The White House recently announced that President Obama will visit Hiroshima in the upcoming months making him the first sitting American president to do so since the conclusion of World War II. The White House also announced that President Obama would not be apologizing for the U.S. government’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan. I agree with the decision not to apologize, but I think that the rationale for not offering an apology is important. In this post, I argue that there are two insufficient rationales for not apologizing and one sufficient rationale for not apologizing.

The first insufficient rationale is that the United States has nothing to apologize for, because the United States did nothing wrong. As William C. Mattison III observes in Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues, “The standard justification given for the use of the bomb at Hiroshima was that Japan was unwilling to surrender without being defeated militarily, and the only alternative to the use of the bomb was a full scale invasion of Japan” (164). Thus, though dropping the bomb was devastating, it saved more lives in the long run. However, Mattison challenges the assumption that dropping the bomb and full scale invasion were the only options on the table. For example, Japan could have been “blockaded rather than invaded” (165). Additionally, it is unchallenged that peace negotiations between the two countries were going on throughout 1945. The chief obstacle in the peace talks had to do with Japan demanding immunity for the emperor, while the U.S. wanted to secure an unconditional surrender. It is perplexing, then, that after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki the U.S. was willing to ratify a peace agreement with Japan that permitted immunity to the emperor granting the Japanese that which they had originally requested. As Mattison points out, “some wonder why this term was acceptable after the bomb if it was unacceptable before the bomb” (165).

Despite the just mentioned realities, Mattison acknowledges that in war one has to make judgments on the basis of the most “accurate assessment of the situation possible” (166). On this basis, Mattison concludes that dropping the bomb was morally justifiable from a “just-war proportionality alone” mentality. However, Mattison continues his analysis with a consideration of non-combatant immunity. In order for an act of war to be just it must meet three criteria: proportionality, as just discussed, non-combatant immunity, as well as right intention. Here Mattison argues very strongly against the “militarized culture” justification for dropping the bomb:

Efforts to redefine all a nations inhabitants as combatants should be seen for what they are: a self-protective and deluded way to justify the desire to kill the innocent among the enemy, despite an unstated recognition that the innocent should not be intentionally killed. Americans do well to remember our justified outrage when our enemies make just such self-deluding claims. (170)

Regarding “right intention,” Mattison argues that clearly the “immediate intention of dropping the atomic bomb was to destroy the city and all its inhabitants, including noncombatants, to secure a further goal of ending the war more quickly and saving lives” (175). While I agree with everything Mattison has argued up to this point, I would argue that an additional further goal was to project American power to the rest of the world for the sake of geopolitical gain. Such a goal does not align with the objective of restoring justice, and is therefore not in accord with the principles of the just war tradition.

The second insufficient rationale for President Obama not apologizing during his visit to Hiroshima is better than the first but still inadequate. According to this rationale, we must remember that the Japanese were hardly innocent victims in the context of World War II and the years leading up to it. The Japanese committed uncountable horrendous atrocities against Koreans, Chinese, Americans and several others. Indeed, the Japanese government has already apologized for these atrocities several times, but the apologies have largely been rebuffed. I don’t have space to enumerate all of the atrocities here, but if you want a representative sample just google “comfort women.” Now, while I find this second rationale more compelling than the first, I still think it does not work. One cannot absolve the act of dropping the bomb on innocent civilians living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki based on the conduct of the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories during World War II or in the years leading up to it.

What, then, is a sufficient rationale for President Obama not apologizing during his trip to Hiroshima? I argue that it is prudent for the president not to offer an apology for two reasons. First, it almost seems insulting. It is too little too late to merely apologize for the unjustified killing of somewhere between 70,000 and 146,000 innocent civilians. Second, and more importantly, I don’t think that an apology is as important as memory. As referenced earlier with respect to the militarized culture argument, Mattison states that “Americans do well to remember our justified outrage when our enemies make just such self-deluding claims.” Yes, but I think we also need to remember the mistakes that we have made during war time in order that we don’t repeat those mistakes in the future. This is one area where Japan has received a great deal of criticism in comparison with Germany. Despite their numerous apologies, the Japanese have not done a very good job of keeping alive the memory of the horrendous atrocities they committed during the war and in the years preceding it. They seem to want to leave it buried in the past. On the other hand, one can’t walk around Berlin without constantly seeing a commemoration or monument meant to remind the citizenry of the brutality of war and the reality of what the Germans did and what took place. The purpose here is not to prompt shame. It is rather like a signpost, a warning. This did happen. This must never happen again. We can apologize if we wish, but it is more important that we remember. With regard to the dropping of the atomic bombs, then, the first thing that will need to happen, which may indeed never happen, is that Americans will have to admit that it was wrong. While we are eager to admit that nuclear weapons must never be used again, we seem curiously unable to acknowledge the historical event that most adamantly reinforces this fact.