Since before he entered the White House, Barack Obama has proposed handling past crimes by powerful people and entities through a policy called "looking forward" - in other words, by ignoring them. While President Obama has targeted whistleblowers with retribution and more prosecutions than his predecessors, deported more immigrants, and kept the lights on in Guantanamo, anyone responsible for war or assassination or torture or lawless imprisonment or most major Wall Street scams (or sharing military secrets with one's mistress) has been given a total pass. Why shouldn't Harry Truman receive the same privilege?
This policy, now being brought to Hiroshima, has been a miserable failure. Wars based on lies to Congress have been displaced by wars without Congress at all. Assassinations and support for coups are open public policy, with Tuesday kill list selections and State Department support for regimes in Honduras, Ukraine, and Brazil. Torture, in the new Washington consensus, is a policy choice with at least one presidential candidate campaigning on making greater use of it. Lawless imprisonment is likewise respectable in the hoped-and-changed world, and Wall Street is doing what it did before.
Obama has carried this policy of "looking forward" backward into the past, prior to his upcoming visit to Hiroshima. "Looking forward" requires only ignoring criminality and responsibility; it permits acknowledging occurrences in the past if one does so with a face that appears regretful and eager to move on. While Obama disagreed with President George W. Bush on Iraq, Bush meant well, or so Obama now says. As did U.S. forces in Vietnam, Obama says. The Korean War was actually a victory, Obama has rather surprisingly announced. "The risk-takers, the doers . . . [who] settled the West" prove "the greatness of our nation." That was how Obama euphemized the North American genocide in his first inaugural address. What might one expect him to say of the romanticized acts of mass-murder in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the Truman regime squeezed in before World War II could end?
Many peace activists whom I greatly respect have been, along with survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (called Hibakusha), urging Obama to apologize for the nuclear bombings and/or to meet briefly with survivors. I am not opposed to such steps, but rhetoric and photo ops are not what's really needed and can often work against what's really needed. By virtue of his rhetoric and party membership, Obama has been given a pass on his warmaking for over seven years. I'd have preferred he said nothing, made no speeches at all. By virtue of a speech in Prague in which Obama persuaded people that eliminating nukes must take decades, he has been given a pass on massive investment in new nukes, continued first-strike policy, more nukes in Europe, escalated hostility toward Russia, continued noncompliance with the nonproliferation treaty, and dangerous fear mongering around Iran's scary (though nonexistent) nuclear weapons program.
What's needed is not an apology so much as an admission of the facts. When people learn the facts around claims of mountaintop rescues in Iraq, or where ISIS came from, whether Gadaffi was really threatening to massacre and handing out Viagra for rape, whether Iraq really had WMDs or took babies out of incubators, what actually happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, why the USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor, and so forth, then people turn against war. Then they all come to believe that an apology is needed. And they offer apologies on behalf of their government. And they demand a formal apology. This is what should happen for Hiroshima.
I've joined over 50 U.S. signers on a letter drafted by historian Peter Kuznick to be published on May 23rd that asks President Obama to make good use of his visit to Hiroshima by:
· "Meeting with all Hibakusha who are able to attend
· Announcing the end of U.S. plans to spend US$1 trillion for the new generation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems
· Reinvigorating nuclear disarmament negotiations to go beyond New START by announcing the unilateral reduction of the deployed U.S. arsenal to 1,000 nuclear weapons or fewer
· Calling on Russia to join with the United States in convening the 'good faith negotiations' required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for the complete elimination of the world's nuclear arsenals.
· Reconsidering your refusal to apologize or discuss the history surrounding the A-bombings, which even President Eisenhower, Generals MacArthur, King, Arnold, and LeMay and Admirals Leahy and Nimitz stated were not necessary to end the war."
If President Obama just apologizes, without explaining the facts of the matter, then he'll simply get himself denounced as a traitor without making the U.S. public any less likely to back wars. The need to "discuss the history" is therefore critical.
When asked if Obama would himself have done what Truman did, Obama's spokesman Josh Earnest said: "I think what the president would say is that it's hard to put yourself in that position from the outside. I think what the president does appreciate is that president Truman made this decision for the right reasons. President Truman was focused on the national security interests of the United States, ... on bringing an end to a terrible war. And president Truman made this decision fully mindful of the likely human toll. I think it's hard to look back and second-guess it too much."
This is quintessential "looking forward." One must not look back and second-guess that someone powerful did something wrong. One should look back and conclude that he had good intentions, thus rendering whatever damage he caused "collateral damage" of those all-absolving good intentions.
This wouldn't matter so much if people in the United States knew the actual history of what happened to Hiroshima. Here's a recent Reuters article tactfully distinguishing between what people in the United States imagine and what historians understand:
"A majority of Americans see the bombings as having been necessary to end the war and save U.S. and Japanese lives, although many historians question that view. Most Japanese believe they were unjustified."
Reuters goes on to advocate for looking forward:
"Officials in both countries have made clear they want to stress the present and future, not dig into the past, even as the two leaders honor all victims of the war."
Honoring victims by avoiding looking at what happened to them? Almost humorously, Reuters turns immediately to asking the Japanese government to look backward:
"Even without an apology, some hope that Obama's visit will highlight the huge human cost of the bombings and pressure Japan to own up more forthrightly to its responsibilities and atrocities."
As it should. But how will Obama visiting the site of a massive and unprecedented crime, and blatantly failing to acknowledge the criminality and responsibility encourage Japan to take the opposite approach?
I have previously drafted what I'd like to hear Obama say in Hiroshima. Here's an excerpt:
"There has for many years no longer been any serious dispute. Weeks before the first bomb was dropped, on July 13, 1945, Japan sent a telegram to the Soviet Union expressing its desire to surrender and end the war. The United States had broken Japan's codes and read the telegram. Truman referred in his diary to 'the telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.' President Truman had been informed through Swiss and Portuguese channels of Japanese peace overtures as early as three months before Hiroshima. Japan objected only to surrendering unconditionally and giving up its emperor, but the United States insisted on those terms until after the bombs fell, at which point it allowed Japan to keep its emperor.
"Presidential advisor James Byrnes had told Truman that dropping the bombs would allow the United States to 'dictate the terms of ending the war.' Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wrote in his diary that Byrnes was 'most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in.' Truman wrote in his diary that the Soviets were preparing to march against Japan and 'Fini Japs when that comes about.' Truman ordered the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th and another type of bomb, a plutonium bomb, which the military also wanted to test and demonstrate, on Nagasaki on August 9th. Also on August 9th, the Soviets attacked the Japanese. During the next two weeks, the Soviets killed 84,000 Japanese while losing 12,000 of their own soldiers, and the United States continued bombing Japan with non-nuclear weapons. Then the Japanese surrendered.
"The United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that, '… certainly prior to 31 December, 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November, 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.' One dissenter who had expressed this same view to the Secretary of War prior to the bombings was General Dwight Eisenhower. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy agreed: 'The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender,' he said."
Fortunately for the world, the non-nuclear nations are moving to ban nuclear weapons. Bringing nuclear nations on board and effecting disarmament will require beginning to tell the truth.