“Never, never waste a minute on regret. It’s a waste of time.”
— President Harry Truman
Here we are, 70 years after the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I’m wondering if we’ve come even one step closer to a moral reckoning with our status as the world’s only country to use atomic weapons to slaughter human beings. Will an American president ever offer a formal apology? Will our country ever regret the dropping of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” those two bombs that burned hotter than the sun? Will it absorb the way they instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero? Will it finally come to grips with the “black rain” that spread radiation and killed even more people — slowly and painfully — leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?
Given the last seven decades of perpetual militarization and nuclear “modernization” in this country, the answer may seem like an obvious no. Still, as a historian, I’ve been trying to dig a little deeper into our lack of national contrition. As I have, an odd fragment of Americana kept coming to mind, a line from the popular 1970 tearjerker Love Story: “Love,” says the female lead when her boyfriend begins to apologize, “means never having to say you’re sorry.” It has to be one of the dumbest definitions ever to lodge in American memory, since real love often requires the strength to apologize and make amends.
It does, however, apply remarkably well to the way many Americans think about that broader form of love we call patriotism. With rare exceptions, like the 1988 congressional act that apologized to and compensated the Japanese-American victims of World War II internment, when it comes to the brute exercise of power, true patriotism has above all meant never having to say you’re sorry. The very politicians who criticize other countries for not owning up to their wrong-doing regularly insist that we should never apologize for anything. In 1988, for example, after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf killing all 290 passengers (including 66 children), Vice President George H.W. Bush, then running for president,proclaimed, “I will never apologize for the United States. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”
It turns out, however, that Bush’s version of American remorselessness isn’t quite enough. After all, Americans prefer to view their country as peace-loving, despite having been at war constantly since 1941. This means they need more than denials and non-apologies. They need persuasive stories and explanations (however full of distortions and omissions). The tale developed to justify the bombings that led to a world in which the threat of human extinction has been a daily reality may be the most successful legitimizing narrative in our history. Seventy years later, it’s still deeply embedded in public memory and school textbooks, despite an ever-growing pile of evidence that contradicts it. Perhaps it’s time, so many decades into the age of apocalyptic peril, to review the American apologia for nuclear weapons — the argument in their defense — that ensured we would never have to say we’re sorry. Read more