President Obama is planning to visit Hiroshima on his forthcoming trip to Japan next week to attend the Group of Seven meeting at Ise-Shima, and thus to become the first sitting American president to pay a visit to one of the only two cities in the world ever totally to be devastated by a nuclear bomb. (Nagasaki, of course, was the other city. The other presidents to visit Hiroshima were Richard Nixon in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1984, the former before he became President in 1968 and the latter after he left office.) The G-7 has its own agenda, obviously. But the decision to visit Hiroshima calls for consideration in its own right.
Presumably to head off criticism in advance, the White House has announced in no uncertain terms that the President will not apologize for the American decision to use atomic weaponry to end the Second World War when he visits Hiroshima. Nor, indeed, has any other of our other post-war presidents done so, although President Eisenhower’s publicly-expressed regret for our nation’s use of “that awful thing” to bring the war to a close probably came the closest. But his off-hand expression of regret was hardly an apology, nor did anyone (including most definitely the Japanese) take it that way.
My own feelings about Hiroshima are complicated. On the one hand, the loss of civilian life was truly horrific. About 140,000 civilians are thought to have died as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, about half of whom died on the day of the attack itself. (In addition, about 20,000 Japanese soldiers also died on that day in that place.) An additional 80,000 died as a result of the bombing of Nagasaki two days later, also half of whom died instantly. Whether or not the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan was justified depends on the vantage point of the person asking the question, but no one can dispute the fact that the attacks were fully successful: Japan surrendered unconditionally not even a full week after Nagasaki and with that ended a war that took the lives of somewhere between seventy and eighty-five million people, constituting more than three percent of the entire population of the planet.
Comparing the number of dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the number of dead at Pearl Harbor—by comparison a mere 2,471—is, to say the very least, ridiculous: the men and women who died at Pearl Harbor were murdered—executed in cold blood by a nation that was specifically not at war with the United States—whereas the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were citizens of a country that not only was at war with the nation that attacked them, but which had itself initiated the war with its horrific surprise attack on our naval forces in Hawaii in the first place. The number of people murdered by the Japanese regime between the invasion of China in 1937 and the end of the war—5,400,000 by most estimates, to which must be added the more than half a million POWs who died in Japanese custody and the tens of millions who died in China, the Philippines, and other countries occupied by the Japanese of various combinations of disease, deprivation, and occupation-induced misery during the war years—seems a more reasonable figure to discuss in this context, but even that gargantuan figure doesn’t really work: the more than 300,000 civilians that the Japanese executed at Nanking alone during the winter of 1937-1938, for example, were killed for no military reason at all, whereas the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can reasonably be said to have saved all those civilians and soldiers, including most definitely American and other allied soldiers, whose lives would have been forfeit in the land invasion of Japan that would surely have ensued had the war not ended when it did. Whether more or fewer Japanese civilians would have died in the course of a massive land invasion than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is, of course, unknowable. What is certain, on the other hand, is that they would surely not have been the same people who died on those days in August 1945…which means that uncountable numbers of Japanese civilians who survived the war also owe their lives to the American decision to do whatever it was going to take to bring the war to an end.
What I keep reading, including in comments by Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security advisor, is that the President’s decision to visit Hiroshima is related more to his vision for a nuclear-free future than to his feelings one way or the other about the ultimate rightness or wrongness about President Truman’s decision to authorize the attacks of August, 1945. I suppose that make sense—nuclear weapons have only been deployed twice in the history of our planet, and so the most dramatic place for the President to make what will probably be his last major appeal for nuclear disarmament would have to be one of the sole sites, other than test sites, ever to experience the actual force of a nuclear explosion. And yet, even though that thought has a certain cogency to it, any number of factors—including not least of all our current relationship with Japan—will prevent the President from speaking openly and fully honestly about the events of August 1945 and require that he focus himself instead on the horrors of war generally without indicting—and certainly not forcefully—the Japanese as the authors of their own debacle. Nor will he feel free to opine, even obliquely, that the barbarism that characterized the behavior of Japanese forces in the lands they occupied during the war—and the millions of dead in those countries, and particularly China, at their hands—simply required that the war be ended by whatever means were available to whomever could deploy them and that, in the end, nothing else mattered more. Even less likely is the possibility that he will choose to quote President Eisenhower’s famous remark that the sole immoral act possible when fighting against demonic enemies like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan would have been to lose the war.
But even if the President could speak totally openly, does it really behoove us to enter into the kind of ghoulish calculus that would likely follow his assertion, unproven and unprovable, that more lives were saved than lost by President Truman’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons against Japan. My guess is that it probably is true, but do we really want to go there? The civilians who died at Hiroshima were not personally responsible for Pearl Harbor or the rape of Nanking. They were, as is inevitably the case for so many in wartime, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—innocents, including babies and young children, who were incinerated to end a war they personally didn’t start and in which they, speaking specifically of the children, didn’t play any role at all.
Not to regret their deaths, let alone actually to blame the dead for their own fiery demise, would be an example of moral depravity. And I say that as someone who thinks President Truman did make the right decision to bring to the war to an end with the means he had available to him and who considers himself a moral, decent person who would never step over dead babies on the way to perform even the most moral or praiseworthy act. The moral conundrum is acute, then: to approve of the bombing means to look past the victims and in essence to blame their fates on their own nation’s leadership, but to wave away their deaths as mere collateral damage in an otherwise fully justified military action requires that the waver-away be made of sterner stuff than I personally am. In my own opinion, since the President will be constrained both by the strictures of good taste and the realpolitik of the day from speaking totally openly at Hiroshima—and since the moral puzzle is insoluble, yet to speak on the subject at all is by definition to present at least obliquely one side of the argument as one’s own—it would probably have been a better idea not to go at all.
When I was a senior in high school, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Originally a full-issue-length essay that appeared in The New Yorker in 1946 but subsequently published and republished many times as a stand-alone book, Hiroshima focuses solely on the individual fates of a handful of people present in Hiroshima when the bomb exploded and makes it more or less impossible to think of the people incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a faceless mass of indistinguishable dead people. Being a child of my time, I read Hersey’s book in the light of our nation’s ongoing experience in Vietnam. But being as well the teenaged version of my future self, I also read it in light of Auschwitz and resolved never again to speak of “the dead” without recalling that the gas chambers were not filled with “people” or with “victims,” but with an endless number of individuals, each an entire universe, each a world of passion and culture, of intelligence and potential. Nor was it again possible for me to think of the dead at Hiroshima as a faceless mass of unfortunates.
As I contemplate President Obama’s coming visit to Hiroshima, I find my mind turning—slightly unexpected and probably not entirely fairly—to the events of December 7, 1970, when Willy Brandt spontaneously fell to his knees before the monument marking the spot that was once the entrance to the Warsaw Ghetto as an act of personal remorse and national contrition. “Under the weight of recent history,” he later explained, “I did what people do when words fail them. In this way, I commemorated millions of murdered people.”
In a sense, Chancellor Brandt had it easy. He represented the nation that perpetrated evil in the world on a previously unimaginable level and brought unprecedented levels of human suffering to countless innocents. It must have been wrenching for him to go to that place and do that thing…but he did it and his reputation as a man of honor was established permanently, at least in my mind, on that day and at that specific hour. But President Obama is facing an altogether more vexing challenge. Like Willy Brandt, he represents a nation that brought about the deaths of countless innocents. But he does not represent a nation that acted indecently or immorally at all, but, just to the contrary, he represents the nation that defeated the forces of demonic evil and helped establish democratic governments not only in the countries occupied by the fiends and their allies, but in the perpetrator nations as well. He has, therefore, nothing to apologize for…and yet to use that truth as an excuse for looking away from the horrific loss of life our best efforts to win the war brought to people who were neither the leaders of their nation nor the perpetrators of their horrific policies in the countries they occupied—that would not behoove the leader of the Free World even slightly.
And it is that precise conundrum I wish the President had chosen simply to avoid by flying directly home after the G-7. To walk the tightrope before him and to speak honestly and candidly about the legitimacy of America’s efforts to win the war at all costs, and at the same time neither to demean the civilians who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki nor to blame them for their own deaths—that is a challenge that I’m not sure can be successfully met at all. Willy Brandt was correct that there are some things that really cannot be said in words. But the gesture he chose to give voice to thoughts that could only be expressed outside of language is certainly not one available to the President, and neither does he have the option of appearing in that place but saying nothing at all. The world will be listening next week to what he does choose to say…and so will the ghosts.