Can the U.S. and Japan Finally Reconcile Over Hiroshima?

Ever since this past August when Ambassador to Japan John Roos became the first U.S. diplomat to attend Hiroshima's annual memorial ceremony, there have been high hopes in both countries that Barack Obama would follow as the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site of the 1945 atomic bombing. A gathering of Nobel Peace Prize laureates on Nov. 12 to 14, in the midst of Obama's ongoing Asia trip, provided the perfect opportunity. But a White House announcement that the President would not visit Hiroshima during his stay in Japan has disappointed observers hoping for a reconciliation with the past, and suggests that the awkward politics of Hiroshima will not be resolved anytime soon.

Now would be a propitious time for reconciliatory gestures in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Crisis erupted between the two allies last year after Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama rebuked a carefully negotiated military agreement, pledging to move U.S. Marines off of Okinawa. These strains come at a time when both sides need the alliance more than ever. China's sharp-elbowed diplomacy - its handling of the crisis over disputed islands in the East China Sea and its embargo of rare earth exports - belie Beijing's promise of a "peaceful rise."

To strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, Japanese journalist Fumio Matsuo encouraged the two allies to "bring closure to the long-festering issue of history." He has urged that the American president lay a wreath at Hiroshima and the Japanese Prime Minister lay a wreath at the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. Others say a visit would further Obama's global antinuclear agenda. American analysts John Feffer and Alexis Dudden wrote in Yes Magazine that a visit "would give [Obama] and the United States credibility to move forward in setting the tone for discussions of nuclear nonproliferation, weapons reduction, and ultimately, their abolition."

So with all the reasons to visit Hiroshima, why did Obama cancel? Presidential spokesmen cited the President's "tight schedule." But more likely it's politics, not logistics, keeping the President away.

A presidential visit to Hiroshima would likely be politically unpopular back home. Americans, memories of the brutal Pacific war lingering in their minds, have balked at previous such gestures that emphasized Japanese victimhood. A 1995 Smithsonian museum exhibition on the Enola Gay aircraft, which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, infuriated veterans and was condemned by Congress. They argued that the exhibit was overly sympathetic to Japan and overly critical of U.S. actions that they said liberated the people of Asia from the horrors of Japanese occupation, ended a terrible war, and saved perhaps hundreds of thousands of both American and Japanese lives.

These aren't only the dogma of the Tea Party extreme but are mainstream American views. Ambassador Roos's visit to Hiroshima attracted this kind of criticism. Gene Tibbets, son of Enola Gay pilot Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets, lamented the visit as an "unspoken apology" to Japan. "They hit Pearl Harbor, they struck us. We didn't slaughter the Japanese -- we stopped the war." In the Wall Street Journal, journalist Warren Kozak warned of moral equivalence, telling Americans of the "inconvenient truth that Japan started the war in the first place" and had been "bent on global conquest and the destruction of people who did not fit their bizarre racial theories."

Presented by

Jennifer Lind is Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. She has worked as a consultant for RAND and for the office of the secretary, U.S. Department of Defense.

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