by Paul R. Pillar
Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Hiroshima, as part of a trip in which he met with other G-7 foreign ministers in preparation for a summit meeting later this spring, has raised the prospect of President Obama becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the same site when he is in Japan for the summit meeting itself. It is easy to anticipate some of the reaction from Mr. Obama’s political opponents in the United States if he does make the visit. He should visit anyway.
Secretary Kerry’s gesture was not unilateral; the visit was a group gesture involving the other G-7 foreign ministers as well. Several other things it was not. It was not an apology, and Kerry certainly did not say anything to suggest that it was. Nor was it a statement about the ethical and strategic issues concerning the use of atomic bombs against Japan, issues that have been debated at length in the ensuing seven decades. It is good that those debates have been waged; the questions involved are important and the answers to the questions are not self-evident. But nothing about the ceremony at Hiroshima or anything the secretary of state said there implied any conclusions regarding those issues.
One could say that the wreath-laying was in one respect an expression of regret about the overall ghastliness that was World War II, in which some 50 million people perished worldwide and of which the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the fiery conclusion. But one can express such sentiment without saying or implying anything about where blame for the war should be placed, or about which actions during the war were most reprehensible.
For a sitting U.S. president to pay respects to the war dead of a former adversary is not unprecedented. One thinks of President Reagan’s visit to the military cemetery at Bitburg, Germany in 1985. That visit become controversial when it became known that the cemetery, in which only German soldiers from World War II and not allied ones are buried, contains the remains of some members of the Waffen-SS. Nothing like that issue arises at Hiroshima, where the overwhelming majority of the dead were not even soldiers but instead civilians.
A presidential visit to Hiroshima surely would be well-received in Japan, one of the staunchest, most important, and least troublesome of U.S. allies. Japan also can be viewed as a model of admirable behavior on the issues of war and peace and nuclear weapons that are raised when thinking about Hiroshima. Japan has combined its post-World War II pacifist streak with efforts to pull its weight in some multilateral efforts that have involved military force but in which Japan would not be going beyond its self-declared restrictions focused on self-defense. Japan also is a nuclear threshold state that disavows any acquisition of nuclear weapons—a disavowal that the Japanese foreign minister categorically reaffirmed in response to the suggestion from a certain U.S. presidential candidate that Japan and South Korea ought to acquire nukes.
Pleasing the Japanese would not be the main reason, however, that President Obama ought to go to Hiroshima. A presidential visit would partly be another statement about the need to avoid anything even remotely approaching the destruction of World War II. But more specifically it would be a statement about nuclear weapons. That is why Hiroshima is a symbolically important site, even though neither it nor Nagasaki was the scene of the most destructive use of U.S. firepower against Japan in World War II; a single night of firebombing Tokyo on 9-10 March 1945 probably killed more people. Visiting Hiroshima would be consistent with reaffirming a commitment to nuclear disarmament, a subject on which Mr. Obama is subject to legitimate criticism that he has not walked the walk as much as he has talked the talk. The commitment is part of the central bargain enshrined in the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, in which existing nuclear weapons states pledged to make a good-faith effort toward complete nuclear disarmament in return for the non-nuclear weapons states not acquiring such weapons. A symbolic visit is of course still more in the nature of talking than walking, but it would be better than the message sent by not visiting.
As for the flak from domestic political opponents, Mr. Obama will of course continue to get plenty of it no matter what he does and even without any real basis for it. Remember that mythical “apology tour” that Mitt Romney talked about during the 2012 campaign? Romney wouldn’t let go of the notion even though there was no such thing. There will be similar baseless caviling if President Obama goes to Hiroshima. Ignore it, Mr. President; go.
Photo: Hiroshima Peace Memorial by Martin Abegglen via Flickr.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.