President Barack Obama will be the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima this month. However, his administration is refusing to apologize for the dropping of the two atomic bombs and has embarked on a trillion-dollar program to revitalize America's nuclear arsenal which threatens to provoke a new global nuclear weapons race.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he thought that Obama "appreciates that President Truman made the decision [to drop the bomb on Hiroshima] for the right reasons. Those reasons included a focus on the security of the United States and ending a terrible war. I think given the way that President Truman approached this dilemma and given the outcome, I think it's hard to look back and second guess him too much."
Considerable historical evidence however refutes this viewpoint. We now know that the Truman administration deliberately inflated casualty estimates for a planned invasion of Kyushu after the war. Declassified files reveal that US military planners projected 20,000-46,000 American lives as the cost of landing, and not one hundred thousand or a million as some later officials claimed.
We also know that given the destruction of Japan's air and naval power, and Soviet plans to enter the war, Japan's surrender could have likely been secured before this invasion took place. There is even the possibility the government deliberately prolonged the war so as to test its new super-weapon on the Japanese in order to justify the billion dollar taxpayer investment in the Manhattan project.
Historian Gar Alperovitz details in his classic study, Atomic Diplomacy, that the decision to drop the bomb was initiated largely to circumvent a Russian invasion of Japan and to ensure an American sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific after the war. Japan was never even given the chance to respond after the first atomic bomb before the second was dropped on Nagasaki killing another 80,000 people and scarring countless more.
Time military analyst Hanson Baldwin concluded shortly after the war that, "The enemy, in a military sense, was in a hopeless strategic position by the time the Potsdam demand for surrender was made on July 26. Such then was the situation when we wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Need we have done it? No one can of course be positive, but the answer is certainly in the negative."
The New York Times in its coverage of Obama's planned visit to Hiroshima had a relatively balanced discussion of the debate surrounding the dropping of the atomic bomb.
Its main article by David E. Sanger went on to criticize the Peace Memorial Park at Hiroshima, saying that while presenting a victim's narrative, it provides "few of the historical reasons for the bombing such as descriptions of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the savagery of Japan's occupation of China or the extraordinary death toll of soldiers and civilians in the invasion of Okinawa." An inscription on the park's memorial reads that "we shall not repeat the evil" leaving out "who the evil was - the bombing or the conflict itself - and who is to blame."
There is some validity to these points as the Japanese militarists of the 1930s committed heinous atrocities that led up to the Pacific War and against U.S. soldiers and bear an important share of blame for the conflict.
However, the United States was not innocent either.
Japanese expansion in Asia was actually modeled after U.S. colonial practice in the Caribbean and the United States held little regard for Japanese lives, as epitomized by the Tokyo firebombing which killed over 80,000 in one single night. The U.S. played a role in provoking the conflict too.
The late historian William L. Neumann wrote an essay in the book Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, edited by Harry Elmer Barnes, entitled "How American Policy Towards Japan Contributed to War in the Pacific." It discusses the U.S. Open Door policy, whose aim was to open investment opportunities and access Southeast Asian raw materials.
Neumann goes on to detail how President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an admirer of Admiral Alfred T. Mahan, initiated a vast naval buildup in the Asia Pacific which sent a powerful signal to the Japanese. The U.S. feared the growth of Japanese regional power and its establishment of an independent yen bloc and opposed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria as a threat to the Open Door policy in China.
To punish the Japanese, the United States and its European allies imposed high tariffs on Japanese products and cut off its access to vital raw materials. This led the Japanese to adopt more aggressive and belligerent policies culminating in the Pearl Harbor attacks.
The FDR administration was actually relieved after Pearl Harbor, as it gave the government a pretext for going to war and securing the U.S. position in Southeast Asia at a time when most of the public was isolationist.
The moral of the story is that the Pacific War was not necessarily a contest between good and evil as it is presented in U.S. nationalist mythology. If the Times is going to criticize Hiroshima's peace park, it should push for acknowledgment of the complexity of the war's origins and mutual blame all around, which should be featured in U.S. museum sites like Pearl Harbor too.
Since Obama won't do it, his successor at the same time should apologize once and for all for the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This would give some weight to any genuine push in the direction of a nuclear free world, which is something we should all be striving for.
Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa and is author of two books.