“Jimmy, I’m in a pickle.” So says President Harry Truman to adviser James Byrnes on the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.
The dialogue is invented. It is part of a play called “The Realm of Whispering Ghosts: If Truman met Einstein,” by Seattle playwright Claire Zaslove (under the name of “K.C. Brown”). The play was performed last month at the Bathhouse Theatre, where it was seen by classes from Seattle Preparatory School.
Zaslove wants her audience to imagine Truman’s choice.
As the play begins, it is April 1945. World War II is nearing an end. President Franklin Roosevelt, who has kept his vice president in the dark about the atomic bomb, has died. Now Truman is told of this new weapon, and he tries to visualize it. His “pickle” is whether to use it.
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Leó Szilárd, one of the scientists who developed the bomb, tries to meet Truman to argue for not using it. Truman fobs off Szilárd on Byrnes, who is not about to take political advice from a scientist.
The Szilárd-Byrnes meeting really happened. The play also imagines a meeting between Truman and Albert Einstein, which didn’t happen. Truman listens to the great physicist’s arguments against the bomb and rejects them. “Lives are at stake,” Truman says.
Truman has been told that an invasion of the Japanese mainland would cost 500,000 to 1 million American lives. The argument for the bomb is that it could shock Japan’s government into an unconditional surrender, which the U.S. government demands.
In the play, Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, questions the demand for unconditional surrender because it encourages a fight to the death. Better to negotiate terms, Leahy says, than unleash “a new horror weapon.” But because FDR ran for re-election promising unconditional surrender, Truman won’t budge on it.
After the bombs were dropped, Truman budged. He agreed that Japan could keep its emperor. Some historians argue that if he had done this earlier, Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have been spared.
Einstein’s thought in the play is that politicians like Truman lack “curiosity.” I would call it imagination.
Zaslove began writing the play believing Truman was wrong — “with a capital W.” Writing the pro-bomb arguments was “absolutely agonizing” for her, she says. But she came out of it with respect for Truman’s “Midwestern sense of plain old decency.”
At least one member of the audience had a similar change. Keyah Wilson, a junior in a Seattle Prep class that saw the play, said, “I went into the play thinking this was a horrible decision. After seeing the play I saw it was not an easy decision.”
I would modify that. The play shows that it shouldn’t have been an easy decision. But the real Truman didn’t meet with Einstein. There is no evidence that he heard and considered the arguments for not using the bomb, says the play’s historian, Michael King.
King, an appellate attorney at the Seattle firm Carney Badley Spellman, is a fan of Truman. He plays Truman in the show, and at school appearances he dresses in a Trumanesque double-breasted suit, bow tie and Western hat. He even looks like Truman.
King allows that Truman can be faulted for not thinking through the policy of unconditional surrender. But consider the circumstances: Truman was new — an accidental president. The bomb and the policy had been handed to him by the dead president, who had been elected four times.
Says King, “I think the Harry Truman who fired Douglas MacArthur in 1951 would have reached a different decision.”
Bruce Ramsey’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org