Today marks the seventieth anniversary of the first use of nuclear weapons. August 9 will mark the second. The United States, in the culminating days of World War II, dropped these new, devastating bombs on Japan, urging to conclusion Japanese decision making on surrender.
In Japan, these two days are remembered every year. The United States has begun to participate formally in these commemorations in 2010 when John V. Roos became the first sitting U.S. ambassador to attend the Hiroshima ceremony on August 6. Today, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy attended along with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller. They will also attend the Nagasaki commemoration on August 9.
Debate over the use of these weapons has focused on the need to end that war, and to lessen the sacrifice of even more U.S. servicemen and women in a long and bloody war. The anticipated casualties that a land invasion of Japan would bring grew in the wake of the Battle of Okinawa in June 1945. Historians have covered that question extensively in the decades since World War II, and strong emotions attend the debate over whether that choice was right or wrong.
But we can recognize without dissension two basic facts. First, the use of nuclear weapons again would have even greater—and more devastating—consequences. The advancement of nuclear technology did not stop in 1945; it has proceeded with ever greater destructive power now being in the hands of a far wider array of nations. Managing the spread of nuclear weapons remains one of our greatest policy challenges. Controlling the use of these weapons should war break out will be even harder.
Second, the United States and Japan continue to find it difficult to speak of the atomic bombings. This is largely because of the debate surrounding the choice to use them. Few Americans think their government should apologize for their use, although, according to Pew Research Center, an increasing number questions the decision to do so. Those of us in the United States are, however, commemorating our own role in that war in new ways. The Manhattan Project is now designated a national park as is the Japanese-American internment camp in Honolulu.
Those who lived through the atomic bombings have precious little time to continue to explain why it cannot be repeated. This year the average age of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki exceeded eighty for the first time. Remembering what happened is the critical first step to ensuring that succeeding generations pick up the mantle.
Reflecting on what happened and why must also be part of that process if we are to prevent it from happening again. And that task will be up to our generation.
It is time for the United States to acknowledge more openly its own responsibility with Japan. As President Obama stated in his Prague speech, “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.” Many of us hope that the President will visit Hiroshima next time he goes to Japan.
The United States and Japan together can play a powerful role not only in remembering what happened, but in analyzing why. We should do this not to reopen the wounds of war, but to prevent it. Seventy years of rebuilding our relations have demonstrated the power of reconciliation, and as younger Americans and Japanese come to the fore, it is a process that should be easier to lead. Silence about one of the most defining moments in our relationship will only hold us back.
In this year of Asian debate over the semantics of remorse and apology, a far more simple task is required of the United States and Japan —remembering and reflecting on the horror of 1945, and reinvigorating our regional and global commitment to ensure that our societies will not face it again.