President Harry S Truman famously had “The buck stops here!” on his desk. He was unafraid to take responsibility — to make the tough decisions when they reached his desk. And for this and other reasons he’s gone down in history as one of America’s better presidents.
News that President Donald Trump will soon disband his COVID-19 Task Force is consistent with Trump’s (unofficial) motto: “Pass the buck.” Trump has apparently decided that Covid is a losing issue in 2020 with respect to his reelection, and if Trump knows one thing, it’s how to dodge responsibility for his own mismanagement. Just consider his many failed casinos and business ventures.
If Trump appeared as a contestant on his own show, “Celebrity Apprentice,” is there any doubt he’d be the first guy fired?
Despite his complete lack of empathy and his total failure to take responsibility for his actions, Trump’s supporters still embrace him. As they might say themselves, the Lord truly works in mysterious ways.
Yet despite all his tough-guy posturing, Trump is a very weak man indeed. He doesn’t have Truman’s guts. When Trump faces a difficult, demanding, or tough issue, his instinct is to avoid it, or spin it, or lie about it. He’s both craven and lazy. And uncaring to boot. And in the coming months that combination is going to cost America a lot more lives.
As Don Henley sang, “These days the buck stops nowhere/no one takes the blame/but evil is still evil/in anybody’s name.”
August 6, 1945. Hiroshima. A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston. Incinerated by the first atomic bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki. Japanese surrender followed. It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed. But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?
President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II. The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides. The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost. A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman’s choice. It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese). This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell’s famous essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”
Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location. Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman’s decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist view that Truman was practicing “atomic diplomacy” won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.) Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision. This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian’s attempt to create a “revisionist” display to mark the bomb’s 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the “culture wars” between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.
Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender? Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb’s power? We’ll never know with certainty the answer to such questions. Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that “unconditional surrender” did not mean the end of Japan’s Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready. Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.
Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin’s entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor “to bear the unbearable,” in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.
A longer war in the Pacific — if only a matter of weeks — would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks. Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results. The mentality seems to have been: We developed it. We have it. Let’s use it. Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.
That mentality was not humane, but it was human. Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it. The attack on Hiroshima was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay. Indeed, such “conventional” firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.
Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decisionmakers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals. Yet in the context of 1945, it’s difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan’s apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.
As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008),World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in “self-deception” when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to “a purely military” target.
A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following. They died horrible deaths. And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.
Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project. A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me. They come in Jon Else’s powerful documentary, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.”
Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):
The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done? What have we done. The third reaction was it should never be done again.
It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.
Let us hope it is never done again. Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again. For that way madness lies.
In his non-apology about “bridgegate,” Governor Chris Christie lost my vote. In his “mistakes were clearly made” pabulum, Christie failed the test of leadership. It doesn’t matter whether you think Christie is a bully. It doesn’t matter how much Christie knew about the bridge lane closures and when he knew it. What matters is how he’s evaded responsibility for it. Evasiveness is the last quality we need in the next president of the United States.
When you’re the governor, you’re much like the pilot of a 747 or the captain of a ship. You’re in charge. You create a climate within your command. Your actions and behavior set the tone. Your crew looks to you as a model for their own behavior.
Obviously, Christie’s senior staffers looked to him and decided that petty retribution was perfectly consistent with the tone set by Christie himself. Maybe these staffers truly misread Christie. Even so, Christie chose them. Either these staffers rightly believed they were acting in accordance with Christie’s stated (and unstated) directives, or Christie empowered people within his organization who didn’t have a clue about his ideals. Neither conclusion reflects well on Christie.
What should Christie have done? He should have stepped up and offered an immediate and personal apology. He should have said “I’m sorry” to every motorist stuck in that traffic jam. And he should have apologized to every resident of New Jersey for the reckless disregard his staffers had for public safety.
In other words, this should have been his Truman moment, a time for “the buck stops here,” a time to man up and admit his responsibility as the captain of his ship.
During his “State of the State” address on January 14, Christie finally admitted his responsibility as governor for what happens on his watch. But it was a case of too little, too late.
He initially hid behind “the abject stupidity” of his staffers. Even in his address on the 14th, he continued to hide behind that old “mistakes were made” mantra, that classic passive voice construction of politicians seeking to duck direct responsibility.
Christie wants authority without personal responsibility. He’s quick to hold others responsible but not himself. He equivocates when he should be unequivocal.