Secretary of State John Kerry made history last month by becoming the first sitting cabinet official to visit Hiroshima, where he paid his respects to the victims of the atomic bomb dropped by the United States on the Japanese city at the end of World War II.
Kerry’s visit was rich in symbolism, but the real question it triggered is whether President Obama will himself make a trip to Hiroshima when he travels to Japan in May. Now we have our answer. News reports indicate that Obama is indeed planning such a trip. This would be a profound act, as no President, while in office, has ever visited the city, and the prospect of this President traveling there has caused controversy at home and in Japan.
Those in favor of the visit cite the symbolic linkage to the President’s agenda of nuclear non-proliferation that led to his being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Those opposed to a Hiroshima visit worry that it would only rekindle memories of Japan’s militaristic past and that any appearance of a U.S. apology is not warranted.
Apologies and forgiveness were the subject of research I conducted while at Harvard’s Belfer Center this past fall. Working with a group of graduate students, we examined political forgiveness — when it is necessary, how it occurs, and why it is so hard to achieve. We undertook this exercise not simply because we were curious, but because a lack of forgiveness is at the heart of tribal, sectarian, and national divisions in today’s world.
The inability to confront history and move beyond it is a chief obstacle to lasting security in many regions of the globe.
When we began our research, we wondered why Japan could not move beyond its past with its neighbors when Germany has largely done so. We considered all manner of reasons, including the fact that Japan had been a victim of nuclear weapons as well as an oppressor in World War II. But, with the help of many scholars, we began to understand that it is Germany, not Japan, which has been the outlier.
The fact that Germany has come to terms with its past, making remembrance part of its national fabric, is the exception, not the rule, as we look around the world.
What explains Germany’s divergence? While many factors were at play, Germany’s path was, at its core, one of self-interest. Long before Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970, West Germany’s first post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer made common cause with France, its enemy in three wars in the previous 70 years, as they joined arms to face the Soviet threat at the dawn of the Cold War.
Recently, we have seen self-interest at work in Japan as well. Concerned with increased provocations and rising tensions in their backyards — particularly from North Korea — Japan and South Korea have finally come to a resolution of the “comfort women” issue, a painful chapter of World War II. Although still new and at times shaky, this agreement will help these two countries forge a united front in a region of the world that may well present the greatest security challenges in the 21st century.
Perhaps what is most significant in the comfort women agreement was the commitment by Japan and South Korea to remembrance — to not hiding the past when writing textbooks for the next generation. They demonstrated that history need not be an indictment of the present. Rather, it can help us understand that humankind can be brutal and unforgiving while generosity and forgiveness can bring healing.
The political courage of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye should have made President Obama’s decision an easy one. Yes, he should go to Hiroshima– not to apologize, but to serve our interests by showing allies in the region that we are willing to acknowledge the past in order to focus on the future.
Historians have debated America’s use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and will continue to do so. And, although undoubtedly many, many American lives were saved by bringing the war to an early end, there is no denying the horrific impact of an atomic bomb dropped on thousands of civilians.
Polling by the Pew Research Center shows that younger Americans are already much less likely than their grandparents to think that the use of nuclear weapons was justified.
And, indeed, the trend is such that years from now, the majority of all Americans are likely to believe it was wrong. Future generations need to understand history in all of its dimensions. The President’s focus, therefore, should be on remembrance, on the importance of never again going down the road to a World War. We too must remember what we did in August 1945 and the profound need to ensure there is never another Hiroshima.