Obama visits Hiroshima. What does it mean?

It seems for some critics President Barack Obama’s visit of Hiroshima is not enough as he will not apologize but for the other side it is too much because he is going there. How do you perceive this visit? Read few comments.

Paul MidfordProfessor of Political Science, Director,  Japan Program, Norwegian University for Science and Technology (NTNU)

I think Obama’s decision to visit Hiroshima, pay his respects to the victims, and visit the museum where their suffering is depicted, is just the right balance. By becoming the first sitting US President to visit either Hiroshima or Nagasaki his visit will have great symbolic significance. Many if not most victims of the US atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say the visit itself, and recognizing their suffering, is sufficient, and that no apology is needed. There is a group of bomb survivors who are calling for an apology, but they appear to be a minority. Most Japanese also appear to welcome the visit, and believe the visit in and of itself is sufficient.

If Obama were to make an apology it would carry some significant risks. One is that this would more deeply embroil the US in history disputes between Japan and its neighbors over apologies and other amends Japan’s neighbors think Tokyo should make for its colonialism and expansionism in East Asia up to 1945. Also, there would be a risk that if Obama apologized for dropping the bomb that this would undermine US extended nuclear deterrence by sending the signal that the US is now less than willing to use nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack on an ally, or retaliate if an ally is attacked by nuclear weapons.

Those who argue that Obama is going too far by visiting Hiroshima mostly consist of US nationalists who complain that Obama has been on a “global apology tour” for the US ever since he took office. They see just going to Hiroshima as a de facto apology. In that sense their view is the same as that of many bomb survivors and most Japanese, namely that the visit itself is a type of de facto apology. Others oppose the visit precisely because they think this will embroil the US in the history disputes between Japan and its neighbors, or because they think this will undermine US nuclear deterrence (see the paragraph above). However, in my view, the fact that Obama is just visiting and not issuing a verbal apology avoids both problems.

Joshua Walker, Director, Global Programs, APCO Worldwide, Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States

Critics of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima on both sides of the issue will find plenty of problems to take issue with, however the symbolism of the first US president visiting the sight of the world’s first nuclear weapon in tandem with a former enemy now turned critical ally like Japanese Prime Minister Abe is powerful.Its an important bookend to President Obama’s legacy of beginning his time in office by winning a Nobel prize calling for a reduction in nuclear weapons but confronted by the realities of a dangerous world that America must lead. Japan is not officially asking for an apology nor will Obama offer one, but to remember the horrors of war and survive the past so as not to repeat it and to move together shoulder-to-shoulder with Japan is in America’s interest and will be achieved by this visit. Overall I think the approach and tone of this visit has been handled just right by the president and what I will be watching for are the on-the-ground gestures or symbols such as whether the President will meet with surviving victims, what he writes in the visitors log, and what he says to the people of Hiroshima that have lived in the shadow of this history for over 70 years.

Kurk DorseyAssociate Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

I sympathize with those people who think that visiting Hiroshima is effectively an apology, no matter what the president actually says.  I generally think that the United States does not have to apologize for its military actions during the war, just as I don’t think that the Japanese government needs to apologize for not surrendering sooner when it was obvious that the war was lost.  War is full of difficult choices, which is why we should avoid it, but sometimes government officials miscalculate in times of stress and start wars.  No commander-in-chief can apologize for the use of force in general, so an apology for one act of war that was lawful at the time starts a slippery slope.

Having said that, I do see the merits of the President’s visit on two counts.  First, it is a powerful way to emphasize his desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons (although visiting Nagasaki might have been even more powerful), and it also brings home the idea that entering war is always risky because one cannot predict the consequences.  Certainly no one in Japan, even those who were skeptical about attacking the United States, could have foreseen the utter destruction of so many Japanese cities from the air.  As an aside, we should not forget that in March, 1945, the US launched an incendiary attack on Tokyo that probably killed 90,000 people.  President Obama was elected largely because he opposed the Iraq War, yet he finds that he can’t get out of Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are three political factors that also need to be taken into consideration when pondering the reception in the United States of the President’s visit to Hiroshima.  First, we have been debating for more than 50 years the legacy of the use of the atom bombs, with the most intense debates coming in the mid-1990s over a proposed display in the US Air and Space museum as part of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end.  That debate was very polarizing and still is today.

Second, two of my relatives have recently referred to President Obama as the Apologist-in-Chief, so he has a harder time being given credit for his actions than, say, Ronald Reagan might have.  Reagan was clearly committed to getting rid of nuclear weapons, and had he gone to Hiroshima in 1984 no one would have seriously thought that he was apologizing for US foreign policy.  So Obama’s record of being pretty frank about past US failings has already made this visit controversial.

Finally, the on-going presidential campaign has two candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, from very different perspectives, rejecting the legacy of US leadership in foreign affairs that really emerged in 1945.  Clearly the Sanders supporters want Obama to make an apology, and the Trump supporters think that 1945 is in the era when American was great and any visit to Hiroshima should be a victory lap.  But with either group, it will be hard for President Obama to make a dispassionate argument that going to Hiroshima is a way to advance policies that will be good for the United States as a whole.  Given the lengthy article on Obama’s foreign policy in The Atlantic, I wonder if Obama is really sending a message to the American public about leadership in the world.  I will be very interested to see what he actually says.

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One Response

  1. It means he is going to be apologizing for something most Americans supported 100% back when it stopped the devastation of the war and probably saved another million or so more American Lives. But “The One” will no doubt be remembered for implying that what was done by us was some kind of evil or the other.

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