This time last year, on the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the United States finally sent a representative to the annual memorial in the Japanese city. It wasn’t the President. And nobody said sorry. A year further on, it still rankles that an apology has never been offered in the name of humanity.
Many Americans believe the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the deaths of probably more than 200,000 civilians, were justified – two quick, decisive blows bringing to an end the bloodiest conflict in history. The rationale is summed up in the words of Gene Tibbets, whose deceased father, Group Commander Colonel Paul Tibbets, piloted the Enola Gay: “It’s making the Japanese look like they’re the poor people, like they didn’t do anything. They hit Pearl Harbour. They struck us. We didn’t slaughter the Japanese. We stopped the war.”
First of all, does it really matter who started it? If the perpetrators of the Pearl Harbour atrocity had to be punished, vengeance should have been confined to legitimate military targets and should have been more proportionate. Within the first few months of the bombings, well over 100,000 people died in Hiroshima and nearly 80,000 in Nagasaki.
Secondly, it’s debatable if the nukings did actually stop the war. A 1946 U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey determined otherwise. In a 1963 interview with Newsweek, Dwight Eisenhower commented: “The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
These arguments were not exactly compelling to Paul Tibbets. He reached the age of 92 without publicly expressing any guilt or regret for what he had done. At a 1976 Texas air show, he even reenacted his infamous mission, flying a B-29 Superfortress over a mushroom cloud in a stunt that astonished and outraged Japan. He may not have meant this to be offensive, but when the Smithsonian Institution planned a 50th anniversary exhibit in 1995, highlighting the suffering and damage inflicted by the two notorious bombs, Tibbets described it as a “damn big insult”.
Tibbets’ fellow crew members were equally unrepentant. Navigator Captain Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, told reporters last year: “The Japanese you know today are not the Japanese we fought during World War II. We had been in a long war, had been attacked by the Japanese, and the policy of the US government at that time was to subdue the nation of Japan.”
I don’t mean to pick on Tibbets or the other members of the Enola Gay crew. Obviously, they were just willing pawns in a deadly game where the really abominable and momentous decisions were taken by President Harry S. Truman. Perversely, I can’t help thinking the world may have reacted differently if all those Japanese people, instead of being nuked to death, had been corralled into concentration camps and gassed.
It doesn’t matter whether America killed the wrong people for the right reasons or killed the right people for the wrong reasons. The awful consequences of Truman’s decision to drop the bombs far outweigh such considerations. And yet, it’s not enough to show remorse for the consequences alone. America needs to regret its motives too.
Saying sorry won’t change what happened in the past but it can put down a marker for the future.