BRIAN LAMB: Aida Donald, why did you write a book about Harry Truman?
AIDA DONALD: Well, I wanted to do another biography, having written about Teddy Roosevelt, a book published, oh, five, six years ago and had great fun writing about Teddy. And looked around for another president that I might enjoy working on for a few years and I came upon Truman who, by the way, I remember because I’m old enough to remember him.
And Truman had two big puzzles in his life and I said, you really have to write about someone that has puzzles because it gives you something to work on, to work through. And maybe other biographers, maybe other readers don’t know about the puzzles, don’t even see them as puzzles, but you do. And that’s how I chose Truman.
And worked very hard on the two puzzles, which turned out to be very important to his career and it kept me working, it kept me very interested in this man from the Midwest, this man with a high school education who accidentally became president in momentous times in our lives.
LAMB: What were the two puzzles?
DONALD: The two puzzles were succinctly this; the first was, this is a man who got into politics having failed in many businesses as a young man. And the only way to get into politics in Missouri was to be part of a machine, there were two machines.
And he hooked up with the Pendergast machine, which was unarguably the most corrupt, and often vicious, machine. I said to myself, how did this happen? How could he possibly work in this machine in local politics? That was the first thing I had to work out.
The second, of course, is what we all know about and that is; how did he come to use the atomic bomb? What was behind the decision? What’s the story about the atomic bomb before he became president and then when the decision was on his desk? It’s still a controversial story and I wanted to know more about it. So, it was a puzzle for me and that’s why I chose Truman.
LAMB: Now, I’m going to come back, of course, to Mr. Truman, but it’s interesting to me that this is the first time you’ve ever been on television.
DONALD: Well, I think most people haven’t been on television, a country of 320 million people, but it is my first time and I know being with you I’ll enjoy it.
LAMB: But, the audience needs to know right up front that you were married – your husband is now deceased – to a man that was on television a lot.
DONALD: Yes, he was. He was my wonderful husband who died three years ago, who wrote, I think, marvelous books and was a great teacher. But, he was the one on television, he was our star and I never was on television.
LAMB: David Herbert Donald.
DONALD: Donald, right.
LAMB: A man with three first names.
DONALD: Three first names, except the Herbert is a family name. His mother was a Herbert and his mother loved her side of the family and he wanted to memorialize that side of the family. And so, when he was given the name Herbert it was never a first name but it was a family name.
He never used it until very late and the story is very simple and that is when our son was born we set up trusts for his education and things like that. And he had to use his full name legally and so he put Herbert in and he said, ”Well, I guess I better start using it on my books and everywhere else.” And I said, ”I don’t really like it,” and he said, ”Well that’s my name now.” That’s how the Herbert got used.
LAMB: Where did you get the name Aida?
DONALD: I got the name from – I’m Italian. My parents were Italian, my mother came here as a baby, my father came here at age 21. They would not let him leave Italy until he served in the army.
It was a formative experience for him because he was very tall and so when he was conscripted, he was put in the king’s guard. And so, wherever the little king went in Italy, my father was part of his little cavalry. And the king loved opera and so they spent a lot of time at La Scala in Milan, among other places.
And my father became a great opera lover, so when his second daughter was born, moi, he named me Aida. So, it’s not a family name, it comes from La Scala, it comes from the little king who allowed his little cavalry to go everywhere with him and he loved music.
LAMB: In the book, one of the first things that I – I guess I’d never seen it before – I learned that Harry Truman’s wife, Bess, had a father that committed suicide.
DONALD: Suicide, yes.
LAMB: What impact did that have on the story and when did you find that out?
DONALD: That had a great impact on Bess. First of all, it – she was so sad and so depressed and her mother was so humiliated by having a husband who took his own life because in those days it affected the whole family and the reputation.
She took the family and she went to Colorado for a year. She just escaped with the kids because the humiliation was so great. And all of her life, Bess Truman was afraid that this story would get out because people thought if you committed suicide, you were insane and therefore you carried an insane gene, which children and grandchildren might inherit.
So when Harry decided to go into public life, she was very unhappy because she said this story might get out and he said, ”I’ll protect you as much as I can.” In fact, they never told their daughter, Margaret, about this episode of the suicide until she was a grown woman. And she resented that, but she got over it.
So, Bess never liked public life because there was this dark secret that would come out, would humiliate her and would, in effect, say your gene pool is impure. But, it never came out; Harry protected it and he went to his grave, as she did, and it was not public knowledge ever.
LAMB: Where did you find it?
DONALD: Well, it’s in the papers, the Truman papers. It’s in letters; it’s not hidden in the papers and it’s just there. And there are also in the papers stories about how her friends helped her get over this. She was a young girl of – she was a teenager when this happened.
And her friends did their best to comfort her, but they said they couldn’t do anything. She would not be comforted, it was such a smashing world event for that family, it almost ruined the family.
LAMB: Why did you spend – not so much time, but a lot of time on Harry Truman pursuing Bess? Is it Wallace? Was that her last name?
DONALD: Bess Wallace. I don’t know what it was about Harry, who claimed, you know, at age six, I fell in love with this blonde girl with curls and blue eyes. She sat in the class ahead of me and never loved anyone else all of my life. And he never did. He had no girlfriends, it was just Bess.
And I don’t know enough about the psychology of a man who will all of his life wait for a woman. He was 35 when he married her, she was 34. She had boyfriends, she had wealthy boyfriends but she didn’t marry them. And I think what held her back was the possibility that they might find out after she married them about the suicide.
We don’t know, but she said no to all of them and was, for the time, quite old by the time Harry married her. I mean, 34 years old back in the 1920s, you were really an old maid.
But, Harry never let go. He – it may have been that if you’re Harry, you’ve chased something that you might not get. It might have been that he was such a romantic – and he was a romantic, he was a 19th century figure more than a 20th century figure. It may be that his romantic side was so great he wasn’t going to let go of Bess.
And she was, by the way, a very pretty woman. She was athletic, she played tennis, she ran, she was more athletic than he was. And she was quite a good catch, except for this dark dimension.
And I tried to figure out what it was and I think it was just a combination of chasing something he probably though he could never have, which psychologically must mean something, and then the romance. And he truly loved her, there’s no doubt about that, all of his life.
LAMB: Why did she hate politics and Washington so much?
DONALD: She hated it because she was made fun of. The cave dwellers, the ladies of Washington didn’t like the way she dressed, didn’t like how her hair was done. They thought she was a rube. After all, he did not gain acceptance when he became a senator; he was shunned by almost all of Washington and most of the senators because he came from a corrupt background.
And they let her know at one point that you don’t wear seersucker if you’re the First Lady. And she responded, ”What’s wrong with seersucker? It’s cool.” It was a series of incidents like that that made her hate Washington and she would only stay there a minimal number of months a year. When Harry was senator and even when he became president, she didn’t like Washington.
Now, her grandson has just put together a collection of letters that he found stuck in niches – in the house in books. And he claims she loved being a senator’s wife and I put that in the book. The book was finished but I managed to get it in the notes. I didn’t find that. I didn’t find that she really enjoyed being in Washington. So, we have a conundrum.
LAMB: Do you still live on Lincoln Road in Lincoln, Massachusetts?
DONALD: I still do, in the house that you visited. I still have David’s beautiful library. What I’ve been doing since we have in the house 13,000 books, I’ve been giving away books to archives, libraries, the Lincoln museum and library in Illinois, small, black colleges. Whoever might need books, I’ve been – with Kathleen’s help – I think you just met her, my good friend, Kathleen Nichols.
We’ve been writing to places saying, ”Would you like to send an archivist out?” Any books that you want, you may have. So, I’ve given away three or four thousand so far, but I have a long way to go.
And depending on how long I keep the house, or whether I die in it and my son inherits it, he could always give the books to a favorite charity of mine, Books for Africa, and they could take the whole kit and caboodle if they want it because certainly African libraries need books.
LAMB: How long were you editor in chief of Harvard Books?
DONALD: I worked at Harvard Press 27 years, started out as an editor, what they call an acquiring editor. You look for authors, you acquire books, but you don’t copy edit them. Worked as social science and history editor for a number of years, became executive editor and editor in chief for perhaps a dozen years under two different directors.
LAMB: So, what did you learn in that job that you applied to either your book on Teddy Roosevelt or your book on Harry Truman?
DONALD: Well, first of all, you learn something about writing. I read hundreds of manuscripts over the years. You learn what is good writing and what is not good writing and I was very particular. If even a quasi-famous author submitted a manuscript and it was badly written, I would turn it down or I would say, please get some help. Get yourself and editor and rewrite this. It’s an interesting story, whatever it was, but it’s badly written. Of course, I made a few enemies by doing that.
And then there were the authors who wrote like a dream and I loved publishing them.
I also instituted a very large translation program at Harvard when I had the power to do this. And we probably published the most important books – history books – coming out of France over a 10 or 12 year period.
What the French were writing about was what they call the longue durée of history over 400 or 500 years, not history of ten years or last year or yesterday. And one of the series was called, ”The History of Private Life,” which was an enormous success. No one had ever written a history of private life.
What is private life? What do we mean by private life? And history book club took it up as a main selection, but we sold tens of thousands of copies of that book that I got a wonderful translator for, who was young and then later won lots of prizes as he became known, Arthur Goldhammer.
Then we published ”The History of Women.” Again, French publishers. ”The History of Youth,” which hadn’t been done before. But that was just one of the things I did as editor in chief because I had this enormous power to acquire books, to write the contracts, to work with foreign publishers, to work with agents. And I loved it.
And that was in addition to the normal publishing. I imported a lot of books from England. If they were good, I’d read them in manuscript. And then, of course, I cultivated American authors. I worked in history, political science, historical sociology and constitutional law because I was interested in all these subjects and so, you know, I published people like Harry Tribe from the law school, as well as great historians over the years.
And I once published seven authors out of the Yale political science department in one year. And Yale almost had a fit.
LAMB: How about the Harvard people?
DONALD: The Harvard people said, what’s going on?
LAMB: Let me go back to this book. One of the things that I wrote down was that Harry Truman, according to your book, had a psychosomatic illness.
LAMB: What’s that mean?
DONALD: Harry Truman was able to cope with being part of this political machine that was corrupt and sometimes violent because his ethics, he’d gotten from his mother, were very high and yet he had to do favors for the machine, which meant faulty contracts giving $10,000 to $50,000 or whatever the boss asked for from time to time. Not always.
And the only way he could cope with himself was by being a divided self. He was, in his own eyes, an ethical man. He was always a poor man because he never took a dime. And so, what happened is he developed illnesses; dyspeptic, migraine headaches, terrible stomach trouble really. So, he would hide at a hotel, he would sign in under an assumed name – usually the Pickwick Hotel in Kansas.
And while he was there getting better, he didn’t even tell Bess sometimes where he was. He started writing these memos about what was going on, how he had to be corrupt and how it was hurting him, but he wanted a record kept and these were kept secret, these Pickwick papers, for many, many years.
They were opened in time – I think they were used by Professor Hamby, they were used by David McCullough, but they were used in the sense of who was getting what payoffs? What was going on? Whereas I’m able to plot Harry’s illnesses and the times that he had to give into Pendergast, which was not often, by the way.
But, he did developed these psychosomatic illnesses, which stayed with him for many years because he was in local politics for a long time before he shot up to the senate.
Pendergast had to get rid of him; he was too honest, he wasn’t making enough money from him. And even though Truman wanted to stay home and after he was a county judge and the presiding county judge, which meant he controlled the flow of money for infrastructure, he wanted to be collector of taxes and the boss said no. He was too honest. You couldn’t make him collect your taxes.
LAMB: About ten years ago, we were at the Harry Truman Library and I – this is only 30 seconds and I want to show you Ray Geselbracht, who you must have worked with with the Pickwick papers and just so people can see what they look like and I’ll ask you more about them.
RAY GESEBRACHT: I don’t think he had any expectation that when he wrote these that anyone would ever want to read them. He just had to work out his thoughts and he was really agonized by the position that he was in.
The last line on the last page there – I don’t know if the camera would show it – but he says, ”Am I an administrator or not? Or am I just a crook to compromise in order to get the job done? You judge it, I can’t.”
He was doing the best he could, but it was a hard job to try to be honest in Jackson County.
LAMB: How many of the Pickwick papers did you read?
DONALD: All of them.
LAMB: Where? Where did you do it?
DONALD: At home. Everything is – you can get it on a CD-ROM. It’s a library that’s wonderful to work with. I had a research assistant and I would tell him what to ask for and he did all of the grunt work.
And so, I’ve got all this on CD-ROMs and sometimes Xeroxes. So, I did read them all. And that is a wonderful statement because he said that more than once; ”Am I an ethical fool?” Everyone else was getting rich.
During the time he was county judge there were two bond issues in the county of $60 million. First, there was a $10 million – and this is the ’30s, the ’20s slightly into the ’30s. So, $10 million was a lot of money to spend on infrastructure.
And Pendergast says, ”You’ll never get it; they have to vote for it.” He got it. He went around, he said, ”We need it.”
And then the second one was $50 million. And Harry Truman built 162 miles of concrete roads. Before then they were all dirt roads covered with oil. He built two beautiful city halls. One was in art deco style, which he chose, and one was in federal style, which he chose.
He built culverts. No farmer was more than a mile or so from one of these very good roads because in addition to the main roads, he built little spurs in concrete so the farmers could get their crops to the market.
And then, I think I mentioned that he wrote a little book about what he did. Did not put his name on it, but he wrote it. And it’s a beautiful little book that you could still get from Amazon and sources.
So, he spent the money very wisely. Though, as we know from the Pickwick papers, every now and then some slipped away. And he says in one of the Pickwick papers that if he had been a crook he could have made a million and a half dollars, but he said, I never took a dime, and he said, I was always poor and I’ll remain poor. And he was poor.
LAMB: Did he ever own a house?
DONALD: Never owned a house. He always lived with his mother-in-law and her mother, before she died. And he did not own the house with Bess until all the old folks were gone.
LAMB: 219 North Delaware?
DONALD: That’s right.
LAMB: In where, Independence?
DONALD: Independence, Missouri.
LAMB: Would you give us a sketch, just a brief sketch, about his life? Where was he born and …
DONALD: He was born in Lamar, Missouri, 1884. He lived to be 88. He was the son of an improvident farmer and cattle trader who went bust and could never really support the family. And his father then ran farms.
Harry had a rich uncle who – and his mother inherited a farm. And so, he became a farmer. He started out, couldn’t go to college because his father went bust. So, he started out in banking. He was a very good teller and manager of money.
His father called him back and said, we now have these farms to run and we need you. He didn’t want to go back, he hated farming. But, he did and he became one of the best farmers in the area. He sent for books and he learned how to rotate crops and he could do a straight furrow with the horses.
And he would have a book in front of him. He said he read more books while the horses were doing their thing.
And he grew hay and oats and whatever farmers were growing, but he says in one of the letters, I never made a dime in farming. They were never successful, always poor with huge mortgages. He did that for ten years.
I think one of the reasons why he joined the army was to get away from the farm. It was the best excuse he could make. He could not just leave. His father died in 1914, couldn’t just leave because he had a mother and a sister and a brother.
But, if he joined the army, you’re a patriot and so that’s what he did and they brought a handyman in to run the farm. And he got away from it and never went back to it.
And I have a whole chapter on what a brilliant army career he had. He came out of nowhere. Who would have guessed that this young man, who says in his letters, ”I was a sissy. I had no chums to play with, I wore heavy glasses, couldn’t play football, couldn’t roughhouse, so I played with my sister and one of my two girl cousins.’ Then he went into the army and it made a man out of him.
And I do a lot with that because when he came out of the army he was so masculine, he was ready to conquer the world, which is what he ultimately did.
LAMB: How long was he in the army and what …?
DONALD: About 19 months, give or take. He got out in 1919.
LAMB: How much of combat did he see?
DONALD: He saw a lot of combat. He was a battery artillery commander and the records show he had commendations, the records show that he was excellent and probably the best in that whole sector or series of sectors. He kept the guns so clean, he protected the horses.
He took a rowdy bunch of what he calls ”Irishmen” – I’m just quoting – and turned them into a first rate battery. And the men loved it. If they did not respond to his discipline, he threw them out, he said, ”I’ll court-martial you but you must follow me.”
In fact, when he met them the first time and they saw this five foot eight thin guy with big glasses they said this could be a real pushover. And they had lost four captains because they were such a rowdy bunch.
He looked at them and he said, ”I want you to know one thing,” he said, ”I don’t have to go get along with you.” He said, ”You have to get along with me. Dismissed until the morning.” And the next morning he looked up their records and he busted four right on the spot. He promoted a couple that showed promise, he brought in some new guys and he started to polish up the team and make it a really good team.
And it was noticed what a good leader he was because he was sent on to artillery school, both in this country and then when he got to France, because he didn’t know trigonometry, he didn’t know algebra. He didn’t know how to use the guns, how to raise them, how to turn them.
All of that had to be learned in school and he was a good student. He said, it’s the toughest thing he’d ever had to do, to go to those artillery schools. And the one in France was Napoleon’s artillery school. It was a very elite group.
And he said he was surrounded by these guys from Yale who looked down upon him as a high school graduate. He said, but I told them, I showed them. He was – ”I’m as good as they are,” he said.
LAMB: When was he elected to the senate?
DONALD: Nineteen thirty-four.
LAMB: How many terms?
DONALD: He was reelected in 1940, second term, and was chosen vice president in ’44.
DONALD: Well, it was a simple one sentence reason and that is, as second place on the ticket, he would lose the least amount of votes of all the candidates who wanted to be vice president. People like Jimmy Byrnes from South Carolina and a host of others; Alben Barkley, (inaudible) from Alabama.
And they were at sixes and sevens and Roosevelt was playing his usual game of toying with his aides saying, ”Oh, I like Jimmy Byrnes. Oh, I like Alben. Oh, I like this guy.” And they weren’t getting anywhere until finally Ed Flynn – who was the boss in New York, powerful machine politician – went down to Washington and he said, ”This has got to be settled right now.”
’And what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to choose the man who will lose the fewest votes. So, it’s got to be Harry Truman.”
And everyone said, ”He doesn’t want it. He’s been asked two or three times and he has said, ’I don’t want to be vice president.’” And they said, ”We don’t care. Someone call him.”
Well, someone did and Harry responded that unless the president calls him, he wouldn’t know it really was true that Roosevelt wanted him because Roosevelt didn’t like him. I mean, he thought he was still a Pendergast crook.
Truman was not his kind, he was not an eastern elite guy who went to Harvard or Yale and spoke with the broad A accent. This was a Midwest politician with a high school education. But, FDR got on the phone and he said, ”I want you to run with me.” And he said, ”Well, why didn’t you say so from the beginning?”
Then he started to curse. He had a really – he had a barnyard language when he was very angry and only with men in the room, never with women.
And if you had told me this from the beginning, I would have said yes. So, he agreed to run. Bess was not happy, though by the time they got to the convention she was very pleased and Margaret was delighted. They jumped up and down.
LAMB: His daughter, Margaret?
DONALD: His daughter, Margaret.
LAMB: Now, do you remember, was he – was FDR, when he ran again, was he inaugurated in March or was it January back then?
DONALD: That was March.
LAMB: So, FDR dies April 12.
DONALD: He dies right away.
LAMB: Right away.
DONALD: Yes. Truman was vice president for literally 82 days. And being Truman, he actually presided over the senate. Nowadays, the vice president doesn’t bother with that unless his vote is needed to break a tie.
He was there every day presiding. He said, that’s my job. You know, I’m head of the senate. And the – there’s an interesting story of how he was in Sam Rayburn’s office. Sam Rayburn used to call into the senate at the end of the day to prepare them for the next day’s business.
He got a phone call from the White House; ”Get to the phone right away.” And so he picked up the phone and at the other end they said, ”Get to the White House as soon as you can.” So, he grabbed his hat and dashed out and he had a car, of course. They gave him a chauffeur when he became vice president.
He went to the White House, was met, taken upstairs to the second floor, which was the family floor. He was met by Eleanor Roosevelt. And he looked up and she said, ”Harry, the President is dead.”
And he was in total shock. And he said, ”What can I do for you?” And she said, ”Harry, what can we do for you? You’re in trouble now.” And that’s how he became President.
LAMB: Well, to jump into one of your, two points you were trying to make in the book. If he took over on April 12, 1945, VE Day, European Theater ended May 6th…
DONALD: Sixth, yes.
LAMB: …of the same – So from April 12th to May 6th.
DONALD: Yes. That’s right.
LAMB: And then, when was the Potsdam Conference and what was it?
DONALD: July. July the Russians – the Soviet Union then – the Americans, and Clement Attlee had replaced Winston Churchill in an election.
LAMB: We’ve got some video just showing Harry Truman…
DONALD: Yes. Yes. At Potsdam.
LAMB: … I mean he’s thrown into this by July.
DONALD: Yes. That’s to settle the problems before them.
LAMB: There he is with Joe Stalin.
DONALD: Yes. Yes. And there is Jimmy Byrnes to his right.
LAMB: And he has only been President a couple of months and …
LAMB: Did he know anything?
DONALD: He didn’t know anything. Truman never learned anything from FDR or from his staff. It was a transition with zero knowledge. That doesn’t happen any more.
LAMB: What was decided at this Potsdam Conference?
DONALD: Well, they decided that they wanted the U.N. to be supported by the big powers and they wanted the Soviet Union to join in the war against Japan, with its enormous army and resources. Those were the two big things to be decided. But they were also jawing about what to do about German, Germany, or East Germany, you had areas of occupation. These things were semi-settled at Yalta. Berlin was carved out into four sections but it was in the middle of the German area – I’m sorry, middle of the Russian area. So it was a kind of isolated enclave.
LAMB: So you had, the war in Europe was over.
DONALD: Yes. Now it was the Japanese war they were focusing on.
LAMB: Potsdam was in Germany.
LAMB: Right outside of Berlin.
DONALD: Outside of Berlin.
LAMB: And then we’ve got some video to show, I want to show you this speech where he is talking about the bomb because this is something you spent a lot of time on.
HARRY S. TRUMAN, 33rd PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and has destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb has more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.
LAMB: You point out in your book that in March of 1945 we killed 100,000 Japanese over Tokyo.
DONALD: That’s right. A firebomb destroyed the city.
LAMB: Lots and lots of airplanes…
DONALD: 100,000 people died.
LAMB: And this announcement was made when?
DONALD: This announcement was, the Atomic Bomb was August 6th, the first one and then August 8th was the second one at Nagasaki.
LAMB: How many did we kill in Hiroshima?
DONALD: We killed or had causalities in Hiroshima of several hundred thousand. It was immense. It was…
LAMB: And in Nagasaki?
DONALD: Because some died of radiation later.
DONALD: In Nagasaki fewer, maybe 270,000. It was a smaller number of causalities but still immense.
LAMB: So what did you learn about Harry Truman and the bomb?
DONALD: What I learned was number one he was deadly serious when he said ”We’ve got to end this war quickly. That’s why I’m going to use the bomb.” Secondly, Harry Truman knew that the bomb had tremendous blast power. But he did not know, as far as I can tell, about radiation sickness. He did not know about gamma rays that may have killed, ultimately, as many people as the blast itself killed. The people in both cities.
He was not on top of that, nor was Secretary of War Stimson. This was something that the inner circle around Oppenheimer knew. There were two scientists at, nuclear scientists at Chicago who tried to reach the White House to say, ”You really have to think about radiation.” And it never got to Truman but did get to Leslie Groves, who was Director of the Atomic Project.
And Lesley Rhodes said ”No, no, no, no, no.” I’m making up the words, but he said ”Radiation is not a problem.” He said ”If we, atomic bomb Japan and decide to invade,” he said ”Our boys can be on the sands of Japan a half hour later and they would be perfectly safe,” which was nonsense.
It was nonsense. I mean that area was toxic for how many years? The gamma rays were extraordinary. It’s a bomb that was created – I do something of this in the book – by Oppenheimer to do the most damage possible to civilians. He knew what he was building. And he threw aside the notion of let’s test it on island and show Japan the power of these three suns that we’re making this bomb that will destroy the islands, and he said, ”That won’t work.” You want to end the war, you’ve got to in effect – he didn’t use these words, a terror bomb, which is what he created.
Those are my words. This is something that has to be exploded in the air, it’s not going to touch the ground, and go up. It will explode and it will rain down destruction and destroy everything in a three-mile area. So I must have cities that have not already been convincingly bombed so that you’ll know all of the destruction was the bomb in each city. And that’s how the war will end, he thought.
LAMB: How much, how soon after the bombs were dropped on Japan did the war end?
DONALD: The Emperor decided by about August 14th that it was over. His clique, military and otherwise, wanted to continue the war and as a matter of fact after the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the Japanese did not indicate they wanted to surrender. And it had to be unconditional. This was the Potsdam Declaration.
DONALD: It had – unconditional surrender was what the Potsdam Declaration demanded from Japan. What Truman did is to say ”OK, now return to conventional bombing. That’s enough.” Two bombs. People have thought that’s all we had. We had more bombs. Truman ended it. We had a third one on its way to Tinian Island to be put together.
We had as many as ten more being built. So that story is not a true story. So we went back to conventional bombing. August 13th and the 14th the Emperor decided, ”We’ll all be in ashes,” and he told his government that they were to surrender. His war minister was so upset he went home and committed hari-kari.
The clique around the Emperor wanted to fight to the last man as they had in all the islands, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, you name it. They were told you may not surrender. You fight to the last man. The people were told they were to fight even if they only had broomsticks. They must fight an invasion which we had planned for November, early November. November 1st I think.
The plan was to surround the islands with the Navy, a total blockade. An invasion of American troops up to a half million perhaps. The figures are tossed about. We’re not quite sure. Right onto the islands and then just keep moving up from one island to another until they collapsed and decided to surrender.
LAMB: Did you find to some satisfaction the reason why Harry Truman decided to drop the bomb?
DONALD: He decided to do it he said to end the war quickly. And he said ”By doing this, I may have saved up to a half million boys lives,” American soldiers. Now probably a quarter of a million. The figures are hard to decipher because everyone had different figures of you know Hoover said a million boys would be needed. Marshall said I need a half of million. All this kept flowing back and forth.
But Truman believed he saved at least a quarter of million American causalities which is a lot of American boys and a lot of families if we had to invade and march through to Tokyo to get surrender.
LAMB: We talked about Captain Harry Truman fighting in World War I.
LAMB: Making the decision to drop the bomb in World War II to end it. And now I’m going to show you some video from an Arts and Entertainment, an A&E network, back, this is back in ’95. And then we’ll ask you about this which was the next war that he was involved in.
UNINDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: The revolution of McArthur’s rebellious letter to a Congressman was Truman’s final excuse to act.
TRUMAN: I have therefore considered it essential to relive General MacArthur so that there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy.
UNINDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Truman’s action was gruff and humiliating. Word came to Japan over the radio. MacArthur had no time to address the Japanese people but they lined up ten deep to say goodbye. In the United States he was greeted by a storm of adulation that stretched from coast to coast. Many believe that his appearance before a joint meeting of Congress was the opening salvo in his bid for a Presidential nomination.
LAMB: Why did he fire Douglas MacArthur?
DONALD: OK. I have a whole chapter on Korea which was for me a very difficult chapter to write because I came to the conclusion after I did all my research on the Korean War, that it was a mistake. This was a war, and in some places in the book I call it Acheson’s war. This was, I think, an unnecessary war.
What happened very quickly was the North Korean Communist government crossed the 38th parallel which split Korea. That was agreed upon in peace treaties. And immediately over ran, started to over run South Korea. Without consulting with the President who was back home in Independence, Acheson went to UN and said we’ve got to do something about this and we’ve got to stop it.
He called Truman. Truman said, ”I’ll come right back. I’ll hop on a plane.” He said no, no get a good night’s sleep. Come back tomorrow. There is plenty of time. And he did. He flew back the next day. And Truman was furious with what was going on because we now had the Truman Doctrine, which said that if the Communists try to take over countries, we will block them.
We’ll give money to Greece and Turkey in 1947. We will have an airlift to Berlin when the Russians blockaded. We had red lines and the North Koreans had crossed the red line. And he was furious.
So he backed Acheson and sent the Army to push back the North Koreans. MacArthur was in charge and he was told not to do several things. Not to do anything on the other side of the Yalu River but he got that far.
LAMB: Where was the Yalu River?
DONALD: Up in North Korea separating China from North Korea. Not to cross it because you might bring China into the war. Not to do anything to aggravate Russia because Russia was greedy for any colonies, anything it could grab. And I’m not going to give you the Atom bomb. You’re not going to be able to use it. So there were three things he was told.
Well, MacArthur said oh don’t worry. The Chinese are not coming in. So he got our army up to the 38th Parallel and the decision was made and the White House knew, decided to cross the Parallel to get into North Korea and destroy the North Korean army. This was an agreed upon decision. And we did indeed push back the North Koreans but it triggered the Chinese who came rushing in. Hundreds of thousands.
And Truman said but I was promised they wouldn’t come in. Intelligence told MacArthur and MacArthur told me this wouldn’t happen and here we are fighting hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Well, the Chinese as we know pushed us all the way back.
LAMB: Back to Seoul?
DONALD: Yes. Beyond. They took Seoul back. And pushed us back and MacArthur started to give press conferences and he asked for the use of the bomb. And Truman said no. And Truman didn’t think he was going to be listened to. So instead of calling MacArthur back for conference, he decided to fly to Wake Island. As we know famous flight, 21 hours.
And sat down with MacArthur and repeated, ”We don’t want the Chinese in this war, but they’re in it. We don’t want to do anything to bring Russia in. And you’re not going to get the atomic bomb. Now, what are we going to be doing?” And he said, ”I can handle it. Give me the troops I need and it will be all right.”
So Truman thought, ”OK, he understands what I, the Commander in Chief, have told him to do.” Flew back home. And MacArthur decided a strategic blunder. He split the Army – we had an enormous, very good Army. He split it in two with a mountain range in between to get to the North Koreans to knock them out of the war and to get the Chinese.
Well, that meant that if one army was hit, the other army couldn’t help it. The right, on the right or on the left and as a result both were pushed all the way back and we were in trouble again. He wanted the bomb again. And Truman got very angry and said, ”I warned you, I wasn’t going to use the atomic bomb again.” And he has flouted the Commander In Chief and I’m going to fire him.
There was a lot of discussion among his advisors. Some advisors said, ”You should have fired him before Wake Island, because this man doesn’t take orders.” He said, ”I’m the Commander In Chief, I’m going to fire him.” Well, he didn’t want MacArthur to get wind of what he was doing because then MacArthur would have resigned and come home as a hero.
And so he managed in such a way, quietly, secretly, to fire him publicly. And of course MacArthur was humiliated. He immediately came home and tried to make himself a hero and Congress thought he was a hero and he had a parade down 5th Avenue and – but Truman said it’s important in this stage in our history that the President is Commander In Chief and the generals have got to listen to him. When he gives an order it must be obeyed.
And that was the lesson of MacArthur.
LAMB: You quote from the official history of the Korean War. I’m going to read it. ”So we killed civilians, friendly civilians. And bombed their homes. Fired whole villages with the occupants, women and children and ten times as many hidden Communist soldiers, under showers of napalm and the pilots came back in their ships stinking of vomit, twisted up from their vitals by the shock of what they had to do.”
LAMB: Where did you find that?
DONALD: That’s in the records.
LAMB: U.S history?
DONALD: U.S., Yes.
LAMB: Official U.S. history.
DONALD: That’s right. That’s right. That was a very disturbing thing to learn. What we did when we withdrew, when the army withdrew from North Korean side of the line, the 38th Parallel, we devastated everything from their capital to the 38th Parallel. We bombed them. We napalmed them. We shot them. No house was left standing. People were all killed, women, children.
It was total devasation and our army did that under orders. And it made the American boys who had, you know, our American soldiers were always gently raised by their mothers. It made them sick. And they came back from these bombing raids and they came back from just being an ordinary solider and the just vomited and they were sick.
So they didn’t want to do this but they were ordered to do it.
LAMB: It’s interesting that, after writing all about Harry Truman in World War I and then all about the bomb in World War II you write this – so these are your words: ”The Korean War transformed the United States into a very different country. It soon had hundreds of permanent military bases abroad, a large standing army, and a permanent national security state at home. We can add to that a huge nuclear force, a penchant for invading foreign countries, on little or no evidence of danger to the U.S. and a government not always protective of civil liberties.”
LAMB: Am I right that that’s you right there?
DONALD: That’s me.
LAMB: That’s you.
DONALD: That’s me. We came, we came out of that war as a different country. And …
LAMB: Most people don’t say that. They always say Vietnam.
DONALD: No. It started with, I think it started with Korea. It started with the kind of war we finally fought in Korea. Truman couldn’t end it as we know. He lost, he could have run again, but the war was still on. It was still dangerous and it was Eisenhower who ended it. But that’s a different story. He let it be known that he might use the atomic bomb. It was a secret you know.
You know, we might use it – so he was able to end the war. But Truman set up loyalty programs in this country because he was being accused of being communistic and had communists in the government. We had disloyal people that’s why we were losing the war. You know, people were sabotaging us.
And so he set up this kind of state which we still have with us now. We don’t have loyalty oaths anymore but we have, what Eisenhower later called the Industrial Military Complex, which runs half the economy and which is very war like. And makes us goes into countries – we don’t understand their history; we don’t understand their culture, but if we think they’re going to be communistic we send an army. We get beaten badly as we did in Vietnam.
We withdraw and then years pass and we do it again. And we go into Iraq. We’re now in Afghanistan still. It’s set a postwar pattern, postwar meaning post-Korea, that we’re living with today. And it starts back then. That’s what I think.
LAMB: I got to ask you some personal questions.
DONALD: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: It’s not a long book. Its 265 pages, something like that.
LAMB: When did you start it?
DONALD: I started it in ’08, I think.
LAMB: Your husband, David Herbert Donald…
LAMB: … was he sick in that year?
DONALD: He died in ’09. He was not feeling well but we didn’t expect him to die. He was awaiting a heart operation. He had blocked arteries and while awaiting the operation he died two days before of heart failure in the hospital.
LAMB: At what age?
DONALD: He was 88.
LAMB: Those who don’t remember him, I’ve got to show this clip of, this was in the Boston Public Library. I was there moderating a panel and he was on it and let’s take a look at Mr. David Herbert Donald.
LAMB: Tell us about your feelings about biography.
David Hubert Donald, Historian: I guess I do biography because I’m a frustrated novelist and I don’t have very much in the way of originality. That is I can’t create plots and I can’t create new characters. On the other hand I like to think that I can take a historical character and try to bring him or her to life. And so it is in that sense I kind of attempt of artistry. It doesn’t always succeed, but that’s the hope anyway.
LAMB: So what did you two learn from each other?
DONALD: Well you know, I find that very interesting. And I’ll tell you just a little story. When I started the Theodore Roosevelt, I showed him the first chapter, maybe two or three chapters, a while back. And he liked it but he said, you know, ”You haven’t brought him to life.” I said, ”What do you mean?” And he said, ”You have to tell stories. You have to be,” he didn’t use the word novelistic but now I can use it because of this little clip, which I have never seen.
And so I went back and did a lot of rewriting on the Theodore Roosevelt to bring this boisterous, larger than life character back to life in a book called ”The Lion in the White House.” Well, I then started the Truman some years later and David was able to read just one chapter. That’s all I had before I lost him. And he had the same comment. He said, ”I want to bring Harry Truman to life.” Because the first chapter takes him up 20 plus years. It takes him really into the army.
And he said the same thing. I apparently hadn’t learned my lesson hard enough. And he said, ”Bring him to life more.” And I went back and you know he was right. I was being a kind of ordinary biographer. You know one fact piled on another and it moves in a straight line. And I said to myself, ”OK, you’ve got an enormous pile of notes. And you’ve got all kind of anecdotes and descriptions. Go back and listen to David and make this man come to life.”
So it’s a kind of, the book is a kind of conversation with the reader. It’s intimate. This is what I hoped to accomplished. It’s as though Harry Truman was sitting there and we were having a conversation about his life. That’s what I tried to do when I finished the book.
LAMB: What did you teach your husband? What impact did you have on his book, Lincoln, for instance?
DONALD: Well, he tells, he told a funny story about that. Well I read Lincoln, the Lincoln manuscript when he was finished. He gave me the whole thing to read and I spent several days reading it. And I told him there aren’t enough blacks in this story and there aren’t enough women.
And he said, ”Oh, that’s interesting,” he said. He went back and he some additional research and writing and he loves to tell that story whenever we were together and he was at a group giving a talk on Lincoln. And he would say, ”I have to mention my wife. She said put more blacks in and put more women in.” And that’s what he did. And it rounded out the Lincoln picture much more than the first draft did.
LAMB: From this book on, which is titled ”Citizen Solider” on Harry Truman, your, the moment when you went, ”Ah, I didn’t know that.” Besides about Bess Truman’s father committing suicide.
DONALD: Well I certainly didn’t know any of the military history. I’m not a military historian. So I have to learn about what World War I was all about and of course so much of it was fought before he even entered the army. He started in 1914 but I had to start back there. So I had to learn military history.
I had to learn a lot about local politics because I as a New Yorker never liked machine politics in New York City or New York State. It was always to me dirty and it has sullied democracy as we know it. And so I had to learn a lot about it to do the Truman story, which is a long chapter in the book.
LAMB: Where, we’re going to run out of time and there’s so much to ask. Where did you, where were you born?
DONALD: I was born in New York City. I went to public schools in New York City. I went to Barnard College in Manhattan which is across the street from Columbia. I won a prize fellowship to get a Masters Degree at Columbia. I wanted to be a journalist. And my history professor said, ”If you want to be a journalist you have to know something, so get some history degrees, learn history. Journalists don’t know enough history.”
And so I thought that was good advice. I fell in love with history in the Masters program. I didn’t have any money to continue so I was told to apply to Rochester which had four-year fellowships. And I applied and got one. So I was going to be an historian and I stayed at Rochester for two years instead of four. Took my comprehensives. Passed, came back, and started teaching at Columbia. So I fell in love with history at Columbia.
LAMB: When you met David Hubert Donald, where …
DONALD: I met him at Columbia. He was one of two young professors they had just hired, he and Bill Leuchtenburg, and I took his lecture class and I took his colloquium in the middle period of America History.
LAMB: And you were married for how long?
DONALD: We were married 54 years. But it didn’t, you know just like you know Prince William and Kate, it didn’t take right away. There was, there were gaps. I met him and I went off to Rochester and he went to Wales and Fulbright for a year. And I was busy working on my PhD and lived in New York. So I came home to see my parents and I called him because I needed some advice about history.
And he said oh come on up and have lunch with me. I’m back from Wales. So I went and had lunch with him. And it was a very nice lunch. He was always so good to his students. Then I went back to Rochester and that summer he turned up to work on the Seward, Secretary of state to Lincoln, papers and Thurlow Weed, who was the wirepuller in the Whig and Republican Party. And we met again.
And we had mutual friends. And as Prince William said, ”That’s when things blossomed,” if I can use that.
LAMB: Well, we’re out of time. Another book for you?
DONALD: That’s a good question. I had been collecting material for Eisenhower. Another little book. However, unless I can find enough material on Eisenhower age zero to 20, I probably won’t attempt it because I, my books are about character formation. And they’re intimate. And I need materials in order to establish the character of the person I’m going to write about. And I don’t know if the materials exist. I’m collecting and I’ll see whether it works out or not.
If it’s not enough material it’s a no go. I’ll go on to something else.
LAMB: Adia Donald, author of ”Citizen Solider: A Life of Harry S. Truman.” Delighted to have you with us. Thank you.
DONALD: Thank you for inviting me, Brian. It’s been a delight for me to be here and talk about Harry.