The first flash came at 8:15 on a Monday morning. Eyewitnesses remember it as a bolt of soundless light as if the sun had somehow touched down to the Earth. And suddenly, Hiroshima was gone.
The second flash came that Thursday morning at 11:02. Eyewitnesses recall two thumps — possibly the sound bouncing off the mountains that cradled the city — and a flash of bluish light. And Nagasaki was decimated.
Japan surrendered the following Wednesday, ending the Second World War.
Last week, when it was announced Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, everyone from Salon to the National Review raised two important questions: Will the president apologize for what America did 71 years ago this August? Should he?
The White House says the answer to the first question is No. For whatever it’s worth, the answer to the second is, too.
It is a measure of the deep emotion this subject still stirs that that will be a controversial and divisive opinion. Many good and moral people will find it abhorrent. Of course, the opposite opinion would also have been controversial and divisive and would have appalled other people, equally good, equally moral.
In the end, then, one can only answer to conscience, and this particular conscience is disinclined to second guess the long-ago president and military commanders who felt the bombs might obviate the need to invade the Japanese home islands at a ruinous cost in American lives. Remember that the Japanese, inebriated by the “bushido” warrior code under which surrender equals shame and dishonor, had refused to capitulate, though defeat had long been a foregone conclusion. Indeed, even after Hiroshima was leveled, it still took that nation nine days to give up.
That said, there is a more visceral reason the answer to the second question must be No: Any other answer would defame Americans who endured unimaginable cruelty at Japanese hands.
Should America apologize?
Ask Ray “Hap” Halloran, a B-29 navigator from Cincinnati who was beaten, stoned, starved, stripped naked and displayed in a cage at the Tokyo Zoo. Ask Lester Tenney, a tanker from Chicago whose sleep was forever raddled with nightmares of a twitching, headless corpse — a man he saw decapitated in the death march on Bataan.
And by all means, ask Forrest Knox, a sergeant from Janesville, Wisconsin. He was trapped with 500 other prisoners in the hold of a Japanese freighter where the heat topped 120 degrees and there was barely any water. Some of the men broke out in gibbering, howling fits of madness, prompting a Japanese threat to close off the hatch through which their meager air came if there was not silence.
The maddened men could not be reasoned with. So American men killed American men. Knox saw this. And participated. And for years afterward, he was haunted by dead men walking the streets of Janesville.
Should America apologize? No.
This was not slavery. This was not the Trail of Tears. This was not the incarceration of Japanese Americans. This was not, in other words, a case of the nation committing human-rights crimes against innocent peoples. No, this was war, a fight for survival against a ruthless aggressor nation. Japan committed unspeakable atrocities. America did the same. Such is the nature of war. Seven decades later, the idea of an apology feels like moral impotence, a happy face Band-Aid that denies the awful immensity of it all.
There are two words that should be spoken, in fact, reverently whispered, with regard to Hiroshima and they are not “I’m sorry.” No, the only words that matter are this promise and prayer:
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.