In the end, President Barack Obama’s decision to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, may not have been a difficult one.
A trip to the site of the world's first atomic bombing fits both with his push for a world free of nuclear weapons and his desire to fill his final year in office with a series of historic trips, including Cuba, as he looks to add final chapters to his legacy.
Obama will probably face criticism from those who question whether he will apologize for the U.S. bombing that led to the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II. But in his final months in office, that is unlikely to hurt him.
“I don’t know why he wouldn’t go,” said Joshua Walker, a former Obama State Department official who is now a fellow with the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “This is all about legacy.”
After months of speculation, the White House announced Tuesday that Obama would visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park May 27 following his first trip to Vietnam and a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in Japan. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined to say whether Obama would meet with survivors.
It was not a surprise. On his first trip to Japan in his first year in office, Obama said he would like to visit one day. “The memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are etched in the minds of the world, and I would be honored to have the opportunity to visit those cities at some point during my presidency,” he said in 2009.
Obama, accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is expected to deliver a speech where he will talk of his commitment to pursuing “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” according to the White House.
“He will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes wrote in a blog post. “Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.”
During World War II, President Harry Truman had been warned that it would take thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives to invade Japan. The use of an atomic bomb killed an estimated 140,000 people in Hiroshima. Three days later, a second atomic bomb killed up to 80,000 people in Nagasaki. And Japan surrendered soon afterward.
The devastation at Hiroshima will always be a profound reminder that we must do everything we can to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again. Our ultimate goal today, tomorrow and always should be a nuclear-weapons-free future.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., co-founder of the Congressional Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation
Still, Obama’s critics may accuse of him for continuing what they have called an “apology tour,” acknowledging past mistakes by the United States in an effort rebuild relationships around the globe. On Tuesday, Republicans on Capitol Hill were largely quiet.
Mireya Solis, a senior fellow at the Center for East Asian Policy at the center-left Brookings Institution, said the initial reaction might have to do with how the White House carefully calibrated its message to indicate he would not apologize for the bombing.
“President Obama is particularly well suited for this trip because of his track record on nuclear nonproliferation,” she said. “It fits him well.”
The trip comes after Obama vowed in a 2009 speech in Prague to take “concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons.” Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in part because of his desire to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, gave a later speech outlining a series of steps toward disarmament.
In 2015, the U.S and five other world powers announced a deal to limit Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. But other actions require approval from reticent lawmakers and countries, including Russia.
When Barack Obama visits the Cenotaph in Hiroshima, he should … not talk about a world without nuclear weapons, for such a thing is more fanciful now than in 2009. Instead, he should stand by his Japanese counterpart, and reflect on our ability to move past the gaping wounds of war, to ally together to keep peace.
Michael Auslin, a Japan expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank
Several groups called on Obama to outline steps he would take toward a nuclear-free world, including reducing the number of nuclear warheads or strategic warheads, removing nuclear weapons from the “hair-trigger alert” that allows weapons to be launched within minutes and scaling back plans to spend $1 trillion to build a new generation of nuclear warheads, missiles, bombers and submarine.
“The president must do more than give another beautiful speech about nuclear disarmament,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Security Program. “The world needs – indeed, is desperate for – concrete action.”
Secretary of State John Kerry became the highest-ranking administration official to visit the site when he attended a memorial ceremony in Hiroshima in April. He was well received. “War must be the last resort, never the first choice,” he wrote in a memorial book at Hiroshima. “This memorial compels us all to redouble our efforts to change the world, to find peace and build the future so yearned for by citizens everywhere.”
Everyone should visit Hiroshima, and everyone means everyone.
Secretary of State John Kerry at Hiroshima in April
Several lawmakers also have visited. President Jimmy Carter visited the Japanese city, but not until 1984 after he left office.