Obama's Visit to Hiroshima: the Storm Beneath the Calm

By Mike Shuster : Journalist
May 23,2016
Mike Shuster

Mike Shuster is a former senior foreign and diplomatic correspondent for National Public Radio in the U.S.

  • Google
  • reddit
  • Mail
(Photo by Carlos Barria /Reuters)

The choreography of President Barak Obama’s historic visit to the site of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima is apparently almost complete. In the minds of U.S. officials engaged in planning the visit in Washington and Tokyo, the searing image will be the President and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo standing side by side at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

The question of whether the President will issue an apology for the decision to drop the bomb has been put to rest. Japanese officials and the public are apparently content with the symbol of the President paying respect to the victims.

But underneath the well-orchestrated calm surrounding this moment, there are nervous jitters among the American planners. US officials are wary of the President’s historic visit being used to legitimize a narrative of Japan as a victim of atomic attack, without any reference to Japan’s role as the initiator of the war itself. Even if the President seeks to avoid apology and perhaps even the war itself in his remarks, he is apparently still quite sensitive to the controversy that could surround this decision at home.

That is one reason why, officials say privately, President Obama will not visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which has drawn criticism in the United States for its failure to provide the context for the bombing in Japan’s own aggression. The Museum offers an exhibit almost entirely focused on the suffering of the Japanese victims.

The President’s own remarks, which will be delivered in a short statement at the memorial, are going to focus, officials say, on the issue of the danger of nuclear weapons and the meaning of the atomic bombings as a lesson for those who continue to develop nuclear weapons.

US officials are also concerned about ignoring Japan’s wartime victims in Asia, particularly Korea. The Obama administration has invested great effort to repair Japan-Korea ties, and to boost trilateral cooperation, but that rests in part on not raising tensions over wartime history issues, which this visit threatens to provoke.

Indeed there has been some sharp criticism of the visit in the South Korean press. The Chosun Ilbo newspaper, one of Korea’s most prominent dailies, was not thrilled with Obama’s visit.
“Japan continuously tries to avoid making a sincere apology for its wartime deeds,” a recent editorial charges. “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once said that the definition of aggression could be viewed differently, depending on which side you are on. Japan, with this prime minister, is now acting like a victim of the war by highlighting [the atomic bombing of] Hiroshima at the end of the Pacific War.”

“In particular, we were one of the biggest victims of Japan’s imperialism. We truly hope that President Obama clarifies who caused the tragedy of the war, and who the real victims are when he visits Hiroshima.”

Korean officials who are involved in trying to repair relations with Japan support the President’s visit to Hiroshima, according to at least one senior official involved in the implementation of the December Comfort Women agreement. But they are very nervous about the impact of the visit, worrying that it may inflame Korean public opinion if it is perceived as gesture toward Prime Minister Abe and undermine broader reconciliation in the region.

One idea being discussed among some American officials would be to signal the need for broader reconciliation by having the President visit a small memorial to the Koreans who died in the atomic bombing that was built by Korean residents of Japan and is located within the Memorial Park. So far no decision has been made to do so, but it reflects the delicate nature of the President’s visit to Hiroshima.

Japanese acceptance of the President’s decision to visit without offering any formal apology ignores the reality that his mere presence is enough for many Americans to signal regret for the bombing. In the mind of some American analysts, the Japanese don’t seem to appreciate how hard it was for Obama, and indeed for any president, to do this because of Japan’s aggression.

Even the hint of wiping that slate clean has stimulated sharp criticism from the American right – with a growing number of references to Obama’s “next stop on the global apology tour.” Former UN ambassador John Bolton has already written on Twitter that he has “a sick feeling in his stomach that Obama is gonna go and apologize for Hiroshima.” Indeed, some on the right – in Commentary online for one -- are calling for Obama to “reaffirm the righteousness” of dropping the bomb.

The President has rightly concluded there is nothing he could say that could assuage the right. His aim, a senior former Obama White House advisor told me, is to frame the visit almost entirely within the context of an urgent anti-nuclear message. Gary Samore ,now at Harvard, was the coordinator for arms control in the Obama National Security Council. He predicts Obama will focus on the threats the world faces now from nuclear weapons, such as North Korea. “It’s one of the world’s biggest nuclear threats.” he says.

He would like Obama to focus on other nuclear trouble spots in the world as well, among them China, Russia, and South Asia.
Samore hopes the president at Hiroshima will be as specific as possible and not succumb to the apology debate. “I don’t think there should be an apology,” the Obama advisor says, reflecting the views of many in policy circles. “It was fully justified. There’s nothing to apologize for.”

Ben Rhodes, the deputy National Security Adviser, explained it this way in an online offering after the trip was announced. This is, he wrote, “the appropriate moment for the President to visit this city and shrine. In making this visit, the President will shine a spotlight on the tremendous and devastating human toll of war.”

Citing Obama’s longtime goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, Rhodes wrote: “the US has a special responsibility to continue to lead in pursuit of that objective as we are the only nation to have used nuclear weapons.”

But even those who share that goal, including advocates of nuclear disarmament on the left, are not entirely uncritical of Obama, whom they accuse of having engaged in a significant buildup of the American nuclear weapons machinery.

“This is no time to play it safe,” writes Tom Collina of the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund in Foreign Policy online. “The president created high expectations with his 2009 speech in Prague, where he spoke not just of stepped-up nonproliferation efforts, but of a world free from nuclear weapons.
“The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.”

“In other key areas, Team Obama has not delivered,” he says.

“Obama can point to Republicans, Russians, and other obstructionists for blocking these efforts,” Collina writes. “But in one major area he has only himself to blame — the $1 trillion plan to maintain and rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which experts warn is already sparking a new arms race.”

It is worth noting that this is an issue the entire world is watching with considerable interest. Twitter is filled with comments from every continent, in German, Portuguese, Italian, Vietnamese, Hindu, and many more, most expressing the hope that this visit can contribute significantly to a world without nuclear weapons. As Obama’s visit approaches, interest in this visit is only growing more intense.

One additional issue has emerged. Many analysts, pro and con, urge Obama to take the opportunity of the visit to Hiroshima to invite Prime Minister Abe to visit Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Just as no sitting American president has visited Hiroshima, no sitting Japanese prime minister has visited Pearl Harbor to lay a wreath where the USS Arizona rests, under water, sunk in the Japanese surprise attack on December 7th, 1941.

Writes Scott Warren Harold on The RAND Blog, “opening the way for a Japanese leader to pay respects to the 2,403 Americans who died defending their country that fateful morning seventy years ago would be a fitting rejoinder to an American president's visit to Hiroshima.”

Gary Samore does not believe such proposals are worthwhile at this moment. Obama’s visit should not be about the past, he says. “The speech should not be about World War Two. It should be about the future.”