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“Truman went on with his grotesque adventure … and the Cold War begins.”

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PAUL JAY: Was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the closing curtain of World War II, or the opening act of the Cold War?

GORE VIDAL: Probably the opening act of the Cold War. It was also the end of the American republic. Every single important military commander on the American side pleaded with the new president, our great Augustus, Franklin Roosevelt, had died in I think it was April of ’45, and was succeeded by a no-brainer called Harry Truman, who didn’t know what he was doing. But he had learned certain notes. He’d been vice president for a few weeks only. Roosevelt had never told him about the atomic bomb. So he arrives as president, and advisors, all the people connected with the bombs, wanted to drop them, so they’d spent their money well. Truman thought it was a good idea because he thought that we needed an enemy. We’d had Hitler and Nazism. Stalin and communism, even better. And while he was at Potsdam with his first meeting with Stalin, he gets news from Alamogordo, New Mexico that the atom bomb works. He’s overexcited ’cause he’s going to give it to Stalin, ’cause he was a good American who never really read a book, except for some very simple children’s stories about American history.

So he thought, looking at Stalin, here’s the enemy, just made for us. We could militarize the economy; we could increase the army. Then word comes: the bomb works. As Leslie Groves, who was a student at West Point of my father, and Groves, very pompous fellow, and quite full of himself. It was Oppenheimer who should have been filled with himself, because Oppenheimer really gave us the bomb, with great misgivings. When the explosion went off in the New Mexican desert, he was almost in tears. This is Dr. Oppenheimer. And he said, lo, behold, I am Shiva, the destroyer of worlds. Then the decision was made. There was a very good book by a man called Gar Alperovitz on the decision to use the bomb. At least Truman had the good sense to consult his military camp commanders. Every last one of them, including the mad Curtis Lemay, Dr. Strangelove, General Strangelove, said don’t do it. Eisenhower in Europe, the commanding general there, Nimitz, the commanding admiral in the Pacific, they said, don’t you do it. We’ll be hated by the whole world. Japan is defeated. Everybody knows it. The emperor has been writing Truman letters asking for surrender.

Truman, who didn’t really much like the current president, he didn’t know anything about foreign affairs, but he knew he had two weapons, he had two aces in the hole, or however they say it, poker, and he’s going to play them. And he played them. And at the cost to our reputation. I mean, the meditations of Eisenhower on how horrible this would be for the United States, I think he suspected he’d already be an American president by then, and there was going to be nothing but trouble. There’s been nothing but trouble for us ever since. Truman went on with his grotesque adventure, and we have gone on in the wake of it, and the Cold War begins.

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Gore Vidal is the author of twenty-two novels and has written films including the classics Ben-Hur and Suddenly, Last Summer. He is recently the author of The Last Empire and Inventing a Nation.