The time is long past due to tell the people of Japan, “We’re sorry.” This week marks the 70th anniversary of the United States’ atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9). The U.S. must collectively apologize for the two most horrific acts of violence ever committed.
Those two atomic attacks against civilian targets left tens of thousands dead and countless others suffering from unimaginable burns and radiation sickness. Those at the epicenter of the blasts were in essence the “lucky ones” because they were instantly vaporized by the heat from the bombs.
Those left alive were often blinded and left with burns that could not be treated because the hospitals were destroyed and the nurses and doctors were killed and injured. Eyewitness accounts tell of severely burned people – men, women, children, the elderly – climbing into public fountains to cool their scorched bodies.
For 70 years Americans have lived by the lie that those atomic attacks were “necessary” to end World War II; the most gruesome acts of war that began the atomic age have become the saving grace of our nation. President Harry S. Truman even made the claim that God was on our side when we incinerated those two cities. Most Christians and other people of faith have failed to repudiate the madness of atomic warfare.
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Others cite the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as justification for our atomic attacks. There can be no quid pro quo here. If war can be governed by a “code of conduct” at all then there is no moral justification of intentional attacks on civilian targets. The reprehensible attack on Pearl Harbor was a military target.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower also debunked the claim that the U.S. had to drop the bomb to force Japan to surrender when he told Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. William D. Leary that: “Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”
Under the Geneva Convention and the Church’s Just War Criteria, the use of nuclear weapons is simply a moral evil. The first condition of “just” warfare is a belief that noncombatants must be protected from harm. The atomic weapons used on Japan were for the express purpose of killing civilians. Dropping those bombs changed everything in our world. If we as a human family can justify the destruction of entire cities, then where does the violence ever end? All violence becomes acceptable if our leaders deem it so.
It’s time for the people of the United States to recognize the sinfulness of those atomic attacks and work to end the nuclear arms race. On Thursday, 19 people gathered at the Federal Building in Raleigh and held placards with the message: “I Am Sorry.” We have tried to send a message of repentance to the people of Japan for what our country did 70 years ago. Sorrow and repentance are also necessary to save our souls.
Patrick O’Neill is co-founder of Garner’s Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House.