Wednesday, May 25, 2016, The Globe and Mail
If you have read John Hersey’s classic book Hiroshima, you may recall the sights that will confront President Barack Obama on Friday when he enters the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. There he will see a life-sized display of a wounded family staggering toward the Ota River. Their “skin” hangs in shreds, but their faces are intact, to protect the millions of schoolchildren who visit the museum. No melted eyes stream out of empty sockets.
This will be a difficult encounter for Mr. Obama. On Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, a U.S. B-29 bomber, dropped a 4,400-kilogram atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A fireball roared over ground zero. Radiation spread. Within seconds, half the population was dead.
Although the bombings of Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki, ushered in a nuclear arms race that continues to imperil the world, the U.S. President will offer no apology on behalf of his country. Nor will his host, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, acknowledge the specific crimes committed by his country during that Second World War, such as the massive atrocities carried out by Japanese soldiers in the Chinese city of Nanjing, or the use of living prisoners for medical research by the infamous Unit 731 in Manchuria.
On the contrary, the leaders’ words will be anodyne. Mr. Obama will reflect on “the nature of war” and the suffering of innocent people everywhere. Mr. Abe has already said the Japanese must “squarely face history” (although they have not) and that the generations born after the war need not apologize.
Such weasel words are meant to bypass the historical narratives of both countries. In the United States, the prevailing account is that president Harry Truman had to end the war quickly in order to save countless American lives and that only a nuclear bomb could achieve that goal.
Any suggestion that the conflict was ending because of other factors (the Soviet declaration of war against Japan, for example), or that the nuclear bombings might have been, in part, revenge for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, is vigorously attacked, as the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum discovered in 1995 when it tried to display the fuselage of the Enola Gay in an exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima strike. The curators made the mistake of including such context as civilian casualties. War veterans angrily protested against what they saw as “revisionist history,” reopening an emotional debate over the ethics of the bombings. The Enola Gay did eventually go on display, but devoid of historical content. And the museum’s director was forced to resign.
In Japan, the debate continues. Although the country has dedicated itself to “universal peace” by eschewing armed conflict and promoting nuclear disarmament, the historical narrative is darker with regard to war crimes.
While the United States account excuses the nuclear attacks in the name of a purported greater good, some prominent Japanese conservatives have denied that the well-evidenced crimes committed by their military even happened. Like his predecessors, Mr. Abe (whose party has been in power almost continuously since war’s end) has also visited a controversial Tokyo shrine where the souls of convicted war criminals are said to reside.
There are cultural differences, too. Mr. Obama embodies the American propensity to ignore the past and look to the future, while in Japan the bombings are commonly transformed into abstractions about universal peace with little historic specificity. These tendencies will doubtless facilitate the leaders’ desired focus on current geopolitical issues, such as North Korea, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and nuclear disarmament.
Earlier this month, Mr. Obama delivered the convocation address at Howard University in Washington in which he spoke about the political necessity of compromise. On Friday, he and Mr. Abe will exhibit a compromise with history itself.
Had either country followed the example of postwar Germany, whose leaders fully apologized for the Holocaust, there would be more substance to this historic visit.
Apologies and acknowledgments matter. Truth brings solace. It also reforms national memory, as Canadians discovered with the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Nonetheless, by virtue of making this symbolic trip to Hiroshima more than 70 years after the event, Mr. Obama has begun a long-overdue process of reconciliation. For this, we must be grateful.