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It is never too late to apologize

May 11, 2016

Barack Obama will later this month become the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, the site of the world's first nuclear bombing. An apology is not expected, but is long overdue, writes DW's Alexander Freund.

Deutschland Barack Obama besteigt Air Force One
Image: picture alliance/dpa/H.-C. Dittrich

Does it really have to take 71 years for a sitting US president to visit Hiroshima? Not to issue an apology on behalf of the world's sole superpower - the White House already stressed there would be no apology - but just to tour the site where the victims of the world's first atomic bomb strike are commemorated.

It's anyway just a symbolic gesture, nothing more. And Obama is not traveling to Japan merely to visit Hiroshima; the president is visiting the East Asian nation to take part in this year's G-7 leaders' summit.

Obama's trip was described by the White House as an effort to highlight the US' "commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

This follows a visit to Hiroshima at the start of April by John Kerry, who became the first US Secretary of State to visit the city's peace memorial. There was no word of apology even from him.

And incidentally before his visit to Japan, Obama will head to the former enemy Vietnam. Even there the US president will not address the past, but rather focus on advancing future cooperation on trade, security and human rights.

Freund Alexander Kommentarbild App
DW's Alexander Freund

After 71 years, and despite the two visits, there's still no apology. I find it shameful. Every country should know how to deal with its past. I am happy that we Germans admitted our guilt after World War II. This admission of guilt was a precondition for an apology, and only then was reconciliation possible.

While it may be dismissed as weakness or an exaggeration of the process of coming to terms with the past, I have always felt former German Chancellor Willy Brandt's genuflection before the Warsaw Ghetto monument as an important sign of strength.

Basis for reconciliation

Nobody expects President Obama to kneel down and pay tribute to the victims of the nuclear bomb attacks. And it is clear that the dimension of guilt of the condemnable atomic bombings does not compare to the magnitude of Nazi atrocities. But still, Obama should apologize for the inflicted suffering while he visits Hiroshima.

That's because the use of atomic weapons was a crime. It cannot be justified by the argument that perhaps, without the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war in the Pacific would have lasted longer and many more innocent people would have been killed.

Even if this would be right, the use of atomic weapons was a lapse. Everybody knew that - at least since the drop of an uranium bomb on Hiroshima. But when the US released the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, the US was mainly interested in testing a new weapon and to demonstrate their power to Japan and, in particular, to Russia.

The American superpower flexed its nuclear muscles for the first time and triggered an arms race with Russia whose repercussions we are feeling until today. It is honorable that Obama, together with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, wants to fight for "peace and safety in a world without nuclear weapons." But exactly this nuclear curse was unleashed by the US 71 years ago.

Japan also has to apologize

Obama should face this historic guilt in Hiroshima. Nearing the end of his presidency, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has nothing to lose. Instead, he would receive credit because an apology can be a sign of strength.

The same is true for the Japanese Prime Minister who has never brought himself to apologize to Japan's neighbors for the war crimes committed by the country's Imperial Army. Without the admission of guilt, a true reconciliation with neighbors like Korea and China is impossible.

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