H I R O S H I M A   D E B A T E:

Was Harry Truman a War Criminal?

Applying the Nuremberg Standards to Ourselves

by Philip Nobile* (August 1, 2000)

(*editor of Judgment at the Smithsonian, which printed the banned Smithsonian script on the 50th anniversary of the Bombs of August in 1995)

After World War II, Churchill brooded about Allied atrocities. "If we had lost the war, we would have been in a pretty pickle," he remarked upon hearing the judgment at Nuremberg in 1946. He was likely thinking of the string of civilian massacres wrought Allied city bombing. The Luftwaffe killed approximately 60,000 British non-combatants. The Allied air forces combined to slaughter ten times that number in Germany and Japan.

Guilt stalked Churchill to Washington in January of 1953. During a stag dinner at the White House, the Prime Minister startled Harry Truman with a provocative question about the fate of their souls. "Mr. President, I hope you have your answer ready for that hour when you and I stand before St. Peter and he says, 'I understand you two are responsible for putting off those atomic bombs. What do you have to say for yourselves?' "

"When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him like a beast," said Truman to a living representative of St. Peter's at the Federal Council of Churches two days after Nagasaki. But his response to Churchill's gambit is missing from his daughter's brief and sketchy account in "Harry S. Truman", published in 1972. Churchill, being Churchill, was the life of the party. Perhaps fortified by wine, he would not stop pressing the heaven-or-hell button. "Well, there will be a trial by a jury of my peers," he said, triggering a parlor Nuremberg.

Although the moral game was fixed via friendly jurors like Secretary of State Dean Acheson, General Omar Bradley and Averill Harriman, Truman declined to play co-defendant. Churchill stood trial alone, and predictably, the verdict was acquittal.

The framers of the Nuremberg Charter improvised the definition of "crimes against peace" and "crimes against humanity," but their war crimes provision was in line with previous international law on civilian bloodbaths:

WAR CRIMES: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportations to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of private or public property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.
N.B. "Military necessity" is a term of art referring to emergency battle conditions in which armies and navies are permitted under the laws of war to do terrible things to civilians and P.O.W.s -- e.g., when civilians harass soldiers during retreat, when taking or keeping prisoners ould endanger operations, and when submarines abandon survivors floating at sea to avoid attack. However, the term does not apply to atrocities planned in advance thousands of miles from the front.

The victors guaranteed that equal application would not be carried out. "It is not the purpose of this court to try the activities of the Allies," ruled Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence, the presiding judge of the first Nuremberg tribunal. As a result, German lawyers were blocked from mounting a tu quoque defense. Likewise, the twin nuclear hits were deemed inadmissible at the trial of Japanese leaders.

Lord Lawrence's ruling was the initial salvo of the Nuremberg Consensus, A. J. P. Taylor's term for the notion that all WWII atrocities were committed by the Axis. Many British and American historians have harshly criticized the bombing of enemy cities, especially Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but none has yet pursued the tantalizing criminal angle.

Simply stated, the Nuremberg Consensus controls American thought about WWII. Its highest literary expression was David McCullough's 1992 biography, Truman. His bomb-friendly portrayal earned a Pulitzer as well as the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians of which he is past president. "God was good to us when he gave us Harry Truman," he crooned on PBS. In the political sector, the Consensus had its finest hour in 1995 when the government burned the Smithsonian's fiftieth anniversary script on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the probing document avoided moral disapproval and held Truman blameless, it shook the political-military establishment by posing uncomfortable questions about Truman's flip-flop on the status of the Emperor and by digging up historical skeletons like Eisenhower's strong dissent before and after the drop.

Speaking for the nation's elite, the New York Times has officially embraced the Consensus. On August 6, 1995, its lead editorial granted immunity to HST: "It turns history and reality on ts head to imply that Hiroshima is America's Auschwitz, that Harry Truman was somehow a war criminal because he grasped eagerly at a wonder weapon to end the war that the Axis powers had begun." Ironically, the same editorialists would deplore the 1996 acquittal of ex-SS Captain Erich Priebke in an Italian court for liquidating non-combatants outside Rome in 1944. "Acting under orders does not absolve a soldier of criminal responsibility," they commented on August 8, 1996. "It is hard to imagine an act more manifestly illegal than murdering 335 innocent civilians" [emphasis added]."

Where did the Times get its Auschwitz and criminal references? The editorial did not source these rare allusions. Yet the unnamed cite was probably Judgment at the Smithsonian, unauthorized book that printed the banned script sandwiched between my introduction and Barton J. Bernstein's afterward. Not only did I accuse Truman of criminality, I cross-examined him at a what-if trial of Allied perpetrators:

Truman's prosecutor would ask the defendant to read aloud the following passage from his August 9 statement:
Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousand and thousands of young Americans."
Then the prosecutor would wade in acidly: "Mr. President, exactly whom did you mean by 'those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor'? Horopito, Tojo, Admiral Yamamoto, their top henchmen? How did you know that they were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the days the bombs were dropped? Oh, excuse me, Kokura was the prime target on the 9th. So whom were you aiming at in Nagasaaki?"
As for the American Auschwitz concept, it has impeccable Jewish roots. Shimon Peres, then Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Laureate, invoked the analogy while ringing a Japanese peace bell at the United Nations in 1994. Peres spoke of "two holocausts -- the Jewish holocaust and the Japanese holocaust," adding that "nuclear bombs are like flying holocausts." In the same vein, I quoted the markedly similar "just-following-orders" rationales of Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, and Paul Tibbets, the Hiroshima pilot. All mass murderers are not alike, of course, but the corpses of their victims can bear a robust resemblance.

My effort to pin Nuremberg on Truman hit a bump in the road when Arthur Schlesinger published his presidential greatness survey in the New York Times Magazine (December 15, 1996). A panel of 32 prominent historians placed Truman in the near-great category with Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, T. Roosevelt, and Wilson, rating him just below the three greats -- Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Hoping to tweak this Gentleman's Agreement, I spelled out Truman's Nuremberg problem to Schlesinger's experts, concluding my letter with the query, "where did the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki figure in your calculus of Truman's presidential greatness?"

I received nine nuanced replies. All stuck to previous convictions. The only low-grader was Eric Foner of Columbia University. "I'm not one of those who voted Truman great or near-great, although I cannot recall exactly what I gave him," Foner wrote. "Apart from the A-bomb, I also ranked him lower because of his loyalty security program, the origin of McCarthyism." The rest bit the nuclear bullet, reconciling the right presidential stuff with "butchery of untold magnitude" (Pope Paul VI).

James MacGregor Burns of Williams College conceded that "the Americans committed an immoral act in bombing without warning." William E. Leuchtenburg of the University of North Carolina was troubled "that Truman subsequently appeared to feel so little unease about what he had done." Merrill D. Petersen of the University of Virginia "considered the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japanese cities without warning unnecessary and wrong." And taking the Churchillian view, Walter Dean Burnham of the University of Texas (Austin) acknowledged that "things were done by the Allies which indeed meant that if we had lost, a different kind of war-crimes trial would have been held in Nuremberg, which on at least one count would have resulted in conviction for top Allied political and military leaders." Yet none of the above regarded Truman as any less near-great.

Why were the scholars so forgiving? Because they bought the government's story. Summing up for his colleagues, Hans L. Trefousse of Brooklyn College said, "I gladly admit to having been one of those who considered Truman 'near-great,' not the least because by allowing the bomb to be dropped, he ended the Second World War, thus saving hundreds of thousands, if not millions of, of both Allied and Japanese lives."

Bad faith shadows these apologias. Anyone familiar with the literature knows that Japan was in wretched shape by the summer of 1945 and that Truman was aware of both Hirohito's desire to surrender and his secret peace initiative in Moscow. With the invasion delayed until November 1, Truman had ample time and opportunity for a diplomatic conclusion. He said as much in 1955 memoir Years of Decision where he observed, "If the [atomic] test should fail, then it would be even more important to us to bring about a surrender before we had to make a physical conquest of Japan." Nevertheless, he squashed every alternative devoutly wished by his war cabinet. He would not budge on a demonstration drop, a specific warning about the new terror weapon, or changing the surrender terms to safeguard the Emperor, which was the sine qua non of any deal. Nor would he wait to measure the effect of Stalin's imminent declaration of war.

You do not have to be William of Occam to realize that Truman preferred nuking Japan. Had he desired otherwise, he would have tried a different option. Let no one forget that he stubbornly clung to unconditional surrender before the bomb, but eagerly and cynically caved on Hirohito afterwards.

For reasons of state rational, premeditated massacres can have advantages. Apart from a hoped-for shock to end the war on Allied terms, keeping the Red Army out of Japan, showing Stalin we meant business in Europe, and two big bangs for a giant $2 billion budget, Truman got revenge for Pearl Harbor and Bataan. But none of those motivations flies as well as saving the boys, the last refuge of bomb backers despite its historical smoke. Contrary to American myth, there never was an either bombs-or-boys decision.

Schlesinger's anti-revisionists would do well to read McGeorge Bundy's Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years. Bundy had ghosted the memoirs of Henry Stimson, Truman's aged, patrician Secretary of War, who stoutly defended the city bombing in public despite private agonies. "I did not want the United States to get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities, " Stimson jotted in his diary of June 6, 1945, reacting to the mass torching of Japan. In hindsight, his amanuensis yielded to the main revisionist complaint. "After the war, Colonel Stimson, with the fervor of a great advocate, and with me as his scribe, wrote an article intended to demonstrate that the bomb was not used without a searching consideration of alternatives," Bundy said in 1988. "That some effort was made, and that Stimson was its lynchpin, is clear. That it was as long or wide or deep as the subject deserved now seems to me most doubtful."

Fortuitously, a Nuremberg venue opened up in 1998. I was invited to speak at a Bard College conference called "Accounting for Atrocities: Prosecuting War Crimes Fifty Years After Nuremberg." The organizer was Dr. Peter Maguire, a young historian who wrote his Columbia University Ph.D. on Nuremberg. The participants and observers constituted a who's who in the field: e.g., Judge Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; Alex Boraine, deputy chairperson for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Aryeh Neier, former executive director of the Human Rights Watch; Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. A Story of Rwanda; a pair of West Point professors; and two grand old Nuremberg prosecutors.

I titled my talk "The Forbidden Question of World War II: Was Harry Truman a War Criminal?" Basically, it was a report on my rugged encounters with the Consensus gang. McCullough was the roughest. "Truman was commander-in-chief during a war that was savage in the extreme," he said to me during a testy telephone conversation. "I'm not suggesting that the bombings were not a god-awful moment in history. But given the atmosphere of the time, when atrocities were the standard business of the day, he dropped the bombs to stop the killing, and I think he made the right decision. It would have taken a different kind of man to say no to [Army Chief of Staff] Marshall and [White House advisor James] Byrnes."

"A more moral man?" I asked.

"I don't like going back into history and imposing a superior morality," he snapped.

"Not superior morality, any morality?" I replied. "Where did Truman show any moral consideration when he was planning to drop the bomb on Japan?"

McCullough was not used to skeptical interviews. Rankled by my approach, he charged me with engaging in "a vicious moral lecture." Charles Sweeney, the Nagasaki pilot, did not have a clue when I asked him at Border's Books in White Plains, New York, how many fellow Catholics he had killed in Nagasaki. Outraged by my statistical inquiry, one of Sweeney's sympathizers launched a paperback at my head. The figure, absent from the pilot's 1997 regrette rien memoir War's End, was 30,000, one quarter of Japan's Catholic population. Then there was Iris Chang, author of the acclaimed The Rape of Nanking. While appropriately harsh on the Japanese, Chang was silent on the rapists of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Although you compared Nanking with the two Japanese cities vis--vis civilian casualties, you seem to draw a moral line between Japanese and American guilt by strongly emphasizing the former but failing even to consider the latter," I wrote to her before the conference. Her reply arrived more than a year later in the form of a publicity postcard with her picture on one side and a message on the other: "Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. I wish you the best on your project on Allied war crimes. Stay in touch."

Actually, we had already been in touch. Between the conference and the postcard, I reached out to her at a Barnes & Noble book signing in Manhattan. During the Q&A, I asked directly whether she regarded the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a crime akin to Nanking. Cornered by similar mounds of innocent bodies, she was at a loss to make a moral distinction. Instead, the atrocity specialist who flailed the Japanese for softsoaping Nanking relied on the bromide of urging continued debate on the bomb, an answer bound to please her grantors at the Harry Truman Library.

Before departing for Bard, I called the twin towers of revisionism -- Gar Alperovitz and Bart Bernstein. Neither was quite ready to sacrifice Truman on the altar of Nuremberg, but they left the door ajar. "It's not an open-and-shut case. I'd have to do some more work," said Alperovitz, far too modestly. In 1995, his gargantuan The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb persuasively showed that the Bombs of August were unnecessary -- and therefore suitable for Nuremberg notice. Although Alperovitz did not make a criminal case, he summarized Truman's legal vulnerability in a single bracing page.

"Tell them that he wiggled out, claiming lack of expertise and some confusion, " replied Bernstein. "But you can also say that if the Germans had dropped the A-bomb, they would have been indicted and prosecuted for dropping it. You should start pushing revisionists. We've worked on this for ten to thirty years and it's a question that we have not yet addressed."

I finished my Bard comments with flashback. "There's one place in the universe where the Nuremberg Consensus does not hold. I visited Hiroshima two years ago and I gave a talk at the Peace Museum. Just to test my audience -- mostly Japanese intellectuals, journalists, professors, people just like you -- I asked them whether they thought Harry Truman was a war criminal. Everybody at the table raised his or her hand. Then I asked a control question. I said, 'Do you think that your leaders, Tojo and his men, were war criminals?' And everybody raised his or her hand again. I promised those people in Japan that when I came back to the United States and found a comparable audience I would ask the same question [about Truman]."

During the discussion period, I got my chance: "Given the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ... I would like those who believe that Harry Truman was a war criminal by Nuremberg standards or at least indictable, would you please raise your hands?"

To my relief, almost a third of the sixty-member grand jury sitting in the auditorium voted for indictment, including Judge Goldstone and Commissioner Bourdaine. What about the hand-sitters? "Should I assume that the rest of you in the audience do not believe that Harry Truman was a war criminal?" I saw a lot of heads shaking no and heard a few no's, too. Somebody shouted "not proven." Apparently, the remaining two-thirds were not defenders, but abstainers. Later, in a significant gesture of intellectual honesty, revealed here for the first time, both Nuremberg prosecutors turned on their former commander-in-chief and joined the indictment crowd. One of them was Benjamin Ferencz who prosecuted the leaders of SS extermination squads known as the Einsatzgruppen. The other, who preferred anonymity, prosecuted diplomats in Germany's Foreign Office.

Ferencz and his anonymous colleague were not the first of their breed to break with the Consensus. Telford Taylor, a former chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, nailed Churchill and Truman without naming names in Nuremberg and Vietnam in 1972, when he wrote, "It is difficult to contest the judgment that Dresden and Nagasaki were war crimes, tolerable in retrospect only because their malignancy pales in comparison to Dachau, Auschwich, and Treblinka." But tout entendre did not mean tout pardonner] to Taylor. The last lines of his 1992 masterwork -- The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials -- allowed no mercy for the victors: "The laws of war do not apply only to the suspected criminals of vanquished nations. There is no moral or legal basis for immunizing victorious nations from scrutiny. The laws of war are not a one-way street."

Returning to Churchill's theological gambit, it looks as if he and Truman would have been in a "pretty pickle" upstairs, too. In a virtual copy of the Nuremberg Charter, the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church anathematized the Bombs of August by declaring "every act of war directed at the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities and their inhabitants is a crime against God and man."


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