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."

The politics of Hiroshima may therefore keep Obama away while he is in office. Where does this leave the U.S.-Japan relationship? Option one is to leave well enough alone. Recent contretemps aside, the U.S. and Japan have already achieved a remarkable reconciliation, with strong security, economic, and social ties, all without poking into historical hornets' nests.

But if U.S. and Japanese officials decide that some kind of commemoration is important to solidify the alliance, a second option is for Tokyo and Washington to hold a joint, non-accusatory commemoration that emphasizes unifying themes instead of blame or apology.

French and West German leaders adopted this approach in the wake of World War Two. Rather than meeting at one of that war's concentration camps or sites of German atrocities, their leaders convened at the World War One battlefield of Verdun cemetery, where hundreds of thousands of French and Germans had perished. The commemoration emphasized the tragic sweep of Franco-German great power relations, and the need for Franco-German rapprochement to prevent a return to such tragedy. The Verdun commemoration, by focusing on shared loss rather than a perpetrator and a victim, avoided offending either side. The event was seen as so meaningful, the event itself would be celebrated 25 years later as a milestone in Franco-German reconciliation.

U.S. and Japanese leaders could emulate the success of Verdun by visiting a site of joint suffering -- for example, one of the Pacific islands where so many young men perished during the bloody "island-hopping" campaign. Such an event would remember the war as one in which soldiers of both countries fought valiantly and suffered terribly, providing a unifying focal point and reinvigoration of the two countries' shared commitment to peace.

A third option for the United States and Japan would be to commemorate joint achievements since the war. Perhaps the greatest is Japanese democracy. It is a triumph for the Japanese people, who built and upheld a robust, free society despite much doubt around the world at the time that this was possible. It is also a credit to the United States, without whose magnanimity and effort it may never have occurred. Furthermore, democracy and shared liberal values are what set the alliance apart from its adversaries: North Korea and, possibly in the future, China.

So the U.S. has a number of options. But the thorny politics of Hiroshima make it unlikely that Obama, or any sitting American president, will appear before the memorial. However, if they so choose, American and Japanese leaders have other ways to join hands.