“I made one great mistake in my life … when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.” — Albert Einstein, on his role in the creation of the atomic bomb, November 1954.
President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday, May 10, that he would become the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima, 71 years after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb. His press secretary did make it clear, however, that Obama’s May 27 visit should not be seen as an apology tour nor will he be making an apology.
“If people do interpret it that way, they’ll be interpreting it wrongly,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “The president intends to visit to send a much more forward-looking signal for his ambition of realizing the goal of a planet without nuclear weapons.”
Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui said that a visit by Obama would carry a lot of weight toward nuclear disarmament, while Sunao Tsuboi, 91, head of the survivors’ group, relayed that they weren’t looking for an apology — that the visit would serve as a step toward abolishing nuclear weapons.
While we understand that the global dialogue needs to be focused on the abolition of nuclear arms, we can’t help but wonder why an apology is out of the question.
The wounds run deep in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Experts estimate that over 200,000 people, mainly civilians, died from the dropping of the atomic bombs, with roughly 140,000 deaths in Hiroshima. While the long-term effects have been harder to calculate, health problems from cancer to birth defects have been connected to the aftermath. No American will ever be able comprehend that sort of human suffering and loss, but can’t we try?
While the U.S. has made significant strides to reduce our nuclear warhead stockpile, from a peak of over 30,000 in the 1960s down to less than 5,000 in 2014, with the biggest drop under President George H.W. Bush of 41 percent, according to a study by the Federation of American Scientists, we seem to have stagnated on these efforts. Obama has reduced it by just 10 percent. Various nations across the world, most notably Russia and North Korea, make us uneasy as they bolster — or say they intend to — their own nuclear warhead stockpiles. While Japan surrendered after we dropped the bombs, continuing on the path of meeting nuclear destruction with more nuclear destruction doesn’t seem to lead to a path of less harm and suffering for anyone.
As Obama readies for Hiroshima, we reflect on what it means to apologize. While some may feel it is a sign of weakness, we feel it is simply a sign of respect and that it would place value on those who suffered and died. If we can’t make a sincere effort to show we have learned from the past, surely we are destined to repeat it. And an apology may possibly be the first real step to show we are ready to make better decisions in the future and that others may follow.