Apologizing for Hiroshima

With President Obama’s historic visit to Japan, the topic of whether he should formally apologize for the United States dropping nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has come up. Obama has said he won’t apologize. But why?

The President’s official explanation rings hollow:

In an interview with Japanese national broadcaster NHK, Obama said the reality is that leaders often have to make hard choices during times of conflict and no apologies would be included in brief remarks he is expected to make in the western Japanese city.

“It’s important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions, it’s a job of historians to ask questions and examine them,” Obama said.

“But I know, as somebody who’s now sat in this position for the last seven and half years, that every leader makes very difficult decisions, particularly during wartime.”

The same piece in The Guardian offers a more politically-motivated rationale, almost as an aside:

Critics argue that by not apologizing, Obama will allow Japan to stick to the narrative that paints it as a victim.

Indeed, this is closer to the actual reasoning involved. While the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were tactically pointless, and failed to contribute meaningfully to ending the war, they offered a golden opportunity to test the effects of nuclear weapons under real-world conditions, and sent a clear signal to Stalin’s Russia–soon to be our Cold War enemy, at the time. This is all pretty well-known by now, and Americans who cling to the myth that nuking Japan was the only way to avoid a bloody ground invasion are in denial. Nevertheless, Japan doesn’t press the issue–their government never asks for or demands an apology.

In fact, it is evident that the Japanese government doesn’t want an apology. According to the LA Times:

A secret 2009 state department cable published by Wikileaks in 2011 indicated Japan was cool to the idea and worried that it would only serve to energize anti-nuclear activists in the country.

In 2007, during Shinzo Abe’s first term as prime minister, Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma referred to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “something that couldn’t be helped.” While opposition leaders took issue with that position, the government’s official stance was that it would be more meaningful for the U.S. and Japan to “aim for a peaceful and safe world without nuclear weapons.”

There’s concern, for instance, it might undermine Abe’s initiative to give Japan a more nimble, capable military and clear the way for troops to fight overseas, something that hasn’t happened since the end of World War II. Abe’s primary goal, Stewart says, is to strengthen the military and everything else, including his economic platform of Abenomics, is a means to achieve that goal.

“Why doesn’t the Japanese government want Mr. Obama to apologize? Because it tears the scab off a much bigger wound that Japan wants healed,” says Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow with Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and former U.S. diplomat with over 20 years’ experience in Japan.

“If Obama apologizes at Hiroshima, it draws attention to Japanese behavior elsewhere in Asia during the ’30s and ’40s. It might even be demanded that the Japanese government and emperor go to Singapore and apologize for slaughtering 25,000 Chinese there in 1942. Or to Australia to apologize for how they treated their POWs. Or to the Philippines (to apologize) for a few hundred thousand murders by the Imperial Japanese Army as well.”

On the other hand, a majority of Japanese people do want an apology:

A 2015 opinion poll by a Russian news agency found that 60% of the Japanese public wanted an apology for the bombing.

An opinion poll by a Russian news agency on a topic involving the US should be taken with a grain of salt (as should vice versa), so make of that what you will.

But the political dimensions of the issue are clearly complex, and Abe’s government would just as soon not dig up the past.

This is altogether a different issue from whether it was actually wrong for the United States to drop nuclear weapons on Japanese cities. It was an action with little military or strategic value, and had any other country perpetrated it, it would’ve been viewed as an atrocity. But then, all of the Allies committed obvious war crimes during World War II–only the defeated Axis countries faced punishment for their misdeeds. International justice is a capricious endeavor, and that’s just as true of Japanese-American relations as it is elsewhere. It serves the needs of the Abe government for us not to offer an apology, and the US government considers a military resurgent Japan a useful check on Chinese power. It’s not a coincidence that this is happening at the same time as the US is lifting its old arms embargo against Vietnam. The US is gathering strategic allies to form an effective bloc against China’s regional ambitions, which are considerable. When facing a future of tense, complex political issues in southeast Asia, opening old wounds would be counterproductive.

But just because we don’t apologize doesn’t mean we were right.

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James
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Apologizing for Hiroshima

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