Thursday, August 6, 2015

Kudos on the Atomic Bombs


Surprisingly, there are only a handful of letters at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library that capture the first public reaction to the atomic bomb. We know this because last month we went to the Library in Independence, Missouri and searched with the help of an archivist.[1] And of these few Bomb letters from August of 1945, only one is unreservedly positive in its praise for the Commander in Chief. The handwritten missive came not from a citizen, but from an old friend of the President’s and a Republican to boot! Indeed, Ohio Senator Harold Hitz Burton’s short note is dated August 9, 1945 and offers congratulations to Truman for his role in the “winning of the war and the saving of the lives of many American soldiers and sailors.”[2]

Senator Burton Atomic Kudos by Bill Geerhart

It is interesting to see how the Senator made some last minute edits to reflect the news of Fat Man, the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan. Burton may have been perusing the Washington Evening Star headline (“Second Atom Raid Brings ‘Good Results”) for August 9th when he crossed out “by” and replaced it with the word “with” and added an “s” to what was “bomb.” The new, pluralized line read:

“Even your old battery would find it hard to match what you have done with the atomic bombs…”

President Truman was so pleased by the fan letter that he replied on August 11th, “I certainly appreciated your note of the ninth more than any I received.” A little more than a month later Truman, in his first Supreme Court nomination, picked Senator Burton to fill the vacancy left by the retiring Associate Justice Owen J. Roberts. The nomination of a Republican to the bench after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s three and a half terms and eight Supreme Court appointees (seven of whom were Democrats) sent a clear signal that Truman was his own man. He also got a new Democratic Senator out of the deal in James Wylie Huffman. Huffman was appointed by Ohio Governor Frank Lausche to finish Burton’s term when he was confirmed to the Supreme Court on September 19, 1945.


In a Cold War coda of sorts, it was Justice Burton who reviewed the 1955 Letter of Understanding with the Grove Park Inn of Asheville, North Carolina to serve as an emergency relocation site for the Court in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. “Dear Chief,” Burton wrote to Earl Warren, “I have examined the attached material and believe it presents a reasonable solution on its face.” The tone was certainly different from the congratulatory letter to a President ten years earlier. But times had changed.

Burton Approval copy


coonass said...

Thanks for publishing these documents. Even the redactions from the documents you ask for in FOIA requests show more insight into the mindset of Federal officials then and now than we had before (who are they "protecting from the truth" regarding events fifty years in the past, anyway?).

Senator Burton obviously had a different outlook during the Second World War, in which millions of Americans were in harm's way, than Justice Burton would have had a decade or so later, when Workd War II's casualty figures would have been dwarfed in those of World War Three fought with thermonuclear weapons.

I have a first edition of Herman Kahn's classic "On Thermonuclear War," published in 1960. What's impressive about that book is how accurately he predicted the mindset of officials at each of five points in his future (our past and present, now) who had to grapple with the reality of an arms race which included thermonuclear weapons and their delivery systems.

I'm sure that George H.W. Bush's papers would show a similar evolution in attitude about matters nuclear from World War Two, when he was a Navy pilot doubtless grateful for the early cessation of the war in the Pacific he was in, through his political career, his Directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency (when his view of the nuclear balance of terror was arguably unparalleled), his Vice-Presidency under Reagan, his presidency (which saw a massive stand-down in America's tactical nuclear capacity and strategic alert status) to the present day. That might be a worthwhile thing to pursue, actually.

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