. This was the first story I had seen about a bombing victim. I remember telling Wesley that it was important for him to understand his great-grandfather’s and his country’s decision, but also important to understand what that cost the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Wesley’s teacher, Rosemary Barilla, did not just give them the book. She taught them Japanese culture, she taught them Japanese history. She took them to a Japanese restaurant. They had a tea ceremony in class. I came home one afternoon from work, and found Wesley in the living room wearing a kimono, with green tea and sushi laid out on the coffee table behind him. She and Wesley brought all of Japan into our lives.
I mentioned this to a Japanese reporter doing a story on the bombings not long after that. That story was read in Japan. I had a call from Masahiro Sasaki, Sadako’s older brother, who simply said, “You and your son read my sister’s story. Maybe we should meet someday.”
I said, “Okay.” We met in 2010 in New York at the 9/11 Tribute Center, where Masahiro and his son, Yuji, were donating one of Sadako’s last paper cranes as a gesture of healing. At the end of our conversation, Yuji dropped a tiny paper crane into my palm, and said, “That’s the last one Sadako folded before she died.” At that point, he and his father asked me if I would go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That’s how my family and I got there two years later. We went to both ceremonies and listened to testimony from more than two dozen survivors on that trip. Then Wesley and I went back the following year to collect some of those stories. That’s what brought me into working with survivors.
In 2015, I think it was, Masahiro and Yuji Sasaki donated one of those cranes to the Truman Library. It’s now in a glass case in the lobby, in the front lobby of the library. But eventually, it will become part of the atomic bomb exhibit.
The same thing is true of the USS. Arizona. When I agreed to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2010, Yuji Sasaki said, “All right, we’re going to give one of these cranes to the Arizona.” That donation was made less than a month after we got back from Japan. I kind of enjoyed that, because the Sasakis got in touch with me and said, “Do you know anybody at the USS Arizona?”
I said, “No.” But I just picked up the phone! I got the offices online, and I told them who I was. I said, “You know, I have a couple of Japanese friends, the Sasakis, who would like to donate.”
Immediately, they said, “Yes. We would love to.” There was no question. There was no hemming and hawing. No, “Oh, dear, what could this mean?” It was like, “Yes. Give it to us now.” It was great.
Now you go onto the Arizona site and you learn about Pearl Harbor and what happened. At the end of it, there’s this little crane that sort of wraps it up. It brings it full circle. We hope to do the same thing at the Truman Library.
Kelly: Your efforts, which began with your son at age ten bringing the story of Sadako home from his grade school teacher, has really propelled you into this whole time of forging new relationships between those who are trying to interpret this.
Daniel: That’s the best thing about it. I grew up with the hard-and-fast American narrative that was in our history books, “Bombs ended the war. No talking to the Japanese. No worry about what happened on the ground.” That was the history, which is the way it was.
That swung a bit in the other direction. I think that in 1945 when the bombs were dropped and the war ended, there was 85% of Americans or better approved of the use of the weapon. Now it’s 50-some, I think. The pendulum has kind of swung back a little bit. People aren’t so sure that this was a great idea. That’s a hopeful thing.
When we visit with Hibakusha Stories—“hibakusha” being the Japanese term for a survivor—with Hibakusha Stories in New York, we would visit high schools mostly. I would go with a Hibakusha Stories representatives, who would explain the world’s nuclear arsenal, how dangerous it was, and give ten, fifteen minutes of background. Then I would give ten or fifteen minutes on exactly the same story I’m telling you. How I got involved with this, who I am. Then the survivor would talk for fifteen or twenty minutes about his or her experiences on August 6th or August 9th.
Invariably, you know, high school students will sometimes slouch in their chairs, they’ll turn on their phones, they won’t look at you, they’ll stare out the window, they’re bored. None of that. They were sitting up and staring when survivors started talking. Afterwards, a lot of them were in tears, and they wanted hugs, a lot of selfies. I think that’s a hopeful thing.
There wasn’t a lot of animosity toward the history of it, toward me or my grandfather. You know like, “Oh, he did the wrong thing.” It was just, “Oh my God.” They were just stunned that this kind of thing could happen to a human being.
We had one student. In the question and answer afterwards, I was doing it with Reiko Yamada, who survived Hiroshima. Reiko’s been very active in survivor politics over the years.
We were sitting together, and one of the kids asked Rako, “How can you sit next to him after what his grandfather did?”
Rako listened to the translation and smiled and said, “Well, he didn’t do it.”
We have another generation. We have the chance to repair, and not just repair the old relationships, but forge new ones. Get together. Do something better. Whether that’s eliminating nuclear weapons, whether that’s making sure that the stockpile is safeguarded, reducing them—anything that makes it safer.
There was a day, Reiko, we were together that day. I think we stopped off at the, I want to say it was the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens for a little while. We had some time between schools. And Rako always tells the story on the day in Hiroshima.
She was at Koi Elementary School, which is up a little bit in the hills, away from the center of town. She remembered being out on the schoolyard, and it was a hot day. August in Hiroshima is very warm. The kids had all taken a break. A couple of them felt faint, so the teacher had just said, “Relax.” They were on the schoolyard, and they were sitting down.
Reiko remembered looking up and seeing a comma-shaped contrail, which was the Enola Gay, having dropped the bomb, turning and getting out of there as fast as it could. She remembered looking up and seeing that contrail, and the bomb exploded, the flash. It blew her across the schoolyard, even away from the center of the city like that. It blew her across the schoolyard and knocked her unconscious. She came to a little bit later, and ran. They all ran for the cave shelters in the hills.
The day that we were in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I was with Reiko. We were just walking in the garden. We don’t think about nuclear weapons on a daily basis, as I said earlier. I don’t. It’s not in the front of my mind every day. But standing there next to Reiko, I looked up, and there was a curved contrail. It was a cloud; it wasn’t a jet turning.
But just the thought that, here she was and here I was, it could happen again. You could just be standing in a beautiful botanical garden enjoying the day, and it would all disappear. That’s the danger of those things. That’s why, together, whether you think it was a good decision or a bad decision, the whole story has to be told.
Kelly: What are you doing to tell the whole story?
Daniel: Whatever I can. Whatever comes up. One of my grandfather’s aides, George Elsey, wrote a very good memoir a few years ago called An Unplanned Life. I feel the same way. I haven’t always been smart, you know, haven’t always said “yes” to the right things and “no” to the wrong things. I didn’t plan. I didn’t go through school thinking, “I want to be a doctor or a lawyer.” Things just presented themselves.
I’ve been given opportunities to write about this, to talk about it, and to work with the Atomic Heritage Foundation, to work with the folks at Los Alamos and at Oak Ridge, to make connections between them and the Truman Library. Whenever there’s something that comes along that looks like it would be helpful and looks like it would work, to go ahead and do it.
I don’t think there’s any wrong step you can make in this issue by putting these institutions together, by making connections with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both those museums are great, and what I loved about both of them was that there’s no politics at all. They’re just very factual. It starts off with not, “Those dirty Americans dropped the bomb on us.” It’s just, “This is what happened.” And they present it very clearly and very cleanly. It doesn’t need any more than that.
Oak Ridge, same way. The museum at Oak Ridge is very well done. Los Alamos, same thing. You just need to tell the story. You need to tell all sides of it, and get, if you will, former enemies together. There’s no reason not to.
Kelly: Do you find any people disagreeing with your approach?
Daniel: Yeah, but not a lot, and those that do don’t say much. I think the first day I was in Hiroshima, I was introduced to a disarmament activist. I’ve forgotten his name now, and I can’t remember if he was a teacher or what he did fully for a living. But we were introduced, and the instant he realized who I was, he just lit into me. You know, “Your grandfather did a terrible, horrible thing. How could he do such a thing like that?”
The friend who introduced us had this sort of like, “All right, that’s not why we’re here.” He wasn’t attacking me or anything like that. He was just right in my face.
The Sasakis, when they arranged the trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they invited people, they just put the word out. “If you want to come and tell your story to Harry Truman’s grandson, please do.” Like I said, we had more than two dozen who did. Not everybody in the survivor community agreed with that, but those who didn’t think it was a good idea that I was there just stayed away. They didn’t protest. They didn’t say anything. They just didn’t come. And I have the sense that there weren’t a lot of those.
Steve Leeper, who was the chairman of the Hiroshima Peace Foundation that supports the Peace Bar in Hiroshima—the only American, I think, to hold that position. He’s retired from that now. I asked Steve once. I said, “Do survivors, do they want apologies?” We were talking about this whole apology thing years ago.
Steve said that in all the years that he’s lived and worked in Hiroshima, he’s never known a survivor to ask for an apology for the bombing. Americans, to their credit, will sometimes go over there and meet survivors because they’re in the park, they talk, they give tours. They’re available to talk to Americans, to visitors. He said survivors are always a little puzzled. Americans go and apologize. They say, “We’re so sorry.”
The survivor acknowledges and says, “Thank you. That’s very nice.” But they’re like, “Why are you apologizing?” They don’t want that. They want to tell the story, for everybody’s benefit.
Kelly: I think at one point in our earlier conversation, you mentioned that one response from a Japanese person that was reflecting on if you apologized, let’s say for your grandfather, then that might then trigger a need for them to apologize.
Daniel: Right. Well, that was Masahiro Sasaki. The first interview we had in Japan in 2012 in Tokyo was from a young reporter from NHK, the state media conglomerate in Japan. I think her second or third question was, “Are you here to apologize?”
It caught me off guard. I should’ve been prepared, but everything leading up to this trip was positive. Japanese journalists had been to the States to interview me. Positive stories, positive attitudes, so this was seeming like a very good thing. This caught me flat-footed, frankly.
I said, “Well, no. No. We’re not here to apologize. This is about honoring the dead and listening to the living. This is about empathy, this is about reconciliation.”
“Well, if you’re not here to apologize, why did you bother coming?” She got very aggressive and rephrased it several times. It was aggressive enough that my friend and translator, Kazuko Minimoto, who was with the Japan Society at that point and working with the Sasakis, she was half out of her chair, getting ready to reach across and stop the interview. She was furious that this kind of attack was going on.
But it was coming from the government. I learned afterwards that this is NHK, this is government mentality. I’ve since talked to NHK producers. I’ve worked with film crews from NHK several times over the last five or six years. They know this story. I’ve said, “What’s going on?”
They said, “Ehhh, it comes from higher up.” It’s tricky for them.
But this really rattled me, because now this apology question is out there, and I’m like, “Oh god, you know, what have I done? I’m not an official representative of my government. I’m a family member. What am I going to do if everybody asks for an apology? Am I going to spend the next ten days answering this question?” The whole way down to Hiroshima on the train, I thought, “Oh, god, I should just turn around. This is ridiculous.” I couldn’t sleep that night, jet lag and worrying about this.
The next morning, we walked into the Peace Park, and there were tons of reporters and cameramen around Sadako’s monument. I thought, “All right, here we go again.” I’d been practicing the answer in my head. Of course, they saw me, and they all started coming toward me.
Out of the middle of the throng comes Masahiro Sasaki, and he walked up to me and bowed, and then hugged me. I quit worrying right then and there. Because we were doing it together. We were friends; we were doing this together. I could answer the question fine because I had someone standing next to me, who believed in the same thing I did.
In fact, the next time the question came up, Masahiro got in front of me. They asked me again, “Are you here to apologize?”
Masahiro was like, “Yeah, hold on. If we ask him for an apology for the atomic bombings, he can ask us for one for Pearl Harbor. Where do we go from there?”
I’m going to get his first name wrong—it was a grandson or great-grandson of President [William Howard] Taft. We were at an event together, and I was just talking to him about this. I’d heard the phrase before, but I’d forgotten it. I told him about this whole apology thing.
He said, “You know, apology is just the flip-side of blame. Somebody’s always looking for somebody to blame for everything, rather than saying, ‘All right, it was a mistake. It’s a human nature. How do we fix it?’ They always want to point a finger.”
If we start with the apology thing for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Pearl Harbor, it just gets into finger-pointing. Somebody always wants to be right. The thing is, we’re all human. We’re all wrong a lot of the time. Fallible.
Kelly: You talked earlier about the fog of war.
Daniel: Well, the fog of war, I don’t know what that’s like. I’m lucky. I’ve never had to serve in the military. I’ve never been in a fight. I don’t know what that’s like. I have some small inkling in some of the Pacific War veterans I’ve talked to and soldiers I’ve spoken to. A lot of them don’t talk about it at all. You can’t, unless the person you’re talking to has also been there, as I understand it.
My grandfather fought in World War I. He was in France as an artillery captain and wrote letters home to my grandmother, telling her that because they fought over the same ground back and forth, very often a shell that landed nearby would unearth bodies leftover from previous battles. It was ugly, and Grandpa went through that. He was luckier in that he was an artillery captain, a bit behind the lines. He wasn’t on the front lines. He wasn’t very often in the trenches, but he saw what it could do.
Now he’s President of the United States, and young men are dying. I imagine that he would do everything he thought he had to do to stop that. It sounds self-serving, but he was thinking of the Japanese, as well. The war was going to kill many more of them than it was us in an invasion, if that had been the course. But, primarily, to be honest, to be blunt about it, he was thinking about American lives, which was his job. Thinking of saving American lives.
It was not an easy decision. He did not like the idea of killing women and children. He said, “It’s a horrible thing to have to send young men into war, because one minute they’re laughing, hanging out with their families. The next minute they’re gone.”
After Korea, which he said was the hardest decision, the hardest part of his presidency, a man named William Banning from Connecticut sent my grandfather a letter. In it, he enclosed a Purple Heart, which had been awarded posthumously to his son, George Banning, who had been killed in Korea. In a very short note, written in block capital letters, Mr. Banning said, “You might as well have this for your trophy case, because it’s your fault that my son is dead.” Essentially, Mr. Banning went on to say, “I would much rather that it had been your daughter instead of my son.”
After my grandfather died, they cleaned out his desk in his working office, and they found that he had kept that letter and that medal in his right-hand top drawer the rest of his life, to remind him of what it cost to send young men into battle. Of course, he was going to do anything he could to stop even one more of them being killed.
We were thinking of Mayor Akiba. It was very funny. We were on a radio show together. They gave him the peace medal in Independence, the Church of Latter Day Saints gave it to him. They do an annual—I think annual, or every two or three years—peace medal. They gave one to Dr. Akiba, which he richly deserved.
But he was very nice. While he was there, he said, “Can I see the Truman Library?” The Truman Library called me and said, “The former mayor of Hiroshima’s coming. You need to get down here.” They flew me down, and we did the tour together.
We also did about an hour of a radio show together that morning. Dr. Akiba’s English is very good, and after the show, he said, “You speak very well. Have you considered politics?”
I said, “God, you know, if I had a nickel for every time someone told me that just because I talk good, I should run for office.”
He smiled, and he said, “You’d be surprised how many of us have less talent than that.”
I thought, “Oh, well, that’s not good.”
So, I talk. That’s what I do. But I am not running for office. Ever.