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18:57 2 May 2016

OPINION: Make "What past is" a "Prologue" for peaceful world

By Martin J. Sherwin
WASHINGTON, May 2, Kyodo

Carved into the frieze above the entrance to the National Archives building in Washington are words that encourage a visit by President Obama to Hiroshima: "What is Past is Prologue." History, it suggests, can neither be erased nor forgotten; it is a persistent influence on our lives. It can liberate or imprison us. How we choose to remember the past determines how we live in the future. The philosopher George Santayana's famous dictum: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," is quoted often. But, ironically, its inverse is equally prophetic: Those who remember the past too well are condemned to repeat it. If we enable history to sustain a hateful past it will doom us to repetition.

Forgetting is not the alternative to remembering "too well." The alternative is empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, both in the past and the present. That is often hard for those who lived through a terrible event, such as World War II, but future generations can choose liberation.

Secretary of State John Kerry's recent visit to Hiroshima was a giant step toward redefining how Americans relate to Hiroshima and the Japanese people. It is also a reflection of changing attitudes in American society. As Mr. Kerry stated in response to a question by a senior reporter of Kyodo News: "...we are engaged in this effort to try to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons remind people of the power of reconciliation, the power of people who were once enemies who were at war being able to come together, find the common ground, build strong democracies, build alliances, and do important things that have a positive impact on people in the rest of the world." He was speaking for President Barack Obama.

American political culture has evolved since its detestable support in 1995 for celebrating the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. New generations of Americans are able to consider the history of World War II dispassionately, and that has led to a more nuanced and objective understanding of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With every passing decade, fewer Americans are wedded to the mistaken belief that those bombings saved American lives. And with every passing decade, even more Americans believe that it is important to approach that history with empathy, in a spirit of reconciliation.

An American president's visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum would be an emotional and political turning point in U.S.-Japan relations. It also would be a signal to the world to renew Mr. Obama's 2009 call for a world freed from the threat of nuclear war. It will be a global lesson about how to make "What is Past (a) Prologue" for a better, peaceful future.


(Martin J. Sherwin is professor of history at George Mason University. Author of: A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for American Prometheus, a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer.)




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