Two paper cranes, representing peace between the US and Japan, are on display in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. President Barack Obama provided them during his 2016 visit to Hiroshima, making history at the time as the first US president to visit the Japanese city. It was a symbolic gesture that went mostly unnoticed in the US but was no less significant. While President Obama did not formally apologize, it was as close as the US had ever gotten to making serious amends for the destruction wrought from the world’s only use of nuclear bombs during a war.
“Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” the names of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively in 1945, delivered a combined death toll of over two hundred thousand souls by the end of that year. Many more men and women developed cancers and other deadly health defects in the decades following. Additionally and somewhat predictably, many Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) have given birth to children with severe congenital disabilities.
Since then, no US president has ever apologized, with many going so far as to argue that dropping the bombs was necessary and justified. Olivia Tasevski, writing for The Diplomat, says, “in 1995, then-President Bill Clinton stated that the United States ‘owes no apology to Japan’ for the atomic bombings and argued that the ‘atomic bomb had ended the war.’…Similarly, in 1992, Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush, asserted that the decision to drop the atomic bombs ‘was right… because it spared millions of American lives.’ Furthermore, in 1985, then-President Ronald Reagan claimed that the atomic bombings ‘saved’ ‘more than one million American lives.’ These attempts to justify the bombings on the grounds of saving Americans lives are not new, rather, they have been mounted by U.S. politicians since the 1940s.”
Evidence suggests that some reasoning for US resistance towards an apology is born out both in polling and a reluctance by the Japanese government. Interestingly in the decades following World War II, while the share of American and Japanese citizens who approve of the US use of atomic weaponry in Japan has shrunk considerably, polling suggests that seventy percent of Americans are not in favor of a formal apology on the part of the US. Surprisingly, a similar sentiment exists in some circles within Japanese society today. The previous Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, referred to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “something that couldn’t be helped.” In the lead up to President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, a Japanese newspaper did an online poll that saw about sixty-two percent of the respondents saying an apology wasn’t necessary. Some in Japan also worry that a US apology would dredge up calls to force Japan to reckon with its horrific actions in China and Korea.
Still, the prospect of an apology, especially of one as high-profile as this, is worth considering. An act like this would only be a symbolic gesture, but one that could have long-lasting effects if done right. So the question becomes, how do you measure the power of a symbol, and what impact would that symbolic gesture have on the public?
The Government Apologizing Is Not A New Thing
It’s not altogether uncommon for the US government to apologize in some form and fashion for acts carried out decades ago. In 1983, the US government formally apologized for shielding a notorious Nazi turned paid informant from retribution for his crimes in the post-war occupation of Germany. Later in 1988, the Reagan administration signed the Civil Liberties Act into law, which effectively offered $20,000 in compensation and a formal apology to Japanese-Americans who were sent to internment camps by the Roosevelt administration in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.
In 1993 Congress issued a joint resolution formally apologizing for the US government role in the coup that ultimately led to Hawaii being annexed and admitted into the Union as a state. In 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized for the grossly unethical experiments carried out on black men who were part of The Tuskegee Experiment. Finally, in 2008 the US House of Representatives passed a resolution that offered a formal apology on behalf of the US government for its role in upholding and propagating the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow.
These five groups mentioned above represent a small sub-section of the people and communities owed an apology by the US government. The line is long, and even within these examples, how well these apologies were received vary. Who the government decides is worthy of even the thinnest of apologies is often more a matter of politics and optics than anything else. Nevertheless, all the same metrics of a meaningful apology apply even to the US government. They have attempted to make amends with various means of success over the past several decades. Perhaps the three most important aspects are how public and specific the entity apologizing is, how receptive the victims of an act are to it, and whether that apology is paired with action.
Apologies Can Only Act As A Starting Point
A sufficient apology is comprised of a public recognition of wrongdoing and a willingness to chart a path forward on firmer ground. It’s a starting point, an often effective means of bringing a wronged party back to the table. It may come as a surprise, but in 2009, the US government officially apologized to Native Americans living in the country. Now, you may not remember it because the apology came tucked away two-thirds of the way through a 67-page Defense Appropriations Act that was passed by Congress back then. The apology read, “The United States, acting through Congress apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.” The apology continues by saying, “Nothing in this section … authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” This is presumably in response to the dozens of lawsuits brought by Native Americans still pending against the US government.
As a starting point, this public admission admitted to very little and offered very little as recompense. While President Obama did momentarily acknowledge these words in 2010, on the whole, this acknowledgment of wrongdoing towards Native Americans received little to no press coverage or public spotlight, not to mention the vagueness of the words itself and the lack of any specified action to go along with it. Predictably, the apology was not received well by Indigenous groups across the country, and rightfully so.
Nowhere to be found was any mention of potential reparations for those harmed, like what was offered to Japanese-Americans or survivors of nuclear testing in the past. There was no commitment to resources to support Indigenous communities or reforms aimed at telling the full story of the historical relationship between US government and Native Americans. There was no admission of Native American rights to land or sovereignty and no indication that the US government felt any urgent need to take further steps on the issue.
All of this is to say that if the goal is to fully close a chapter of history and truly move on from a blotched past, apologies can only ever work as a starting point. Only through sustained and specific action in the aftermath of a public apology can everyone move on together. Some may wave their hands and claim that the US government has more important issues to reckon with, like the economy or foreign policy or climate change, but consider for a moment why the United States feels so paralyzed and divided today.
Pairing apology with action is often about way more than just a monetary sum of money. It’s about reckoning with history, a willingness to create space to move forward effectively . On many issues spanning multiple communities, the US has refused to do so, and this refusal has consequences. Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing about reparations for Black Americans, says, “Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what is owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
Governments should get in the habit of apologizing.
The US is not the only country that should apologize for terrible actions carried out in the past. Frankly, it would be a difficult if not impossible endeavor to point to a country on a map and find one that hasn’t oppressed, enslaved, or slaughtered a group of people in some fashion. The US, by no means, stands alone in this regard. That being said, the US does stand alone — for better or worse — regarding the inordinate amount of influence it carries on the international stage.
Actions taken by the US government have outsized consequences that can reverberate across the globe. If the US government decides to apologize to a particular group of people, other countries see that. The same applies to those the US government chooses to ignore. All of this is to say that governments across the globe should get in the habit of apologizing for past actions, and the US government is uniquely positioned to lead the way on this issue like so many others.
Take Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example. While public support for an apology is middling in the US, and the Japanese government seemingly deems it unnecessary, there are plenty of reasons for the US president to follow through with an apology anyway. First, any apology wouldn’t be geared towards the Japanese government but to the Hibakusha who are still living today. An apology like that could dovetail nicely into a campaign to reignite long-waning commitments of nuclear disarmament among the major nuclear powers: the US, Russia, and China.
Finally, an apology like that could be carried out because it’s simply the right thing to do, and governments engaging in even the simplest acts of decency are hard to find these days. Public apologies like this, if done right, can go a long way in rebuilding trust in institutions, neutralizing claims of whataboutism when engaging countries on human rights, and set an example for other countries to follow.