Clifton Truman Daniel is a lecturer, published author and the eldest grandson of former U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who ordered the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Living Buddhism spoke with Mr. Daniel about his thoughts on and growing role in nuclear stewardship.
Living Buddhism: Mr. Daniel, thank you for taking the time to speak with Living Buddhism. In this issue, we are commemorating the 57th anniversary of second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda’s declaration to abolish nuclear weapons, which he delivered on September 8, 1957, before some 50,000 youth in Yokohama, Japan. SGI President Ikeda has called that moment the starting point for the SGI’s peace movement. How did you get involved in nuclear abolition?
Clifton Truman Daniel: When our son, Wesley, was in the fifth grade in Chicago, he came home with the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (see p. 9). Sadako and her family survived the bombing, and she was diagnosed with radiation induced leukemia. Sadako began folding cranes following a Japanese tradition that says if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, you will be granted a wish. She died in October 1955.
I asked Wesley why he chose that book. He said he really liked it because it wasn’t like his other books; it didn’t have a happy ending. That book brought Japan into our home. He started asking for a kimono and when were the next martial arts classes. He also began to fold paper cranes like a demon! It was wonderful.
Several years later, a Japanese newspaper interviewed me around the anniversary of the bombing, and I told the interviewer that I had read Sadako’s story. I got a call from Masahiro Sasaki, Sadako’s brother. He asked if we could meet, and I told him that would be great. It took us six years.
LB: What do you recall about that first encounter?
Daniel: We met in New York in May 2010. Masahiro and his son, Yuji, were there to donate one of Sadako’s last paper cranes as a gesture of peace and healing [to the 9/11 Tribute Center]. Masahiro talked about his sister and said that even when she was near death, she didn’t complain. She endured. Masahiro opened a little plastic box, and he took out the last paper crane she made and put it in my hand. He asked me if I would come to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I said, “Yes.”
LB: When did you visit those cities?
Daniel: In August 2012. Masahiro organized the trip very well through his nonprofit, Sadako Legacy. The press was very positive about the visit. A couple of
Japanese journalists even came to our home. Then we had our first interview with NHK, the national broadcaster. A young reporter asked, “Are you here to apologize?” I said, with respect, “No.” She then asked, “Well, then, why did you bother coming?” I told her my trip was not about apologies but about reconciliation; it was about learning from what happened, honoring the dead and listening to the survivors. After the interview, I couldn’t sleep that night. I was a wreck.
The next day, when we walked into the peace park, I thought:
What have I done? There were some 30 reporters. In the middle was Masahiro Sasaki. When he saw me, he just threw his arms around me and hugged me. At that point, my worries almost vanished, because he told me we were going to do this together. Indeed, we walked to the peace museum arm in arm. Masahiro became something of an older brother, which I never had.
LB: What did you learn on that trip?
Daniel: The victims suffered horribly, and yet they did not lose their ability to be human. One survivor, Shigeko Sasamori, told me she was 12 when the bombing occurred. She was so horribly burned that surgeons had to separate her fused fingers and her chin from her chest. A month after the bombing, a U.S. soldier had been cut off from his unit when a bridge crumbled. He wandered into the girl’s family home and her father, who had lost his home and his city, took the soldier to the edge of the river and reconnected him to his unit. The next day, the soldier and two of his friends returned, their arms full of food and supplies.
LB: What a powerful encounter. What was it like meeting with atomic bomb victims?
Daniel: One of the things I don’t get to talk about much because it’s such a serious subject is the joy that comes from knowing these people—what the survivors have given me. When I spoke to survivors last year, the only thing they asked was that I keep telling their stories so that people understand the consequences of nuclear war. I am working on a book now to do what I promised the survivors I’d do: Tell their stories. It’s also about the Americans and others who have been inspired by those stories to work on reconciliation and/or disarmament.
I also made lasting friendships. Masahiro and I do not speak the same language, but the two of us are very comfortable together. We can sit together for hours at a time. I asked him why we get along so well. Masahiro said in perfect English: “Same heart.”
LB: Last year, President Ikeda recalled your August 2012 visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It seems that a longtime Soka Gakkai member there, who is a Nagasaki survivor, had not spoken of his experience surviving the bombing for half a century. Recently, he summoned the courage to begin sharing his experience to inform and guide future generations. President Ikeda wrote of that encounter:
I was informed that the man, whom I mentioned earlier, shook hands with the grandson of former U.S. President Harry S. Truman in Nagasaki on the anniversary of the atomic bombing this year (August 9, 2012). As is well known, Truman was the president who gave the order to drop the bomb. The handshake between the two men more than six decades later may not have attracted world attention, but I would like to applaud it as a truly historic gesture. I am filled with deep admiration for the two men’s courage in rising above the bitterness of the past to open the door to a peaceful future.” (March 15, 2013, World Tribune, pp. 4–5)
I’m sure you shook quite a few hands during your trip to Nagasaki. Would you like to impart a message to this man now?
Daniel: That was a deeply significant trip for me personally. I have an appreciation for all of the survivors whom I met, and it brings a heavy sense of responsibility just thinking of my encounters with them.
I would tell him that I know how hard it is to speak about his experiences, having met other survivors. I’m glad he is speaking out. He and the other survivors are the only ones who can tell us what happened. When they’re gone, it will only be written. I think it’s wonderful, and I hope that he feels the same way.
LB: What do you want the world to know about your grandfather’s decision and legacy?
Daniel: In reality, no one living in 1945 could have predicted the horrific impact of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, my grandfather was himself horrified at the destruction that those bombs caused. We’re another generation. I believe that as long as those weapons exist, our world will not be secure. Therefore, I am adamantly opposed not only to the use but also existence of nuclear weapons.
At the same time, I think my grandfather himself understood the need for reconciliation. He was good at looking forward like that. In 1947, he took an official state visit to Mexico, where he stood at the monument for Niños Héroes. It honors six army cadets who defended the Mexican Army’s military academy from U.S. forces. All six men died. My grandfather stopped to pay his respects and was asked why he was honoring the sacrifices of a former enemy. He said, “You honor courage wherever you find it.” Whether he knew it or not, he was setting the tone for his grandsons.
LB: Now that you have taken up the mantle of nuclear abolition, will this become your life’s work?
Daniel: I certainly believe the world is very dangerous because of these weapons. At this point, I’m working more on reconciliation and the understanding that comes from that. The more we understand one another and celebrate our similarities, the less we are likely to have nuclear weapons. If people can understand each other enough, maybe they can start turning these things off [nuclear weapons] and throwing them away.
LB: What message would you like to convey to young people who will inherit the future?
Daniel: Learn about all perspectives of a given story, not just your own. Most important, don’t shut down anyone’s opinion just because it is different from yours. Not only will you be missing out, but also you will be doomed to make the same mistakes that our ancestors have. Enjoy the world. Enjoy the diversity of it all.