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Obama has unfinished business in Hiroshima

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Special To The Japan Times

Barack Obama will attend the G-7 Ise-Shima summit of leading industrial nations in Mie Prefecture next month, sparking speculation that the U.S. President might venture to Hiroshima to pay respects at the Peace Memorial Park.

Obama is the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate because of a speech he gave earlier that year in Prague pledging to rid the world of nuclear weapons. His vision dovetails with the Hiroshima Declaration, which calls for the abolition of nuclear arms. So a visit is appealing to Obama in terms of the unfinished business of World War II and the Cold War, while giving momentum to his pledge in Prague concerning “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

It could also be a cathartic moment for Americans and Japanese to ponder the folly of war and the virtues of the peaceful relations that have flowered since 1945.

On April 11, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry along with other G-7 foreign ministers in Hiroshima paid respects to the victims of the atomic bombing. He is the highest-ranking American official to visit the Peace Memorial Park, and many hope it is a prelude to a presidential visit in May.

Seven decades on, it is high time that the United States addressed this painful and awkward shared history with Japan. An Obama visit would be a symbolically powerful gesture that would enhance the nations’ bilateral relationship, burnish America’s global image and boost Washington’s moral authority on history and disarmament.

But some commentators prefer that the United States keep its collective head in the sand because an Obama visit would antagonize and perhaps unify Republicans who, left to their own devices, are imploding quite nicely. But, to be fair, Obama can’t get out of bed in the morning without enraging Republicans, and if he pursued policies the GOP favored, America would still be neck-deep in wars and the economy way underwater.

In an essay in Foreign Affairs, Dartmouth College professor Jennifer Lind recently made the case against Obama visiting Hiroshima, citing all the predictable and unpersuasive excuses. Her argument against visiting Hiroshima boils down to one thing: Americans won’t like it. She cites Republican Mitt Romney and his book “No Apology” as evidence that Obama has erred with symbolic gestures of contrition and healing.

So now we should be listening to Romney, the human punch line Obama hammered in 2012?

Lind makes much of American conservatives’ venomous contempt for Obama’s so-called apology diplomacy, but aren’t these the same wackos who think he is Kenyan? In doing so, Lind establishes common ground with Japanese rightists who are doing what they can to repudiate and sabotage Japan’s apologies and gestures made in the 1990s to promote reconciliation with Asian victims of Japanese imperial aggression.

But should the druthers of barking mad Republicans and Japanese neo-nationalists dictate American policy? Public opinion polls indicate that the number of Americans who remain convinced that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified has fallen from 85 percent in 1945 to 56 percent in 2015. Younger Americans express even more doubts about the wisdom of having done so, and only 14 percent of Japanese believe the act was justified.

An Obama visit might not close that perception gap, but it would certainly improve America’s image among Japanese. So why are some alliance managers in both nations keen to derail the visit?

In a 2010 article for The Atlantic, Lind argues in favor of leaving well enough alone, noting that “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.” True, but seven decades on, isn’t it time to take the measure of this uncommemorated history of the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians that extends to the firebombing of Tokyo (100,000 deaths in a single night) and the 65 other cities subjected to firebombing? Given Washington’s pressure on Japan to come clean about its shared history with Asia, the United States looks hypocritical.

Maybe Lind is right that Obama would be handing the Republicans an issue to unite behind, and that he should fear the Trumpkins who rally to their Dear Leader and his campaign to make America hate again. But caving in to this rabble is not the basis for a wise policy. Donald Trump’s swaggering jingoism and braggadocio is giving America a bad name. In Hiroshima, Obama can show the world a more compassionate face and avoid the fate of weathervane politicians who disappoint because they have no convictions.

Veterans and politicians rallied against a planned Smithsonian museum exhibition about the bombing of Hiroshima in 1995 that was aimed at raising questions about the rationale for U.S. President Harry Truman’s decision to bomb. They succeeded in bowdlerizing that exhibit, but this hardly stands as a proud American moment, revealing a nation unable to handle a more complex and critical appraisal of the atomic bombings consistent with the analysis of most scholarly experts, who express various reservations about the orthodox narrative justifying Truman’s decision. Isn’t the right to dissent one of the values Americans fought and died for in WWII? In that same year, U.S. President Bill Clinton did the right thing in pressuring the U.S. Postal Service to drop plans for a commemorative atomic mushroom cloud stamp.

Could a visit by Obama to Hiroshima reinforce Japan’s already exaggerated sense of victimization? Certainly there does seem much more public awareness here of suffering endured than of that inflicted as a result of Japan’s imperial aggression in Asia from 1895 to 1945. But it is hard to see how an Obama visit would makes things worse; Washington would gain some moral authority on history issues and might actually make it more difficult for Japan’s revisionists to peddle their exculpatory history.

Alexis Dudden, professor of history at the University of Connecticut, says Obama, “should visit for humanity’s sake in terms of the value of learning from the past to make the present and future a slightly better place to live.” And visiting “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.”

Lind would have Obama miss this historic opportunity next month, invoking the possibility of an angry domestic backlash. But Americans will get over it because laying a wreath at Hiroshima is not about rewriting the history of Pearl Harbor, ignoring mistreatment of prisoners of war or downplaying Japan’s Asian rampage.

And just imagine the global firestorm that would be ignited by such a solemn gesture. Obama can shock people around the world — in all the right ways.

He need not offer an apology to enhance the dignity of America and burnish its international stature; the symbolism of just visiting Hiroshima will sanctify and justify Obama’s visit.

Mr. President, the time has come.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.