Saturday, December 22, 2012
I fell asleep about halfway through Episode Three thanks to Oliver Stone's droning voice, but I stirred myself awake and picked up the episode where I dozed off. The footage is pretty much what we have all seen before: the firebombings of Germany, the terror bombings of Japan with the villain being "Demon" LeMay. Even though bombing campaigns began under Roosevelt, Stone feels that Truman ratcheted up the wholesale destruction with his focus on Japan, the aim being to demoralize the national population and bring Hirohito to his knees.
Truman would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender, and as Stone notes, Hirohito sought better terms of surrender through the Soviet Union. Stone feels there was much dissension within American ranks, noting the petition among atomic scientists at Los Alamos to stop the bomb, which Oppenheimer reported to Leslie Groves. This led to Szilard and others being detained. Something many scientists never forgave Oppenheimer for. All this can be read in American Prometheus. But, one can only imagine such a petition would have had little impact on Truman.
Throughout the episode, Stone presents the Japanese as victims, noting the tremendous damage that resulted from the terror bombings. He goes to great lengths to show how Americans already had a bitter racist view of Japanese, showing scenes of Japanese-Americans being herded up in internment camps, along with cartoons that portrayed Japanese as monkeys. So, it followed as a matter of course that there would be little opposition to Truman razing Tokyo and other Japanese cities to the ground.
He claims Hirohito was inured to the damage and only surrendered when the Soviets closed in on Manchuria. Stone seems to feel that if the US had allowed Hirohito to remain in power, which advisors like Stimson apparently encouraged, the war would have ended sooner and that there would have been no need to drop the bomb. Instead, Hirohito hung onto the bitter end, with Stone giving credit to Stalin, not Truman, for the emperor's ultimate surrender.
In his exceedingly calm, detached voice, Stone paints Truman as a cold-hearted Machiavellian, determined to keep Japan and the Asian rim in the American sphere of influence, irregardless of the number of lives taken in the process. Stalin is portrayed as a man who honored agreements, unlike Truman who callously ignored the Yalta Conference. This, Stone feels, is what led to the "suicidal arms race."
Stone ends the episode on an ironic note, saying that the allies ultimately allowed the Japanese to keep their emperor, but fails to note that the US demanded an entirely new form of government that reduced the emperor to a shadow of his former self. As a footnote, he let's us know how positively Truman has been treated subsequently, referencing McCollough's biography and taking the 1995 HBO movie, based on McCollough's book, to task. Stone concludes,
"The real Harry Truman is far darker than McCollough's heroic underdog. Despite his denials, his flawed and tragic decision to use the bomb against Japan was meant instead as a ruthless and deeply unnecessary warning that the United States could be unrestrained by humanitarian considerations in using these same bombs against the Soviet Union if they continued to interfere in Europe or Asia. However, on a larger moral scale Truman knew he was beginning a process that could end life on the planet, as he said explicitly on at least three occasions. Yet, he forged ahead recklessly. Unnecessarily killing people is a war crime. Threatening human extinction goes far, far beyond that."
Stone heralds Henry Wallace once again for having a broader view of the outcome of the war, a new "Amercan Century," as he called it. Stone shows a clip of Wallace resigning his cabinet position in Truman's administration, and later running for President as a Progressive candidate, but drifts off on the sad note that he only garnered 3% of the vote.
It would make for much more compelling drama if Stone had invited noted historians on the show, rather than he narrating these episodes like bedtime stories. However, this is presumably an "untold" history, so Stone wants to give the impression he is shedding new light on these historical events. I'll be curious to read noted historians' reactions to this series.