U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was in Hiroshima, Japan, recently, where he and foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations visited the memorial to victims of the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing of that city.
Kerry’s visit was an important moment in our evolving relationship with Japan. Seventy years after World War II, the United States and Japan are allies, yet Kerry is the first sitting U.S. secretary of state to visit Hiroshima. No U.S. president has done so while in office.
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“It is a stunning display,” Kerry said of the peace memorial and museum. “It is a gut-wrenching display. It tugs at all of your sensibilities as a human being. It reminds everybody of the extraordinary complexity of choices in war and of what war does to people, to communities, to countries, to the world.”
While that is true, Kerry’s remarks sounded one false note.
“Going through this museum was a reminder of the depth of obligation that every single one of us in public life carries – in fact, every person in position of responsibility carries – to work for peace,” Kerry said, “to continue the efforts that President Obama and other leaders came together to talk about in Washington a few days [ago] at the Nuclear Security Summit, to create and pursue a world free from nuclear weapons.”
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Given our knowledge of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and remembering that the destructive potential of nuclear weapons today is many times what it was in 1945 – no rational person or nation would wish to use them.
But that doesn’t mean that the world would be safer if all nations disposed of all nuclear weapons.
Some people and some regimes are not rational. If we cannot permanently and securely bar such people and regimes from developing them, security demands we retain nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the long, tense years of the Cold War were far from the finest chapters in history, but the alternatives may have been worse. Historians estimate that an invasion of Japan would have cost at least 1 million lives.
And for all the warfare and bloodshed since 1945, there is a strong case that the nuclear balance among major powers has prevented far worse – namely, a third world war.
That doesn’t mean we should permit more nations to develop nuclear weapons. Terrorism is a daily reality and even now there are states committed, at least rhetorically, to annihilating their enemies. Proliferation increases those risks.
But nuclear weapons per se are not the problem. Nor is warfare itself the problem. The problem is the human habit of creating systems of thought and governance that give rise to virulent nationalism, ethnic hatred, and militarism.
It is fine for Kerry to assert the “indisputable truth that war must never be the first resort,” but his remarks – and his answers to journalists’ questions – did not allude to the underlying reality that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the closing chapters in a drama that began with Japanese aggression throughout the Far East, including atrocities committed against Chinese, Koreans, and others including U.S. prisoners of war.
Such a reference would have been undiplomatic, but it is that reality that should forever prevent the United States from apologizing for the atomic bombings. Those who favor such an apology manage to draw a moral equivalence between nations in war, failing or refusing to see the real differences that exist.
No one doubts the horrors of August 1945. But apologizing for them would be like Americans today apologizing to descendants of slain British soldiers because minutemen fired from behind stone walls along the roads of Lexington and Concord.
Or like residents of Central Massachusetts removing memorials to General Henry Knox, who in the winter of 1775-76 dragged 60 tons of cannons from upstate New York to Boston to end the British siege of that city.
We may debate history, but may not change it. We may mourn the dead, but may not apologize. The United States’ cause in World War II was just, and the means to victory justified.
An apology would dishonor those who served. Worse still, it would undermine American identity, character and judgment – the very qualities we need to face the terrible choices the future holds.
We may never reach that perfectly peaceful world John Kerry spoke of in Hiroshima. But if we lose our ability to distinguish between right and wrong, that world will surely remain forever beyond our reach.