Local News Spotlight

Truman grandson plants seeds of reconciliation

Updated: 2012-11-23T05:30:01Z

By BRIAN BURNES

Last month, a visitor delivered a small plastic bag containing several tree seeds to the Truman Library in Independence.

The seeds had fallen from trees, still standing, that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Clifton Truman Daniel, eldest grandson of former president Harry Truman, had been presented them this summer in Japan.

Library officials hope to plant the seeds in Powell Gardens and — when saplings are sufficiently mature — transplant them to the library grounds.

“The trees, like my trip, will represent reconciliation and healing,” Daniel said.

Daniel, 55, became the first member of the Truman family to travel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki when he visited in August.

He attended anniversary observances of the 1945 atomic bombings of both cities and met with about two dozen survivors of the bombings, known in Japan as “Hibakusha.” Daniel said he went as a private citizen to promote dialogue, he said — not so much about the complexities of his grandfather’s 1945 decision, but about new ways to promote a disarmament dialogue in 2012.

Daniel’s efforts pleased those who believe his participation in such discussions make them more powerful. Others, while applauding his interest, wondered whether he should consider expanding the definition of “survivors” to include American service members whose lives likely were spared when the atomic bombs made a traditional invasion of the Japanese home islands moot.

Some in Japan, meanwhile, wondered about the quality of Daniel’s intentions. One of those was a Japanese television journalist.

“The third question of her mouth was ‘Are you here to apologize?’ ” Daniel said recently from his Chicago, Ill. home.

“I said, ‘No.’

“The next question was ‘Then, what are you doing here?’ I told her I was not here to apologize, but that I was there in the name of reconciliation and healing.

“But at that point I began thinking that maybe this trip had not been such a good idea.”

Daniel traces the trip’s origins to the late-1990s when his son Wesley, then in fourth grade, brought home a copy of “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” The book told of Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima girl who died 1955 from leukemia attributed to radiation poisoning.

It also described the origami paper cranes she created while ill. She had hoped to fashion 1,000 cranes but died before completing that task.

“Wesley didn’t initially make the connection between Sadako and his great-grandfather, and I reminded him of that,” Daniel said.

“I thought it important for him to know all sides of that issue.”

Two years later, a Japanese journalist preparing a story on the bombings’ 55th anniversaries contacted Daniel, who mentioned how his son had brought home the book about Sadako.

Four years later, Daniel received a call from Masahiro Sasaki, Sadako’s brother, who had seen that article.

Daniel had played no high-profile role in the debate that accompanied the 50th anniversary observances of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1995. Some historians had emphasized the numbing number of deaths, both American and Japanese, expected to have had occurred during a traditional invasion of the Japanese home islands.

Other historians posited that Truman may have had other options.

The dialogue was sufficiently charged to scuttle a planned exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington on the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber used to deploy the atomic weapon over Hiroshima.

In the Kansas City area, a group of World War II veterans formed the Harry S. Truman Appreciation Society, whose members in 1995 laid a wreath at the Truman Library grave of the former president and saluted him for using “every available weapon” to end the war.

Annual ceremonies followed. In 1998, Paul Tibbets, who had piloted the Enola Gay, spoke. Those ceremonies continue today, now organized by the Harry S. Truman Chapter of the Air Force Association.

“We believe in what President Truman did,” said Pat Snyder of Overland Park, past chapter president. “We feel that his decision saved many lives.”

Though Daniel had not added his voice to this dialogue, he often has served as unofficial family spokesman. In 2010, he helped host a 60th anniversary commemoration of the Korean War in Independence.

That same year he met Masahiro Sasaki in New York.

By then Sasaki had formed a nonprofit group to promote reconciliation between the United States and Japan, and was preparing to donate one of his sister’s last paper cranes to the World Trade Center Memorial. At one moment, Masahiro’s son placed a paper crane in Daniel’s hand.

“It was the last crane Sadako had folded before she died,” Daniel said.

“He dropped it in my palm and asked if I would consider coming to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Daniel flew to Tokyo in August with his wife, Polly, and their two sons, Wesley and Gates. Daniel said he financed the trip with some assistance from a member of the Truman Library Institute, the library’s nonprofit support group.

“There are those in Japan who are still very angry about the bombings,” Daniel said.

“Most people would tell me ‘We appreciate your coming.’ But some of the meetings with survivors were very emotional.”

Following the Nagasaki ceremony, a French journalist asked Daniel, again, why he had come.

“I said the trip was about reconciliation and healing,” he said. “I didn’t try to duck anything, but neither was I going apologize for my grandfather. He never did, first of all, and the country has not.

“But I can still reach out to these people.”

Daniel recently received a grant through the United States-Japan Foundation to begin work on a book that will detail the bombings and his grandfather’s rationale for them, as well as how survivors went forward afterward.

He is seeking separate funding to travel to Japan and create an archive of survivor testimony that later would be presented to the Truman Library. Partnering with Daniel on this project is Ari Beser, a grandson of Jacob Beser, a crew member on both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing missions.

“It is powerful that somebody from the Truman family would go out on a limb like this,” said Kathleen Sullivan, program director of Hibakusha Stories, a New York nonprofit that arranges for survivors to share testimony with students.

“Here you have the grandson of the man who made the decision, standing in front of students with survivors, talking about why we need to rid the world of nuclear weapons,” she said.

“The historical significance isn’t lost on the students.”

D. M. Giangreco, a military historian at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, believes Daniel’s efforts likely would benefit if he considered expanding the definition of “survivor.”

As detailed in Giangreco’s 2009 book, “Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947,” estimates of the massive casualties possible during a traditional invasion of the Japanese home islands had been prepared by officials in the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Truman became president upon Roosevelt’s death in April 1945.

By that July, estimates circulating among senior Truman administration officials indicated that the number of Japanese dead could reach between 5 million and 10 million, with the possibility of anywhere from 1.7 million to 4 million American casualties. That included perhaps 400,000 to 800,000 American soldiers killed.

Those who ultimately didn’t have to invade Japan can be considered survivors, too, said Giangreco. Other Truman scholars such as Robert Ferrell and George Elsey recently have expressed similar sentiments, he added.

Daniel doesn’t dispute them.

“Over the years I have shaken the hands of dozens of American survivors of World War II, veterans who have told me ‘I wouldn’t be alive if your grandfather had not dropped that bomb,’ ” he said.

“Yet I have also held one of Sadako’s last paper cranes in my hand, as well. So I choose to honor both — those who fought and died for our country, as well as those in Japan who were just living their lives in a totalitarian state.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com

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