In Hiroshima today, President Obama avoided a politically toxic and morally doubtful apology for the atomic bombing of Japan. Instead he faced up to the dangers of war. ‘We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history,’ he said, ‘and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.’
But this is easier said than done. At time of war, states show how they are most different and most similar to each other. For Japan, it was the war that most exposed Hirohito-era society’s extreme militarization, lack of respect for individual people, and keenness to attack racial others. President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb sprang from the need to defeat this awful enemy which had attacked the United States. But in justifying the bomb in the name of peace — it would save many more lives than the alternative, which was a costly and bitterly fought invasion of Japan — Truman, and his Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, revealed again that all modern states have something in common: they cannot avoid the logic that in extreme situations the ends justify the means.
Stalin could understand that. The Stalinist system was a radical simplification of modern politics, when the ends (communism) never stopped justifying the means (destroying individuals). Dropping an atomic bomb to solve a problem seemed to fit inside a Stalinist mentality.
Thanks to well placed spies, such as Klaus Fuchs, the Soviet leadership was aware of America’s atomic bomb. Stalin’s suspicion of potential enemies and cynicism about political life told him why they would use it: not only were the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a matter of defeating Japan quickly, but of keeping the Soviets out of Asia, and of showing them the awesome might of American power. In August 1945, the Red Army was already in China and Korea and was eyeing up a Soviet-US partition of Japan. Stalin could not doubt that the bombing of Hiroshima was directed against the Soviet Union.
There were voices in America that made the same point, such as William R. Castle, Undersecretary of State under Stimson between 1931 and 1933, who wrote controversially in his diary in February 1947: ‘[Stimson] knew that Japan was suing for peace, that its economy had been destroyed […] I wonder whether Stimson […] wanted war to continue for long enough to give them a chance to try out the atom bomb on Japanese cities.’
Castle in 1921
Castle had his own axe to grind. Half a century on, George F. Kennan, the conscience of American foreign policy, no longer did. In August 1995, he wrote in a private letter of ‘our obligation to ourselves — to our sense of what it was suitable and decent for such a country as ours to be doing. […We should] have swallowed out militant pride and consented to sound out the Japanese on the possibilities […] of compromise.’
But even if Stalin simplified Truman’s mentality, and those without power found non-Stalinist ways to critique him, the American president faced a decision of giant moral complexity and weight at a time of ongoing national danger. Seventy years on, his successor’s moral case is more powerful than an apology, with its own non-Stalinist view of history. ‘We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past,’ Obama claimed in Hiroshima. ‘We can tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.’