In the final year of his presidency, Barack Obama took the liberty to do what it had been speculated that he would do for some time: visit Hiroshima and give a speech on the atomic bomb. It should be emphasized that he “gave a speech” and didn’t “apologize,” but nonetheless, “apology” is the word of choice, especially across the right side of the blogosphere.
Nowhere did Obama take a stand on whether or not it was right to drop the bomb. That wouldn’t have been the place to do it. You don’t respect your allies by reasserting the righteousness of your might in the place where 60,000 civilians were incinerated. Even if that was necessary to end the war, it was a tragedy that it had to happen and that it did happen.
Acknowledging that tragedy was what Obama did. “We come to mourn the dead,” Obama said. He included the victims of the Nagasaki bombing, too, in reciting the death toll and made specific note of the one dozen American POWs killed (and made no mention of the British and Dutch POWs).
“Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction,” he said.
Conservative critics accuse Obama of moral relativism, or equating America with the Japanese, and even, amazingly, of claiming that the bomb was dropped for the purposes of conquest. It is true that Obama spoke in his usual nuanced style, full of generalizations and poetic constructions that could be easily misconstrued.
“It is not the fact of war that sets Hiroshima apart. Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man. … On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war…”
”And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.”
What was Japan doing invading Korea, Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar if they were imperialist conquerers? This line is most likely where Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire came up with the idea that, “President Obama said America’s use of the A-bomb to end the threat of Japanese fascism sprang from American desire for conquest,” although I can’t be sure since that’s not what the line says.
Nowhere did Obama say the word, “sorry,” “apology,” or make any construction of such sentiments. He acknowledged “the world was forever changed here,” and called for a nuclear-free world, a sentiment that could be criticized if only for the fact that it is unrealistic to expect the United States or other nuclear nations to give up their strongest deterrents.
The closest he came was when he said, “We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past.”
World War II was most certainly a mistake for the aggressors. Sure Obama’s speech is full of statements like that with no blame cast—enough to allow for someone to put the connotations together to imply that the bombing was a mistake. And the ideal that there will be no war in the future is just that, and Obama didn’t mention that war is justified to defend oneself. But even there, Obama didn’t argue for “no” war. He argued for “a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.”
Who could argue against that ideal, and who how could an American president say any more at a public speech in Hiroshima? For, if you go around Asia, you could end up in Vietnam, where American war wiped out villages and where 500 civilians were murdered in one day. You could end up in the Philippines, where the U.S. indeed did colonize before World War II—and liberated during World War II.
Acknowledging history doesn’t mean comparing one thing to another. Two wars don’t need to be compared to say one thing was wrong or a mistake. But then no nationalist wants his country to give up the claim that it is a great and righteous country. The Japanese Prime Minister continues visiting the shrine where war criminals are memorialized. While China insists Japan make a more forthright apology, their own history is censored. Even Americans living in the South have a hard time giving up the mythology of a country that no longer exists.
If Obama’s critics want to attack Obama for “apologizing,” then maybe he should take the credit.
If conservatives really can’t bring themselves to apologize, then they ought to think very carefully about who they are going to vote for in November. Because one of the candidates–the one who complained about an abolitionist warrior replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill–has promised to throw away the Geneva Convention, to make torture an official policy, and to order American troops to abide by illegal orders. If conservatives don’t want to apologize, they shouldn’t elect Trump, because then America might have a lot of apologizing to do in the future.