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Lost in translation.

May 2, 2010, 6:38 am

In Potsdam for a workshop recently, I took the opportunity to tour the site of the 1945 conference that marked the end of the last war and the beginning of the next (cold) one.  Schloss Cecilienhof is a fake-Tudor mansion that the Emperor built during the Great War (yes, when the Germans were fighting the Tudors’ successors).  Ex-Crown Princess Cecilie fled the palace in 1945, when the Red Army was threatening to batter down the doors.  The Soviets then turned the sprawling complex into a field hospital.

The Allied leaders had wanted to hold the first post-European war conference in Berlin, but there were few places left standing after the onslaught of Allied bombing and Soviet invasion. Schloss Cecilienhof was the closest venue capable of housing the Allied leaders and staff in style, so the Soviet casualties were moved out, and Truman, Stalin, and Churchill moved in.  (Halfway through the conference, the British electorate decided to replace Churchill with Clement Attlee, so you can find pictures of both flavors of the Big Three.)

According to the tour guide, 70 percent of the visitors to this site are Japanese, because, he said, this was where Truman made the decision to “launch nuclear attacks,” and they feel the need to make a pilgrimage.  I was struck by the difference in phrasing – in my experience, Americans always talk about the decision to “drop the bomb.” Launching nuclear attacks sounds so much more aggressive, and even downright un-American.

I also wondered what sort of curriculum in Japan might persuade thousands of Japanese to traverse the globe to visit an old palace where Truman received a telegram saying, yes, this bomb really works.  As Bart Bernstein has shown,* there was no “decision” to use the bombs, and Truman never even signed a direct order.  Yet, the Japanese are there, snapping pictures, and taking the opportunity to buy snow globes of the Big Three (with Churchill, of course) in the gift shop.

As a Cold War nerd, I must admit that I now have a hankering to visit Yalta. And, of course, Bretton Woods.

*“Truman and the A-Bomb,” Journal of Military History, 62:3.

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