The Meaning of President Obama’s Visit to Hiroshima

Every society has had a different approach to dealing with its World War II-era atrocities; each side of the conflict committed some to a certain degree. Germany, for example, has probably gone the furthest in confronting its fascist past and ensuring that militaristic demagoguery does not rise from history’s graveyard . The United States has more or less embraced its right as victor to twist the historical narrative in a favorable light. Japan continues to grapple with the demons of its wartime march, while nationalistic sentiment today clashes with its neighbors’ psyche of victimhood.

In a way, these frank historical realities contoured President Obama’s trip to Hiroshima at the end of May. Our newscycle, for a few days, was consumed by the question of whether the president should apologize for the bombings.

He ultimately declined to, since maybe there is no appropriate apology for the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two “big” atrocities committed in the midst of countless others. There’s no objective measure by which to count beans, no formula that says X-number of POWs executed is equivalent to this many firebombings, because both sides did unconscionable things to fight the war. Getting into the minutiae of scorekeeping would only cause deeper divisions today, like how Korea and China continue to use wartime events to bludgeon modern Japan’s standing in East Asia.

Seventy years on, three generations later, retribution and reparations do not lead to recovery. The U.S-Japan relationship is one of the strongest in the world because the two nations confronted the past with a forward-looking and rueful, but unapologetic, attitude.

However, no apology does not mean no remorse. It does not mean that we are entitled to a callous conception of American exceptionalism. Said some pundits, the most recent leg of the president’s “international apology tour” is particularly humiliating in light of Japan’s war crimes and President Truman’s brave decision to trade Hiroshima and Nagasaki for hundreds of thousands of American lives.

Up to a point they make a valid argument. Why should we regret shutting down Imperial Japan’s war machine? On the other hand, though, this is also an obscenely lazy train of thought that ignores the consequences of using nuclear weapons. The argument that the baby-boomer generation is fond of sometimes making relies on the assumption that a ground invasion was the only alternative to dropping the atomic bombs. However, the Soviets were getting ready to enter the war against Japan (and did on the day that the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki) and could have swiftly forced it to surrender. Continued American air raids might have had the same effect.

There’s something profoundly disturbing about skin literally melting off a person and figures being burnt into shadows on the ground, about two hundred thousand immediately incinerated and several tens of thousands more later hobbled by cancer. It doesn’t take a flower child to recoil at a column called “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”

That said, though, President Truman would never have chosen not to drop the atomic weapons. The Roosevelt Administration managed to funnel $2 billion of secret appropriations to the Manhattan Project during the war, and the bomb soon belonged to a politicomilitary bureaucracy that didn’t question the assumption it would be dropped on a populated city center for maximum psychological effect. These officials were jaded by four years of endless bloodletting and took it for granted that regular Japanese civilians were to be the target. Heads would roll if the project was not successfully carried out. No American president would forego the opportunity to end the war in such a decisive way.

Henry Stimson, Secretary of War at the time, was the only member of the targeting committee with any second thoughts about this massacre, the only one that continued to hold out hope for a return to the era when military and civilian were separate. The significance of World War II is the erosion of that sacred barrier.

I think President Obama channeled Stimson, who recognized that with the start of the nuclear age came “man’s new relationship with the universe,” when he visited Hiroshima. The atomic bombings, according to the president, were the failure of human institutions to harness science for peaceful purposes. Though he is correct in that “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us,” the vision he laid out in Prague in 2009, the stale pacifist argument for a nuclear-free world that consumes the historical debate over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rings hollow in practice.

To be fair, disarmament treaties do work: since 2009, there are 8,000 fewer nuclear weapons in the world and 702 fewer held by the United States. However, this year the Pentagon said that our dismantlement of these weapons has slowed down, and now the Obama Administration wants to put over $1 trillion to modernizing the nuclear triad over the coming decade.

No matter the high-minded moral lessons we take away from these events, they must be tempered with an edge of realism. Unilateral disarmament will not further the cause of those who say “never again,” but rather weaken the international institutions that amplify their efforts. If anything, the spirit of Hiroshima is not militantly naive pacifism, nor is it an argument about simplistic American military might. Instead it is about the power of American leadership to put a lid on man’s most destructive tendencies after significant failure.

The United States opened a Pandora’s box that would have been otherwise opened by those deliberately seeking to do evil. Throughout the Cold War, the international rules based order undergirded only by American leadership protected Europe from the influence of Soviet aggression, and today stands as the only wall between North Korea, Iran and the first use of a nuclear weapon since August 1945. Our alliances don’t produce “freeriders,” they promote global security and the American economy.

The president of the United States and the Japanese prime minister, heads bowed in silence, side by side on an open plaza in Hiroshima is a powerful image that speaks to the enduring strength of the international system. When I visited, I realized that it’s a typical Japanese city where modern buildings stand next to old wooden temples. Picturing the inferno that consumed it 71 summers ago is difficult today, but we owe it to ourselves to remember what occurred so that we acknowledge the alliances that can prevent it from happening again.

By Jimmy Quinn

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