Should Obama Apologize in Hiroshima?

The purpose of presidential apologies.

Now that President Barack Obama has announced his intention to visit Hiroshima later this month, many questions have been raised about whether he will proffer regret or apologize for the dropping of two nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in late 1945. Should he apologize? Given his past speeches in Cairo, Obama has been criticized by some conservative media in the United States as America’s “apologist-in-chief,” prompting the White House and Ben Rhodes to declare that the visit is to be “forward-looking,” and that it will “highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Interestingly, the debate on Obama’s intentions raises all sorts of questions about modern understandings of history, and about apology politics in general. To what extent should state leaders apologize for historic crimes committed before their own time? Should the United States apologize for its wrongs? Should it apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki in particular?

Certainly, of the two, Japan has a long history of apologies. Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has grappled with the historical legacy of Japan’s conduct during the Second World War, successfully proffering regret to the United States and Australia, though less successfully to South Korea and China. His speech to the Australian parliament in July 2014 expressed “sincere condolences.” His speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in April 2015 expressed “deep repentance” and “eternal condolences.” In both speeches, Abe seemed to acknowledge Japanese responsibility for instigating the war, though his language was constrained by the domestic political realities of his conservative supporters in Tokyo. Prior to these speeches, his views on the Kono Statement, and affiliation with Japanese historical revisionists like Toshio Tamogami raised the possibility that Abe agreed with such accounts. Chinese observers—for geopolitical rather than academic reasons—attempted to shape an isolating narrative around Japan because of these debates, but were stymied by Abe’s nuanced approach from 2014 onwards.

What of the United States? As the leading hegemon, victor in the Second World War and victor in the Cold War, should it apologize for actions it has carried out in the past? Many would agree with the old idea: “History is written by the victors.” However, this is less and less true in the modern world, as liberal norms affect expectations of state behavior in international politics. One only has to consider the whole range of “critical studies” in Western universities to see that in some states, at least, history has become a deeply contested area, continuously open to debate and self-criticism. Second of all, losers do actually often write their own histories. Turkey after the First World War, vis-à-vis the Armenians; North Korea on who started the Korean War; Russia after the end of the Cold War: these are but a small sample of states that maintain and protect—often using legal means—their own historically regressive narratives.

What is the United States’ relationship with its own past? As has been implied by the above examples, the domestic nature of the regime often determines the state’s attitude to history, though sadly some liberal states have flirted with state control of textbooks. The United States is a liberal democratic power with a strong set of ideals and values, which it subscribes to in its foreign-policy behavior. It does not always live up to its own standards, but very often civil society, American academics and journalists will swiftly point this out in the public arena. Like Japan, the United States has apologized for its past. Few foreigners will know that the United States has apologized to Native Americans and Hawaiians a number of times for historical grievances; while it has not yet atoned for the U.S.-Philippine War, it has attempted to redress the stripping of benefits from Filipino soldiers, who served on the American side in the Second World War. So, clearly, the people who constitute the United States believe that it should apologize for past grievances. What of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Should the United States apologize for those specific acts? Here, the answer—like Abe’s speech to Congress—should be more nuanced.

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