In honor of Harry Truman's 130th birthday, Missouri Senators Claire McCaskill (D) and Roy Blunt (R) introduced a measure that would rename Washington's Union Station after the former president. As the Washington Post explains, for McCaskill, this was a way to honor her hero. The Senator has a bust of Truman in her office and even a name plate with Truman's famous quote, "The Buck Stops Here."
Coincidentally, the same week the Missouri Senators introduced their bill to honor the only president to use nuclear weapons, the city of St. Louis warmly embraced one of the youngest survivors of the atomic bomb and international peace activist, Koko Tanimoto Kondo. On May 10, Kondo delivered the commencement address at Webster University. Kondo implored the graduating class to work for peace rather than war, and told students that she was "depending on them" to eliminate nuclear weapons. They responded with a standing ovation. The next day, Mayor Francis Slay, named May 11th "Transformative Learning Day," in her honor. And on May 12, Kondo threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the St. Louis Cardinals/Chicago Cubs baseball game. While the city of St. Louis set an example by focusing on peace for this one week in May, it is clearly the anomaly. There will be no train stations or streets named after Kondo or any other survivor of the atomic bomb. That is because, in the U.S., we do not celebrate peace, only war.
Currently, the U.S. has three peace museums nationwide. However, there is no shortage of memorials and museums that highlight our weapons, technology, and bombs. We have a wall commemorating the approximately 58,000 men who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. One will be hard pressed, however, to find an exhibit discussing the millions of Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians who also died. Washington D.C. is home to a beautiful Korean War memorial. Yet, there is no mention of the millions of Koreans who perished. One can conclude that years from now there will be few, if any displays in our museums showing the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the "War on Terror."
Perhaps no other exhibit highlights this issue more than the Enola Gay. In 1995, the National Air and Space Museum planned on displaying the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb. However, controversy erupted over the language of the exhibit. A number of scholars objected to the idea that the museum would only describe the bomb in the context that it saved American lives, ended the war quicker, and hence was justified. Historians, scientists, and activists demanded the museum include the other side of the debate, which contends the bomb was militarily unnecessary and morally reprehensible and let the public decide for themselves. After backlash from conservative politicians and veterans groups, the language became minimal and viewers learned little.
The celebration of war is not reserved for museums. This summer, the WGN television network will premier a dramatic series focused on the scientists who built the atomic bomb, called Manhattan. While it is wise not speculate on how the atomic bomb will be portrayed, the first official teaser from the network offers a clue saying: "In war, secrets save lives." Will the writers make clear that the scientists were originally building the bomb to stop Hitler? Will they explain that Japan was already defeated before the atomic bombs were dropped? Will they include a scene in which Albert Einstein says, "I made one great mistake in my life-when I signed that letter to President Roosevelt recommending that the atom bombs be made?"
Of course, Manhattan fits perfectly into Hollywood's fascination with glorifying war. In the 1950s, John Wayne saved the world from fascism. 30 years later, Sylvester Stallone was a one man wrecking crew who defeated communism. Today, it is Jack Bauer who tortures and kills to prevent another 9/11.
Looking at our culture and how we treat war, I am confident McCaskill and Blunt will get their way. And why not? As the Washington Post explains, we already have an airport named after Ronald Reagan. And how many travelers who enter the airport ever think about Reagan's support for death squads that led to the death of over 75,000 people in El Salvador? Washington's other major airport is named after former Sec. of State John Foster Dulles who helped install a military junta that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians. So perhaps in the near future, D.C. residents will see the name "Harry Truman" over Union Station, never giving any thought to the process he put in place and how many people suffered as a result of his decision. And as millions pass through Union Station, hopefully millions more around the world will continue to hear Koko Kondo's message of peace. For the sake of humanity, I hope it is Kondo's message, rather than McCaskill's that is ultimately victorious.
Vincent Intondi is an Associate Professor of History at Montgomery College and Director of Research for American University's Nuclear Studies Institute. His forthcoming book, African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement, examines the role of black antinuclear activists.