8 Belated Apologies from the History Books

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In the 21st century, it’s very easy to get caught. Sexual indiscretions, racist tirades, drug abuse: It’s likely they’re all being recorded in some way, and glum-faced apologies delivered to the world via Oprah are daily news. But it wasn’t always so. Until recently you had to screw up pretty big to lay down a public mea culpa, usually after years of public outrage and long after the victims could be helped by it.

1. “We’re sorry we had you burned at the stake. But you looked awful in those pants.”

When she was 13, saints in heaven began telling Joan of Arc to drive the English out of her native France. By the time she was 17, she was doing exactly that. She led her armies to retake half the country. When she was eventually captured, the English knew she was no ordinary prisoner of war. She was too inspirational, and so they needed to crush her. They told her if she recanted her visions and stopped wearing men’s clothes, they wouldn’t kill her. She obeyed, signing a confession she could not read. Days later she was back in men’s clothes, as the threat of rape in her cell had become a constant. This enabled the English to say she’d relapsed, and they burned the 19-year-old at the stake. Twenty years later, in 1450, her king, Charles VII, who had made no effort to save her from the English, decided it was safe to try and cleanse the stain of heresy from Joan’s name (and his own). He sought a retrial from the Church, who took six years to decide that Joan had been the victim of political corruption. She was declared a martyr, not a heretic, in 1456.

2. “We regret that we massacred that wagon train from Arkansas. But Utah makes everyone a little crazy.” 

One hundred and sixty years of shame and blame have muddled the details and motivations of why the Mountain Meadows Massacre ever took place. Everyone can agree that a Mormon militia and a handful of Paiute Indians slaughtered 120 members of an emigrant wagon train heading toward California. At that point in history, many Mormons were fearful of outsiders and the religious persecution they might bring. They bribed Paiute Indians to help attack the pioneers. After a long siege, the Mormon militia broached the encircled wagons waving a white flag. They coaxed the pioneers out, then ambushed and murdered all but 17 children under age 7, deemed too young to ever relate what had happened. Though the church has expressed regret in dribs and drabs over the years, the closest thing to an official apology came in 2007, when high-ranking Elder Henry B. Eyring made the statement, “What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct. We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here." Some descendants of the survivors couldn’t help but note the lack of the word “sorry” anywhere in the statement. 

3. “We’re sorry we convicted you of homosexuality and chemically castrated you. Also, thanks for inventing computers and saving our country in WWII.” 

So, Mr. Alan Turing. You were a genius mathematician. You laid the groundwork for all digital computers and invented the Turing Test. You were an Olympic qualifier in track and field. You kept the Germans at bay in WWII by cracking their impossible-to-crack cipher. And you were gay. Which is why, in 1952, England convicted you of "gross indecency and sexual perversion,” and forced you to take female hormones to curb your "unnatural" desires. You died of apparent suicide two years later. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a public apology for the “appalling way” you were treated. Better yet, there is a bill in Parliament to pardon you. It’s so far been denied.

4. “I’m sorry my lies got you executed for witchcraft. All the kids were doing it!”

When Ann Putnam was 12, she would lay writhing and screaming on the ground, accusing local women of causing her invisible anguish. She was one of the young girls whose hysterics caused the death of 26 accused witches in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Ann was different, though. In 1706, she apologized for the innocent blood her accusations had spilt. Sorta. “I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan.” Note how much worse the mischief is that teens get up to when they don’t have violent video games and cell phones.

5. “I’m sorry I reported gayness as curable without doing any real research. That didn’t mess with your head or anything, did it?”

Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Spitzer literally wrote the book (DSM-III) about modern mental disorders. So when he declared in 2001 that if a person wanted it bad enough they could “cure” their gayness, it shook the psychiatric world. He did do a study, phone interviewing over 200 “reformed homosexuals” on their urges and happiness levels, but his research was sloppy and biased. Almost all his interviewees were sent to him from religious organizations, not to mention that people saying they feel different does not prove they have really changed. In 2012, Spitzer recanted his study. “I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some 'highly motivated' individuals.” Unlike most belated apologies, this one takes full responsibility, and may still help the people who hear it.

6. “We’re sorry we ate your missionaries.” 

Neither the descendants of missionary Rev. Thomas Baker, nor the descendants of the Fijian tribe that ate him in 1867, can remember what started it all. Some think it was because Baker violated a taboo by touching the Chief’s hair, but more likely it was just a general resistance to the spread of Christianity. At any rate, Baker and his Fijian converts were clubbed to death, roasted on flat rocks, and eaten. More than a century later, the villagers of Nubutautau believed that act had cursed their tribe, and gathered in 2003 to offer a powerful ceremonial apology to 10 of Baker’s Australian descendants. Peter Tale, a Fijian government official, said: "Many people were killed and eaten in the olden times. But we in this generation don't like it at all." Good. Just so we’re clear on that before my vacation to Lautoka.

7. “I’m sorry I got photographed pretending to shoot guns designed to kill Americans. But seriously guys, communism is awesome.”

Jane Fonda: Actress, fitness guru, political activist, and despised traitor to America. At least, that’s what the general opinion was after photos were taken of her relaxing on and even looking into the sight of enemy anti-aircraft guns during the Vietnam War in 1972. Fonda approached peace from a different angle than most Americans liked, telling an audience at Michigan State University in 1970, “I would think that if you understood what communism was, you would hope, you would pray on your knees that we would someday become communists.” Toward the end of her tour, she claims she was exhausted and distracted and didn’t even notice what she was sitting on when all those photos started snapping. Those photos engendered a hatred of Fonda that still burns today, something her multiple apologies haven’t changed. “I was trying to help end the killing and the war, but there were times when I was thoughtless and careless about it and I'm very sorry that I hurt [military service members]," Fonda told Barbara Walters in 1988. "And I want to apologize to them and their families. [...] I will go to my grave regretting the photograph of me in an anti-aircraft gun, which looks like I was trying to shoot at American planes. It hurt so many soldiers.”

8. "We’re sorry we ruined your Olympic career and made you a national pariah. But seriously, supporting human rights? You kinda had it coming."

You’ve seen the picture. The winners' dais at the 1968 Olympics, the two black American medalists with their heads bowed, fists raised in the Black Power salute. Next to them is the white guy, Australian sprinter Peter Norman. It may look like he’s standing there hapless as history is made, but that wasn’t the case. He supported his fellow athletes, having promised them earlier that he’d “stand by them.” He wore a controversial badge, representing the Olympic Project for Human Rights. We may not have noticed, but his country sure did. Upon returning to Australia, Norman was decried as a disgrace for supporting Tommie Smith and John Carlos in their silent protest. Even though he was the fifth fastest sprinter in the world at the time (and still the record holder for Australia), he was banned from the 1972 Olympics, and his career was effectively over. He was offered the chance to condemn Smith and Carlos many times over the next decades, and refused to. In 2012, the Australian Parliament passed a motion which “apologises to Peter Norman for the treatment he received upon his return to Australia and the failure to fully recognise his inspirational role before his untimely death.” That death was in 2006. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers.