This is a month of special anniversaries. Last week was the 60th anniversary of America's use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This Tuesday marked 60 years since the bombing of Nagasaki. This coming Monday is the 60th observance of V-J Day, which marks the capitulation of the Japanese government ending World War II.
The dates should be an opportunity to salute the diminishing number of survivors who fought in World War II and reflect on what the biggest event of the 20th century has taught us.
Each generation rewrites history, and it is common to see revisionists questioning President Harry S. Truman's decision to use the A-bomb to end the war with Japan. In the context of that time, the decision made sense. The South Pacific war was costing thousands of U.S. lives. The battle for Iwo Jima alone was one of the bloodiest in American history. America had become accustomed to protracted battles with Japanese troops. The allied expectation was that an invasion of Japan would mean a terrible toll of American and Japanese lives.
Unlike Germany, where acknowledgment of the Holocaust and other wartime atrocities has long been a part of public discourse and school curricula, Japanese culture has largely resisted self-examination of events such as the Rape of Nanking. Japan's failure to come to terms with its own wartime misdeeds continues to reverberate, causing serious friction with China and Korea up to the present day.
We were wrong to intern our own citizens of Japanese descent at the start of World War II - and the U.S. Congress has publicly apologized for our error. There are those who bemoan what they perceive to be an overly politically correct impulse to atone for questionable acts. But by remembering the past and taking responsibility, nations set the stage for more careful decision making now and in the future.
None of this diminishes the profound question raised by the bomb's use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The late Professor Frederick Schuman of Williams College and Portland State University frequently lectured that the dropping of the atomic bomb made such a horror unthinkable in the future. We would like to believe that. But nuclear weapons have proliferated since V-J Day.
If nations do not learn from war, we are doomed to repetition. The history of the postwar era has been rife with war. We now live in a time of nuclear proliferation. Only by safeguarding our moral position can we hope to keep developing nations away from this dangerous path.
Wars are easy to start and difficult to end. President Truman brought the war with Japan to a swift ending. Months later the process of understanding the bomb's horrors began. The New Yorker magazine published John Hersey's searing account of Hiroshima, which was subsequently released in book form.
What has America or other nations learned from Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Never again, we hope.