John Kerry is in Hiroshima for Group of Seven talks, and on Monday toured the city's Peace Memorial Museum, becoming the first sitting secretary of state to visit the museum and take its grim journey through the dropping of the atomic bomb.
Kerry said "everybody" should tour the museum, including President Obama, who visits Japan next month, and having toured it myself this past March, I agree with him.
It's a somber place, by necessity, but as stark as the story it tells, of the atomic bomb exploding above Hiroshima at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, and the toll on the humans living below, it is also an incomplete story as well.
You can't be a human being and not be saddened by the experience—Kerry called it "gut-wrenching." But I was also struck by the subtle dishonesty of the exhibits, which emphasize the deaths of school children over just about anything else. Again and again. Mannequins holding their tattered uniforms, photos of their injuries. It would be possible to visit the museum and miss the fact that there had been a war at all, one started by the Japanese invading Manchuria, a brutal global struggle for survival which the Americans, who were fiercely isolationist, unfortunately, were drawn into only when the Japanese attacked our base at Pearl Harbor one Sunday morning in December, 1941, killing 2,000 American servicemen.
This is not a minor point. Though I suppose the Japanese can be forgiven for not emphasizing it, since we do such a poor job of teaching the story ourselves. Many Americans don't know we fought the Japanese in World War II, never worry about fine points like the atomic bomb. That was illustrated this week on my Facebook page, in a discussion of Germany, someone mentioned Japan's failure to come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on its neighbors in World War II.
"Japan is a pretty peaceful place," a woman replied, "what we did to them was horrible."
In the discussion afterward, it turned out, she didn't know that Japan was responsible for some 10 million deaths prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb, most in China, which it invaded in 1937 and brutalized. Americans alive at the time were profoundly grateful for the bomb—85 percent approved its use, according to a Gallup Poll in September, 1945—which saved uncounted American lives — and Japanese — lives that would have been lost had we been forced to invade the island. Guilt over its use is based on anachronism: applying the values of today to the past, conveniently forgetting large swatches of history including the fact that, awful as the bombing of Hiroshima was, it did not prompt the Japanese to surrender. A second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, was required to do that.