Obama Is Right to Go to Hiroshima, as an Act of ‘Recognition’ Rather Than ‘Apology’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Lanterns outside the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, last year on the 70th anniversary of the U.S.’s dropping an atomic bomb there. (Thomas Peter / Reuters)

Barack Obama probably could not have gone to the atomic bomb memorial in Hiroshima any earlier in his presidency than now. That is the political reality. So primed have his critics been to cast any statement more complex than “USA! USA!” as part of a shameful “apology tour” (background on phony “apology” accusations here and here), that visiting a site of unavoidable moral complexity might have drowned out whatever else he tried to do.

I am glad that Obama is going there now, while still in office, so he can become the first serving U.S. president to do so. And for reasons that have nothing to do with today’s nasty domestic politics, I am glad that he is emphasizing that his visit is an act of recognition, and responsibility, rather than “apology.”

The recognition is that 71 years ago, above this broad river-delta land in western Japan, human beings took a step in warfare even more destructive than those of previous millennia, a step that in principle might lead to annihilation.

Yes, war has always been hell. Yes, countless millions have died by sword and sling and siege and machine gun, including the very large numbers who perished in American firebombing of Japanese cities in the months before the atomic bomb. But to have read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, as it seemed all school children of my Boomer-era vintage were required to do, was to recognize atomic weaponry as something different. My friend Walter Shapiro, with whom I worked at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s and who later went to Japan on a Japan Society fellowship as I did with my family, has a powerful new article in RollCall on how fear of nuclear catastrophe dominated the 1950s and 1960s, and how odd and dangerous it is to have grown blasé about the threat. This disproportion between hyper-awareness of terrorist dangers, and a routine acceptance of worldwide nuclear arsenals, is also the theme of the Global Zero movement.

Through my childhood, Americans saw images like this practically every day, as cautions about the perils of the atomic-bomb age. (Wikimedia Commons)

The responsibility involves acknowledging that the human beings who took this fateful step were Americans, and the human beings who died in Hiroshima and then Nagasaki were mainly Japanese. (“Mainly” because some Koreans, Chinese, Allied prisoners of war, and other foreigners were present—especially in Nagasaki, long one of Japan’s very few internationalized cities.)

Acknowledging this responsibility says nothing about the people who died elsewhere in the war, or the Japanese, Americans, and others who might have been killed if the fighting had gone on. Their numbers are not knowable. We do know that the only nation to have suffered an atomic-bomb attack is Japan, and the only nation to have launched one is the United States. And Obama, 44th President of the United States, knows that the person who made the final decision to use the bombs was the 33rd President, Harry Truman.


Now, as for apology. The historical arguments over Truman’s decision to drop two bombs have evolved, and will continue to do so. The starkest version of the pro-bomb case is exemplified by the late Paul Fussell’s Thank God for the Atomic Bomb, published in the 1980s. Back in 1945, Fussell had been a U.S. Army infantry officer preparing to invade Japan. He argued, as many others have, that the atomic bombs “saved” more lives than they cost, by avoiding the need for invasion.

Contrary views, advanced over the years in varying forms by Gar Alperovitz, Frederik Logevall, Robert Jay Lifton, Greg Mitchell, and others, plus many Japanese writers, include such arguments as: that the Japanese regime was about to surrender anyway; the bombings (especially the second) were more about impressing or deterring the Soviet Union than defeating Japan; that the likely casualties in an invasion have been overstated; that the U.S. could have set off a demonstration blast rather than a real one, or allowed more time after the first bombing, or in some other ways tried to avoid crossing this threshold.

Obama is not going to resolve those arguments, nor should he try. That is one reason not to “apologize.” But another important one is brought out by a NYT story yesterday by (also a friend) David Sanger, with whom I overlapped as Japan-based reporters.

As Sanger points out, Japan’s view of the atomic bomb disasters is one that the United States can recognize without have to embrace. In Japan, discussion of wartime horrors often seems to assume a historical timeline beginning in August, 1945. For the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombs were literally bolts from the blue. It’s common in Japan to treat the atomic disasters as bolts from the blue in a larger, strategic sense, omitting events of the preceding decade that might have led to this catastrophic conclusion.

When my family first visited the Hiroshima museum in the mid-1980s, I noted a plaque that began (roughly): “In the springtime of 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force began a campaign of aerial bombardment of Japanese cities.” As a rendering of history, that was accurate but … not quite complete. When we lived in Japan our children went to Japanese public schools. In the sixth-grade world-history class that one of them took, the historical time-chart running along one wall showed a mainly blank space between about 1937 and the summer of 1945, when the start of the postwar era was delineated with a mushroom cloud.

It is understandable that Japan, again the only nation to have suffered the horrors of a nuclear attack, should think of itself mainly as a cautionary, sacrificial example to the world about nuclear risks. Today’s Japan is an unrecognizably different place from the one that terrorized the rest of Asia in the 1930s and ultimately attacked the United States. But the story of what did happen there, starting 80-plus years ago, involved more than Japan’s own sacrifice, and is a morally and historically complex one.

The story led to atomic disaster, which calls for sober recognition, and reflection on responsibilities past and future on all sides so as to ensure that nothing comparable ever happens again. Such recognition, and prescription, is what the President’s visit constitutes. It’s good that he is going.


Update In response to some mail, let me make a distinction about “apology” versus recognition.

There are certain clear-cut historic evils for which outright apology is only the beginning of proper atonement. The European Holocaust. North American slavery, and extirpation of native peoples. South African apartheid. I’d add the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China. On a less obviously violent but also profoundly damaging scale, the pedophile priest epidemic. You can think of others for the list.

The damage of the atomic bombs is perhaps comparable to some of these sins. But it was an extension of the concept that war is hell, with all of the complex history that goes into any way. The hell, and the hope for Never Again, are the proper objects of Obama’s visit.