Obama to Be First Sitting President to Visit Hiroshima
WASHINGTON — President Obama will become the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, making a heavily symbolic stop this month at the site where the United States first used an atomic bomb at the end of World War II.
The visit, which had been under consideration for most of Mr. Obama’s presidency, could serve as a coda to the transformation in the relationship between Japan and the United States from wartime enemies to the closest of allies. But it also has the potential to open old wounds, and it will take place in the shadow of a growing nuclear threat from North Korea.
Both American and Japanese officials sought to avoid any appearance that the visit would amount to an apology for the bombing, which killed more than 100,000 people.
“He will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said in a post on Medium. “Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has shown no signs of pressing for an apology. He instead framed the May 27 visit as a chance to honor the dead and support the cause of nuclear disarmament.
“Japan is the only country to be hit by a nuclear weapon, and we have a responsibility to make sure that terrible experience is never repeated anywhere,” Mr. Abe said.
Those goals are shared by Mr. Obama, who has made curbing the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and lowering the risks of nuclear attack signature issues of his presidency, and they were important reasons he won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
But while Mr. Obama has spoken often of his hope for a world without nuclear weapons, peace activists said he needed to pursue more concrete steps.
“We would like to see him take some action with this visit so that it’s not just empty words,” said Paul Kawika Martin, the senior director of policy and political affairs at Peace Action.
Mr. Obama’s record on nonproliferation is mixed. The New START agreement with Russia, ratified in 2010, limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, and under the 2015 deal with Iran, the government there surrendered nearly all of its nuclear material. In addition, Mr. Obama’s annual Nuclear Security Summit meetings and other efforts succeeded in pulling bomb-grade nuclear fuel out of countries like Ukraine and Chile.
But the president’s push to modernize the American nuclear weapons stockpile by spending as much as $1 trillion over three decades could cause a new arms race, as even Mr. Obama has acknowledged. And with North Korea now believed to be able to mount a small nuclear warhead on missiles capable of hitting much of Japan and South Korea, and with Pakistan deploying small, tactical nuclear weapons that are seen as vulnerable to theft or misuse, the risks of a nuclear disaster may have actually worsened during his tenure.
Mr. Obama’s condemning any future use of a nuclear weapon while at least implicitly supporting its past use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be a delicate rhetorical challenge.
White House officials said that Mr. Obama had no intention of questioning President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use a nuclear weapon.
“What I think the president does appreciate is that President Truman made this decision for the right reasons,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. Those reasons included a focus on the security of the United States and ending a terrible war, he said.
“I think given the way that President Truman approached this dilemma and given the outcome, I think it’s hard to look back and second-guess him too much,” Mr. Earnest said.
But such second-guessing is in many ways the point of the 30-acre Peace Memorial Park, which Mr. Obama will visit. A spare granite archway stands between the skeletal dome of a onetime industrial exhibition hall located directly under the spot where the bomb exploded and a museum housing the charred belongings of victims and other evidence of devastation.
The park offers a victim’s narrative, illustrating in gut-wrenching detail how more than 100,000 people perished and thousands more were injured. It provides few of the historical reasons for the bombing, such as descriptions of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the savagery of Japan’s occupation of China, or the extraordinary death toll of soldiers and civilians in the invasion of Okinawa. A short inscription on the park’s memorial arch reads, in part, “We shall not repeat the evil.” What exactly the evil was — the bombing or the conflict itself — and who is to blame are left unsaid.
Some historians say the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary and even criminal, while others argue that they saved American lives and those of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who would have perished in an American invasion. Older Americans tend to view the bombings as necessary, while younger ones see them as far more problematic.
The Japanese public has broadly welcomed the idea of a visit to Hiroshima by Mr. Obama even without an apology — something few believed would be forthcoming. In an opinion survey published on Tuesday before the decision was formally announced, 70 percent of respondents told NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster, that they hoped the president would visit the city.
Complaints and demands for an apology were mostly confined to the angrier nationalistic fringes of Twitter in Japan.
Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry became the highest-ranking United States administration official ever to visit Hiroshima, during a diplomatic conclave intended to set the stage for the Group of 7 meeting this month.
Sunao Tsuboi, 91, a leading antinuclear activist in Hiroshima, who was burned by the bomb blast on Aug. 6, 1945, welcomed Mr. Obama’s visit, which he said he hoped would “project a broad antinuclear message.”
“I was one of the first people who said Obama should visit Hiroshima,” he told NHK. “Good for him for coming.”
Correction: May 13, 2016
Because of an editing error, an article on Wednesday about President Obama’s planned visit to Hiroshima, Japan, erroneously attributed a distinction to Secretary of State John Kerry. He is the highest-ranking American administration official to visit Hiroshima, not the highest-ranking American official. (The highest-ranking American official to visit the city is Nancy Pelosi, a former House speaker.) The error also appeared in this space on Thursday in a correction for an April 12 article about a visit by Mr. Kerry to Hiroshima.
Source: Gardiner Harris, 2016, The New York Times, May 11th, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/11/us/politics/obama-hiroshima-visit.html?_r=0