As Barack Obama nears close to his second term in the White House, his Asian diplomacy has received a new impetus. In April, he sent his Secretary of State John Kerry to Hiroshima, the highest ranking official to do so in an attempt to heal historical wound. Now Obama himself would land up in Hiroshima on 27 May, the first sitting president to visit the site of the bombing. Before that, Obama also visits Vietnam to be the third ever US President to do so since the US pulled its troops out of a war decades ago.
What do these twin visits mean in the larger context of America’s Asian diplomacy? Are these two visits provides a rare opportunity to elevate two unfortunate moments in history and offer useful lessons for the future? Viewed from a larger perspective, that seems to be the case. Decades after the two unpleasant incidents in Asia, debates continue amongst academics and analysts if the two events were preventable and there is no unanimity in views. Western scholars often justify to what the US did to Japan in 1945, while Asians view the US action was excessive and were preventable. This essay shall try to dissect what deeper meaning and message that Obama intends to convey to the world and to the Japanese people when he visits Hiroshima.
Obama seems to have gained some wisdom from the Hiroshima experience as he urged the world to get rid of the destructive nuclear weapons in his now famous Prague speech of April 2009, which is why perhaps he wants to make a strong statement reminding the world about the futility of possessing nuclear weapons by visiting Hiroshima before he demits office.
But are the Japanese people going to view the visit loaded only with symbolism without repentance? The view of the Japanese government need not necessarily coalesce with the view of the majority of Japanese people. While the Japanese government is not expecting a formal apology for what the US did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the average Japanese would certainly expect a sincere apology from Obama. Even on this, opinions in the US are divided and Obama is unlikely to offer any apology. What he probably intends to convey to the world is that the humanity should move towards a future with no nuclear weapons. That seems to be just kite-flying at the moment as geopolitical considerations of many emerging and aspiring nations might drive them on the nuclear path. In Northeast Asia itself, North Korea’s nuclear program has already triggered debate in Japan and South Korea if the time has arrived to visit their nuclear options. So the situation is more complicated than what Obama wants.
The reason why Obama added Vietnam into his Asian itinerary was because both the US and Vietnam face a common threat – the expansion of China’s security forces into islands near Southeast Asian nations.
Obama is likely to face a hostile group of survivors of US bombings who would expect that Obama apologise for the US action. So far they have desisted from demanding a direct apology for fear that they would be counterproductive but that tone is changing. They suspect that there is pressure from the US on the Japanese government not to seek an apology. The feeling of the survivors seems to be genuine as their suffering is not limited to immediate damage and visible, physical scars. Those who survived suffered discrimination at work, in marriage and in other areas of their lives, from their own people.
About 140,000 people perished instantaneously in Hiroshima bombing on 6 August 1945 and the city was reduced to rubble. Another city Nagasaki became the second target three days later when a second bomb was dropped killing another 73,000 people. The Japanese government has recognised that there are about 180,000 survivors still alive. Many remained unmarried and without children because of concerns about birth defects. There are others who have suffered from cancer and other radiation-induced illness. Therefore the pain of the survivors is real. In August 2015, the government of Abe Shinzo issued a statement which said the bombings “caused an extremely regrettable humanitarian situation because of its widespread damage” but refrained from calling them war crimes. The statement further said that it is more important to make effort toward achieving a nuclear-free world “rather than seeking an apology and remorse from the United States at this point, 70 years after the war”. Given the sensitiveness of the issue, it is unlikely that Obama shall have an audience with the survivors. What Obama can do best would be to reaffirm his commitment to work toward a nuclear-free world, to assuage the hurt feeling of the survivors. There are some survivors who openly say that Obama is not welcome in Hiroshima unless he offers an apology. Shizuka Kamei, a national lawmaker from Hiroshima whose sister died in the blast, said: “If he is not going to show remorse or offer an apology, he shouldn’t come.” He told a news conference, “Is he going to Hiroshima for sightseeing? Then please come after stepping down as president. I’ll be there to welcome him.”
When Kerry was in Hiroshima, he did not offer an apology but called his visit to Hiroshima war memorial as “gut wrenching”. He did not even bow his head before the memorial but only emphasised that “war must never be the first resort” and urged a continued push for a world free from nuclear weapons. Obama’s visit could be no different but his every action including the body language, would come under a microscope and would be interpreted differently such as either admission of guilt or remotest hint of apology.
Indeed, the destructive power of the nuclear weapon cannot be fathomed without a visit to the Hiroshima war museum. No visitor will come out from the museum without moist eyes, as this author experienced during his visit to the museum 37 years ago, after seeing the devastating consequences of what the use of a nuclear weapon can cause to humanity. If Obama is working sincerely to make the world nuclear-free and peaceful, Hiroshima museum remains as a constant reminder to what damage that humans can inflict on themselves and therefore guide them to desist from such acts. The world’s leading powers in the 1930s and 1940s failed to successfully navigate world affairs which could have made the use of the nuclear weapons preventable. Whether it was their inability or unwillingness is debatable.
But the world today is completely different. And by visiting Hiroshima, Obama would be sending the message loud and clear that humanity ought to be protected and allowed to live peacefully in an environment where threats are reduced or even eliminated. Apart from nuclear weapons, there are newer threats too such as from the Islamic State, Russian aggression in Europe, China’s expansionist designs, North Korea’s nuclear program and constant threat of its use. Responsible stakeholders should work in a cooperative framework in addressing to such issues. Efforts ought to be made to minimise such volatility so that stability is maintained. Obama’s forthcoming visit to Hiroshima should be seen from this larger perspective.
If this is so, has Obama’s Prague speech of April 2009 made the world in 2016 any different? That time, he had said that it is necessary “to ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change”. Since 2009, Obama might claim to have made some strides such as nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, and the 2010 New Start treaty mandating cuts in the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the US and Russia to 1,550 warheads each. He has also successfully reached out to Cuba. But his failures are also visible. He has failed to negotiate with Russia for further reduction in nuclear arms. Obama is also unable to prevent Pakistan from blocking international negotiations on a treaty banning fissile material production. The North Korean issue remains unresolved too. If so, how does Obama justify his credentials to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 which was largely because of his nuclear agenda? Critics would see his observation about a “world without nuclear weapons” as mere lofty words.
Yet, Obama’s visit to Hiroshima is going to be historic in the sense that no previous US President in the past 71 years ever thought of visiting the place at least to comfort the survivors, if not tender an apology, and relieve some of their pains. The visit also shall provide a message that the world would be less dangerous with less nuclear weapon and therefore their elimination from the world is more urgent now than ever before.
In 2010, John Roos became the first US ambassador to Japan to attend the annual peace memorial in Hiroshima on 6 August anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city. Kerry’s visit in April on the sidelines of the G-7 foreign ministers’ meeting held in the city was seen as setting the stage for Obama to go to Hiroshima during what is going to be his final trip to Japan during his tenure to attend the 26-27 May G-7 Summit. Though no formal apology shall be offered, the visit will highlight Obama’s continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. However, no major speech, something like the one at Prague in April 2009, is likely, though a short statement on seeking the abolition of nuclear weapons could be a possibility.