While historians might long debate which U.S. events since 1940 have had the greatest impact, there is no doubt in my mind the use of nuclear weapons to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan and the Cuban Missile Crisis are the most important lessons we can learn from our history.
During World War II, for the first time, the human race had developed the means to physically destroy itself. As Richard Rhodes states, “Science had handed the nation state a poisoned apple, if you will, the poisoned apple being the ability to have an essentially infinite amount of explosive power”. And science handed that power into the hands of inadequately prepared Harry Truman. People are torn on Harry Truman. Some proclaim him a war criminal, as the act of dropping two atomic bombs on civilian cities to “end World War II” could be seen as a war crime. The massive cover up of the atomic bombings and its effects also shed a negative light on his administration. Others see him as a true American hero, ending the great war and showing the world we were not afraid to defend ourselves by use of nuclear weaponry.
Reading Harry Truman’s private journals shed some light on his life.
“I think one man is as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a chinaman. Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man of dust, a nigger from mud, then threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.” -President Harry S. Truman
To me, he seems like a timid and paranoid man, unsure of himself and his ability to lead. To say he was not prepared for his presidency is a major understatement. His racism also seemed to get in the way of his decision making abilities. It’s easier to completely wipe out two civilian cities when you personally think the worst of that population.
Truman noted in his diary on July 25, 1945, after being fully briefed on the results of the Trinity test, that the bomb “may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.” His advisors cautioned that surprise use of the bomb against Japan could precipitate an uncontrollable arms race with the Soviet Union and other nations that boded future disaster for mankind.
Truman nevertheless authorized use of atomic bombs against Japan, always insisting he felt no “remorse” and even bragging that he “never lost any sleep over that decision.” He used Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to justify his attack on the two cities. The death toll at Pearl Harbor was 2,402 military deaths, 68 civilian. The death toll in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki was well over 200,000 civilians. (Selden, 233).
American strategic bomb planners targeted the civilian parts of the cities, maximizing the bomb’s destructive power and civilian deaths. They produced limited military casualties. The brutal, and barbaric actions of Harry Truman will set the stage for the US for many years afterwards.
In The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, McNamara talks about working under the ruthless military man Curtis LeMay during World War II. He helped plan the firebombing of Tokyo that incinerated over 100,000 civilians. McNamara claims that, had the allies not won the war, he and General Curtis LeMay would have been tried as war criminals. With LeMay advising Truman, dropping the atomic bombs was not seen as much different than destroying any other Japanese cities, it was just done with less bombs.
Harry Truman dropped the atomic bombs against most of his military, religious, and scientific leaders advice, and fundamentally changed the course of history for the worse.
After WWII, the United States new policy of Containment was adopted to prevent the spread of communism abroad. The Soviet Union has grown powerful post WWII and were racing to build a nuclear arsenal that could compete with the US’s. Truman and Eisenhower did not trust the Soviet Union and instead opted for a secret Cold War that would include espionage, military coups, and wars intended to help deter the spread of communism. By the time John F. Kennedy was elected president, the Cold War was in full force.
Unlike Truman and Eisenhower, Kennedy believed that it was possible to bargain and compromise with the Soviet Union, and that the two superpowers could coexist peacefully. Because Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, had been liberalizing Soviet society and had abandoned Stalinism, Kennedy thought that he could deal with him. However,instead of reaching out to the United States and its new leader, the Soviet Union started to behave aggressively in Europe (Berlin) and Latin America (Cuba) (Kuznick, 281).
Ironically, the first major foreign policy move of the new administration ended in disaster when Kennedy decided to proceed with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba planned by the Eisenhower administration. The 1961 invasion failed miserably, and, as a result, Cuba turned to the Soviet Union. Khrushchev had been looking for an ally in Latin America so that he could build a base for Soviet missiles. While the U.S. had missiles in Turkey targeting the Soviet Union, the Soviets had none close to the U.S. mainland (Kuznick, 292-293).
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the defining moment for the Kennedy administration. On October 16, 1962, U.S. intelligence found out that the Soviets were building missile sites in Cuba. The U.S. Air Force wanted to take out the sites, and many in the military called for an invasion of Cuba. Kennedy was afraid that an invasion would lead to a world war, so he set up a blockade of Cuba instead. Kennedy vowed that Soviet ships headed for Cuba carrying missile parts would not be allowed through the blockade. In addition, he demanded that the Soviets remove their bases and all Soviet weaponry from Cuba.
The world stood still for those 13 days. Americans didn’t know if they would be bombed to oblivion, neither did the Soviets. It was the closest mankind has been to utter destruction. At the last moment, the Soviets backed down. World War III had been narrowly avoided. (Kuznick, 296-301).
So many powerful military advisors and higher ups would have pushed Kennedy into a war with the Soviet Union. Kennedy’s courage to resist these men, as well as Khrushchev’s courage may well have saved the entire world. These two men “stared into the abyss and recoiled from what they saw” (Kuznick, 323).
I view the Cuban Missile Crisis as one of the most significant events in the past 50 years. We were very close to what many considered world annihilation, man-kind has never had this kind of power. I think Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is a big deterrent in nuclear war, but one little mistake or miscalculation could cause a reaction that would lead us into war. The story of the hero Stanislav Petrov comes to mind.
These two events, the use of nuclear weapons to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan and the Cuban Missile Crisis, are the most important lessons we can take from our history. However, it appears America does not remember the past so easily. The nuclear arms race continues today, we will never be safe from nuclear destruction so long as these weapons still exist. Some say the use of Drones is setting a dangerous tone for our future, just as Truman’s decision to drop the bombs did.
If American presidents such as Harry Truman and Barack Obama can cause so much destruction, imagine what other world leaders will be capable of doing if such weapons remain at their disposal. I’m optimistic we can learn from our mistakes as a nation, but not if that nation is unwilling to accept the atrocities we have done.
Stone, Oliver , and Peter Kuznick. The Untold History of the United States. New York: Gallery Books, 2012. Print.
Selden, Mark. Living with the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age . Santa Barbara: East Gate Book, 1997. Print.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. 2003 documentary film by Errol Morris.
Harry S. Truman, 1945: Memoirs: 1945 Year of Decisions, Vol. 1 (New York: New American Library, 1955), 21.