Obama’s visit to Hiroshima

The upcoming visit to Hiroshima by U.S. President Barack Obama — the first by a sitting president of the sole country in the world to have used nuclear weapons in warfare to the city that experienced the first nuclear attack in history 71 years ago — will be significant if it indeed serves to rebuild the momentum for efforts to create a world free of nuclear arms, which Obama himself advocated at the beginning of his presidency.

The United States has ruled out an apology by Obama for its atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II in 1945, which together killed more than 210,000 people by the end of that year. But lack of an apology should not detract from the significance of the historic visit, during which he will be accompanied by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. What’s more important will be the recognition that Obama’s May 27 tribute to Hiroshima should bring to the catastrophic consequence of the atomic bombing — and a readiness to build on that recognition to move toward eliminating nuclear weapons.

Seven decades after the atomic bombings, a presidential trip to Hiroshima remains politically sensitive and risky in the U.S., where the view remains strong that the use of the atomic bombs just days before Japan’s surrender were necessary to quickly end the war and save the lives of American troops. Concern has lingered among American officials that a presidential visit to the atomic-bombed city could be construed as an apology by the U.S. government.

There have been hopes that Obama, whose 2009 speech in Prague calling for creation of a world free of nuclear weapons earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, would be the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima during his tenure. Obama himself said during his first trip to Japan as president in November 2009 that he would be “honored” to have the opportunity to visit the A-bombed cities in the future. In 2010, John Roos became the first U.S. ambassador to Japan to attend the annual peace memorial in Hiroshima on the Aug. 6 anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city. The visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum last month — on the sidelines of the Group of Seven foreign ministers’ meeting held in the city — was seen as setting the stage for Obama, now in his final year in office, to go to Hiroshima when he makes his likely final trip to Japan as president to attend the May 26-27 G-7 summit.

Political sensitivities will still surround Obama’s visit even as the decision was officially announced Tuesday by the Japanese and U.S. governments, in view of its potential conservative repercussions on the presidential election in November. White House officials were quick to underline that Obama will not “revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II” or comment on whether the atomic bombings were justified during his visit. Press secretary Josh Earnest, who last week made it clear that the president did not believe an apology for the atomic bombings was warranted, said it’s wrong to interpret the Hiroshima visit as tantamount to an apology.

Obama’s visit will “highlight (the president’s) continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” the White House said, while Abe said in Tokyo that Obama visiting Hiroshima, “seeing the reality of the consequences of atomic bombings and expressing his feelings to the world, will be a big force toward a world without nuclear weapons.”

What is then important will be what Obama will actually do and say during in Hiroshima. The detailed itinerary is yet to be unveiled, but there is speculation it will include a visit to the memorial park and a speech.

The Hiroshima Declaration issued by the G-7 foreign ministers last month reaffirmed their commitment to “creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in a way that promotes international stability.” But such a statement comes amid a global dearth of momentum for efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. Obama advocated creation of a world free of nuclear arms right after his inauguration, but conditions for reaching that goal appear dismal as the end of his presidency draws near. Disarmament talks between the U.S. and Russia, which together own 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads, have stalled in recent years as relations between the two countries have soured. Last year, the United Nations conference to improve compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty failed even to adopt a final document. North Korea meanwhile continues to defy international sanctions to conduct nuclear weapons tests.

Obama visiting Hiroshima in itself may have symbolic significance. But whether the historic visit will have more than symbolic meaning will depend on what fresh messages he can deliver as president of the country that, as his aide quoted him, “has a special responsibility as the only nation to have used a nuclear weapon” to lead the effort to pursue a world free of them.