The Presidents Have No Regrets

Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell are coauthors of "Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial," just reissued in paperback

We’ve always known where Harry Truman stood (“I have no qualms about it whatever”). Now we know that Bill Clinton and Bob Dole stand beside him. This assures that an important historical record will continue into the next century: Not a single American president, while in office, has questioned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan in August 1945.

The likelihood of a Clinton-Dole division on this issue might seem strong. Dole suffered a severe injury during World War II, while Clinton is the first president since Truman who did not serve in the military during that war. Clinton, therefore, does not have the emotional investment in the decision to use the bomb that Dole and other World War II veterans understandably retain. And he serves as president at a time when many Americans--fully 50% in some polls--are finally questioning the wisdom of dropping the bomb. Yet both Clinton and Dole have explicitly endorsed Truman’s decision.

Clinton, like his predecessors, inherited from Truman a firm belief in the official version of Hiroshima: The bomb was necessary to end the war and save American lives. This is significant, for it conveys the idea that nuclear weapons are usable; in turn, it justifies the continued stockpiling of nuclear weapons (despite the end of the Cold War) and retaining the U.S. “first use” policy--meaning we could strike first in some future conflict.


The one president who disputed the Hiroshima decision did so both before and after residing in the White House. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower first made his views public in his 1948 memoir, “Crusade in Europe,” asserting that he “disliked seeing the United States take the lead in introducing into war something as horrible and destructive as this new weapon.” Fifteen years later, in a second memoir, he charged that “Japan was already defeated and . . . dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”

How did Eisenhower’s attitude about Hiroshima affect his view of nuclear weapons? It did not prevent him from overseeing an enormous nuclear buildup during the 1950s.

In 1964, four years before he was elected president, Richard Nixon spoke at a gathering of Japanese leaders in Hiroshima. Like many foreign dignitaries, Nixon laid a wreath at the memorial and offered a silent prayer. Hiroshima, he told reporters, “has made the world promise to strive for peace.”

But what impression did visiting Hiroshima have on Nixon? He strongly defended the use of the bomb for the rest of his life and claimed that he considered using nuclear weapons himself on several occasions.

During the late 1980s, on one of his many trips to Japan, Jimmy Carter became only the second president to visit Hiroshima. But like Nixon, he was out of office when he did it.

Ronald Reagan, who presided over a massive nuclear buildup (begun under Carter), also made few public references to Hiroshima. In 1980, he told a reporter that the bomb “ended a great war and probably saved, well, it’s been estimated 2 million casualties, in what would have eventually been the invasion of Japan.” Later, Reagan said the biblical Armageddon might be at hand, and that a passage in Revelations specifically foretold Hiroshima. It described a plague where, he explained, “the eyes are burned from the head and the hair falls from the body and so forth.”


When the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor arrived in 1991, George Bush was an effective spokesman for reconciliation, for he had been shot down in the Pacific by the Japanese. But then a controversy erupted linking Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima. Top Japanese officials had expressed “remorse” about the attack on Pearl Harbor and the country’s parliament debated a resolution to finally offer the U.S. a formal apology.

This led to a good deal of public talk in both Japan and America about whether the U.S. would respond with some statement of regret about Hiroshima. When a television reporter asked Bush about this, he replied: “Not from this president. I was fighting over there.” In his adamant refusal, Bush expressed not only the enduring influence of the official Hiroshima narrative but the powerful emotions of a World War II survivor who, like Bob Dole, had lost friends in the fighting.

Last year, President Clinton preemptively cut off any calls for a U.S. apology. He announced that he agreed with Truman’s decision, which “we did not believe then and I do not believe now was the wrong one.”

Now another year has passed, and a divisive debate over the atomic bombings continues.The nuclear threat has declined since the fall of Soviet communism, but U.S. presidents continue to oversee a nuclear arsenal with 5,000 operational warheads. Opinion surveys and the dispute over the Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum suggest that Hiroshima rests uneasily on the American conscience. The issue continues to provoke strong, sometimes angry, feelings. Clinton and Dole may not do it, but one day an American president must fully address this issue, for the nuclear threat can never be eradicated without first coming to terms with Hiroshima--our enduring precedent for the usable bomb.