Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Grandsons Reflecting on Grandfathers

As a grandfather, I’m naturally drawn to stories about grandfathers, especially ones in which grandsons reflect on their grandfathers.

Two grandfatherly stories recently caught my attention, featuring reflections by the grandsons of President Harry S. Truman and Vice President Henry A. Wallace. While their reflections are of the past, their stories are strikingly relevant to the here and now.

Clifton Truman Daniel reflected on the aftermath of his grandfather’s decision to drop an atomic bomb. Henry Scott Wallace reflected on his grandfather’s prescient observations about fascism. Their reflections echo through time as nuclear fears are rekindled on the Korean peninsula and worries mount about authoritarian tendencies in the White House.

Daniel’s life has become intertwined with the lives and families of survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His view of nuclear war is through the lens of people who suffered its horrors.

In interviews, Daniel acknowledges his grandfather’s fateful decision to unleash nuclear fury prevented a land invasion of Japan that saved the lives of thousands of American and Japanese soldiers. But he also quickly notes that salvation came at the sacrifice of more than 150,000 Japanese civilians.

Daniel recalls as a young boy asking his grandfather whether he regretted dropping the A-bomb. In true Trumanesque fashion, his grandfather refused to apologize for his action, but said, “Hell, yes.”

More than any other modern American President, Truman was a student of history. He also was a military veteran of trench warfare in World War I. As a senator from Missouri, he called out military contractors for price gouging. As President facing an election he was projected to lose, he integrated the U.S. military. He fired an iconic general for insubordination. With Truman’s oversight, the United States undertook the Marshall Plan for Europe and wrote a democratic constitution for Japan, which have become the bulwarks for the economic revival and democratic rebirth of both.

Truman didn’t beat around the bush or indulge in second thoughts. But, as his grandson recalls, Truman could embrace regret for unleashing an unrelenting chain of nuclear oneupmanship that produced the grotesque equilibrium we know as Mutual Assured Destruction.

If Truman hadn’t dropped the bomb, it’s likely someone else leading another country would have. But that doesn’t take away from the simple truth that actions have consequences, both big and small. Politicians wrestle today with the challenge of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of countries like North Korea while at the same time modernizing existing nuclear armaments to retain their value as deterrents. Daniel reminds us that consequences can be very personal, leaving scars and hopes for a different future.

Which brings me to Henry Scott Wallace and his reflections of his namesake grandfather. He notes The New York Times asked his grandfather, who was serving as vice president under FDR, to write an article about fascism in America. Wallace said, “It was an alarming question that [he] took very seriously.”

In his piece titled, “The Danger of American Fascism,” Vice President Wallace warned of a “merger of state and corporate power.”

Calling his grandfather’s work “prescient,” Wallace said, “My grandfather warned about hucksters spouting populist themes, but manipulating people and institutions to achieve the opposite. They pretend to be on the side or ordinary working people, while ‘paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare.”

Fascists, according to the elder Wallace, “invariably put money and power ahead of human beings. They demand free enterprise, but are spokesmen for monopoly and voted interest.” And they do all this while claiming to be “super-patriots, but would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Wallace wrote in in his Times article: “They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism.” Scapegoats are blamed to intensify “intolerance toward those of other races, parties, class, religions, cultures or nations.” They “poison the channels of public information. Through deliberate perversion of truth and fact, their newspapers and propaganda cultivate every fissure of disunity.”

The message Wallace’s grandson took from this 73-year-old article written by his grandfather: “He predicted President Trump.”

Too bad this reflection had to wait until May 12, 2017. It might have been useful reading last fall.



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