Some countries are making amends for things they’ve done to other countries. But the United States is never sorry.
I’m so sorry. I now realize that we did something awful to you. For a long time, we minimized and even denied it. Today, finally, we accept responsibility. On my own behalf and on behalf of my people, I offer a heartfelt apology.
World leaders do not easily pronounce words like those. Most countries, like most individuals, wrap themselves in a comfortable myth of innocence. That makes it difficult to admit any kind of guilt. Americans are especially assertive in refusing to acknowledge that we’ve committed crimes abroad. “I will never apologize for the United States, I don’t care what the facts are,” President George H.W. Bush declared after a missile from a US Navy cruiser shot down a civilian Iranian airliner in 1988, killing all 290 people aboard.
“I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy,” Bush liked to say. Neither, it seems, is President Biden. During Biden’s first months in office, he and his senior aides have strongly resisted acknowledging that the United States has ever sinned against other nations. Yet during these same months, three other world leaders have acknowledged their countries’ participation in bloody crimes. They admitted painful truths while Biden remained securely in his cocoon of denial.
In May, President Emmanuel Macron of France traveled to Rwanda and acknowledged “the extent of our responsibilities” for collaborating with perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. Around the same time, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico apologized for a 1911 massacre of 303 Chinese civilians by revolutionary soldiers. Then Germany formally accepted “historical and moral responsibility” for the slaughter of tens of thousands of Africans in the early 20th century and agreed to provide $1.3 billion in aid to Namibia, a former German colony.
This spurt of international apologies was part of a slowly developing trend. British Prime Minister Tony Blair conceded in 1997 that Britain had contributed to the “massive human tragedy” of the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and that this “still causes pain as we reflect on it today.” In 2010 one of his successors, David Cameron, after calling himself a “deeply patriotic” leader who would “never want to believe anything bad about our country,” called the actions of British troops during the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” clash in Northern Ireland “both unjustified and unjustifiable.” Russian President Boris Yeltsin said he felt “deep sorrow” for his country’s abuse of prisoners during World War II. Last year King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets” for oppression that killed millions of people in the Congo during the first half of the 20th century.
Apologizing can be hazardous. It risks stirring dormant anger and feeding a culture of victimhood. Then there’s the question of how far to go. If Biden were to apologize for CIA kidnappings and torture over the last 20 years, why not do so for all abuses during our Iraq and Afghanistan wars? What about the 2011 NATO attack that turned Libya into a failed state? Depending on how far back we want to turn the historical clock, apology writers could examine our actions during the Vietnam War, the Korean War, or even the war we fought against Filipino nationalists more than a century ago.
Biden may be forgiven for not wanting to go that far. Even without actually apologizing for past American offenses, though, he could at least signal that he’s aware of them. Last month, for example, after he accused Russia of interfering in US elections, he wondered aloud: “How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with elections, directly, of other countries and everybody knew it?” Biden must know that the United States has interfered in more elections in more countries over a longer period of time than any nation in history. His disingenuous finger-pointing looks hypocritical to much of the world.
Past presidents have been more willing than Biden to acknowledge American transgressions. Biden was quick to brand President Vladimir Putin of Russia “a killer,” but when President Trump was pressed to do that, his answer was sharper: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
When President Bill Clinton visited Guatemala in 1999, he declared that American “support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.’’ Compare that with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tone-deaf speech in Guatemala last month, in which she never mentioned the devastating history of US intervention there and reduced her message to two memorable words: “Don’t come.”
In 2014 President Obama, speaking frankly about CIA operations after 9/11, admitted that “we tortured some folks.” But this year, on the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Secretary of State Antony Blinken blithely proclaimed that the United States “will not waver in our commitment to condemn and eliminate torture,” offering not a word to suggest that our own country might
Although Biden seems unwilling to apologize for misdeeds the United States has committed abroad, he has found it convenient to lament some that unfolded within the United States. He recently called the 1921 massacre of African Americans in Tulsa “horrific,” and he issued a passionate plea for honesty in facing the facts of American history. “Just because history is silent, it does not mean it did not take place,” he said. “We can’t just choose what we want to know, and not what we should know.”
Biden follows that principle only to the water’s edge. He readily admits that Americans have at times acted horrifically within our own country, but he cannot admit that we have done the same abroad. That refusal isolates the United States. Facing reality doesn’t change what happened. It can, however, be a basis for reconciliation and a source of lessons that might help us shape a more peaceful world.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.