In his final months in the White House, a visibly liberated Barack Obama is piling up firsts – the first sitting president to visit Castro-led Cuba, the first to venture inside a federal prison and talk to inmates. Now he’s about to add another first, perhaps the trickiest of the lot. He’s about to become the first incumbent president to visit Hiroshima.
On May 27, immediately on the side lines of a G-7 summit, Obama will travel to the city where the US became the first, and thus far only, country to use a nuclear weapon in anger. And, despite (or perhaps because of) the post-war alliance between the two nations, you can see why no occupant of the Oval Office has yet ventured to Hiroshima.
More than 70 years after the explosion of the uranium fission atomic bomb, code-named Little Boy, killed 100,000 people or more, America’s use of the bomb to end the deadliest war in history is as controversial as ever. An unnecessary savagery inflicted on civilians, as many Japanese and some American revisionist historians believe, and on a country that was about to surrender anyway? Or, as the standard US narrative has it, just desserts for a country that had unleashed brutal imperial aggression across Asia and the unprovoked sneak attack on Pearl Harbour that led to America’s entry into World War II?
What is certain is that few presidents would have turned down the chance offered to Harry Truman: to end, at a single stroke, a war that otherwise might have culminated in a land invasion of Japan costing, his generals estimated, a quarter of a million American lives.
Incredibly, Hiroshima may not have been the single most destructive US air raid in the war: the distinction may belong to the fire-bombing of Tokyo five months earlier, on the night of March 9/10 1945, which incinerated some of the most densely populated areas of the Japanese capital. That horrific event however is virtually forgotten.
Not so Hiroshima, and the divisions it arouses.
This columnist well remembers the metaphorical firestorm when in 1995 the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum here in Washington sought to mark Hiroshima’s 50th anniversary with an exhibit featuring the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped Little Boy.
The original design included a section on the bombing as seen from a Japanese perspective, with the implicit suggestion that it may not have been quite the nobly pure manifestation of US most Americans believed it to be. The result was furious protest by veterans groups and uproar in the then Republican-controlled Congress. The exhibit was amended, but the Museum’s director was forced to resign. Into this minefield now steps Obama.
An American president is going to a place where the American military killed 100,000 people, virtually all of them civilians. Yet the one thing he can’t do is apologise. And as the White House made clear when it announced the trip: he won’t. In fact Obama would be best advised not to make a speech in Hiroshima at all. Rather, keep the occasion personal, low key and reflective, focussed not so much on the past, as on the need to make sure a nuclear weapon is never used again.
Any public show of contrition in Hiroshima would feed straight back into the tempestuous election campaign back home. Republicans would see it as another stop on the Obama “apology tour”, of saying sorry for bad things the US has done, from slavery to the 1953 coup in Iran and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. An apology, moreover, would merely bolster arguments that the US is a weakling and a sucker that everyone takes to the cleaners (see Donald Trump, passim.) And to be fair, even the Japanese don’t seem to be expecting one.
Even if Obama doesn’t say a word however, the symbolic contradictions will be jarring enough. This of course is the president, who in Prague seven years ago made a speech calling for a nuclear-free world, that may have earned himself an absurdly premature Nobel Peace Prize. And it’s also the president who last year defied the hawks by striking a deal to slow – if not halt – Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon.
But he’s also the president who's overseeing a 30 year, $1trillion programme to update America’s already colossal nuclear arsenal with bombs carrying smaller payloads. And smaller bombs mean – yes – more usable bombs.
Meanwhile, hovering nearby (but out of sight, one hopes) on Hiroshima’s hallowed ground, will be the presidential aide carrying the nuclear “football” (more accurately a black leather briefcase) containing launch codes for a US nuclear strike. And the man leading Obama on this pilgrimage? None other than Shinzo Abe, the conservative prime minister who is loosening the constraints imposed by Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution and, critics say, re-stoking the fires of Japanese militarism that led to the calamity of 70 years ago. Contradictions? Some might say a better word is hypocrisy.
And regardless of the White House's insistence that there will be no apology, the President’s own itinerary could well create exactly that impression. It’s hard to imagine Obama going out of his way to visit Hiroshima without making a stop at the Memorial Museum, with its harrowing images and relics from the August 1945 apocalypse, or meeting some of those who survived it. Either way, the image will be reinforced of Japan as victim, not aggressor.
But Obama and his advisers have surely weighed the risks, and concluded that however delicate, a visit to Hiroshima will strengthen, not weaken, the US alliance with Japan. And if it does cause a fuss, then one suspects this president will not be too bothered. In conventional parlance he may be a lame duck, but his approval ratings are climbing by the week. He’s plainly savouring these last months in office, and doing what he thinks is right. The prison visit, Cuba, and now Hiroshima all prove it.
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