Next week, President Obama will become the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima. He will not -- the White House repeats, NOT -- apologize for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 71 years ago that killed an estimated 200 thousand people. The rhetorical needle will be a challenge to thread, as the President repeats his message that the use of atomic weapons is so terrible that it must never happen again...without second-guessing their use in 1945.
Carol Gluck is a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, “Past Obsessions: World War Two in History and Memory.” She and Bob discuss how and why the US and Japan have two very different narratives about the atomic bomb, and what the visit will mean for historic interpretation.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Next week, President Obama
will become the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima. He will not, the White House repeats, NOT apologize for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 71 years ago.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is an implied apology and it’s disgraceful and unnecessary.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: …always seem to apologize, to always subordinate American power or American exceptionalism.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Obama and Kerry pushed this narrative that America's always guilty.
BOB GARFIELD: What he will do in Hiroshima is reflect on war, especially nuclear war, as Secretary of State John Kerry did when he visited the same site last month.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: How critical it is that we all apply the lessons of the past to the future and the present, the depth of obligation that every single one of us in public life carries to work for peace.
BOB GARFIELD: The rhetorical needle will be a challenge to thread. The President will repeat his message that the use of atomic weapons is so terrible that it must never happen again, without second-guessing their use in 1945.
Carol Gluck is a professor of Japanese History at Columbia University. She’s the author of the forthcoming book, Past Obsessions: World War Two in History and Memory. She says most Japanese are not expecting an apology from Obama.
CAROL GLUCK: For most Japanese, Obama's visit actually fits with the Japanese story about the bomb, that the atomic bomb gave Japan its postwar mission for peace. Now, the story in the United States is very different, that the atomic bomb ended the war and saved American lives. So the Japanese bomb story begins in 1945 and goes forward in the mission for peace. The American bomb story ends in ’45. Those are two separate stories. They will not cross. And the President's position that the lesson of the past is for a nonnuclear future, it's almost like a third story.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s as if modern Japanese history began [LAUGHS] in 1945. And especially under the right-wing government of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, there has been this official reluctance to come to terms with Japan's violent imperialism in the 30s and the wartime atrocities in the occupation of Manchuria, rape of Nanking, and so forth. A decade of militarism remains all but absent from the cultural memory. How can that be?
CAROL GLUCK: Well, the sort of right-wing or nationalist view of not apologizing for anything is the government's view. It is - does not reflect the views of the Japanese public, who really have acknowledged such atrocities as the sex slavery of the comfort women and things of that sort.
BOB GARFIELD: I said it’s as if history began [LAUGHS] in 1945 in modern Japan, but you've written that the United States was very much at the heart of this kind of revisionist history, as occupier and country in search of a long-term ally in the Pacific Rim.
CAROL GLUCK: The Japanese story about the war, which is that the Japanese people were victims of their leadership, was something that was actually formed under the American occupation and with American guidance. The name of the war was changed from the Greater East Asia War to the Pacific War and the causes of the war were determined to have been domestic, not international, so there was no Empire and no China war. And that particular story was co-created by Americans and Japanese and was very comfortable for the Japanese because it pointed toward a peaceful and democratic future, rather than backward toward a militaristic and aggressive past.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the United States from 1945 has, its in own way, stubbornly clung to our own narrative, the moment President Truman announced on the radio on August 9th, the day of the Nagasaki bombing.
PRESIDENT HARRY TRUMAN: We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan's power to make war.
BOB GARFIELD: And it's a narrative so short, it could sit on a postage stamp. In 1995, [LAUGHS] it almost did.
CAROL GLUCK: Yes, the US Post Office designed a stamp that said, “Atomic Bombs Hasten War’s End.” And it was only because of opposition on the part of Japanese and others that it wasn't issued.
BOB GARFIELD: Also in 1995, there was an effort at historical nuance that was met with a lot of protest, when the Smithsonian was preparing an exhibit that involved the Enola Gay, the actual plane that dropped the bomb.
CAROL GLUCK: And then there arose a great storm of protest from veterans, from the Air Force. They objected to the fact that in that exhibition there was going to be some photographs of survivors and the physical horrors and there was also going to be mention of the nuclear arms race that followed. That was cut out of the exhibit, so that you had a very shiny silver fuselage of the airplane and no mention of atomic radiation and its consequences or of nuclear war.
BOB GARFIELD: Here’s the then-Smithsonian Director Michael Heyman, explaining why the exhibit would be rethought.
MICHAEL HEYMAN: In this important anniversary year, veterans and their families were expecting, and rightly so, that the nation would honor and commemorate their valor and sacrifice. They were not looking for analysis and, frankly, we did not give enough thought to the intense feelings such analysis would evoke.
CAROL GLUCK: I think it's very important to understand that in the context of 1945, most American servicemen, no matter where they were stationed, who heard about the atomic bombing felt a sense of liberation and relief. I think that the objections to the Enola Gay exhibition were that it would bring up the question of whether dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a morally defensible thing. Everyone even today who might object to this visit, that's what they will say. If the issue is should we have dropped the bomb, the answer is yes and it shouldn’t be revisited
BOB GARFIELD: Now, a lot has changed in the ensuing 20 years, not necessarily an opening of the broader American mind but just that most of those veterans who protested at the time are dead.
CAROL GLUCK: Most of the younger people learn what they learn about the past from television, from movies and from the media. So younger people very often have anti-nuclear attitudes, without knowing anything about exactly what happened at the end of World War II and what role the atomic bomb played in ending the war.
BOB GARFIELD: It is amazing what young people on both sides of the Pacific don't know about the war. Last year, for the 70th anniversary of the bombings, there was a poll in Japan and [LAUGHS] the results are jaw-dropping.
CAROL GLUCK: Only 50 percent of the Japanese polled knew the US was fighting against Japan. The other 50 percent thought that the US and Japan were allies. By the way, this has happened on the American side too with polls. Younger people can't believe that America and Japan were fighting, particularly in Japan. So they don't know the facts of the war. But they do know the mushroom cloud; everyone knows the mushroom cloud. And everyone knows about the horrors of nuclear war.
BOB GARFIELD: Certainly, in the United States, we’ve revisited other contentious aspects of our history. Why is this a blind spot?
CAROL GLUCK: Oh, we have a lot of blind spots. [LAUGHS] The question you’re asking really has to do with history and memory, with how much people know about the past – let’s call that history. And the images that come, as I said, from popular culture tend to form the landscape of the memory of the past.
Students in the United States, they learn about the Civil War, they learn about slavery but their images very often, especially in the last two years, are likely to come from 12 Years a Slave, not from the textbooks.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, what’s the 12 Years a Slave of Hiroshima?
CAROL GLUCK: Well, I suppose on the Japanese side it would be the first Godzilla movie -
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- which was made in reaction in the aftermath of the hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific, which resulted in, in the radiation poisoning Japanese fisherman who were nearby the atoll.
Godzilla is a nuclear monster and all the Japanese who saw that in the mid-50s, the original Godzilla, not the American Godzilla, they knew the references.
BOB GARFIELD: The President’s gonna speak of regret but not of apology. Does it advance the conversation, what the President is doing? Does it advance understanding? Does it, itself, do justice to history?
CAROL GLUCK: The symbolism of placing the wreaths or the flowers or whatever and recognizing the enormity of nuclear war, yes, that does a kind of justice to the past. That's what the role of memory is.
Now, when it comes to historical details and things, no, but that’s not what this is about. That’s not what politicians do. And, as for apology, there are certain kind of apologies that must be made, such as to the former sex slaves, the comfort women, and there are other kinds of apologies, such as for Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima, that seems unlikely. Giving the flowers, acknowledging with a bow what that atom bomb wrought, I do think that has real symbolic value in the landscape of public memory, on both sides of the Pacific.
BOB GARFIELD: Carol, thank you so much.
CAROL GLUCK: Thank you. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: Carol Gluck is a professor of Japanese History at Columbia University. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Past Obsessions: World War II in History and Memory.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’ll be devoting the rest of this hour to the use and abuse of collective memory. Up next, how the modern-day marketing of the Blitz era slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On” trades on nostalgia to promote a very different approach to hard times.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.