Atomic Bombing Apology Remains Unlikely
SNA (London) — After almost three-quarters of a century it appears unlikely that Japan will ever receive an apology from the United States for its horrific atomic bombings. The United States government claimed then, and continues to claim to this day, that that the bombings were justified; that the bomb saved millions of Japanese and American lives, and that such an overawing display of military might forced Japan into unconditional surrender. Most Americans, especially older ones, still tend to agree.
It was seventy-four years ago today that the United States made the fateful decision to deploy nuclear weapons for the first time in human history. At 8:15 on the August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. There was a brilliant flash of light, a booming sound, and everything went black. Seventy thousand people died, rivers piled up with bodies, and people cried out in agony. Scores of people were instantly, vaporized into atomic shadows.
Just three days later, the United States dropped a second nuclear bomb on Japan. A mushroom cloud rose above Nagasaki, turning it into “a graveyard with not a tombstone standing,” as one report put it.
The Bomb continues to polarize today, but the work of scores of scholars has shown that the atomic bombing was probably not justified, and the minority of people (among them Albert Einstein, Douglas MacArthur, and Dwight Eisenhower) who disagreed at the time have been vindicated.
As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa points out in Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan, it was the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific War which most likely forced the Japanese unconditional surrender.
The Supreme Council for the Direction of the War, an inner cabinet which ruled Japan during the war, held a meeting to discuss unconditional surrender three days after the Hiroshima bombing; several hours before the Nagasaki bombing and just hours after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, violating the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact signed in 1941. Herbert Bix documents in Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan that the Emperor had a misguided faith in Soviet mediation to end the war. While he said publicly that the bombs had caused Japan’s surrender, that was used to paint Japan “as victim and savior.” At most, the atomic bombs were a wake-up call to a procrastinating Emperor — but even then it played second fiddle to fear of what a Soviet occupation of Japan would entail.
Pew Research Center polling in 2015 found that a majority of millennial Americans do not agree with the bombings. Almost 80% of Japanese say it was not justified. Noam Chomsky, the influential American leftist, called it “among the most unspeakable crimes in history.”
Survivors of the horrific bombings, known as the hibakusha, have put up with widespread discrimination ever since those two fateful mornings. Their descendants will be affected for generations. Therefore, it is understandable that some desire an apology for the bombings.
Terumi Tanaka, who lost five family members as a teenager during the bombings, has demanded that the United States acknowledge “they committed a crime against humanity and against international law.”
When Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima in May 2016, emotions ran high. Shizuka Kamei, a politician who lost a sister in Hiroshima, declared before the visit that “if President Obama’s not coming with an apology, he should not come at all.”
Yet Obama refused to apologize. The president, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his work towards nuclear non-proliferation, said that “every leader makes very difficult decisions, particularly during wartime,” and hence he would not pass direct judgement on the bombings.
He did come tantalizingly close to apologizing though. He laid a wreath at the memorial to the Hiroshima bombing, bowed his head, and spent a moment in pensive silence. Then he stood in front of the press and several onlookers and made a graceful and beautiful speech which lingered in the minds of many.
Obama said he came “to mourn the dead,” proclaiming that “their souls speak to us, they ask us to look inward, take stock of who we are.” In a poignant moment, he held Shigeaki Mori, a survivor overcome with emotion, in a tender embrace.
The former president talked about not only the Japanese victims, but also the American POWs and Korean laborers who also tragically perished, those whose plight has remained cruelly underplayed by Japanese authorities, and even those who run the memorial itself.
Most importantly, he declared that the world has “a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history” and start on the long path towards total and complete nuclear non-proliferation. He added that we should choose “a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.”
That was “more than enough” for many of the hibakusha. It is, in any case, unlikely that they will ever receive a formal apology. The US view is that it would be too divisive for its internal politics
Moreover, as long as Shinzo Abe is in power in Tokyo, such an apology would not necessarily be welcomed as it would draw attention to Japan’s own war crimes, which the prime minister refuses to acknowledge.
Kyodo News polling shows that the hibakusha themselves have woken up to this realpolitik reality, and nearly 80% of them do not want an apology.
Instead, as Simon Jenkins of The Guardian pointed out at the time of Obama’s visit, “apologies are cheap,” Learning from the atomic bombings and realizing a world without nuclear weapons, so nothing like this could ever happen again, is what the hibakusha really want.
Indeed, many of the survivors were in awe of Obama’s speech. Survivor Eiji Hattori said at the time he thought it was a de facto apology. Another hibakusha whose sister died in the bombing said he was “very much moved by his message.” Hattori added that Obama’s speech made him feel that he had “been saved somewhat.”
Some weren’t as placated. Another survivor noted that nothing “concrete about how [Obama] plans to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons” was mentioned. As Obama articulated a vision for a world free of nuclear weapons, he tried to implement a plan to spend a trillion US Dollars to build up and modernize the United States’ nuclear stockpile.
The picture three years later looks even more dire. Obama is now gone and the man who replaced him, Donald Trump, is doing his best to tear apart the international rules-based order which has given the developed world peace since the end of World War II.
Just a few months ago, the United States conducted a nuclear test in Nevada, despite the protests of both the governors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When Trump came to Japan in May, he blurted out that “it was not pleasant” for Japan when “they underestimated [the US],” a characteristically tone-deaf statement. Trump called Obama’s visit to Hiroshima “pathetic,” but said “it’s absolutely fine” so long as he didn’t apologize for the bombs.
Just a few days ago, the United States pulled out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty along with Russia, a treaty which since its conclusion in 1987 has been “an invaluable brake on nuclear war” according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Trump also pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which prevented Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
There is a silver lining. Elizabeth Warren, one of the Democratic Party frontrunners in the 2020 US presidential election, has proposed a bill mandating that United States would not use nuclear weapons unless it was attacked first.
Bernie Sanders has said he would sign an agreement with North Korea granting them partial sanctions relief in return for partial nuclear disarmament. Sanders also backs Warren’s bill and says he supports Obama’s vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. Unlike Obama, Sanders may be willing to deliver more than rhetoric.
Across the Atlantic, Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition in the United Kingdom, has said that as prime minister he would refuse to use nuclear weapons even if Britain received a nuclear attack. He has declared that he “believes in a nuclear-free future.”
The European Union, for its part, has tried their best to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-In has worked tirelessly to realize his vision of a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear arms, despite Trump’s inability to negotiate competently with the North Korean leader and to provide more than photo ops. Moon has said that South Korea will never develop nor own nuclear arms.
It appears unlikely that the hibakusha will ever receive an apology from the United States, but what they have truly desired is worldwide nuclear disarmament. This is a wish which, while it will not be implemented in their own lifetimes, has genuine potential in future generations.
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