On April 10, John Kerry became the first Secretary of State to visit Hiroshima, Japan. While there, he also toured the memorial and museum dedicated to the 1945 atomic bombing of the city. Then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited years before, but Kerry is still a notably high-ranking US official to participate in memorializing the bombing. He also classily wrote a letter at the museum, which read in part "Everyone in the world should see and feel the power of this memorial. It is a stark, harsh, compelling reminder not only of our obligation to end the threat of nuclear weapons, but to rededicate all our effort to avoid war itself."
You might notice that Kerry did not apologize for the dropping of the atomic bomb. He did not even suggest that it was not the correct decision. However, Kerry’s actions have seriously rubbed some people the wrong way. These chafed individuals include some of the same people who are convinced that Barack Obama is constantly “apologizing for America.”
In particular, and contrary to a dodgy headline in The Federalist (where I have contributed writing in the past, and hope to do again) has the Obama administration done any “Apologizing For America Winning World War II.” (Oh, the layers to unpack there.) Kerry’s comments – political, given that he’s a politician – were delicate platitudes, but nice ones. All he did was mention the horror of the bombing, and tacked on a no-nukes, peace, man, message. Certainly it was too hippie a platitude for the likes of hawks. And maybe that’s why it offends, and maybe for reasons that go beyond what happened in Japan in the 1940s. Indeed, the Federalist piece reads as if author David Harsanyi wanted to write about the Iran deal, but decided instead to vent his frustrations at Kerry in any newsworthy way he could find.
Harsanyi writes that the Japanese have never “truly apologized” for the various horrors their nation inflicted during the run up to, and during World War II. Harsanyi links to a Wikipedia page titled “list of war apology statements issued by Japan.” The entry does not appear to include a specific apology for the rape of Nanking, true, but it is a long list of expressed regrets for Japan’s aggressive past. This includes the 1995 statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who wrote that Japan offered “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” for its past actions. Current PM Shinzō Abe was criticized by South Korean and Chinese media in 2015 for hinting that Japanese citizens who had nothing to do with the war should not be chastising themselves for the rest of Japan’s life. But Abe also said last year that Japan will “abandon colonial rule for ever and respect the right of self-determination of all peoples throughout the world.”
Maybe it’s a language barrier, but even lacking the (deserved) apology for Nanking, or other specific atrocities (the “comfort women” have only recently gotten any official acknowledgment for what they suffered), comparing the list of Japanese apologies for war crimes with President Obama’s supposedly prostrating comments about America is enlightening. Obama, for his horrible, horrible qualities in foreign policy, could have been a lot worse – a lot more arrogant about the US. And that’s what hawks are hoping for. Admitting the US role in the 1953 Iranian coup, as Obama did, is an important diplomatic step. It is not, however, an apology.
You can argue that Obama wasn’t born yet in 1953, so he has nothing to apologize over. You can also question whether official apologies years later mean anything, when we’re speaking of mass suffering and death. “Sorry” can’t change the past, and could even feel more like an insult.
However, assuming that apologies mean something, and that they are a hint that a country’s policies might become different, it seems fair that if a president gets the prestige and the kill list, he should also have to represent his country’s entire history, and to take on its mistakes, if only rhetorically. Japan – and yes, it’s a cultural difference, and also what happens when you lose a war – has managed to at least do something the US can’t stand to. It has officially expressed remorse and sorrow over the dead of a war without qualification.
Politics is never to be fully trusted, but you don’t need to even believe that the nuking of Hiroshima was unjustified in order to appreciate Kerry’s words. Though seemingly credible men such as Dwight Eisenhower disputed the necessity of the atomic bombings, let us put that aside for the moment. What does the US lose when it does not admit, but hint at errors in its past? What is being threatened when someone important and powerful like Kerry acknowledges the death toll that Hiroshima wrought, and hopes that such an event never happen again?
Well, nothing except that Kerry’s sentiments are contrary to ones which express the inevitability of war, and the unworthiness of victims of US actions. Imperial Japan behaved horrifically, not unlike Nazi Germany (or, you know, Soviet Russia, but they were with the good guys just then). In the 70 years since the end of the war, Japanese officials seem capable of admitting that and making it sound as if they regret the loss of life. US leaders – and pundits – do not have such an easy time. Harsanyi writes that “American officials can acknowledge the catastrophe of war and the destructive capability of nuclear weapons…. without visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial or apologizing” but then does not clarify what an acceptable statement would resemble, or why visiting something called a Peace Memorial is what makes the act over the top.
Beyond Japan, Harsanyi’s piece wobbles from annoyance at Kerry’s actions this week, to annoyance over the Iran deal, and rides all over Obama’s various sins. Obama’s presidency, the one during which the US deployed a fleet of murderous robots over half a dozen countries with which the US isn’t even at war, has been one of nonstop “moral equivalence.”
He’s not an idiot, and he’s not a monster, Harsanyi. He just happens to accept that collective punishment for government crime is legitimate. It’s a popular notion. Harsanyi even correctly notes US hypocrisy in its alliance with Saudi Arabia. He says that what happened in Dresden and Tokyo is equally horrific as the nukes. Yet, he still remains bothered by Kerry. To nod to even 120,000 individuals is to get too personal. We’ll never get out of this apology tour if we have to acknowledge everybody who died from US bombs.
Some people are never satisfied by diplomacy, or with not-even-apologies such as Kerry’s. Sharing some sentiments with those popular in Imperial Japan, they appear to think America’s honor is just that delicate. To wish for a world in which thousands of people may never again be evaporated in a millisecond thanks to the shining city on a hill, is to make that city sink lower into the mud along with every other nation. To try and make peace with Cuba, and with Iran, two authoritarian nations who also happen to have pretty good reasons to distrust the US, is to condone everything they do that is wrong. And to not presume to be in completely charge of Iran, and to be against sanctions, or the prevention of nuclear medicine and power, is to practically hand them a nuclear weapon.
Best of all is the child’s version of policy, where we point at Japan and say “you committed atrocities fiiiiirst.” In what kind of world is that a serious argument, or a moral one? Give me the charts and the numbers that prove it “had to be done” but don’t get tetchy when somebody agrees it was horrible 70 years later, and hopes it doesn’t happen again. That’s what we say when innocent people suffer, isn’t it? It was bad, and we hope it doesn’t happen again?
Whether the moral culpability of the US is erased by Pearl Harbor or Nanking (it isn’t), that bomb (and the even less defensible one dropped on Nagasaki) killed scores of thousands and injured more, and the correct human response is to regret that. Even if you believe it was necessary or defendable (it isn’t), you need to face up to what that means. Harsanyi, it seems, needed Kerry to got to Hiroshima and confirm the rightness of America’s decision, and for him to issue, instead of a hope for peace, a hope that the US is able to rise to the next challenge. Or, you know, for him to have just given a shout out to Iran’s nuclear weapons desire when he was also wishing for a world without atomic bombs. (Again, the Iran non sequitur is powerful.)
As much as he tries better than many to nod to America’s imperfections, and even its bad foreign policy choices (whatever they were, he doesn’t say, those darn later wars), Harsanyi is still enchanted with the foreign policy magic that says, if the US does it, it doesn’t count. Motives, enlightenment values, and treating your people more nicely at home should be enough to make them all forgive us for killing their families, and razing their cities. And most of all, if another country started it, the most savage means can be used to finish it without regret, or even a hint of moral quandary.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.