The Slate Gist


President Clinton is considering a formal, national apology for slavery. Skeptics from Newt Gingrich to Jesse Jackson have registered dissatisfaction with the idea. Yet an apology bill has already been introduced in the House. When have governments apologized in the past? Which wrongs do or do not warrant apologies? Must apologies be linked to material reparations?

Last week, Mike Tyson offered a public apology for biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear. Sportswriters called the fighter’s pay-per-chew regrets disingenuous, saying that his groveling was more about avoiding a lifetime ban from the sport than about being sorry. Such self-serving apologies are more transparent when the stakes are higher. The first national apology of the 20th century came nearly 80 years ago, when Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. The treaty stated that Germanyaccepts responsibility” for “causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected.” Reparations of 132 billion gold marks were commanded by the agreement, but the apology that came with the money was even less heartfelt than Iron Mike’s.

One world war later, Germany asked for forgiveness again, but this time the expression was genuine. The nation’s leaders, who repeatedly describe their nation’s past aggressions as “the worst crimes against humanity,” are still apologizing for starting World War II. One former chancellor dropped to his knees in a Warsaw ghetto in symbolic atonement. The German government has made payments to Israel totaling nearly $70 billion, not including personal pensions for Holocaust survivors amounting to almost $15 billion. And Germany continues to make amends to new groups of victims. In 1992 it began reparations to 50,000 East German Jews. Last year it paid $1.35 million to Holocaust survivors in Lithuania, and it is negotiating like agreements with Estonia and Latvia.

Poland has also formally apologized for the slaughter of Jews, and Italy and Finland have paid reparations, but other nations have been less forthcoming. François Mitterrand consistently claimed France owed no apologies, though in 1995 Jacques Chirac recognized French responsibility in deporting Jews. Switzerland has recently offered words of conciliation and established a reparations fund, but many Jews feel it has yet to make full amends for its role as banker to the Nazi party.

Japan’s World War II penitence is suspect. Although it has made monetary reparations–a total of $3.9 billion to the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, and Indonesia–Japan has been largely unwilling to admit wrongdoing. It has made no official payments to China or Korea despite its brutal invasions of those countries, and has never apologized to Allied POWs, who now demand money and official recognition.

Also seeking acknowledgment are the 200,000 “comfort women,” mostly Korean, who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. Japan denied their very existence until 1993. In 1995 it established a private “consolation fund” for restitution, but most surviving comfort women have refused the money, demanding a public apology and public compensation.

Japanese politicians’ reluctance to apologize stems from their fear of blaming ancestors and dishonoring war heroes. The government has always used the word hansei, regret, instead of owabi, apologize. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued an official owabi apology on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II but soon after qualified his statement, stressing that it was a personal apology, not a national one. At the moment of Murayama’s remarks, nine Cabinet members were conspicuously visiting a shrine to Japan’s military dead–some of whom had been executed for war crimes.

The last decade has witnessed a spate of public atonement. In 1988, Ronald Reagan apologized to Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during World War II. Congress awarded $20,000 to each internee. In 1992, Canada returned 850,000 square miles of stolen ancestral lands to the Inuit. The Maoris of New Zealand were ceded 39,000 acres of land and paid $112 million by the Crown in 1995, as part of a bill personally signed by Queen Elizabeth. Within a month of taking office, Tony Blair marked the 150th anniversary of the Irish potato famine by acknowledging his predecessors’ failure to aid an ailing Ireland.

Of modern politicians, however, Bill Clinton is the most contrite. In 1995, Clinton apologized to victims of unethical radiation experiments conducted during the Cold War. This year Clinton offered a formal apology to survivors of the Tuskegee medical study that denied syphilis treatment to 399 black men. Certain victims of both projects have received compensation. While Clinton is pondering an apology to descendants of slaves, he says he opposes material reparations. Almost no slaves were compensated after the Civil War.

Other groups still demand apologies. Latin Americans of Japanese descent were extradited from their countries by the United States, and interned just as their American brethren were, yet received no reparations. Native American groups are fighting for official recognition of their holocaust, arguing that any apology to slaves must be paired with one to their own ancestors. Australian aborigines have long sought acknowledgment of the atrocities inflicted upon them. (This June, Australian Prime Minister John Howard once again stated his opposition to issuing a national apology.)

On the other hand, while Armenian groups struggle for official notice, they are not yet requesting official apologies. Turkish governments since 1921 have refused to admit the Armenian genocide occurred.