Apology to Japan for atomic bombs would be useless gesture
August 6 and 9 marked the 75th anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decisions to drop those bombs have been questioned for three-quarters of a century and will be debated for years to come. Some argue that the United States should issue a formal apology to Japan for the bombings (and for the firebombing of Tokyo and other tragedies of the war). But the best way to honor those killed in World War II is to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to its outbreak. American and Japanese leaders should focus on today’s challenges, not yesterday’s.
To be clear: there was no chance that President Trump would apologize for the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. Trump has famously urged his supporters, “Never apologize. Don’t ever apologize.” To the extent that Trump looks to history, it is to justify a tougher line against Japan. After all, he reportedly told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “I remember Pearl Harbor.”
In 2016, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima and spoke of the need to “mourn the dead” and “ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past.” Nevertheless, he did not apologize. Indeed, the White House expressly noted that it would not “revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II.”
There’s good reason for this. Jennifer Lind, a professor at Dartmouth who literally wrote the book on international apologies, argues “acknowledgement is vital, apologies are not.” She warns that apologies “can do more harm than good, because they often prompt an unproductive nationalist backlash.”
The best way to honor those killed in World War II is to ensure we do not repeat the mistakes that led to that war. Divided democracies unprepared to confront spreading authoritarianism were a problem then as they are now. Today, China’s rise and North Korea’s continuing belligerence threaten both regional and global security. Meanwhile, countries around the world are struggling to manage the human and economic crises wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The agenda for the alliance’s political leaders is therefore massive, even without wading into arguments best left to historians and philosophers.
John Hamre, a longtime supporter of U.S.-Japan relations, has often said that cars have a large windshield and small rearview mirrors because we are supposed to go forward, not backward. The same is true of the U.S.-Japan alliance. So while the United States and Japan mourn the dead of World War II, they should also celebrate the alliance’s amazing accomplishments over the last 75 years. Founded in the ashes of a terrible tragedy, the alliance has become arguably the most important in the world. It is home to the world’s first and third largest economies, in large part due to their shared success in bringing stability and prosperity to East Asia and beyond.
To the extent that politicians look backward, they should study the incredible story of the U.S.-Japan alliance and build on its accomplishments.
Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-editor of Postwar Japan and Strategic Japan. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
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