Hiroshima, Obama, and Truman
Today’s ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima had something new: the presence of the U.S. ambassador to Japan. Never before had America sent an official participant in the annual memorial to those killed in the world’s first atomic attack. That this should occur during the administration of Barack Obama is no surprise. No previous American president has been at such pains to apologize for what he thinks are America’s sins. So while, thankfully, Ambassador John Roos did not speak at the Hiroshima event, the import of his presence there was undeniable.
In theory, there ought to be nothing wrong with an American representative appearing in Hiroshima. Mourning the loss of so many lives in the bombing is both understandable and appropriate. But the problem lies in the way Japan remembers World War II. One of the reasons why it would have been appropriate for the United States to avoid its official presence at this ceremony is that the Japanese have never taken full responsibility for their own conduct during the war that the Hiroshima bombing helped end. Indeed, to listen to the Japanese, their involvement in the war sounds limited to the incineration of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the fire bombings of many other urban centers in the country, followed by a humiliating American occupation. The horror of the two nuclear bombs didn’t just wipe out two cities and force Japan’s government to finally bow to the inevitable and surrender. For 65 years it has served as a magic event that has erased from the collective memory of the Japanese people the vicious aggression and countless war crimes committed against not only the Allied powers but also the peoples of Asia who fell under their cruel rule in the 1930s and 1940s. The bombing of Hiroshima was horrible, but it ought not, as it has for all these years, to serve as an excuse for the Japanese people to forget the crimes their government and armed forces committed throughout their empire during the years that preceded the dropping of the first nuclear bomb.
While the tone of the Hiroshima ceremony has always been one that stressed the need to end all wars and to ensure that no more nuclear bombs should fall, it has always lacked any context for the events of August 6, 1945. The responsibility for the suffering of the Japanese people in 1945 (after spending more than a decade inflicting suffering on others with impunity and without a drop of remorse) is not an American legacy but a Japanese one. The Japanese may have suffered as their empire collapsed in defeat in 1945, but, like their Nazi allies, they have no right to collectively think of themselves as victims of that war.
The other troubling context to this event is the emphasis on banning nuclear weapons as the end all of contemporary foreign policy — a message reinforced by United Nations General-Secretary Ban Ki Moon, who cited President Obama’s support for this cause in his remarks at Hiroshima. The notion that nuclear weapons themselves are a threat to the world and must be banned is the sort of piety we expect to be mouthed at Hiroshima, but it betrays a lack of both historical and contemporary understanding of strategic realities. These weapons may be terrible, but the plain truth is that their existence kept the peace between the rival superpowers during the Cold War. America’s nuclear arsenal ensured the freedom of Western Europe as well as that of Japan after World War II.
Even more to the point, the danger today stems not from the continued existence of an American nuclear deterrent but from the ability of rogue regimes, such as those of North Korea and Iran, to construct nuclear weapons. North Korea has already passed the nuclear threshold, posing a grave danger to South Korea, Japan, and the rest of Asia. This was the result of a Western reluctance to get tough with the maniacal government of that tortured country before it was too late. Should Iran also cross from being a potential nuclear threat to an actual one, the peril to the world will be even greater, due to the size and strategic importance of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The greatest foreign-policy challenge facing Barack Obama is not how to dismantle America’s nuclear deterrent but rather how to forestall the possibility of the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime’s acquiring a nuclear device, which will allow them either to pursue their own genocidal agenda or to serve as an umbrella for their Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist allies.
That goal will not be achieved by engagement with the tyrants of Tehran or by paying lip service to the annual ban-the-bomb dirge in Hiroshima. Even Obama himself has acknowledged that diplomacy has failed on Iran, and few serious persons believe that the limited sanctions that have been placed upon the Islamist regime will change its behavior. Thus, what may well be required is the sort of decisive leadership shown by President Harry Truman 65 years ago when he saved countless lives by dropping the bomb. One must always hope that Iran can be restrained by measures short of war and that Obama could rely on conventional forces if push comes to shove in this crisis. But what the world needs most today is not more American apologies but rather a president who has the courage to emulate Truman’s example of decisive leadership.