Tomorrow, President Obama will be the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, the location of the first atomic bomb used in war. The announcement last week made it clear, however, that he will not be apologizing for the use of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, saying that the visit is more about recognizing the moral implications of their use and taking responsibility for them. This has led to a great deal of debate over whether there should be an apology or not and if the bombs were justified in the first place, which should come as no surprise if you have any familiarity with politics and/or the Internet in general.
Those who believe the US was right to use the bombs point out that the alternative choice of an invasion of Japan, codenamed Operation Downfall, would have been even worse. This would have not only dragged the war out until 1947 (at least according to Allied predictions), but also gotten millions of soldiers and civilians killed, since the Imperial Japanese government expected an invasion and was planning to resist to the bitter end with both regular military forces and civilian conscripts. To the US government, dropping the bombs on Japan as a show of force was a much more appealing option, since only 200,000 or so people were killed instead (though part of this is due to the effects of nuclear fallout being totally unknown at the time).
Others believe that atomic bombs should never have been used for a number of reasons. One of these is that it was militarily unnecessary, arguing that Japan would have soon surrendered anyways in the face of an invasion by Allied and Soviet forces. I tend to doubt this argument due to how it ignores that the government was getting ready to continue fighting instead of surrendering, and it relies on the historian’s fallacy of using knowledge that the actors involved may not have been aware of at the time. A number of people also consider the bombings to be war crimes due to targeting cities with weapons of mass destruction, which is certainly more justifiable, but I doubt a protracted invasion getting millions killed would have been any less of a crime.
My personal opinion is, much as I hate to say it, that the use of the bombs against Japan were ultimately necessary to avoiding more deaths in the war. I’m somewhat reluctant to say this because, regardless of whether or not dropping the bomb was necessary, hundreds of thousands of people were still killed. On the other hand, this may have prevented even more people (including millions of conscripted civilians) from being killed in a lengthy invasion that would have led to an even more difficult reconstruction period for Japan after the war. They also helped demonstrate the danger of nuclear weapons: one thing that keeps coming up when I read about the early years of the nuclear age is that they were not seen as the existential threats we know, but essentially as bigger bombs. The reason this view ended up changing? People saw the effects caused by the actual use of nuclear bombs and realized how dangerous they actually were, in turn leading to them becoming deterrents for further conflict during the Cold War. On the other hand, people then had to deal with the constant fear of nuclear war breaking out, so your mileage may vary here.
So should Obama, or any US president, apologize for the bombs being used? I would argue no, at least not yet. In part, this has more to do with the domestic politics of the matter than whether the bombings were justified or not, since there could be a political backlash. The most that Obama really can do in the face of nobody really agreeing on the issue (and has apparently opted for) is acknowledging that the US has a moral responsibility as the only country to use nuclear weapons during war to prevent their future use. This more or less serves as an implicit apology while also avoiding people complaining about Obama making the US look weak for apologizing for its previous actions (admittedly, Trump and others will inevitably find something to complain about here). At the same time, Japan has taken a similar stance towards many of the actions of the Imperial Japanese government during the war, including actually starting it. Numerous atrocities, such as the use of Chinese civilians and prisoners of war in biological weapon experiments by Unit 731, remain completely ignored as part of the widespread of view in Japan that it was more of a victim of the war than a perpetrator. In some cases, like the conscription of “comfort women” (re: sex slaves) by Imperial Japanese forces, the government has outright attempted to downplay or deny what happened. If Obama or any future US president is going to apologize for dropping nuclear weapons on Japanese cities, Japan likewise needs to come to terms with its own actions in the war, many of which were just as horrific or worse.
Mark Haichin is a PhD student with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.
This article is a cross-post from Mark’s Policy Musings.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia