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Why won't President Obama apologize for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? He will be visiting Hiroshima soon, and he has said that he isn't going to be apologizing.

10 Answers 10

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  1. It is hard to explain why conventional bombing of a city is principally better, morally, than a nuclear bombing of a city. If Obama apologized for the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he should also apologize for all the other bombings of Japanese and German cities during WWII.

  2. Nuclear bombings were not prohibited by the Hague conventions.

  3. By today's estimations, if the USA wouldn't use nuclear weapons, the invasion would cost at least between 500,000 and 750,000, and maybe as high as 1,000,000 deaths (not casualties) of American soldiers. The number of killed Japanese soldiers is estimated to be 7 times higher.

    No country could be reasonably expected to sacrifice between 500,000 and 1,000,000 of its soldiers in order to save 300,000 enemy civilians.

  4. These figures do not include Chinese civilians which would be killed by the Japanese. In 1939-1945, about 3.9 million Chinese civilians were killed by Japanese. More Chinese people were tortured, raped etc.

  5. Japan has not asked for an apology. Japanese people, generally, don't want the apology either. The Japanese emperor Hirohito, who is highly respected in his country, said: "It's very regrettable that nuclear bombs were dropped, and I feel sorry for the citizens of Hiroshima, but it couldn't be helped because that happened in wartime." Further, in the May 2016 Japan Times poll, 64.9% of Japanese respondents thought Obama does not need to apologize but that he should commit to nuclear nonproliferation. This figure does not include those Japanese who thought Obama should neither apologize nor commit to nuclear nonproliferation. Totally, almost 75% of Japanese respondents thought Obama should not apologize.

  6. Apologies might change the public view of bombings, which would worsen, rather than improve, the American image, and harm the relationships between the USA and Japan.

  7. They would lead to demands that reparations be paid for the bombings, and for all other bombings during WWII.

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    Can you provide a citation for number 5? Just the other day I read a news article claiming that the overall view in Japan is that the atomic bombings were unjustified (vs. in the US where they are seen as justified). I will try to find the article. – JBentley May 25 '16 at 20:16
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    Here is an example of such an article: "A majority of Americans see the bombings as having been necessary to end the war and save US and Japanese lives, although many historians question that view. Most Japanese believe the bombings were unjustified.". Interestingly, there is a History Stackexchange question on this very topic (albeit with answers that don't seem to quite address the question). – JBentley May 25 '16 at 20:18
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    #3 seems useful to justify all kinds of attrocities. – G. Bach May 27 '16 at 8:40
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    This answer flies in the face of international law. #3 is an attempt to justify war crimes. If the war aims cannot be achieved without either killing 300,000 civilians or millions of soldiers, the conclusion is that the war aims cannot be achieved, not that 300,000 civilians may be intentionally targeted. #4 might theoretically justify killing civilians to prevent even more civilians being killed, but as horrible as the Japanese occupation of China was, at the time of the bombings large parts of China had already been liberated and 300,000 further civilian deaths were not to be expected. – joriki May 27 '16 at 23:59
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    The answer is also highly selective with respect to historical opinion. There is a strong and well-founded current of opinion that holds that the nuclear bombings did not play a decisive role in ending the war; see e.g. The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan... Stalin Did in Foreign Policy and the many interesting quotes by Eisenhower, McNamara and others at globalresearch.ca/…. – joriki May 27 '16 at 23:59
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Other than the fact that apologizing is political suicide there are a few good reasons.

  • No country really ever apologizes for acts of war, they may be sorry for starting a war, but its very rare that anything specific is mentioned.
  • The bombings really weren't that destructive compared to the conventional bombings carried out against Japan and Germany. The radiation fallout wasn't something that was known at the time, and most of it dissipated pretty quickly.
  • Japan isn't really forthcoming about their own actions during WWII and tensions are still high with countries they occupied, apologizing for bombing them would also be likely to worsen the USA's relations with those countries.
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    "No country really ever apologizes for acts of war." with notable exceptions. For example see Warschauer Kniefall. – Trilarion May 25 '16 at 15:22
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    You might want to mention specific outcomes of firebombings of Tokyo etc.... in comparison, for the second bullet point. From historical accounts I heard, they were rather horrific, and arguably worse than nuke. – user4012 May 25 '16 at 15:51
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    @Trilarion If you lose a war, what you did was bad, if you win a war what you did was good. – Peter May 25 '16 at 16:40
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    @blip Ignorant we are. He dit not say "The bombings really weren't that destructive". He said "The bombings really weren't that destructive compared to the conventional bombings carried out against Japan and Germany". Ever bothered to look up the pictures from Leipzig in Germany? The major difference in destruction being that an atom bomb leaves ONE hugh crater. A comparison is at least from the pictures not really that different. Try google to see some pictures and compare them yourself. (that said, I think the nuclear bomb was worse - but definitely on a similar scale). – TomTom May 25 '16 at 18:48
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    @blip If people aren't focused on comparing the types of bombing, then the premise that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki somehow requires singling out for an apology over all other instances of bombing becomes completely invalid. – Beofett May 25 '16 at 19:32
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Because the Japanese government doesn't want him to!

source (german)

Dennoch betonten sowohl die Bürgermeister der bombardierten Städte als auch Japans Außenminister Fumio Kishida, eine Entschuldigung Washingtons sei nicht nötig.

The mayors of both bombed cities and the Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida emphasized that an apology of Washington is not necessary

For the Japanese (government), it is very convenient to have ended up in the victim role of the war. The horror of the nuclear attack allows them to bury the many war crimes that they committed in Asia.

If the US started to apologize, Japan would have to do a lot of apologizing, too, and not just to the US.

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    You make a great point here that most people aren't considering. – Ryan Mortensen May 28 '16 at 15:33
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    This is the right answer. The events of the past are all too well known to history. War is hell, and always there are regrettable circumstances. Forming and maintaining a bond of friendship between former enemies requires letting go of the past - apologies do just the opposite; they seek to dig up the past and bring it back to light. Japanese culture, especially, would see an apology as a very embarrassing incident since it would impose such scrutiny on their own actions during the war. Sometimes the best apology is to just let the past be the past and concentrate on the future. – J... May 28 '16 at 19:47
  • Downvoter, please explain yourself! – Cephalopod May 30 '16 at 7:56
  • I haven't read the entire article, and I haven't downvoted, but is this based on disputed claims by Wikileaks that Obama wanted to apologise and the Japanese government wanted him not to do so? – Andrew Grimm May 30 '16 at 8:54
  • It doesnt say whether Obama wanted to apologize, it just points out that an apology would complicate things for Japan. – Cephalopod May 30 '16 at 9:57
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  1. An apology would signal unwillingness to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent, response, or for Mutually Assured Destruction. It would, in effect, render the USA's investment and reliance on nuclear weapons useless.

  2. The US experience of civilian mass suicide at Marpi Point, Saipan, and the casualties of taking Okinawa, indicated the complete Japanese (if not Okinawan) willingness for civilian populations to be eradicated for their cause.

The finding of 17 miles of tunnels near Nagano confirmed the Japanese plan to fight a war of attrition to the very end. In a sense, the bombings saved the Japanese people from the possibility of near complete destruction. The 1 million purple heart medals minted in anticipation of the Japanese Home Islands Campaign shows the US Military shared that assessment of the situation.

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    The catch with #1 is that has been implied for decades and decades. Granted, this could make it 'official' but it's been pretty much inferred for a long while now. As for the bombing 'ending the war' that's certainly a valid and popular theory, but there are many opposing and equally valid theories as well--especially when you break it down to the individual bombings (there are a lot of good arguments that the first bomb was justified, but not so much the second). – user1530 May 27 '16 at 3:13
  • All good points, but "making it official" would be very bad. – kmarsh May 28 '16 at 11:44
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Why should he? WW2 was a "total war" situation. All civilian work was managed by the governments and military with the aim of supporting the military. As such civilians were legitimate targets, because incapacitating the military's support structure is a legitimate goal. That was the military doctrine at the time, and it remains military doctrine with nuclear MAD.

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    Why should ANYONE apologize? – user1530 May 25 '16 at 17:36
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    "As such civilians were legitimate targets..." This sounds really bad according to current standards and I doubt it really was the military doctrine of this time (except maybe for the Nazis and the Russians). But I would be interested in sources to validate the claim that civilians were legitimate targets of the US military. – Trilarion May 25 '16 at 18:12
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    Strategic bombing is a military strategy used in a total war with the goal of defeating the enemy by destroying their morale or their economic ability to produce and transport materiel to the theatres of military operations, or both. -- So goal is to destroy country's economy (ability to produce war materiel), including its population. – Peter M. - stands for Monica May 25 '16 at 22:05
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    @blip Part of it depends on what you mean by "civilians were legitimate targets". residential neighborhoods and apartment blocks are one thing, but saying that weapon factories and shipyards can't be bombed just because they're managed by civilian contractors instead of the military controlling their whole supply chain from end to end is quite another. – Random832 May 26 '16 at 2:11
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    So I think it's perfectly reasonable to describe both sides as considering, most of the time, that civilian targets were legitimate. The fact that some of those civilians were labouring in the war effort was considered sufficient justification for area bombing, and almost everywhere in the UK, Germany, or Japan, some of the people in any given civilian area were such workers. It's not just a matter of "collateral damage", as if a few civilians were unlucky enough to be actually in a munitions factory at the time it was targeted. – Steve Jessop May 26 '16 at 9:31
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You have to think of this in the context of the times. First, Japan conducted a huge and deadly unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor. The result was that the United States entered the war. In short, the Japanese started it!

Second, the United States had been a war on a massive scale for four years. The costs in terms of lives and treasure was unimaginable by today's standards. The entire population of the United States was ready and willing to do whatever it took to win the war and end it and sooner rather than later. Just remember how eager Americans were to end the Iraq was just a few years ago and that war was no where near the scale of WWII and no where near the cost in terms of lives and treasure. WWII was 100 times greater!

Third, the United States Navy - and especially the submarine force - had already effectively destroyed all of Japan's merchant fleet and was blockading the islands. Japan had been truly and soundly beaten for months and yet refused to surrender. And there was no sign that surrender was even being considered. I think it was believed by the Japanese leaders that an invasion of Japan by the Americans would prove so costly to the Americans that they would give up and sue for peace on terms favorable to the Japanese.

A great many military historians believe that the large scale invasion of Japan could very well have cost more Japanese civilian lives than did the atomic bombs. And that's not including American lives lost. People tend to fight really hard to defend their homes from foreign invaders and it was believed that every Japanese citizen with scythes, pitch forks or his heirloom samurai sword would have attacked the invaders. And previous conventional bombings in Japan had been pretty devastating. Japanese housing of the time was packed close together and made mostly of light wood. Casualties were always very high.

So when you take all that into account, it's really easy to see why Truman felt justified in ordering the bombings. So once you accept that the bombings were justified, it's pretty easy to understand why no American president will apologize.

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    "A great many military historians believe that the large scale invasion of Japan could very well have cost more Japanese civilian lives than did the atomic bombs." I'm not aware of any credible historians who don't think such an invasion would have resulted in, not just more, but far more Japanese lives lost. The only question is whether said invasion would have been necessary or not. – reirab May 26 '16 at 20:09
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    This explains why you don't think he should apologize, but doesn't actually address why he's not apologizing. It could be because he thinks it's justified, but that is certainly not a globally unanimous belief. – user1530 May 27 '16 at 3:10
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    "Unprovoked"? Sanctions, freezing of Japanese assets, choking off virtually all vital oil supplies, barely disguised lethal aid to China, moving of military assets into position in SE Asia etc. – Spehro Pefhany May 30 '16 at 18:19
  • The attack on Pearl Harbor was the most poorly done sneak attack as far as sneaking goes. The only reason it succeeded was due to our military having its head buried in the sand. – NZKshatriya Jan 11 '17 at 4:31
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I think the only definitive answer we can give is because Obama and his staff see no up-side to apologizing that would out-weigh any downside.

TL/DR version: Because politics.

There's also the argument that "if it ain't broke, why fix it?" applies here as well. We are on good terms with Japan. There doesn't seem to be a compelling political need to offer an apology at this time.

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All those same people would have died and all the same economic damage would have still happened if there would have instead been a land invasion. Probably 10x on both of those counts.

The way it handled reduced the net cost to the U.S. of closing out the conflict at like 99% and reduced the net cost to Japan by like 90%.

Making good strategic choices that limit harm to both sides is not something to apologize for.

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    The issue is that those numbers are mostly hypothetical. Whether the bombings helped end the war sooner than it would have otherwise, and whether or not it saved more lives than it costs will never be completely answerable and will likely be debated for eternity. – user1530 May 25 '16 at 17:38
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    You're just summarizing what other answers have already said, and with less justification too. – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica May 25 '16 at 18:30
  • Invasion wasn't the only alternative. Naval blockade and siege tactics could have had limited cost. Fuel shortages alone made naval and air defense minimal. Continued air raids on war industries could reduce Imperial military effectiveness to 19th century standards again. When there is no effective defense against air raids, you can pretty much keep factories from existing without major civilian losses. But fuel was disappearing regardless, so it might not even be important. – user2338816 May 26 '16 at 11:26
  • @blip: OK - let's have both Japan and the US rebuild their fleets, air forces, etc, to the same levels and with the same materials as were used in WW II, and then we'll stage the invasion of Japan JUST TO FIND OUT WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED! We'll de-populate Japan so there's no more people available than were present in late summer '45, and we'll impose food shortages, oil shortages, destroy manufacturing plants, etc. But this way we'll KNOW whether it was better to use nukes or to actually invade and conquer the Japanese home islands. Anything for knowledge, eh? – Bob Jarvis May 29 '16 at 5:34
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    @BobJarvis and your point is...what? That you disagree with those that disagree with you? That's kind of my point. Scholars disagree on this topic. – user1530 May 29 '16 at 5:51
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Neither Obama nor any President will ever apologize for using nuclear weapons against Japan. If Japan didn't want to risk losing the war, or having nuclear weapons used against it, or indeed cared about civilians at all, they should not have started the war.

It's not polite to say this now that relations between the US and Japan are good. However the Japanese are quite good at playing the victim regarding their role in WW II. Ever notice how only the most stereotypically innocent civilians are out in front asking for an apology? Where are the war mongers? Where are the generals, the politicians, the leaders who started the war? Oh, that's right, they have zero credibility asking for an apology. Not to mention they are all dead.

Japan, along with rest of the Axis powers, started WW II. It is we who should be asking them for an apology. But we don't do that because we won, and there's an understanding that asking for an apology at this stage would be weird. Maybe if the Japanese offered one without being asked, that would be about the only way it could be handled.

The issue of nuclear weapons is a sideline, a distraction, considering the immense damage that WW II caused. The real issue is the entirety of the war itself. Japan only talks about the nuclear weapons because it's the only part of the war they can play the victim on.

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    ...they should not have started the war. An argument could be made that the start of the "war" with Japan was the arrival of Commodore Perry's ships at Uraga Harbor in 1853, followed by the political and economic pressures put on the Japanese afterwards. "We" just couldn't stop pushing them in the directions "we" wanted them to go. Push someone enough, and there is often a reaction. – user2338816 May 26 '16 at 10:31
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    This is a rant, rather than an answer. It explains why you don't think a president should apologize, but doesn't answer the question being asked. (It's also a rather weak argument of "But he started it!" logic) – user1530 May 27 '16 at 3:07
  • @user1530 I would call this the best answer of all. We have wars, and the destruction of wars, because political leaders start them. All such people should be on notice that starting a war could, in ways that cannot be anticipated, result in the complete obliteration of their own nations. The nuclear bombings, among other things, do just that. – EvilSnack Dec 2 '18 at 19:41
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There are many people in the United States who believe that these bombings were unjustified. Arguably, I would speculate that most of them would be considered part of President Obama's political base.

However, he is not up for re-election so he will gain no benefit in shoring up his base so making such an apology brings him no benefit.

I know this is quite Machiavellian., but that's the way I see it.

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    I bet you my last penny that even now, more people in USA believe it was justified that not. Do you have any sources for your claim? And would not be more relevant how many people believed such attack was justified back when that happened? – Peter M. - stands for Monica May 25 '16 at 21:18
  • A fair thought, but I'm pretty sure a candidate's stance on WWII bombings isn't likely going to rally bases one way or the other. – user1530 May 25 '16 at 22:26
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    @PeterMasiar yep. Still a majority but maybe not as much as people would think. 56% believe the bombings, in general, were justified: rt.com/usa/311711-americans-hiroshima-bombing-justified (Apologies for the RT link...it just happened to be the first that popped up). As for relevance, I think if we're talking about apologies today, then today's opinion is what matters. That's usually how political apologies end up happening...decades later societal values progress to a point where things become clear that in hindsight, we sometimes had really bad ideas. – user1530 May 25 '16 at 22:29
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    @blip That same article states that a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds disagree with the bombings. Maybe the future is brighter than many think. – RockPaperLizard May 26 '16 at 10:48

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