Forgive Me, Harry

Today’s post comes to us from our own Minnesota Steve.

Harry Truman and I had a short conversation in October of 1963. Truman was then 79, retired and living in Independence, Missouri. He was flown to Grinnell College to make a few appearances. Truman showed up at the class I was taking on American Constitutional History. He spoke briefly, then asked if any of us had questions.

I did. Although I used to suffer panic attacks when asking a girl for a date, I felt oddly calm as I queried the former president. “The bomb we dropped on Hiroshima demonstrated the awesome lethality of atomic weapons. I wonder why the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Couldn’t we, instead, have just obliterated an uninhabited atoll? Wouldn’t that have made the point we were trying to make?”

I wasn’t trying to be a smartass, but Truman thought I was. He shouted a bewildering collection of disconnected phrases. I heard “saved half a million American lives,” but the rest wasn’t clear. Truman was pissed off, and he didn’t hide that. Mercifully–for both of us–the bell rang to signal the end of the class. Truman exited the classroom still roaring at me.

I’ve occasionally told the story of that meeting, offering it as an example of how communication can fail. I was not proud of having caused Truman distress. But neither was I ashamed of my question. I meant well. It wasn’t my fault that the man from Missouri misunderstood me.

And yet I now do feel I was at fault. My question was sure to strike him as impudent, for I totally failed to recognize how often he had been criticized for using atomic weaponry. I failed to consider context.

The decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan was made in the context of the most difficult war this country had ever experienced. For several desperate years, the outcome of that war was in doubt. Even when it was clear the United States would prevail, informed observers calculated that defeating Japan would incur terrible loss of American and Japanese lives. Experts predicted that the invasion of the Japanese homeland would be one of the bloodiest events in world history.

The decision to create the bomb had been made in fear and desperation. Truman’s deployment of the bomb was based in part on the hope that using a devastating new weapon might save lives by showing Japan that continued fighting was futile. Plus, I wonder if he ever grasped the shocking destructiveness of the new weapon.

The world was entirely different when I stood to ask my question of the retired president. By 1962, World War II was a distant memory, a war which the US had won. It was common knowledge in the 1960s that the Soviet Union and the United States would destroy each other and much of the civilized world if Cold War tensions triggered the deployment of atomic bombs. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, just a year before Truman visited my class, the world narrowly avoided a nuclear holocaust.

Truman and I experienced a clash of contexts. He was used to people damning him for using the bomb. Of course, he regarded my question as another insulting attack. How could he not? I was working from an ethical context. That was only possible because I had the luxury of viewing Truman’s decision as an ethical issue that only arose after the great conflict had been resolved. When I spoke up, the fear of losing the war was gone, replaced by fear of the bomb itself.

I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, Harry. You were a good man and a good president. I should have said so the one time we spoke. Please forgive me.

When have you regretted a failure of communications?

Is it fair to judge earlier leaders who made decisions that look wrong in light of modern realities and evolved values?

42 thoughts on “Forgive Me, Harry”

  1. Regarding the second question, it depends on the leader and the decision. I think it’s fair to judge Nixon on Watergate. I think, in the light of subsequent revelations, it’s fair to judge numerous leaders about the Vietnam War. I think it’s fair to judge Chief Justice Roger Taney when, in the Dred Scott decision, he declared that blacks were not citizens and had no rights that any white man was obliged to honor.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree with all the cases you mention. Nixon was deceiving the American public massively. Many defenders of the Vietnam war (like R Macnamara) were aware of the degree to which they were lying. Roger Taney’s arguments were inconsistent to a degree that has made them exemplary as poor judicial arguments.

      Even so, I feel we often err by attacking earlier political figures for taking positions that looked entirely different when they promoted them. In general, I’m uncomfortable with “Monday morning quarterback” attacks.
      They are too damn easy.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Very thoughtful post, Steve, on a very diffI am going to consult with Husband on your second question. We are in Newcastle, WY getting ready to pack the van, have breakfast, and drive the 4 hours home.

    Liked by 2 people

        1. Well, Newcastle in Britain is a mining town, I believe. Newcastle, WY is a mining town. Perhaps that was the reason for the name.

          Liked by 2 people

      1. There has been an enormous amount of rain here and in northwest South Dakota. Although it is the end of July, everything is lush green and the yellow clover has exploded and covers everything to the tops of the buttes and hills.

        Liked by 5 people

      2. i always wonder why when everything is so open at the outskirts of town that they still put houses so tightly together on postage stamp lots where you have 30 feet to the next door neighbors window max
        i don’t see wht you wouldn’t mandate 2 acres with some room to set your patio table and be have a spot to set your patio table.
        i don’t like the idea of being so close that when you open your windows youvhear the next door neighbors radio playing .

        Liked by 1 person

  3. it’s interesting to me how today we recognize the way being president with the other side in control of the house or senate as a huge disadvantage to getting things done

    i heard yesterday trump won in 47 of 53 counties in minnesota. i hadn’t realized that.

    evolved values have nothing to do with right or wrong.
    i saw they are taking down art that shows george washington lording over indians and slaves. i agree it is a bad model to put on the walls of a public school but i am an art fan and don’t approve of censorship based on this sort of thing.

    obama was handcuffed and couldn’t get anything done with the opposition making sure it wouldn’t happen
    same with clinton
    i was glad we were able to handcuff pawlenty while he was governor trying to cut taxes on one hand and stealing from education designated finds much the same way trump is building his campaign wall
    communication… i suck
    e communication makes it even harder . without voice inflection and with my questionable punctuation it is easy to read a statement the wrong way
    that old excessive of how does the meanings change when you emphasize a different word in the sentence is always interesting
    try the sentence”what do you mean?”
    there are many ways to twist the meaning by reading it with different word as the emphasized one.
    business innuendos are always in danger of being misinterpreted
    and steve dale was right
    that was no apology

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t know that I was sharing dales thoughts but…hitting the sore spot on a sensitive subject doesn’t need to be followed by you’re a nice man. why did you not realize that peeling the skin off an additional 50,000 people was too big an exclamation point mr president only to have him go into a tirade was not your fault it was his

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No doubt the decision to drop the second bomb on Nagasaki, when it was made, was a considered one and not merely impulsive. Truman’s tirade implied that you, a mere youth, had no right to ask the question. Think what a valuable educational opportunity it would have been if he had explained the context of the decision and the choices, right or wrong, he was presented with at the time. Presumably he was there for educational purposes and not just as a celebrity. You would think that by then he would have had that contextual explanation all worked out.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. yes we disagree
          he was the number one man in the world at one of the most difficult moments in history but he pulled the trigger and can throw a hissy fit when called on it but he has to own it.

          Like

        3. i talked with dean phillips this weekend and he commented on how much he loves talking to students because their brains work in such a wonderful way.
          they ask much more hopeful questions than adults
          i like him

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        4. Yes, Truman didn’t make thoughtful use of a possible teaching moment. I still think I should have realized that a decision made during a war would look different to a kid in 1963 who wasn’t worried about how the war would come out but was worried that something stupid would ignite a nuclear holocaust. I was privileged in 1963 to consider only the ethics of a decision that was very complex in 1945.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Rise and Shine Baboons,

    Have I ever had a failure in communication? Daily. One of the most frustrating was early in my relationship with husband. We were going away with the kids on a camping weekend, and we were to meet at a grocery store in Burnsville. We each sat waiting at a different grocery store. This was pre-cell phone, so we each had to return home to call and straighten out the problem. It took hours. Brother. And yes, we have repeated this pattern.

    Re: judging leaders from different times. To me it is often an issue of technology available and ethical codes. It is hard to judge a president well for not using the A-Bomb if it was not yet developed (technical) or for using the newly developed A-Bomb (technical) to prevent even more suffering (ethical). He might have made a flawed decision about where to land the device, but thank God he ended that war.

    It is not difficult to judge a president for owning slaves when there was a lively and profound debate occurring at the time of the ownership. Abolition was a conceivable ethic at that time and these men made choices about the labor they co-opted. They also deferred the issue to the future, fully knowing that it was not resolved. While many of them were fine leaders who contributed much, they had an ethical blind spot for which I judge them. These wildly creative men who developed leadership, checks and balances seemed unable to solve the problem of slavery. I think they had too much personal investment in a flawed system and I judge them as unethical for that.

    I don’t know that Truman had an ethical blind spot. I think he was desperate to end a destructive, costly war that was intractable and lengthy. No wonder he was reactive. No matter which choice he made, he encountered judgement. That is called a double bind and it is guaranteed to proceed that kind of stress reaction.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Jacque. Actually, there is a big debate about whether the A-bomb shortened the war. Scholars now generally think what tipped the decision by the Japanese leaders is that Russia entered the war, attacking Japan. They hadn’t seen that coming. Americans usually believe the bomb ended the war. That’s partly due to cultural bias. It makes sense to Americans to reduce human suffering for a lost cause. But Japanese military leaders were surprisingly ready to accept horrific civilian losses. They had higher concerns than that, or thought they did.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. It’s fair to judge leaders in hindsight but there’s a nuance involved. If leaders have the best intentions but make bad decisions under pressure (like Truman and the bomb), that’s a learning opportunity to make better decisions on that topic in the future.

    Judging someone like Nixon, who made decisions under pressure based on criminal intent to help only himself and his party gives us Monday morning quarterbacks a license not only to judge but to criticize.

    Chris in Owatonna
    (want to say more on this topic but can’t get my thoughts in order this early) 😉

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I experienced a communications failure early in my marriage. I took a solo fishing trip on the Saint Croix. I said I would be back at 4 PM. Getting home at 4:45 didn’t seem very late. And yet my wife was almost in tears. She thought I might have drowned.

    “I was only 45 minutes late!”
    “Forty-five minutes is a LONG time!”
    “But I was FISHING!”
    “How does that excuse you?”
    “Only 45 minutes late when FISHING, well that’s like being right on time!”

    We finally determined that people who go fishing are not likely to be perfectly punctual. People married to people who go fishing generally learn that, especially if they become fishermen too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I also had my big eye opening communications failure in my early marriage. We’ve been married about four months and I had to have all of my wisdom teeth removed. The first two came out and the dentist gave me pain killer. If he told me not to take this pain killer on empty stomach, it didn’t register. So in addition to incredible pain and grogginess I also threw up which is not a good thing to do when you just had wisdom teeth removed. Wasband had some networking thing with classmates in his grad program that night. It was a good thing to do but it wasn’t required. When he asked me, trying to be a good spouse, I said “go ahead, honey.” And he went. And it was devastating to me. But it was also a huge learning point in my life that if I really want something, I can’t expect somebody to read my mind; I have to ask for it. Obviously not a magic wand..
      you don’t always get everything you asked for. But you sure as shootin won’t get it if you don’t ask.

      Liked by 5 people

  7. Indeed, small failures in communication daily.

    To the second question, my mind goes immediately to the character of Thanos in the Avengers movies. Even though it’s a Marvel movie, I find Thanos to be a fascinating, complex character so very well portrayed by Josh Brolin. He pursues the higher calling of creating a better world with more resources available to everyone by making the villainous and despicable decision to eliminate half of all the living beings on every planet he visits. Next he launches into his bloodthirsty quest to acquire all 6 of the Infinity Stones to reach his ultimate goal — to eliminate half of all living beings in the universe.

    This horrific genocidal maniac pursues his goal with the full belief that he is doing the universe a favor, and sacrifices himself and his beloved adopted daughter to do it. Thanos is even portrayed in some scenes as gentle, thoughtful and vulnerable, but with full knowledge and understanding of what’s he’s doing — accepting the “burden” of being the person willing to make the hard decisions.

    I remember an episode from the original Star Trek series with a somewhat similar plot line. I find this kind of psychological conflict fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s another great one. The one I’m referring to is the man who is an actor in a traveling Shakespeare troupe, but he’s recognized as the man who caused the death of millions. He felt he was a hero because he made the hard decision, but it ended up the help required arrived at the planet immediately after the slaughter.

        Like

      1. I love the Avengers and the hand-to-hand combat scenes. Most of the Avengers are flawed, conflicted characters and/or interesting characters. Or else they’re Chris Hemsley. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Great discussion, baboons – In my experience, when someone reacts strongly to criticism, it is partly because they are still trying to convince their true selves that they were right, but they know in their heart of heart that they were wrong.

    I’m sure I have been involved in many miscommunications (which I can’t bring to mind right now), but one that I do not regret is the one with my hairdresser when she accidentally cut off most of my hair… Found a carefree hairstyle I had been too afraid to try.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Here’s an example of how tricky these things can get. Joe Biden was involved with legislation on crime when he was Obama’s VP. Earlier, he was critical about forced busing. Is it appropriate to criticize him now for legislation he helped shape decades ago? Is it appropriate to hold him accountable for a position on busing that he held much earlier? I’m not advocating one way or another on this. I just know that that national consensus has evolved on these issues over time.

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  10. Well, Husband doesn’t think there was anything wrong with your question, and believes you were justified asking it. He is working at his private practice now so he can’t elaborate.

    Like

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