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Unspeakable acts

May 17, 2016

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: You can't apologize for some things




-Remember who you're talking to. Master of the S.S. Samaritan... whose hands—these very hands—flung seven German officers into her fiery furnace.
-You did not.
-One after the other, kicking and squealing.
-The tale gets taller each time he tells it. Geoffrey, you know very well you didn't. The British Navy doesn't give medals to murderers.
-Well, I might have done it. I was the commanding officer responsible. You can't apologize for some things. The past fills up quicker than we know. 

Under the Volcano (film dialog)
by Malcolm Lowry


The news has just come over that for the first time a sitting president of the United States will visit Hiroshima. This has provoked the question (and the fear of many Americans) of whether Barack Obama will apologize for the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

      A poll showed that the majority of Americans see no need for Obama to apologize, but it is impossible to know what this means. Many of the people who feel this way obviously hold onto the belief that the bombs shortened the war or saved lives, or other such myths, while others might also believe that the attacks were a crime against humanity, but they just don’t see how an apology would serve any useful purpose.

In Malcom Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, the protagonist Geoffrey Firmin declares emphatically, “You can't apologize for some things. The past fills up quicker than we know.” This is what he says about his guilt for having been commanding officer of a British ship on which seven German prisoners were flung into the ship’s furnace. Although his conscience was haunted and it fueled his fatal alcoholism, he could find no way to apologize. Any apology would sound hollow or incomplete, and its sincerity would always be suspect. Perhaps this is why some Americans feel no apology should be made. You can apologize when you bump into a stranger, but for Hiroshima? Where would one begin, and when would one finish?

The best we can hope for at this stage is that we finally learn how to have an honest conversation about what the historical record has made clear. The need for post-hoc rationalizations will hopefully recede into the past. Below is a list of some of points that President Obama could acknowledge in Hiroshima, if he wants to make progress in his quest for a world free of nuclear weapons.


1.        The project to build the bombs was itself a recklessness endangerment of the people who made the bomb, as well as the land, flora, and fauna of America, and later the world.

2.        The bomb was recklessly developed before anyone fully understood DNA and the biological mechanisms that are harmed by radiation, before anyone understood how the nuclear age would impact all life henceforth.

3.        One of the purposes in dropping the bombs was to achieve a dominant position in the world order that would come after WWII.

4.        Peaceful alternatives were not pursued. A negotiated surrender was possible. President Truman used the bomb too hastily after it had been tested.

5.        The entry of the Soviet Union into the war was a major consideration leading to Japan’s decision to surrender.

6.        President Truman and his advisors did not listen to scientists and high ranking military commanders who advised against using the bomb on both moral and practical grounds.

7.        The atomic bombings were clearly war crimes under the laws of the day.

8.        The bombs were used partly because the Manhattan Project had too much bureaucratic inertia. No one had a plan for how atom bombs should or should not be used. Leslie Groves, the military leader in charge of the Manhattan Project pressured his scientists to finish the bomb out of a fear that the war would end before it was ready or the Soviets would "get in on the kill." He and others in the government feared the political fallout of not using the products of such a costly military program.

9.        The American public and intellectual class went to great lengths to lie about and rationalize the decision to use the atomic bombs.

10.     After the bombs were created, insufficient effort was made to avoid an arms race before it escalated out of control.


Admitting all of this would be better than any official apology that would only invite a counter-productive, heated reaction from American nationalists. But the main reason is you just can't apologize for some things, and this doesn’t mean the perpetrator is unaware of or unburdened by what he has done. It’s a mistake to expect an apology for such a colossal act of murder. There is a reason such things are called unspeakable acts, and I suspect the Japanese know this. They have decided that there is a distant goal more worthy than the selfish satisfaction of hearing an apology. If president Obama prefers, he could refer to the historical record as “mistakes” or “tragic alternatives not taken,” or whatever he wants to call them. He could even use that word that Japanese officials love to use whenever sorry seems to be the hardest word in a conversation about the Japanese Empire. It’s all just so damn regrettable (ikan'na遺憾な), isn’t it? Let’s just leave it at that. President Obama would do the world a service if he would just set the record straight once and for all, and maybe show some appreciation for the historians who have stood up to the fake controversy and rationalizations for the last seventy years. 


Other views:


Gar Alperovitz, “We didn’t need to drop the bomb — and even our WW II military icons knew it,” Salon, May 12, 2016.

President Obama will finally visit Hiroshima. Moral leadership suggests both sides apologize for unspeakable acts.


Jack Mirkinson, “America’s enduring Hiroshima shame: Why Barack Obama should apologize for the atomic bomb — but won’t,” Salon, May 12, 2016.

Obama will become the first sitting president to ever visit the site of one of America's greatest crimes.

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