For years, even as wartime animosities were transformed into friendship, no US President has ever visited Hiroshima, site of the first atomic bombing (Jimmy Carter visited after he left the presidency).
They were deterred by what might be called the “Truman Question.” It goes like this: “Mr. President, if you had been president in 1945, like Harry Truman, would you have ordered the bombings?”
There is no really good answer that doesn’t anger Americans, especially for World War II veterans who believe the bombings were necessary to bring the war to a quick close, and for Japanese who believe it was a war crime.
President Barack Obama is planning to plunge into this semantics jungle toward the end of May. Long in gestation at the White House, the president’s spokesman confirmed that Obama will make the visit while he is in Japan to attend the May 26-27 G-7 summit of world leaders.
Obama and his advisors apparently have decided that the president can finesse the Truman Question, or at least is less concerned about the political optics now that he is in the last months of his term.
The US government has carefully laid the groundwork for this historic visit. In 2010 Ambassador to Japan John Roos became the first American official to attend the annual atomic bombing memorial in Hiroshima. He did not take questions or make a statement.
More importantly, Secretary of State John Kerry in mid April became the highest-ranking American to visit Hiroshima when he joined other foreign ministers in placing a floral wreath at the cenotaph. The White House carefully watched the negative political fallout from the Kerry overture, and apparently concluded that there was none. In fact, hardly anyone noticed at a time when the political world is totally distracted by the presidential campaign.
The president’s spokesman made it clear that Obama will not apologize for the bombing, and indeed, the Japanese government, including the Mayor of Hiroshima, has publicly denied any interest in a formal apology.
Aside from the formal announcement, few details of the visit have as yet been made public. Will he place flowers at the cenotaph; will he meet and talk with survivors; will he visit the adjacent memorial museum, will he give a speech or answer questions from the press.
Whether of not Obama makes an apology, there will be some in the United States who will say that his mere presence at Hiroshima constitutes a “silent apology.” Every word he utters, every movement of his body language (did he bow?) will be scrutinized.
The Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has not weighed in on the Obama visit – yet. But can he resist blasting Obama, and by extension Hillary Clinton for apologizing? This despite his suggestion that Japan should consider making its own nuclear weapons.
There are concerns too about the optics in Japan. The vast majority will welcome the visit and the public acknowledgement that many, many lives were lost in the Hiroshima bombing and the one at Nagasaki a few days later.
But it also plays into the Japanese right-wing narrative that the atomic bombings prove that Japan was the real victim in the war, while denying the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial troops.
Apology issues are usually related in the context of Japan’s actions against its neighbors. Indeed, the matter of the “comfort women.” impressed into service in official brothels is as current as yesterday’s news.
Relations between the US and Japan between the two countries do not have the same intensity that they have other countries in Asia. Tokyo has never apologized for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, nor has Washington ever asked for one.
In the aftermath of the Obama announcement, the Japanese press has speculated that Abe might return the Hiroshima visit, by going to Pearl Harbor and laying a floral wreath at the memorial to the sunken Battleship Arizona.
It should be noted, however, that the Emperor Akihito laid a floral wreath at the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Hawaii and his father, the Emperor Hirohito, laid a floral wreath at Arlington Cemetery during a visit to the US.
What irritates Japanese about atomic bombings these days is the unwillingness by the Americans to acknowledge the terrible human toll, estimated at about 200,000 dead at the two cities and the constant prattle about how many American lives were saved by not having to invade the home islands.
In 1995 the Smithsonian institution tied to organize an exhibition of the Enola Gay, the name of the Hiroshima bomber, on the 50th anniversary of the attack. It tried to portray a balanced picture with information on the civilian casualties. Veterans raised a hue and cry saying that the exhibit somehow denigrated their service. Congress held hearings; the museum’s director resigned. The bomber is still on display but very little information about the horrors resulting from the bombings. Given that experience, it is not hard to understand that many of Obama’s predecessors may have been reluctant to make the visit.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe too probably has mixed feelings about the Obama visit. No doubt he will enjoy the attention he will get from accompanying Obama on the historic visit.
On the other hand, the visit will undoubtedly upstage the two-day G-7 meeting which Japan is hosting this year. Abe puts a lot of store in bringing off a successful meeting as a kind of springboard to elections scheduled for July.
Abe spent most of the first week of May travelling through Europe to lay the ground work for a successful meeting. No doubt at the inevitable press conference following the meeting, he would like the questions to center on decisions made on global security and economic challenges ahead. The reporters, however, might have another story in mind.