Should Obama Visit Hiroshima?

At the upcoming G-7 meeting in Japan, President Obama will have a chance to pay his respects to the Hiroshima victims of the first U.S. nuclear bomb, but he’ll get criticized by political enemies, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Hiroshima, as part of a trip in which he met with other G-7 foreign ministers in preparation for a summit meeting later this spring, has raised the prospect of President Obama becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the same site when he is in Japan for the summit meeting itself. It is easy to anticipate some of the reaction from Mr. Obama’s political opponents in the United States if he does make the visit. He should visit anyway.

Secretary Kerry’s gesture was not unilateral; the visit was a group gesture involving the other G-7 foreign ministers as well. Several other things it was not. It was not an apology, and Kerry certainly did not say anything to suggest that it was. Nor was it a statement about the ethical and strategic issues concerning the use of atomic bombs against Japan, issues that have been debated at length in the ensuing seven decades.

The mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

The mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

It is good that those debates have been waged; the questions involved are important and the answers to the questions are not self-evident. But nothing about the ceremony at Hiroshima or anything the Secretary of State said there implied any conclusions regarding those issues.

One could say that the wreath-laying was in one respect an expression of regret about the overall ghastliness that was World War II, in which some 50 million people perished worldwide and of which the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the fiery conclusion. But one can express such sentiment without saying or implying anything about where blame for the war should be placed, or about which actions during the war were most reprehensible.

For a sitting U.S. president to pay respects to the war dead of a former adversary is not unprecedented. One thinks of President Reagan’s visit to the military cemetery at Bitburg, Germany in 1985. That visit become controversial when it became known that the cemetery, in which only German soldiers from World War II and not allied ones are buried, contains the remains of some members of the Waffen-SS. Nothing like that issue arises at Hiroshima, where the overwhelming majority of the dead were not even soldiers but instead civilians.

A presidential visit to Hiroshima surely would be well-received in Japan, one of the staunchest, most important, and least troublesome of U.S. allies. Japan also can be viewed as a model of admirable behavior on the issues of war and peace and nuclear weapons that are raised when thinking about Hiroshima.

Japan has combined its post-World War II pacifist streak with efforts to pull its weight in some multilateral efforts that have involved military force but in which Japan would not be going beyond its self-declared restrictions focused on self-defense. Japan also is a nuclear threshold state that disavows any acquisition of nuclear weapons — a disavowal that the Japanese foreign minister categorically reaffirmed in response to the suggestion from a certain U.S. presidential candidate that Japan and South Korea ought to acquire nukes.

Pleasing the Japanese would not be the main reason, however, that President Obama ought to go to Hiroshima. A presidential visit would partly be another statement about the need to avoid anything even remotely approaching the destruction of World War II. But more specifically it would be a statement about nuclear weapons. That is why Hiroshima is a symbolically important site, even though neither it nor Nagasaki was the scene of the most destructive use of U.S. firepower against Japan in World War II; a single night of firebombing Tokyo on March, 9-10, 1945, probably killed more people.

Visiting Hiroshima would be consistent with reaffirming a commitment to nuclear disarmament, a subject on which Mr. Obama is subject to legitimate criticism that he has not walked the walk as much as he has talked the talk. The commitment is part of the central bargain enshrined in the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, in which existing nuclear weapons states pledged to make a good-faith effort toward complete nuclear disarmament in return for the non-nuclear weapons states not acquiring such weapons. A symbolic visit is of course still more in the nature of talking than walking, but it would be better than the message sent by not visiting.

As for the flak from domestic political opponents, Mr. Obama will of course continue to get plenty of it no matter what he does and even without any real basis for it. Remember that mythical “apology tour” that Mitt Romney talked about during the 2012 campaign? Romney wouldn’t let go of the notion even though there was no such thing. There will be similar baseless caviling if President Obama goes to Hiroshima. Ignore it, Mr. President; go.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

21 comments for “Should Obama Visit Hiroshima?

  1. Glen Schlaetter
    April 18, 2016 at 00:23

    Joe L. No, not the government line, but the line that can be supported by government/ military documentation. Joe L. , you are obviously very uninformed about the circumstances surrounding the atomic bombings. Everything you wrote in your last comment is an urban legend. There is zero documentation that Japan was trying to surrender. ZERO! Quoting someone who says Japan was ready to surrender is pure hearsay, not evidence. I challenge you to find any 1945 Japanese government documentation either in Japanese or in English translation with the word “surrender” in it. None has ever been found, but you may be the first. Let’s say I give you a week to look for this. By the way, I have been living in Japan for a long time, so I can honestly vouch for the fact that in Japan there are no memorials to the allied troops who perished in Japanese POW camps, or the fact that The Undefeated was neither shown in movie theaters nor is the DVD available in rental shops.

  2. Glen Schlaetter
    April 14, 2016 at 23:18

    Obama should not go to Hiroshima. Japan’s view of WWII is that is was a victim not an aggressor. Obama’s going to Hiroshima will only legitimize this view. The dropping of Nuclear Bombs produced a sudden surrender by the Japanese Government. This meant that the US invasion of mainland Japan and the British invasion of Malaysia were cancelled. It also led to the return of some some three million Japanese soldiers from China and the demobilization of more that one million Japanese soldiers stationed inside Japan. This sudden surrender by Japan undoubtedly saved untold hundreds of thousands of lives. There are no memorials in Japan to the suffering of allied soldiers in Japanese POW camps in Japan. The movie The Undefeated was not shown in Japan and is also not available in DVD rental shops in Japan because of its accurate portrayal of the conditions in these camps. Obama’s visit to Hiroshima would be an insult to US veterans and others whose lives were saved by this bomb.

    • Joe L.
      April 15, 2016 at 00:01

      Boy you are really towing the government line here. After the US dropped the atomic bombs Walter Trohan of the Chicago Tribune wrote an article that Japan was actually trying to surrender in January of 1945 according to surrender terms that MacArthur had given to Roosevelt. These were the exact same surrender terms that the US accepted after they dropped the atomic bombs on “civilians”. Even if you look at words from the admirals at the time they point to the bombs being unnecessary because Japan was broken and ready to surrender. Add onto that a report by one of the government departments which also said they were unnecessary. The bombs saved no one and were used as a demonstration to the USSR of American domination.

  3. J'hon Doe II
    April 14, 2016 at 09:28

    You’ve asked some powerfully thoughtful questions, elmerfudzie. —
    I’d like to add some historical depth with a view toward the US re-militarization of Japan… .

    From 1964 to 1972, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world made a maximum military effort, with everything short of atomic bombs, to defeat a nationalist revolutionary movement in a tiny, peasant country-and failed. When the United States fought in Vietnam, it was organized modern technology versus organized human beings, and the human beings won.

    In the course of that war, there developed in the United States the greatest antiwar movement the nation had ever experienced, a movement that played a critical part in bringing the war to an end.

    It was another startling fact of the sixties.

    In the fall of 1945 Japan, defeated, was forced to leave Indochina, the former French colony it had occupied at the start of the war. In the meantime, a revolutionary movement had grown there, determined to end colonial control and to achieve a new life for the peasants of Indochina. Led by a Communist named Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionists fought against the Japanese, and when they were gone held a spectacular celebration in Hanoi in late 1945, with a million people in the streets, and issued a Declaration of Independence. It borrowed from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, in the French Revolution, and from the American Declaration of Independence, and began: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Just as the Americans in 1776 had listed their grievances against the English King, the Vietnamese listed their complaints against French rule:

    They have enforced inhuman laws…. They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots, they have drowned uprisings in rivers of blood. They have fettered public opinion…. They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials… .
    They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty. …

    …from the end of last year, to the beginning of this year . . . more than two million of our fellow-citizens died of starvation. .. .

    The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.

    The U.S. Defense Department study of the Vietnam war, intended to be “top secret” but released to the public by Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo in the famous Pentagon Papers case, described Ho Chi Minh’s work:

    .. . Ho had built the Viet Minh into the only Vietnam-wide political organization capable of effective resistance to either the Japanese or the French. He was the only Vietnamese wartime leader with a national following, and he assured himself wider fealty among the Vietnamese people when in August-September, 1945, he overthrew the Japanese . .. established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and staged receptions for in-coming allied occupation forces.. .. For a few weeks in September, 1945, Vietnam was—for the first and only time in its modern history—free of foreign domination, and united from north to south under Ho Chi Minh. .. .
    The Western powers were already at work to change this. England occupied the southern part of Indochina and then turned it back to the French. Nationalist China (this was under Chiang Kai- shek, before the Communist revolution) occupied the northern part of Indochina, and the United States persuaded it to turn that back to the French. As Ho Chi Minh told an American journalist: “We apparently stand quite alone.. .. We shall Have to depend on ourselves.”

    Between October 1945 and February 1946, Ho Chi Minh wrote eight letters to President Truman, reminding him of the self-determination promises of the Atlantic Charter. One of the letters was sent both to Truman and to the United Nations:

    I wish to invite attention of your Excellency for strictly humanitarian reasons to following matter. Two million Vietnamese died of starvation during winter of 1944 and spring 1945 because of starvation policy of French who seized and stored until it controlled all available rice. … Three- fourths of cultivated land was flooded in summer 1945, which was followed by a severe drought; of normal harvest five-sixths was lost. … Many people are starving. .. . Unless great world powers and international relief organizations bring us immediate assistance we face imminent catastrophe…
    Truman never replied.

    continued >

    • elmerfudzie
      April 14, 2016 at 13:48

      J’hon Doe II, I appreciate this commentary, most of the facts you cited are known to me and they bear repeating for the sake of our CONSORTIUMNEWS readership. One caveat however is this, never minimize the importance of technological breakthroughs as they apply towards long range military planning and exploiting these inherent advantages in a timely manner. Historical examples include; Eighteen inch guns on the Yamato-class battleships (imagine the fate of the US Naval fleet had Japan built six of them!), the British delay in battleship fleet modernization from coal to oil burning, failure to convert Germany’s WW II Junkers Ju 88’s twin engine into a four engine bomber and or perfecting the advantages of the Me-262 in aerial combat….All of London as well as Windsor castle might have succumbed to thousands of incendiary bomb-lets that only an equivalent of the American B-17 could have delivered to England. On today’s menu the issues remains the same; upgrading bomb technology to include Hafnium 178 as explosive material, launching pop-up lasers into near space above earth’s atmosphere that focus the burst of a mini nukes light energy into a pulverizing beam towards enemies below, modification of small nuclear weapons to deliver a wider area EMP and so on….the list is endless and dare we delay or suffer from the effects of overlooking just one potential technological or logistical advantages?!

  4. elmerfudzie
    April 14, 2016 at 01:21

    Imagine a Pre-WW II scenario where the nuclear tables were turned ’round. What if the Japanese government successfully managed to import, then arrived at a $ figure that no German Scientist(s) such as Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassmann would turn down? Suppose further that they got the A-Bomb first? Would their Emperor show his face on a barren Hawaiian Island? One of the seven wonders of the earth, ecosystem destroyed or left un-inhabitable? Would we ask the Japanese Emperor to mumble a few words, set some flowers perhaps? against a stone memorial “regretting” that he gave the order to turn our Naval ships and seamen into jelly? perhaps a verbose apology for exterminating most of it’s indigenous peoples?

    • dahoit
      April 14, 2016 at 10:52

      American self introspection by our leaders from hell is non existent.If the Russians sent their destroyers into the Gulf of Mexico to harass America,they’d be frothing at the mouth.A world of BS.
      And Fukushima keeps on spewing.Will Obomba go there?To inspect and promote GE reactors?
      Obomba wants advance screenings of Game of Thrones.(wapo)It’s good to be the king,one can as vapid and unserious as one wants.sheesh.

  5. J'hon Doe II
    April 13, 2016 at 18:10

    “Should Obama Visit Hiroshima?”

    Wouldn’t it be clearly more US shameless hypocrisy – being that we’re investing another TRILLION $$$ upgrading our nuke weapons?

    The Japanese people are already angry about their leaders’ US prompted change in Japan’s military posture coerced by the Trilateral Commission “Pivot to Asia” design — and the Rearmament of Japan’s military.

    A war posture is clearly taking form as US satellite nations align against the Chinese dragon —- but who is the Actual Aggressor… ?
    (does China have nukes?) (were they previously invaded and humiliated by Japan?)

    In the “clash of civilizations” — who’ve been The Most Destructive???

    According to US previously enacted foreign policy, an Obama visit to Hiroshima or Nagasaki would signify war on the horizon.
    A symbolic wreath for the past and a rearmed Japan for the return to militarism w/looming death & destruction.


  6. Zachary Smith
    April 13, 2016 at 17:57

    Japan also can be viewed as a model of admirable behavior on the issues of war and peace and nuclear weapons that are raised when thinking about Hiroshima.

    Now that is a very odd claim. Japan has never – to my knowledge – owned up to the atrocities that nation committed during WW2, nor has it paid any reparations that I know of. For example, if the forced sex slaves have ever been compensated it would be news to me.

    After WW1 Germany began a stealth rearmament program for the next round. IMO Japan has been a bit more sneaky about it, but has done exactly the same thing. That nation has recently launched an aircraft carrier (in everything but name) larger than most of its WW2 models. It has prepared for a near-instant breakout as a nuclear power, including launchers. The M-V solid fuel missile is larger than the US MX ICBM. Japan has accumulated enough plutonium for tens of thousands of A-bombs. With its supercomputers, it has almost certainly designed modern H-bombs as well. With giant computers, you don’t need to do a physical test anymore, that can be done entirely inside the machine. It’s my understanding that’s how the hypocrite Obama is doing the testing on his ‘modernized’ nuclear program projected to cost 1,000 billion dollars. Japan has cutting-edge submarines too – so good that buying some is tempting Australia. Japan is very involved with the US missile defense system, and almost certainly knows everything the US does about the subject.

    Whatever Obama is doing with the chit-chat about visiting Hiroshima, it isn’t nuclear disarmament he has in mind. I don’t know what he DOES have in mind, but it’s about something else. Encouraging the Japanese in their breakout from their constitutional prohibitions against war? Dump on Trump? Prove something to the Chinese? I don’t know, but I’m not going to give the man a bit of credit because the rest of his behavior shows he’s a true-blue neocon himself.

    • Jerry
      April 13, 2016 at 20:54

      I always enjoy your comments, Mr. Smith. One thing does appear to be absent from the discussion. North Korea is believed to have nuclear weapons and thus pose a real threat to Japan. Should Japan be well equipped to defend herself, with or without nuclear weapons? Does anyone want or expect the U.S. to take out North Korea one way or another to protect Japan or South Korea?

      • dahoit
        April 14, 2016 at 10:45

        Ask yourself why NK has developed these nukes?Simple,US hostility.
        Trumps approach is to not have US involved in regional disputes,but the regions actors work it out.Sounds great to me.I don’t believe these peoples are as insane as our leadership,they will work out things if we stay out of the mix.
        Look at todays hysteria over US ship being harassed in the Baltic Sea.What the f*ck are we in the Baltic Sea for?It has no value to US,other than stirring up nonsense against Russia.Disband Nato,Yankee Come Home.

        • Jerry
          April 14, 2016 at 22:59

          Very good points. I agree that we should get out and stay out of the affairs of foreign countries and let them resolve their differences. We should also bring all of our troops home. We don’t belong in the Baltic Sea. We are probably the biggest provocateur in east Asia and elsewhere.

          But I would not have us unilaterally disarm. If adequate force for defense is necessary for us, is it necessary also for Japan or South Korea?

    • alfredgreat
      April 17, 2016 at 15:24

      Here’s the “very odd claim”: “Japan has never – to my knowledge – owned up to the atrocities that nation committed during WW2…” That’s because your “knowledge” is sheer ignorance (see, for example, Wikipedia – “List of war apology statements issued by Japan”). But you feel safe in blathering on from that position. No doubt, the fact that the dropping of atomic bombs on civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of state terrorism, would probably be ‘news to you’ as well.

  7. Bill Bodden
    April 13, 2016 at 11:50

    If Obama wants to obviate a nuclear war he could start by really letting the department of justice (sic) and the FBI expose any irresponsible or other injudicious actions related to Hillary Clinton’s private email server that might prevent her ascendancy to the throne of the American empire. “President Killary: Would the World Survive Hillary Clinton?”
    by Paul Craig Roberts –

  8. Joe Tedesky
    April 13, 2016 at 10:46

    When I heard Donald Trump bring up the subject of arming Japan, and South Korea with nukes, all I could say was no, no, no. Instead we should be discussing nuclear disarmament. Not only is nuclear war a tragic option, it is a costly tool to maintain. Imagine using this money to better the lives for all of humanity. I would like to ask Madeline Albright, ‘why have a State Department, if we don’t use it’. It’s way past overdue that governments settle their differences outside of military conflict. Weapons to plough shares, is the only way forward.

    • Joe L.
      April 13, 2016 at 13:20

      I actually visited Hiroshima a few years ago and I could not agree more. I felt so overwhelmed with emotion walking through that museum reading the stories and see the photos. It was haunting to see the buildings that were still standing but what really effected me was seeing a person who was completely obliterated having their shadow burned into stone. Not just nuclear disarmament but also these wars for greed need to stop. Smedley Butler had it right when he wrote that “War is a racket. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

      • Dosamuno
        April 13, 2016 at 17:42

        I’ve never been to Hiroshima; however, I reread John Hersey’s HIROSHIMA a few years ago and it shook me as much as it did the first time I read it. I urge everyone to read it.

        I couldn’t agree with you more strongly, Joe L.

        • Joe L.
          April 14, 2016 at 13:53

          Dosamuno… If you ever have a chance it is definitely a place to visit because it really puts war into perspective. I think it is easy enough to see something on TV or read it in a book but to physically go to Hiroshima and smell the air, see the buildings, meet the people, and be inches away from the relics of that war which harken to destruction and criminality is something else. The park itself is actually very beautiful and I even went to ring the peace bell that they have in the park. I took lots of photos in the museum and read so many stories of civilians, people just doing their daily rituals, that either died immediately or cruelly suffered from the effects of radiation until their deaths (the ironic part being the New York Times writing at the time that radiation sickness was basically a myth or Japanese Propaganda meanwhile the US government confiscated all Japanese films from hospitals of radiation sickness and classified them for something like 30 years). It was such an eye-opening experience and I highly recommend it to anyone because it really puts the stupidity of war into perspective.

          • Dosamuno
            April 14, 2016 at 19:58

            Sounds more shocking than Pompei and Herculaneum.
            I hope I can pursue your recommendation one day, Joe.
            Thank you.

      • Glen Schlaetter
        April 18, 2016 at 00:42

        Joe L. Nobody’s “shadow” was “burned into stone” in Hiroshima. Burning a shadow into stone is impossible! The “shadows” you saw are the silhouettes left behind when the light from the explosion bleached out the stone, cement, brick or wooden surfaces that were behind or below these unfortunate people.

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