Monday, September 29, 2008

Ayers vs. Hamby on Truman's dropping the bomb

I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading histories and accounts on the events surrounding Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. When you read any discussions of mine on this subject, you will read references. I have no firsthand knowledge on the subject. Neither does Bill Ayers. He was born late in December 1944.

Here is Ayers (from Fugitive Days) account of Truman and the atomic bombs: “I am just an infant at my mother’s breast when the U.S. drops the Big One on Japan and President Harry S. Truman tells a blinking, uncomprehending public that this selfless act of innocence and wonder and science and progress is a particular American moment. This is, he tells the world, a very good bomb:

“Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction. It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed.”

“Harry Truman is drooling now. He’s excited. He’s fetishing and eroticizing. And why not? Explosive power, newborn, stirring, dangerous, and overwhelming. A breathtaking discharge. He loves this bomb, loves it more than life, more than words can ever convey, but still he tries. It turns out, he tells the wide world against the naïve judgment of ordinary eyes and minds, that this one good bomb saved millions of lives, that we won the battle of the laboratories – our beneficent scientists outperforming the evil geniuses in all the other labs – and prevented the bomb from falling into the hands of bad people who would put the bomb to their own abhorrent purposes, killing and maiming indiscriminately, for example. ‘Having found the atomic bomb,’ he says modestly, ‘we have used it. It is an awful responsibility that has come to us. We thank God that it has come to us and not to our enemies. And we pray that he may guide us to use it in his ways and for His purposes.’ What? What did he say? Can you rewind that? Yabadabadaba . . . ‘And we pray that he may guide us to use it in His way and for His purposes. . . .”

I won’t go on. By way of contrast, the following is from Alonzo Hamby’s Man of the People, a Life of Harry S. Truman, 1995. Hamby is a scholar, a professor of History at Ohio University, and at the time I read it, some reviewers were saying he had written the best biography of Truman to date. It contains 641 pages of text, 75 pages of notes, and a 5 page biographical essay on Truman.

Hamby writes on page 336, “It remains an article of faith among scholars of the left that the bombs were dropped not to compel a Japanese surrender, which they believe was already imminent, but to intimidate the Russians and bring the war to a close before the USSR could occupy Manchuria. These assertions rest primarily on circumstantial evidence and implication. There is no credible evidence in Truman’s personal contemporary writings or his later accounts that he saw the use of the bomb as a way of making a point to the Soviet Union. (Obviously, he thought its existence would strengthen the United States.) Nor is there any reason to believe that he was bamboozled by others.

“Later on, he would throw out varying exaggerated estimates of the number of lives saved by the bomb: 500,000; 250,000; 100,000. His critics have observed that some military planners had argued that Japan, bombed out by conventional ordnance and blockaded, would be forced to surrender in a matter of months for lack of food and material. It is doubtful that their estimates ever reached Truman, and they were not accepted by the American military high command, which continued to assume suicidal resistance. Okinawa had made an indelible impression.

“One consideration weighed most heavily on Truman: the longer the war lasted, the more Americans killed. Some critics have suggested that he should have engaged in a grim calculus, that it would have been the moral thing to accept a ‘worst case estimate’ of an additional 46,000 American deaths without use of the bomb. No one who might conceivably have been president of the United States in the summer of 1945 would have withheld the bomb while facing that prospect. Perhaps Japan, hammered by cumulative defeats, facing an unbreakable naval blockade, and shocked by Soviet intervention, would have shortly surrendered anyway. But in the end, a brutal certainty remains. Japan was unable to muster the will to quit until two atomic bombs had been dropped.”


It should be clear to almost anyone that Bill Ayers isn’t intending to present history. He is quoting a bit from a Truman speech and then doing some free-association or fantasizing about it. Whatever he is doing comes out in a place people like Ward Churchill and Noam Chomsky would approve of. Why is that? Why do these people ignore legitimate history and provide unsupported, unreferenced diatribes. What do they get out of it?

Ayers wrote as a sort of explanatory foreword, “This story is only one version of events – it is a memory book rather than a transcript, an accounting of sorts without any pretense toward an authorized history. There is, too, a necessary incompleteness here, a covering over of facts and a blurring of details, which is in part an artifact of those fugitive days and those exquisite and terrible times. Most names and places have been changed, many identities altered, and the fingerprints wiped away. Is this, then, the truth? Not exactly. Although it feels entirely honest to me.”

I don’t care if Ayers doesn’t give us real names. I wouldn’t even care if he was presenting psychological insights into his peculiar way of looking at things, but he isn’t doing that when he writes about Truman. He believes exactly what he wrote – he isn’t remembering these events. He was just a few months old at the time. He acquired that belief later on from writings he doesn’t tell us about written by authors he doesn’t need to change the names of.

Whenever I encounter something like this I think of some of the Islamist writings I’ve read – in that they present very questionable, and at the very least debatable matters as though they were the incontrovertible truth. They aren’t, Islamists. They aren’t, Ayers. Your approaches are wrong. There is no source of truth you tap into that doesn’t need support, reference, and authentication. You need to check other authorities. You need to defend your authorities in well organized arguments, and you don’t. It is a cop out, Ayers, to rhetorically ask, “Is this, then, the truth?” And answer, “Not exactly. Although it feels entirely honest to me.”

It doesn’t feel entirely honest to me, Professor Ayers.

Lawrence Helm

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