On Friday, President Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima. His spokesmen have promised that he won’t apologize for the U.S. use of atomic bombs to end the Second World War. But Hiroshima’s meaning is more powerful than any words he may utter.
Obama’s been contemplating a visit to Hiroshima for years. I first heard rumors of it in 2009, shortly before he visited Dresden, Germany. Early in his presidency, going to Hiroshima was evidently a bridge too far. But now that his legacy hunt is on, so is his trip to Hiroshima.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama will “not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb . . . he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.” I won’t take that to the bank.
But I also don’t much care exactly what Obama says. Like Dresden — hit by a massive Anglo-American air raid at the end of the war — Hiroshima has become an icon. Obama can talk about the future. But the memory of the iconic past will dominate him.
And I suspect he knows that. The name of Hiroshima is powerful enough to make his mere appearance there an apology. There are lots of cities in Germany: you visit Dresden for a reason. The same can be said of Japan, and Hiroshima.
I don’t fully understand our fixation on Hiroshima. The atom bomb was no more devastating than conventional U.S. air attacks. Given its aggression, and its systematic war crimes, Japan was no victim, and shouldn’t pretend it was.
If I’d been in the U.S. services in 1945, I would have said, with American author Paul Fussell, “Thank God for the atom bomb.” Japan might have quit without it, but I wouldn’t have wanted to bet my life on that. Or the lives of my comrades, or the Japanese, for that matter.
And then there’s the inoculation effect. Chemical weapons were used in the First World War, but only rarely since then. Atomic weapons were used in the Second World War, but not since. Civilized people recoil from absolute force, once they see it. The best thing we’ve done to stop the use of the bomb since 1945 was to use it in 1945. I don’t expect Japan to agree with that, which is fine. Japan’s our friend: I take no pleasure in arguing with them. But just because Japan was the one that got bombed doesn’t make Japan right.
The second best thing we’ve done to prevent another Hiroshima is to oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons, while maintaining a nuclear arsenal to deter others. That’s where Obama’s Hiroshima visit is more than a mistake. It sums up his failure to continue that policy.
In 2009, Obama set out his vision of a post-nuclear world. But the only nuclear arsenal he’s diminished is our own. The Iran deal is no exception. Obama wants Iran and Saudi Arabia to “share the neighborhood” so we can get out of it. As long as we were worried about Iran’s nuclear program, that was impossible.
The goal of the deal was to get us arguing about the merits of the deal. It wasn’t a triumph of counter-proliferation: it was a triumph of distracting us from the need for it.
The Hiroshima speech will nominally be another of Obama’s post-nuclear prayers. But it will achieve no more than his 2009 nuclear speech in Prague — or his Cairo speech on his “new beginning” with the Arab world, or his content-free pivot to Asia, or his failed reset with Russia.
All were fantasies that sought to make words do the job of policy. Obama’s visit to Hiroshima will be hailed as historic. But it will just be more of the same: a soaring speech, unmoored from reality.
Originally appeared in Newsday