Often history comes to us as printed words from books with facts like death tolls in numbers where pain and tragedy elicit a moral reaction that seems to lack a personal connection. Yet, when the past interacts personally in a live setting, history can be viewed differently and varying perspectives are gained that might otherwise be overlooked.
Through FlU Honors College Fellow Mary Lou Pfeiffer and a grant from the Lady Suzanna B. and Carlton Tweed Foundation (courtesy of Roy B. Gonas, Esq.), along with Robert Wolz, Director of the Truman Little White House, thirteen FlU Honors College students attended this year’s Truman Legacy Symposium at the Truman Little White House.
Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor from Hiroshima, and Yasuaki Yamashita, who was in Nagasaki when the bomb hit, offered us an exclusive meeting with them; they are called the hibakusha, Japanese for “explosion-affected people.” This intimate gathering prior to the symposium allowed us to create a bond with the survivors as we listened to their stories.
Although an occasional smile appeared on Setsuko’s and Yasuaki’s faces as they interacted with us, the scars of the suffering and loss in the aftermath of the bomb explosions were clearly evident. One student asked Setsuko about how these memories had altered her sense of identity. “Water please, just a little water,” she recalled the badly burned pleading. Yet, there was no resentment in Setsuko’s voice; her identity is defined by spreading awareness, not by hatred.
Throughout the symposium the survivors shared with the audience their powerful stories, bringing to life the horrors of nuclear warfare, and issuing a warning to stop events like this from any recurrence. President Harry S. Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, and his family joined the attendees, discussing the need for healing and intercultural understanding that allows all human beings to be viewed like us, “not as the other.”
Perhaps President Truman’s atomic legacy has become a warning for nuclear proliferation. Meeting Setsuko and Yasuaki, exchanging ideas with them and touching their hands, was an experience that changed all of us. Their stories forged within us an awareness and understanding for the necessity of nuclear disarmament in a world where no human will ever be labeled as “the other.”