Anytime anyone mentions Hiroshima, the word “bomb” becomes an inevitable association. On May 10, the White House dropped another Hiroshima-related bomb on the world through an official announcement: President Barack Obama will “make a historic visit to Hiroshima” on May 27.
No American president since Harry S. Truman has ever wanted to touch the geopolitical equivalent of a hot potato known as the Hiroshima visit, simply because it is a lose-lose endeavor for both sides, given that the rock-solid U.S.-Japan relationship has been built on a post-WWII, forward-looking, shared vision of peace, democracy, human rights, and free enterprise, not on wartime enmity and lingering old wounds, for many symbolized by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Today’s Japan is a vibrant and healthy democracy, a major player in world peace, and a paragon of responsible governance, a far cry from its militarist past of more than seven decades ago. Yet, Japan’s regional adversaries—most prominently the anti-democratic governments of communist China and North Korea—refuse to recognize Japan’s spectacular postwar transformation to a new nation and relentlessly carry on a false narrative, i.e., today’s Japan is a continuation, or a nascent revival, of a WWII-era militaristic Japan that inflicted great suffering on the U.S. and its Asian neighbors.
Thus, the announced presidential visit to Hiroshima has fallen right into a propaganda trap set up by the Chinese communist government that likes to talk about nothing but Japan’s wartime past. Within hours of the White House announcement of the Hiroshima visit, the Beijing-based Global Times, a zealously anti-American Communist Party organ, published an editorial, asking “if Obama visits Hiroshima, will Shinzo Abe visit Nanking?” Nanking, of course, is the Chinese wartime capital that fell to Japanese occupation troops in late 1937 and whose population suffered brutal treatment as a result.
In addition, an American presidential visit may well stir up yet another round of unnecessary debate on the settled wisdom of dropping the atomic bombs that greatly helped end the war in the Pacific and thus diminished further human suffering on both sides of the conflict. That’s why all eleven post-WWII American presidents never made the trip to the city, because they understood that for the betterment of U.S.-Japan relations, less is more when it comes to visiting Hiroshima.
As a result, an apology from a sitting American president for having dropped atomic bombs on Japan has become practically impossible because the overwhelming majority of Americans believe these military actions were necessary to end the war and saved countless American and Japanese lives. Apologizing would be tantamount to political suicide, which is perhaps why the White House quickly hinted after the surprise announcement that President Obama will not make any apology while in Hiroshima.
But a presidential visit to Hiroshima without an apology may also play negatively in Japan’s domestic politics, adding unwanted uncertainty to the already fragile majority Prime Minister Abe desperately needs to carry out his profound political, constitutional, and security reforms.
The Japanese left may up the ante in its promotion of anti-American sentiment. Japan’s devoted pacifism since World War II has also created a radical anti-nuclear vigilance that often portrays Japan as the victim of unnecessary atomic bombs. This stringent anti-nuclear mentality and strong sense of victimhood have led to a subtle but growing anti-American activism, not necessarily in denying Japan’s war guilt, but in condemnation of the American government that dropped the atomic bombs that killed at least 130,000 Japanese people.
A presidential visit to Hiroshima without an apology might also spike the outrage of the small, but growing right-wing faction in Japan, thus enhancing its coveted publicity, undermining Prime Minister Abe’s mission to face new security threats, some existential, from China and North Korea, a scenario that neither Japanese nor American politicians would like to see.
The visit will also have the inadvertent effect of further distancing Japan from some of its neighbors, such as South Korea. While a presidential visit to Hiroshima serves for the Japanese as a painful reminder of their wartime past of suffering, as a victim of a powerful new weapon, some Asian nations that were invaded and brutalized by Japan during the war might misconstrue the visit as America’s acquiescence of Japan’s victimhood while ignoring the greater suffering Japan inflicted on other nations. This is not good for America’s alliance building in a region that badly needs American leadership to face the menacing security challenges posed by China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship.
The official justification for President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, namely “to highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” is unrealistic, because the expectation of a presidential apology from a widely perceived apology-prone president is already heightened and will surely become the focus of international attention, despite the White House’s claim that no presidential apology will be issued.
In fact, immediately after the issuing of the press statement announcing the presidential trip to Hiroshima, the White House was on the defensive about this visit, as nearly all questions for the White House security team and the official presidential spokesman at a press briefing two days later were about whether President Obama would make a formal speech on war responsibility and whether he would apologize for America’s decision to drop the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Apparently, the White House quickly realized it might be a mistake. On Wednesday, April 11, White House spokesman Josh Earnest rushed to play down any major significance of the visit. “When he visits Hiroshima, I would anticipate the president will have an opportunity to reflect on his time there, but the president does not plan to deliver a major address in Hiroshima.”
So why go there to cause unnecessary anxieties for all in the first place?
This story originally appeared in the Hoover Institution’s Military History in the News.