Apologizing to people of other countries may be one of the worst sins a national leader can commit. Or so it seemed, as Republicans lambasted President Barack Obama for making what they called an “apology tour” in 2009, and when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney titled his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. “Expressions of patriotism and national pride take a backseat to incessant national fault finding,” he wrote, “and rather than recognize our national morality and goodness, some are inclined to apologize for America.”

But to the contrary, apologizing can have absolutely essential political and moral import. Japan has been urged to apologize—and make reparations—for offenses committed prior to and during the Second World War. And now Japanese organizations are calling on the United States to apologize for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the same war. Far from mere rhetorical exercises, these acts of contrition establish the act as abhorrent and show that the perpetrator accepts responsibility. Acknowledging wrongdoing can inhibit them from engaging in atrocities again.

A Two-Way Street

In early February 2014, eight Japanese organizations submitted a letter to President Obama calling on him to apologize on behalf of the United States for the use of atomic weapons in Japan. We “urge you to acknowledge that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was a crime against humanity involving the indiscriminate mass killing of civilians,” they wrote. “Accordingly, we urge you to offer an official apology to the victims of these war atrocities.”

The organizations are requesting the apology because they believe it will be pivotal to preventing future disasters. “We are convinced that an American apology is vital to achieve the abolishment of nuclear weapons,” they continued. “We also sincerely believe that doing so will increase pressure on the Japanese government to acknowledge its own war crimes of the 1940s” and thereby lead to greater stability in Asia.

Such calls for the United States to apologize for atrocities it committed during its war with Japan, including the firebombing of Tokyo, are entirely appropriate. Any country guilty of war crimes should atone for them. Apologies would be deeply meaningful, not only to survivors, but to the descendants of victims, and to future generations as well. That is because the self-reflection entailed in a sincere apology leads to the possibility of changing behavior. When one is horrified at one’s own actions, one doesn’t want to repeat them. Conversely, one who insists on the justice of past actions is unlikely to change.

With some justification, Japan itself has often been accused of lacking contrition for horrible acts committed by the Imperial Army. But the Japanese government has also issued some important apologies. In 1993, for example, Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa declared: “I would thus like to take this opportunity to express anew our profound remorse and apologies for the fact that past Japanese actions, including aggression and colonial rule, caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people and to state that we will demonstrate our new determination by contributing more than ever before to world peace.” That same year, the Kono Statement expressed apology for the “immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds” suffered by “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II. And while his numerous inflammatory statements and actions make his sincerity open to question, current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared in March 2014 that he would uphold that apology.

In this respect, Japan is far ahead of the United States.

Nonetheless, some in the United States have been earnest in demanding apologies from Japan. The House of Representatives passed a resolution in 2007 urging Japan to apologize again for the “comfort women” system, and the State Department recently welcomed Tokyo’s announcement that it will abide by the Kono Statement’s apology. The Washington Post has suggested that not just private compensation, but direct reparations should be paid to survivors as well. As some have rightly observed, if these actions don’t happen soon, the time will come when no survivors will remain  to accept apologies or benefit from payments.

But it’s highly unlikely that the House of Representatives or the Washington Post would ever extend the same consideration to victims of U.S. atomic and incendiary bombing in Japan.

This hypocrisy has negative consequences. It gives other countries excuses to commit the same crimes, and makes it harder to hold them accountable. As Philip Seaton writes in Japan’s Contested War Memories, “American refusals to issue an official apology give conservatives and nationalists in Japan a trump card: ‘why should we apologize when others do not?’” Similarly, insistence on the validity of American bombings that targeted noncombatants in 1945 means that when the U.S. State Department condemns such targeting by Syria, its admonitions ring hollow.

America’s dominance in world politics gives it considerable influence over international norms—for good or for ill. The opportunity to create positive change is squandered when lofty speeches conflict with official policy. Thus, even as it decries the proliferation of nuclear weapons, by defending their only use the United States sends the implicit message that such weapons do indeed have legitimacy.

Rhetoric and Reality

The recent appeals, naturally, are directed at the current president, Barack Obama. He came to office in 2009, raising hopes for a sharp break from the jingoism and militarism of the Bush years. Since then, he has continued to move people with stirring speeches, such as the one he gave on nuclear disarmament in April 2009 in Prague. There he grounded his inspirational message to “stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century” in specific policy proposals for arms reduction, nuclear non-proliferation, and U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Despite the lofty ideals and practical steps he articulated, over time we have seen how unreliable a guide such statements can be to his actual policies.

Now the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have invited President Obama, along with the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, to attend the peace memorial ceremonies of each city in August 2014. If Obama accepts that invitation, the significance of the visit will, for once, lie in what he says. And here, it is not the Prague speech that provides the best indicator of what he might say, but rather the Oslo speech he gave that same year as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

Parts of the Oslo speech seem thoughtful and ring true: “Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct,” he said. But more than anything, the speech stands out as a ringing defense of American power. Were Obama to go to Hiroshima, instead of issuing an apology, he might well deliver statements such as these: “So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another—that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.” Having introduced this moral paradox, Obama invokes American goodness to resolve it: “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this:  The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Harsh judgments are meted out to others: “When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma—there must be consequences. Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy—but there must be consequences when those things fail.”

But, as we have seen in the recent case of torture, while other countries may have their actions condemned, the United States need never face consequences. That same year, the Obama administration declined to pursue charges against any officials from the Bush administration connected to the decision to torture detainees from Iraq and Afghanistan.

So when it comes to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, let’s be careful what we wish for. It is sheer fantasy to think that the 44th president would make a heartfelt apology for the decisions of the 33rd. The best we can hope for from a president known for caution is that he would simply lay a wreath at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. More likely, he would set the cause back by offering a vague expression of regret at the lives lost on both sides, accompanied by a historically dubious rationalization of the bombings for supposedly having ended the war and saved lives. The last thing the hibakusha (survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings) want to hear is “We’d do the same thing all over again.”

The problem with official Japanese apologies is that far-right politicians keep nullifying them—denying that the Nanjing Massacre occurred or that the Imperial Army was responsible for the “comfort women” system. Is there any doubt Americans of a similar stripe would act in the same way?

That alone is no argument against an apology. But it does mean that only someone who will forcefully defend his or her stand should make it. Obama, however, in responding to false accusations of going on an apology tour, merely denied having done so—thus giving credence to the idea that there’s something wrong with apologizing.

Pressures against apologizing come not only from Republican politicians, but also from the Japanese government itself. As WikiLeaks revealed, in 2009 Japan warned the Obama administration against visiting Hiroshima and making an apology. The Japanese government may have feared that doing so would undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” or perhaps impair any future effort by Japan to develop nuclear weapons of its own. But this should not deter any president from an apology, which in any case should be made not to the Japanese government, but to the people of the bombed cities.

In Japan, apologies like Hosokawa’s, along with textbooks that dealt honestly with wartime atrocities and sexual slavery, were met with a virulent reaction by the far right. Were Obama to so much as express mild regret about U.S. actions, even some Democrats would abandon him. People calling him a traitor would be all over the Sunday talk shows, while those able to argue for apology would struggle to be heard. Are we ready for a fight like this? If not, as with the controversy over the Smithsonian’s 1995 plan for an exhibit looking squarely at the Hiroshima bombing, it might end up entrenching the very attitudes we want to change.

American Exceptionalism

The refusal to admit that one’s country has done evil things doesn’t exist in isolation. It is supported by an ideology. In the United States, that ideology is American exceptionalism. For if you insist that your country is the greatest on the face of the earth and always uses its power for good, it will be hard to incorporate war crimes into that picture.

American exceptionalism is fraught with contradictions. Sometimes its advocates declare that the United States is great because of the country’s ideals. But ironically, those who insist on living up to those ideals are accused of naiveté. In both Japan and the United States, those who rant the loudest about their country’s greatness are often most hostile to its finest attributes.

In a practical sense, apologizing for one war crime would inevitably raise the issue of others—from Operation Speedy Express to sanctions on Iraq to (quite possibly) the battle of Fallujah—and pretty soon pressure would build against committing new ones. So exceptionalism is not just an ideology for those with a naïve sense of American goodness. Exempting one’s country from moral scrutiny also serves the interests of the “realists” at the State Department and Pentagon for whom any constraint on future actions is anathema. They are dedicated to preserving the view that only other countries commit crimes against humanity, while U.S. misdeeds are merely the acts of “bad apples.”

Daunting as the task of displacing an ideology is, American exceptionalism should be seen as the central impediment to war crimes apologies. The alternative is to strive to do right guided by what Noam Chomsky has called the principle of universality: “if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us.”

As of 2009, a poll found that 61 percent of Americans considered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be justified. Achieving an official apology for acts the American public considers legitimate will undoubtedly be an uphill battle. The added fact that some in the Obama Administration—such as U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice—are likely to do everything they can to prevent such an outcome makes the prospects of an apology exceedingly dim.

Breaking the Taboo

To the extent that progress can come from leaders at all, it makes sense to seek it from those at lower ranks. Before we can get to a presidential apology, we’ll need a lot more acts like Nancy Pelosi’s wreath-laying at Hiroshima in 2008. Along the lines of “only Nixon could go to China,” it would be very helpful if an enlightened Republican or retired military officer would do likewise. The grandson of Harry Truman—the president who ordered the atomic bombings in 1945—showed the way in 2012 when he attended a memorial service for the victims at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. We need more legislators with the courage to shun the language of exceptionalism. Recall that Joe Biden’s remark on marriage equality led to a shift on the issue from Obama. Perhaps a future vice president can provide the final push toward an apology.

But the hope for a quick fix by relying on top-down (or even middle-down) approaches is likely to disappoint. Those of us who believe the United States has things to atone for need to speak about it, and not just to each other. Seaton tells the story of Ayako Kurahashi, who at the behest of her late father had his apology for acts committed while serving the Japanese military in China inscribed on his gravestone. In doing so, she defied powerful social pressures. Kurahashi, writes Seaton, “saw herself fitting a common pattern in Japan: although people have silent knowledge of Japanese aggression, it is taboo to talk about it.”

Americans, too, have a taboo to break.

Jon Reinsch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a Japan specialist and computer programmer based in Seattle. He blogs occasionally at http://jonreinsch.wordpress.com