Hiroshima and History

by Alexis Dudden

The nearly impossible will soon take place. On May 27, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima.

“This (visit) is something that we think is important to do,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice explained on CNN the other day. “This is about the future, and about what we… can build together in terms of non-proliferation and a safer world for all of us.”

It is, and it is about much more. It is also about the American bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. That’s why it’s such a big deal.

Put bluntly: three score and eleven years ago the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima. The president will acknowledge this history. He will pay respect to the dead and perhaps meet with survivors and listen to their stories of pain and hope.

Thousands of opinion pieces are already in print, ranging from the “It’s about time!” position to the retro-camp view that “he was a traitor all along.” This bipolar reaction only serves to underscore the meaning of Hiroshima’s modern history.

This meaning is quite simple. Lest Hiroshima’s Japanese, Korean, and Allied POW victims died in vain, we can never forget what happened there. From this past we must dedicate ourselves to the great task remaining before us: a world free of nuclear weapons. President Obama is no stranger to this effort. He called for such a world himself in Prague only a few short months after his inauguration in 2009.

Hiroshima’s honored dead were at war—as were Nagasaki’s—yet survivors have nobly advanced this history’s ultimate proposition: that never again can we use nuclear weapons to kill. By taking a survivor’s hand, Obama will dignify and consecrate this truth.

Naysayers disparage the president’s visit as an “apology tour.” No doubt Obama’s “anger translator” Luther—the celebrity comedian Keegan-Michael Key—could effectively dispel the near-obsessive concern over whether or not the president will apologize while standing at ground zero. Unfortunately, Luther is not available for the trip. Instead, the president will leave a number of questions unaddressed. For instance, the president’s host in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, notoriously claims that Japan fought a “beautiful” World War II. Will the president’s non-apology require the unstated quid pro quo that Abe is also allowed to non-apologize for many of Japan’s unresolved crimes against humanity?

Obama’s “reality tour” of Hiroshima can be compared to a recent meeting between an American Indian chief in Connecticut and a descendant of the leader of the cataclysmic war against his people nearly 400 years ago. The chief did not ask for an apology. Rather, he asked to hold the sword that killed his tribe’s progenitors. In so doing he, his people, and all of us are made to know that this history can never repeat itself.

In April 2015, President Obama took Prime Minister Abe to the Lincoln Memorial. The leaders stood beneath an inscription of the Gettysburg Address. Only 10 sentences long, the address is the most important speech about the Civil War, one meant to resonate in the present as well as the future. For Obama to put together 10 sentences to confront Hiroshima’s past in order to advance the world’s future is a tall order. But the world will note what this former senator from Illinois says on this historic ground.

Photo: President Obama and Prime Minister Abe

Alexis Dudden is professor of history at the University of Connecticut and director of humanitarian studies. She is the author of Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States.

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