The recent 75th anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki help pose a compelling question for historians and others: Should the U.S. and Japan be looking forward or peering into the past?
The decisions to drop those bombs have been questioned for three-quarters of a century and will undoubtedly be debated for years to come.
Some argue that the United States should issue a formal apology to Japan for the bombings. But Zack Cooper, who is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested recently that the best way to honor those killed in World War II is to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to its outbreak.
In other words, American and Japanese leaders should focus on today’s challenges, not yesterday’s.
There is no chance that President Donald Trump will apologize for the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. Neither did Barack Obama while in office. In 2016, he visited Hiroshima and spoke of the need to “mourn the dead,” but he did not apologize.
There’s good reason for the fact that these two presidents agree on this issue.
Jennifer Lind, a professor at Dartmouth University, has said “acknowledgement is vital, apologies are not.” She warns that apologies “can do more harm than good, because they often prompt an unproductive nationalist backlash.”
The best way to honor those killed in World War II is to ensure we do not repeat the mistakes that led to that war. Divided democracies unprepared to confront spreading authoritarianism were a problem then as they are now. Today, China’s rise and North Korea’s continuing belligerence threaten both regional and global security.
Meanwhile, countries around the world are struggling to manage the human and economic crises wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The agenda for the alliance’s political leaders is therefore massive, even without wading into arguments best left to historians and philosophers.
John Hamre, a longtime supporter of U.S.-Japan relations, has often said that cars have a large windshield and small rearview mirrors because we are supposed to go forward, not backward. The same is true of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
So while the United States and Japan mourn the dead of World War II, they also should celebrate the alliance’s amazing accomplishments over the last 75 years. Founded in the ashes of a terrible tragedy, the alliance has become arguably the most important in the world.
The United States and Japan should work together to highlight the benefits of liberal democracy and the dangers of authoritarianism. They should set the bar for high standards in trade while speaking up for human rights and freedoms.