Over 60 years have passed since the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing approximately 140,000 and 70,000 people, respectively, by the end of the year. By dropping these bombs, President Truman accomplished his goal: by Aug. 14, Japan was willing to unconditionally surrender, sparing at least tens of thousands of American lives by eliminating the need for an invasion. He was well aware of the devastation he ordered, and the massive cost in terms of civilian life. Today, the dominant thought is that dropping the bombs was the quickest way to end the war and saved our soldiers from a long and costly invasion. Rarely discussed are the immense moral consequences of committing such an inhumane act.
Whenever the topic of the bombs comes up, Americans tend to defend the action by blaming Japan for its aggression and refusal to surrender despite the victories in Europe. No president has ever supported an acknowledgment of guilt, and every administration, even those following the Cold War, has actually increased the amount of U.S. nuclear arms. President Obama, then, finds himself in a very precarious situation.
He was recently invited to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the mayors of those towns, as he is visiting Japan later this month as part of his participation in several Asian summits. While our relationship with Japan has been largely positive since World War II, and we have been a major part of their economic development since then, we have never acknowledged just what we did to the Japanese people.
Setting aside the obvious context of the war and whether or not the bombs were necessary to achieve peace and end the conflict, Obama has no choice – he has to visit these towns and he has to make some sort of gesture. President Obama has made it clear that he supports nuclear non-proliferation. He is the first president to call for the end of nuclear arms and to actually take a strong stand against the continuation of nuclear proliferation. For this reason, (regardless of whether some believe it is too flimsy a reason), Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize. Ignoring an invitation to the only places in the world to suffer the devastation of nuclear war would tarnish this award.
If President Obama is really hoping to lead us to a world without nuclear weapons, he must acknowledge the consequences of using those weapons. To recognize the utter death and destruction, the pain and death from the lingering after effects of the nuclear fallout long after the weapons were launched — to recognize the effects of nuclear war and act as a witness of the guilt that comes with using such a weapon — would be an excellent start to forging this new nuke-free world.
Of course, if Obama visits these towns and apologizes for the atomic bombs, there will be quite the stir and a renewal of the “Obama apology tour” criticism the right wing is so fond of. But he doesn’t have to apologize. Some sort of gesture is not beyond him – he has made many speeches and met with many world leaders in places many in the U.S. consider “enemy territory.” He has suffered quite the firestorm already.
But this is different. This was a war, one with a clear enemy that did harm to us, albeit on a much smaller scale than the bombs in question. For that reason, even Americans that may have supported his speech in the Middle East or his visit to South American dictators, may find themselves incensed if he admits or even implies that America did wrong in 1945.
No other president could do this. No other president has made his intention to reduce nuclear arms as clear as President Obama, and every president before him has maintained that the U.S. was not at fault for the tragedies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is an opportunity Obama must take full advantage of. While the White House has stated that the president is unlikely to accept the invitation, failing to do so only hurts his message and ultimate goal. This is how it has always been done: Japan started the conflict and we were forced to make a tough call to end the war and avoid prolonged conflict. But this is not simply a war issue.
Whether or not dropping the bombs was the best decision tactically is not what the president should address. This is about accepting the moral consequences of such an act. Obama can follow the example of every president before him and continue to shift the blame to Japan, but for the president that ran on bringing change to America and who rejected the politics of the past, this would be a disappointing step in the same old, wrong direction.
Kerry Wakely is a second-year English major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.