Recently, President Obama delivered a speech at Hiroshima regarding the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in 1945. The speech, as expected, turned out to be rather controversial. Some people would have liked to have seen him apologize on behalf of the U.S. government for dropping the bombs. Others are furious due to believing that the speech was too contrite. While Obama hinted that maybe, just maybe, dropping the bombs was wrong, there was clearly nothing in the speech that constituted an apology. To say otherwise is, in my view, to misunderstand the basic thrust of the speech: regret, not apologizing. He never said the words “sorry,” “apologize,” “apology,” or “wrong.” Instead, he expressed regret for the carnage wrought by the bombings and hope for a better future. But should he have apologized? To determine that, we have to look at three distinct questions. The first is whether the bombings were morally justified. The second is whether they were necessary from a pragmatic, military standpoint to end the war. The third is who the apology would be made to if indeed an apology is due.
The concept of “total war,” in which the destruction of civilian lives and property is accepted as par for the course, is one of the many things that most people are more likely to deem necessary for other societies than their own. I suspect that many Southerners who resent the burning of Southern cities like my hometown, Atlanta, would say that the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan was a moral necessity. “It ended the war,” they would say, “prevented Japan from taking over, and saved many lives in the long run.” Of course, burning Southern cities probably ended the Civil War and slavery faster and may have prevented more loss of life overall. Many people also condemn the actions of people like Nat Turner and John Brown, because their attempts at slave rebellions resulted in innocent people dying. What William T. Sherman, who cared little for the troubles of slaves, and abolitionists Turner and Brown have in common is that they waged total war on Americans. I fear that all too many people think that civilians in other countries should be subjected to total war, while Americans should never be. This is actually one of the most compelling arguments against bombing civilian targets. Frederick Douglass once said that, “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” It could also be said that there is not a person beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know that it would be wrong for them to be a civilian casualty. The argument that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would themselves have resisted American soldiers out of loyalty to Hirohito if the U.S. military had invaded fails to hold water. In order for this argument to work, it would be necessary to know that every single Japanese civilian killed or exposed to radiation via the bombings would have resisted American forces. This, of course, is impossible to demonstrate.
The question of whether the bombings were necessary from a pragmatic military standpoint to end the war without large numbers of extra casualties is more difficult to answer. Some scholars have maintained that Japan was determined to fight to the finish despite the defeat of Germany and that hundreds of thousands more American soldiers would have died in an invasion of Japan. While they have not proven this point, they have certainly presented some evidence to back it up, and for the last seventy years or so, it has been impossible to definitively refute or corroborate it. Significant evidence exists to support the alternative view, however. None other than General Dwight Eisenhower declared, “The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Was Eisenhower at all influenced by his political rivalry with Truman to lie about this point after the fact? It is true that in 1948, when the relatively apolitical Eisenhower’s party affiliation was not widely known, some Democrats tried to get him to run against Truman in the Democratic primary. And in 1952, Eisenhower ran against Adlai Stevenson to replace Truman, becoming the first Republican president in twenty years and leaving office far more popular than his predecessor. Thus, it is not inconceivable that Eisenhower would have wanted to make Truman look bad. The same may be said of Douglas MacArthur, who also disliked Truman, was eventually fired by him, and appears to have opposed the bombings. More compelling are statements from Admiral William D. Leahy, who asserted, “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.” One wonders how conservatives would have reacted if Obama had included in his speech another quote from Leahy: “The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.” Finally, it looks quite suspicious that, prior to the bombs being dropped, the United States insisted on unconditional surrender, then allowed Emperor Hirohito to keep his position after Japan surrendered. The decision to allow Hirohito to remain symbolically in power is nearly impossible to justify, given his atrocities, but it also begs a question: if they were going to allow Hirohito to keep his throne, why did the U.S. possibly prolong the war by refusing to offer this concession in negotiations before the bombs were dropped?