by Bruce Thornton
The moral incoherence of the U.S. expressing regret for swiftly ending a war it didn’t start.
Next month, Obama will be in Japan for the G-7 Summit. There are rumors that he will visit Hiroshima and formally apologize for the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on that city and Nagasaki in August 1945. Maybe that’s why John Kerry didn’t apologize during a recent visit to the Hiroshima memorial, but merely set the stage for Obama by lamenting the suffering and calling for a “world free from nuclear weapons.”
The debate over whether or not Truman should have authorized dropping the bombs is an old one. And any objective evaluation of the decision shows that it was correct, for it shortened the war and saved millions of Japanese and American lives. More interesting than rehashing what should be a settled debate is the ideological prejudices and moral incoherence of those who continue to want the U.S. to express regret for swiftly ending a war it didn’t start and paid for with nearly 112,000 lives.
First is the idea, serially displayed by Obama since the beginning of his presidency, that the U.S. has been a bad international actor and so must atone for its sins. As the leftist tale goes, America’s corporate greed, imperialist depredations, and racist nationalism sowed the seeds of all the world’s disorder and ills. Whether poverty in Africa, violence in the Middle East, or global warming, the default response is “When all else fails, blame the Americans.”
Just watch Oliver Stone’s 10-part “documentary” on the Cold War, “The Untold History of the United States,” or read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. This is the “Yankees done us wrong” school of factually challenged historiography that has spread into popular culture, high school curricula, and whole departments in most universities. With Obama it has now reached the presidency, where its malign effects have been obvious in his foreign policy disasters caused by feckless “disengagement” and “leading from behind” predicated on reversing America’s malign interventionism.
The phenomenon of national self-loathing, however, is not new. It is an old ideological artifact of Marxist-Leninism, which along with its hatred of capitalism and liberal democracy, demonized colonialism and imperialism as unmitigated, unique evils, rather than being a tragic mixture of good and bad typical of everything flawed humans do. This smear of the Western economic and political system that had created the richest, freest people in history validated self-hatred among some citizens of the nations guilty of such alleged crimes. And even though the U.S. has never been a true imperial or colonial power, after World War II the indictment was shifted to America when it became the dominant global power and the premier challenger of communist ideology.
This dangerous anti-patriotism began mainly in England among leftist literary and intellectual elites, who had begun to turn against the British Empire in the late 19th century. In 1933, the year Hitler came to power, Winston Churchill warned of this by then fashionable set of attitudes:
Our difficulties come from the mood of unwarrantable self-abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of our own intellectuals. They come from the acceptance of defeatist doctrines by a large proportion of our politicians. But what have they to offer but a vague internationalism, a squalid materialism, and the promise of impossible utopias?
This “sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage,” Orwell continues, “the persistent effort to chip away English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm. It would have been harmful even if we had been living in the squashy League of Nations universe that these people imagined. In the age of Fuhrers and bombing planes it was a disaster.” Any nation that wants to survive must have citizens who believe that their way of life is worth fighting and dying for.
The attitudes Orwell describes are widespread in America today, and were already obvious in the Sixties. The dislike of America, once found mainly among communists and fellow travelers in the universities and Hollywood, spread widely throughout the larger culture. “Sniggering” at patriotism, despising one’s own country, looking down on the military, sneering at the “silent majority” who still believed in God and Country, praising delusional internationalism, and indulging a stealth pacifism that preached “violence solves nothing”–– all became unquestioned dogma and fashion markers for those who fancied themselves as more cosmopolitan and sophisticated than the mass of oafish rubes who knew the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and saluted the flag. And, as Orwell noted in the case of England, soon the schools and popular culture adopted the same clichés and stale dogmas founded on left-wing prejudice, ignorance of historical fact, and moral idiocy.
Obama is the political culmination of this process and an embodiment of the “blame America” reflex. He has publicly denigrated his own country before international audiences. He has questioned the belief that America is an exceptional nation, and advised us to be “mindful of our own imperfections.” He apologized to the Muslim world for the “tensions” between Islam and the West caused by “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” He assured the Turks that the U.S. “is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history.” He regretted that his country had been “arrogant, dismissive, derisive” to Europeans. He told Latin Americans that during his presidency the U.S. will “acknowledge past errors.” And he regretted that after 9/11 “all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions,” a despicable slander of his predecessor and others who acted on their responsibility to keep Americans safe.
Such “unwarrantable self-abasement” before our allies and adversaries has reinforced Obama’s preference for conducting foreign policy with the tools of the “squashy [U.N.] universe” of multilateralism, “soft power,” non-lethal sanctions, endless conferences and summits, appeasing negotiations with inveterate enemies, and symbolic actions more useful for marketing Obama’s “legacy” than neutralizing or countering aggression. To paraphrase Orwell again, such attitudes are always harmful for a great power with global responsibilities and numerous enemies. But in an age of jihadist terrorism, the nuclear ambitions of an apocalyptic Islamic cult, and nuclear powers like Russia and China relentlessly expanding their reach and influence, they have been a disaster.
Finally, the eagerness to apologize for our nation’s history bespeaks a corrosive moral idiocy. Apologizing for Hiroshima, for example, ignores the age-old wisdom that, as Aeschylus put it, “the doer suffers.” Imperial Japan slaughtered millions and viciously brutalized millions more in a conflict it started based on a lust for empire and a racist ideology. Obama and those of his mind-set should read about the Japanese attack on Nanking in 1937, in which as many as 300,000 people, mostly civilians, were brutally murdered, and millions more raped and tortured. He should read about the torture, forced labor, starvation, and beheadings of our soldiers during the Bataan Death March in 1942, which led to the deaths of 21,000 American and Philippine soldiers.
He should also read the history of the battle of Okinawa that ended a mere six weeks before Hiroshima. This was a brutal battle that both sides called a “typhoon of steel.” Many Japanese civilians (some as young as 14) fought, hundreds of kamikaze suicide-bombers attacked American ships, and over 20,000 Americans died by the time the island was taken. Maybe then Obama would learn about the fanaticism of the Japanese troops––in the Pacific War, one American died for every two wounded, but 17 Japanese died for every one wounded. Maybe he’d learn that on Okinawa the Japanese fought to the death for vicious cause they knew was already lost. Then maybe he’d understand what Truman and his military advisors knew––invading the sacred Japanese home-islands, defended not just by soldiers but also by civilian militias, would be many times more costly in lives and destruction than were the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But fact and moral clarity are both in short supply among today’s progressives and other believers in “vague internationalism” and “impossible utopias.” Instead, cheap sentimentalism and moral preening substitute for accepting the tragic costs that at times must be paid to protect our security and freedom. When indulged by our Commander-in-Chief, these specious apologies do not show moral superiority or sophistication, nor do they cultivate international good will. Instead they create the perception of fear and weakness that provokes aggression from our enemies ––a timeless truth we should long ago have learned from history.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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