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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Obama Breaks Mold, to Visit Hiroshima

Update, May 10, 2016:  President Obama announced today that he will become first president to visit Hiroshima while in office but will not apologize for U.S. using the bomb (nor has Hiroshima demanded this, even if warranted).

Secretary of State John Kerry toured the Hiroshima memorial sites last month and said:  .
“It is a stunning display. It is a gut-wrenching display,  It tugs at all of your sensibilities as a human being. It reminds everybody of the extraordinary complexity of choices in war and of what war does to people, to communities, to countries, to the world.”

UPDATE 2015:  Caroline, yes:  she is back. 

UPDATE 2014: Caroline Kennedy, the new ambassador,  did attend the memorial service in both cities.  Photo left as she lay wreath in Nagasaki today. 

UPDATE 2013:  Caroline Kennedy sworn in as new U.S. ambassador--and if the new tradition holds, she will represent America at the Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorial services next August.  Here father never got there, but she will.

Earlier: Sensitive to world opinion about the use of atomic weapons against Japan in 1945, no American president has ever visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki while in office. Except for Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former general, none of them has expressed any misgivings about the use of the bombs in 1945. Shortly after becoming president, however, Barack Obama took the surprising step of at least expressing a desire to go to the two cities.

Then, in 2011, for the first time, a US ambassador to Japan, John Roos, attended the annual August 6 commemoration in Hiroshima. And in 2011, for the first time ever, the United States sent an official representative to the annual memorial service in Nagasaki—the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Tokyo, James P. Zumwalt. He read a statement from Obama expressing hope to work with Japan for a world without nuclear weapons, a goal the president expressed early in his term but has made little progress on achieving.  “I was deeply moved,” Zumwalt told reporters after attending the ceremony. “Japan and the United States have the common vision for a world free of nuclear weapons, so it is important that the two countries make efforts to realize it.”

Naturally, many conservatives accused Obama of "apologizing" for Truman dropping the bomb. 

This year, Roos will again attend the Hiroshima memorial--meaning this has truly become a new tradition, at least under this president.  Next year, it appears, Caroline Kennedy will do the honors, with her special link to a former president.

While many Japanese hail the US moves, some of the survivors of the bombing and their ancestors are skeptical. Katsumi Matsuo, who lost her mother in the attack, told the Mainichi Shimbun in 2011, “What is the point in him coming now, after 66 years? His visit will only be meaningful if it promotes a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Still, Obama has broken a sad record of total denial, which has accompanied the suppression of key evidence about the effects of the bombings (as chronicled in my new book and e-book Atomic Cover-up) dating back to the 1940s.

Of course, there was no way President Truman was going to make that visit, even telling an aide, after leaving the White House, that while he might meet with survivors of the bombing in the United States, he would “not kiss their asses.” President Eisenhower did not visit the atomic cities, but he famously expressed displeasure with the use of the bombs in 1945, saying we shouldn’t have hit Japan “with that awful thing.” Richard Nixon came to Hiroshima before becoming president.

Reflecting on the visit in a 1985 interview with Roger Rosenblatt, he said the bombings saved lives, but noted that General Douglas MacArthur had told him it was a “tragedy” that the weapon was used against “noncombatants.”

Jimmy Carter visited Hiroshima after leaving office but did not take part in any ceremony or comment afterward. Ronald Reagan also invoked the notion that the bombings actually saved lives. When protests from conservatives and some veterans groups caused first the censorship, then shutdown, of a full exploration of the atomic bombings at the Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, in 1995, President Clinton backed the suppression.

So two cheers for Obama for at least marking what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next step: an honest American reappraisal of the bombings and real progress on nuclear abolition.

Note: Last year, President Harry S Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, became the first kin of the president (son of his daughter) to step foot in one of the two cities he ordered destroyed in August 1945, killing over 200,000, the vast majority civilians. Four days before the annual commemoration, he toured the city and exhibits in the Peace Museum and met with survivors who seemed pleased, while pointing out they still held his granddad in low esteem.

Then on the morning of August 6--late on August 5 in the U.S.--he took part in the annual official ceremony in Hiroshima's Peace Park (which I attended back in1984). He told journalists that it was hard to listen to the tragic stories of the survivors but he was glad he did it to gain a wider appreciation of the effects (and in some cases, after-effects) of his grandfather's action. Japanese leaders made their annual pleas for antinuclear policies, with growing emphasis on the nuclear power aspects after the Fukushima disaster.

Daniel said he did not second-guess Truman’s decision, offering the usual bromides about no-good-decisions in war. He should be congratulated for at least making the trip, but his name might he Denial, not Daniel. Some no-good decisions are worse than others. 

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