When Barack Obama goes to Hiroshima on May 27, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site of the world’s first nuclear attack, he will not apologize on behalf of his country for carrying out that strike 71 years ago. He will neither question the decision to drop bombs on two Japanese cities, nor dwell on its results: the deaths of more than 200,000 people and the dawn of the atomic age. But he will affirm America’s “moral responsibility,” as the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, to prevent their future use. He will recognize the painful past, but he won’t revisit it. When it’s all over, we still won’t know whether or not he thinks there’s something about the atomic bombings to be sorry for.
But why is expressing remorse such a big deal in the first place? Setting aside the arguments for and against the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what makes apologizing different for countries than for people? When I put this question to Jennifer Lind, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who has studied these issues extensively, she gave me a one-word answer: “politics.”
She then elaborated: “I don’t have politics. If I was a complete jerk to my husband, then I tell my husband, ‘You know, I was thinking about it this morning. I was a jerk. I’m really sorry.’ And that’s the end of it, because I’ve decided I have a story of what happened and that’s my story and I move on. But if we’re in a collective entity where there are different groups involved and we’re speaking on their behalf, and we’re in a world, by the way, where a lot of people have this idea about the kind of image we need to project to the world, then it gets a whole lot more complicated.”