CLASH OF COMMENTS: Should Obama have apologised for the atomic bomb while visiting Hiroshima?

Elliot Banks and Dom Smithies discuss whether President Obama made the right move in apologising for the Hiroshima nuclear bombing, an attack that was launched before he was even born

Image: Wikimedia

YES – Dom Smithies

Is it too late to say sorry? No Bieber, it isn’t. Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was certainly a step in the right direction, but his lack of apology has been criticised and I’m leaning towards the critics.

He’s the first US president to visit Hiroshima, where an atomic bomb, deployed by the US, ended the Second World War – a rhetoric which arguably justifies its use. It was done in response to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, where 2,335 neutral military personnel and 68 civilians were killed.

The atomic bomb, however, destroyed an entire city; it killed over 100,000 people in Hiroshima, with roughly half of those deaths occurring in the first day and the other half by  prolonged suffering. Three days later, before the Japanese could fully comprehend the damage and destruction, Nagasaki was also bombed and a further 50,000+ died. The war ended soon after.

Now I want to quickly clarify that I am ready to condemn Pearl Harbour and think it deserves an apology, particularly as a pacifist. But regardless of my anti-war attitude – which I’m not going to consider here – there is decorum, ethical war theory, in declaring war and in how you act when at war.

Jus in bello – how you should act when at war – considers factors such as ‘distinction’, ‘proportionality’, ‘military necessity’, ‘fair treatment of prisoners of war’ and ‘no means malum in se’. Acts of war are unethical and condemnable, and so should be apologised for when they breach this. Attacking non-military objectives (Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example), harming those who are no longer a threat while at war (Nagasaki, arguably), use of indiscriminte weapons (like atomic bombs), or attacking neutral targets (like Pearl Harbour).

Two wrongs do not make a right. I don’t like war. Unethical war practices even more so. If you’re going to do something which results in innocent people suffering, you have to be doing it for the right reasons and in the right way. The use of an atomic bomb is not the right way. Nuclear bombs are used now as a deterrent, as an ‘if you do something wrong, so will I and you will suffer immeasurably’.

At every juncture of war, innocents suffer. Such suffering is a by-product of a brutal and embarrassing part of human history – but, granted, it is often defensible.

Whether you prescribe to ethical war theory, or question whether wars are ethical at all (like myself) in this context the point I would like to emphasise is this: The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lead to untold suffering, but ended the war. So is it defensible?
But the effects and impact of an atomic bomb are unfathomable. The war is over, however there is still suffering and pain because of the devastation that only an atomic bomb could cause. An apology would have shown commendable tact and admittedly the visit was a step in the right direction, but we should always consider the ethics of warfare so long as we have atomic bombs.

NO – Elliot Banks

Obama’s visit to Hiroshima is the first by a sitting US president since the B52 flying fortress called the Enola Gay dropped its cargo – the world’s first atomic bomb.
The visit, as with all diplomatic affairs, was full of pomp and circumstance, but one image stood out in my mind – Obama and Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, walking through the Peace Garden in Hiroshima.

Obama laid a wreath for the dead of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ceremony was profound and respectful. However, all attention of what Obama actually did in Hiroshima has dissipated as the world’s media and Twitter became fixated on one word – sorry.
The dropping of the atomic bomb was an act that truly changed the world. Doctor Oppenheimer’s remark after the first test stated “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” which shows that everyone knew that this would change the world. The accepted narrative in the US is that they shortened the war and forced Japan to surrender, because the fear of the atomic bomb was almost as strong as the bomb itself.

Indeed, before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US tactics up until then had been the mass firebombing of Japanese cities. Hundreds of thousands of people died, mostly civilians as the US Airforce carpet-bombed Tokyo and others indiscriminately. In two nights of firebombing in Tokyo, close to 150,000 people died as the wooden homes were engulfed.

The Japanese government did not want to surrender. In fact they rejected it.
Now I am not ignoring the magnitude of what the atomic bomb meant or trying to say ‘why apologise for just the atomic bomb?’ like some tragedy hipster.

At least 140,000 died in Hiroshima and a further 70,000 in Nagasaki, each death a tragedy. The destruction was absolute and the death toll hard to imagine.

However, as uncomfortable that this may seem, the dropping of the atomic bomb forced Japan to surrender. Hundreds of thousands of lives were saved by President Truman’s act. Does this lessen the horror? No it does not, but certainly in American eyes it makes them feel a comfortable unease.

But what of Obama and indeed the Japanese?

Well the BBC reported recently that in Japan, most people want the suffering acknowledged but sorry wasn’t needed. In fact a poll in Hiroshima found that 86 per cent of the population did not feel that they needed an apology.

Indeed, the US gave Japan millions to rebuild itself after the War and the two nations are now firm and long-standing allies. By visiting Hiroshima Obama acknowledged the suffering, he hugged a survivor and honoured the Japanese dead. A sorry would seem hollow in such a poignant act; by experiencing and talking about it, Japan, America and the world can come to terms with what happened in August 1945.

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