Tad Akiba, Mayor of Hiroshima, didn't listen to instructions. During his visit to the White House last January, Akiba and a throng of other visiting mayors listened dutifully as handlers informed them that they would not be able to speak or shake hands individually with President Obama. "I just walked right up to him and shook his hand," Akiba grinned unabashedly. Apparently one does not get elected mayor of a large Japanese city by being reticent.
Akiba seized the moment to invite President Obama to visit Hiroshima, and the president responded politely (if vaguely) that he would "like to come." The president plans to visit Japan in November for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Yokohama. His brief interchange with Akiba has opened up a world of debate about whether during that trip he will indeed visit the site of the first U.S. atomic bombing in World War II, and whether or not in such a visit Obama might apologize to Japan.*
Further energizing this debate was last week's visit by the U.S. Ambassador to Japan to the commemoration ceremony at Hiroshima, which marked the 65th anniversary of the bombing. This was the first time a U.S. official has ever attended the annual August 6 ceremony. It was the Ambassador's second visit; he visited for the first time last October, and said he was "deeply moved" by the experience. At last week's visit, Roos gave neither a speech nor comments to reporters who sought his reactions. A previous statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Japan said that the Ambassador's attendance at the ceremony was intended to "honor all of the victims of World War II" and to testify to the Administration's commitment to disarmament: "For the sake of future generations, we must continue to work together to realize a world without nuclear weapons."
Although many people were no doubt disappointed by the absence of a U.S. apology at last week's ceremony, to some Roos's visit promotes a broader goal. Many supporters of an Obama visit say that a presidential trip to Hiroshima would further the global anti-nuclear agenda. At last week's ceremony, Akiba said in his speech, "We need to communicate to every corner of the globe the intense yearning of the survivors for the abolition of nuclear weapons. I offer my prayers to those who died." He said that the survivors have long waited for global nuclear disarmament, adding, "We will not make you wait for much longer."
Akiba's diplomacy notwithstanding, many observers wonder: Is Roos's visit a prelude to a presidential visit, and perhaps an apology in November? Reception of a presidential visit, let alone an apology, would be highly controversial stateside. Many people would say that it's the moral thing to do given the horrendous loss of life caused by the bombings -- 140,000 dead at Hiroshima, followed by 70,000 in Nagasaki. Those committed to the anti-nuclear agenda -- including Obama -- might view a Hiroshima visit as an important symbolic gesture of commitment to the goal of "global zero."
Advocates of a presidential visit might also say that a visit to Hiroshima would provide an opportunity to repair the fraying U.S.-Japan alliance, which -- since the dust-up over the U.S. Marine Corps air base in Okinawa -- has shown signs of serious tensions. At this time of rising Chinese power, many analysts might argue, keeping strong U.S.-Japan relations is of utmost importance.
Others would add that Japan and the U.S. also have unfinished business that has been swept under the rug for too long. As Japanese journalist Fumio Matsuo wrote in the Wall Street Journal, buried in the Japanese psyche is a sense of uneasiness that despite seemingly strong relations, "There has been no true closure with the U.S. over World War II." The United States, Matsuo wrote, should pay respect to Japan's victims and honor Japanese suffering, just as Japan should do the same for the countries it victimized during the war. He suggested that the U.S. president visit Hiroshima and lay a wreath there, and that the Japanese prime minister do the same at Pearl Harbor.
A presidential apology -- even a visit -- would have many detractors, particularly from conservatives. In 2009 Obama, in a speech in Strasbourg, spoke ruefully about recent American foreign policy arrogance (and got a few jabs in about European obstreperousness as well). Subsequently many conservative critics blasted the president for "apologizing for America." Karl Rove called the president's trip an "international confession tour," and lamented, "in less than 100 days, he has apologized on three continents for what he views as the sins of America and his predecessors." In her farewell address as governor, Sarah Palin golly-geed that "We face challenging times with some hell-bent on tearing down our nation by perpetuating pessimism and apologizing for America." The title of Mitt Romney's recent book, No Apology, gives us some clue as to how he might react to an Obama visit to Hiroshima. In case we were lost in the subtlety, Romney clarifies: "Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many misdeeds, both real and imagined. It is his way of signaling to foreign countries and foreign leaders that their dislike for America is something he understands and that is, at least in part, understandable. There are anti-American fires burning all across the globe; President Obama's words are like kindling to them."
The president has also been pilloried for kowtowing to foreign leaders. Witness Mona Charen's one-two punch in National Review: "Being eager to ingratiate oneself with Europeans is an understandable liberal impulse. The left wing of the Democratic Party reveres European welfare states." Upper cut to the chin: "But President Obama also bowed low (literally) before the king of Saudi Arabia." She concludes, "That was more than courtesy; it was abasement." Obama's subsequent bow to the Japanese emperor, in which his eyelashes appeared to graze his Cole-Haans, added fuel to Republican fire.
The risk of a domestic uproar from an Obama visit to Hiroshima is therefore high, particularly if the Democrats get trounced in the mid-term elections that will precede the president's Japan visit by two weeks. If Republicans run away with these elections, a Hiroshima visit would be very likely to prompt a Senate resolution affirming the United States' justification in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
In the past, however, national apologies have been used successfully to move countries' relations forward. The Germans, for example, apologized repeatedly to the peoples they brutalized in World War II and the Holocaust. Such gestures eased the process of German unification and have helped repair Germany's post-World War II image. Even short of an apology, countries have staged commemorative events to show their solidarity -- think of Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand's solemn handhold at Verdun cemetery in 1984, and more recently, Vladimir Putin's visit to Katyn forest with the Polish prime minister.
But the process of trying to put the past behind often does just the opposite. The Japanese know this only too well, when their leaders' attempts to apologize triggered outbursts from the Japanese equivalents of Palin, Romney, and Rove. Koreans and Chinese felt far from mollified by Japanese apologies when they led furious detractors to spell out only too clearly that no, they were not sorry, or that actually, that particular incident had never happened, and if it did, it was the West's fault anyway. Would it be helpful for already-fraught U.S.-Japan relationship to see hundreds of furious letters-to-the-editor and op-eds from veterans excoriating Japan's wartime atrocities and lauding the dropping of the atomic bombs? Would a "REPUBLICAN GOVERNOR: OBAMA WEAKENING AMERICA; JAPAN HAD IT COMING" crawler on Fox News help repair the U.S.-Japan alliance?
Most Americans probably paid little attention to last week's anniversary, but if they had thought about it, many would probably agree with the assessment of the late Brig. General Paul W. Tibbets, pilot of the aircraft, the Enola Gay, that dropped the atomic bomb on the city in 1945. "I have been convinced," Tibbets once said, "that we saved more lives than we took" -- in reference to the lives on both sides that might have been lost had the war been allowed to continue, or had the U.S. staged an amphibious assault on the Japanese home islands. Tibbets said, "It would have been morally wrong if we'd have had that weapon and not used it and let a million more people die." After Roos's visit last week to Hiroshima, Tibbets's son, Gene spoke out against the gesture as an "unsaid apology." He protested that the ceremony was trying to "rewrite history," saying, "They hit Pearl Harbor, they struck us. We didn't slaughter the Japanese -- we stopped the war." It's a formulation to which many (most?) Americans would nod resolutely. Tibbets says he gets dozens of calls every year around this time from veterans saying, "If it wasn't for your dad, I wouldn't be here."
To imagine how an Obama visit to Hiroshima would be received, it is also worth thinking back to 1995 -- to the cautionary tale of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's exhibition of the Enola Gay. For the proposed exhibition of the aircraft, the long-haired, America-hating, gluten-free, Birkenstock-wearing historians at the Smithsonian who drafted the script actually showed in this exhibition the suffering experienced by the Japanese people on the ground. Veterans demanded to know why the exhibition chose not to highlight Japanese atrocities in Asia -- the suffering that the bomb brought to a halt; Congress got exorcised; and the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to condemn the exhibition and demand its revision.
With his history-making visit to Hiroshima, John Roos took a big risk -- and President Obama would be taking one as well. Is a presidential visit the right thing to do? On one side is the earnestness and sincerity in Mayor Akiba's eyes; the pattern of the kimono seared onto a woman's back; the human shadows burned onto the sides of buildings; the haunting testimony and the tears of survivors. On the other side is politics, and the millions of other people who suffered in World War II -- who want their stories told, too.
* Correction: This paragraph originally misidentified Akiba as an A-bomb survivor.