As the New York Times has reported, President Obama will visit Hiroshima later this month, the first sitting American president to do so since the U.S. destroyed the city with an atomic bomb in August 1945. Together with the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later, the attack killed on the order of 200,000 Japanese civilians and ended World War II.
No sooner had the announcement of Obama’s visit been made than the White House disavowed any intention to apologize for those deaths or to reevaluate the decision to cause them. “He will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” announced Benjamin J. Rhodes, a national security adviser. “Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest elaborated the point, saying that the president “appreciates... that President Truman made this decision for the right reasons,” said Earnest.
Earnest’s comment is nuanced to the point of unintelligibility. (What is he actually saying? That President Obama understands that Truman didn’t order the bombing out of a sadistic desire to commit mass murder?) The truth is, such careful, cautious parsing fits this president. To visit Hiroshima and say nothing about the decision to drop the bomb is precisely the kind of carefully hedged and calibrated action that makes Obama such a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty kind of president. On the glass-half-full side, well, unlike any of the eleven Commanders-in-Chief before him since Truman, he is making the trip. No caveat issued by his press secretary can efface the symbolism of the visit. And, of course, Obama knows it.
On the glass-half-empty side, there’s the mixed record of his administration vis-á-vis nuclear proliferation. This is a President who won the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for pledging to reduce nuclear stockpiles, yet went on to recommend developing a new generation of nukes, at a cost of a trillion dollars and the risk of triggering a new arms race. And now there’s the half-empty glass of a wasted opportunity not only to visit Hiroshima, but to say something of consequence there.
Hemming the President in is the canard, rampant in talk-radio and other rightwing circles, of The Apology Tour, Obama’s alleged desire to betray his country by vilifying it abroad. This slander, part and parcel of the “birther” slander, has hounded him from the start of his presidency. But shouldn’t he be able – at this late date and with no political future at stake -- to ignore it? At Hiroshima I’d like to hear him acknowledge that any great and mighty nation inevitably has a moral balance sheet with marks on both sides of the ledger. I’d like to hear him insist that we would enhance our greatness, not diminish it, by a willingness to undertake national self-reflection with all due moral gravity.
Of course, our stubborn, even vehement unwillingness to revisit the issue of Hiroshima is well documented. Remember the Smithsonian’s attempt to exhibit the Enola Gay in 1995, at the 50th anniversary of the bombing? As the Times reminds us, “veterans objected so loudly to the effort to conduct a dispassionate examination of the decision to drop the bomb — and its aftermath — that Congress held hearings and the museum’s director was forced to resign.” The exhibition was watered down, the discussion quashed. Two decades later, nothing has changed. As the Times puts it, “Ask the few surviving veterans of that generation — those who fought their way from Iwo Jima to Okinawa and knew what was coming next — and there is no looking back at Truman’s decision, no moral equivalence between a Japanese campaign that killed more than 20 million in Asia and the horror of the bomb that ended it all.”
Among scholars and theorists, however, there is anything but unanimity on the topic. Nor was there at the time of the bombing. Last summer, in an essay in The Nation, the political scientist Gar Alperovitz argued that our prevailing view that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were necessary to preempt far greater casualties – that they represent “a terrible but morally just calculus aimed at bringing an intractable war to a close” – is “largely myth, fashioned to buttress our memories of the ‘good’ war.” By and large, Alperovitz insists, “the top generals and admirals who managed World War II knew better.”
The top American military leaders who fought World War II, much to the surprise of many who are not aware of the record, were quite clear that the atomic bomb was unnecessary, that Japan was on the verge of surrender, and—for many—that the destruction of large numbers of civilians was immoral.... Adm. William Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff, wrote in his 1950 memoir I Was There that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.… in being the first to use it, we…adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
Well, except that they can be. But at what cost? The view that winning the war by annihilating 200,00 civilians was an act of barbarism is widely – if quietly – shared by most Japanese citizens today. A second Times article describes the “almost universal Japanese view that the city was a victim of unnecessary brutality — parents and children incinerated, thousands killed and a generation poisoned by radiation.”
What if we had attempted to find another way to end the war – say, by first using one of the A-bombs as a demonstration on an uninhabited island, as some in the military suggested doing at the time? Would that have worked? At a certain point such counterfactuals disappear in the mists of hypothesis. Can we be sure, for instance, that the world would have avoided far greater devastation later on, through the use of far more powerful nuclear weapons, if it had been spared the horrific cautionary example of Hiroshima? What is certain – to me, anyway – is that the use of the atomic bombs is something we should be capable of discussing. But we still aren’t; and the paradox is that in defending the bombing by refusing to engage with it at all, we treat it as indefensible. We tie ourselves in knots. As the Times euphemistically notes, “Mr. Obama’s condemning any future use of a nuclear weapon while at least implicitly supporting its past use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be a delicate rhetorical challenge.” Well, that’s for sure.
About the so-called Apology Tour. Any parent with a young child has probably tried to teach the lesson that there’s more to apologizing than confessing wrongdoing. My ten-year-old is stubbornly resistant to saying “I’m sorry,” since she views it as an admission of guilt, and admitting guilt makes her feel vulnerable. We try to help her understand that there’s more to it than this. There is the basic matter of acknowledging harm and expressing regret for it. Whatever your plan, reasons, intention or justification, what you did hurt someone. In this perspective, saying I’m sorry should be the simplest thing in the world, a factual acknowledgment of factual pain. Yet the will not to admit wrong stubbornly persists. For the U.S. it should be possible to express sorrow and regret for the suffering we unleashed, with tactical indiscriminateness, on innocent families. But we won’t. When it comes to apologizing, our nation acts like a ten-year-old.
In Japan, Sunao Tsuboi, 91, an antinuclear activist who was burned by the bomb blast in Hiroshima, welcomed President Obama’s visit in the hope that it would “project a broad antinuclear message.” “I was one of the first people who said Obama should visit Hiroshima,” he told a reporter. “Good for him for coming.”
Yes! Glass half full! Now, if only we could say, when the visit ends, “Good for him for talking.”