On May 27, following in the footsteps of Ambassador Caroline Kennedy last year and Secretary of State John Kerry last month, Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima (or Nagasaki) — the worldwide symbols of the horrors of nuclear war. Even more remarkably, he will do so while still in office, albeit in the soft autumnal glow of his tenure. Even for a president who has chalked up many firsts, starting with his election and most recently a visit to Castro’s Cuba, this will be a visit pregnant with deep symbolism that will resonate not just in Japan and America but the whole wide world.

Obama is not expected to make a major policy speech nor to issue an apology for the two atomic bombings. Mercifully, this seems consistent with the wishes of a majority of Japanese people, including hibakusha. He is right not to apologize.

Contrary to the balance of impressions conveyed by the public commemorations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was not a purely innocent victim; it was guilty of aggression and other war crimes. This is not to blame the innocent civilian victims of the two bombs, but rather to recall the context: the final weeks of a horrific war initiated by Japan during which it committed many atrocities.

Moreover, it is far from clear that the Truman administration was at all aware of the game-changing, war-winning nature of the new weapon. Rather, their strategic impact was vastly underestimated and they were thought of merely as an incremental improvement of the existing weaponry of war. The destruction rained on Tokyo and Dresden by concentrated and intensive conventional bombing was worse. It was only with the passage of time that the military, political and ethical enormity of the decision to use atomic weapons gradually infused the consciousness of peoples, strategists and policymakers.

Against the backdrop of Japanese aggression and years of bitter warfare in which millions had already been killed, it is hard to see how any responsible U.S. president could have rejected the use of a new weapon that could possibly prevent hundreds of thousands of American casualties in the hand-to-hand combat of an invasion of the enemy’s homeland.

An apology by the president would be immensely controversial back in America, generate an unnecessary backlash from veteran and conservative groups, inflict substantial damage on bilateral U.S.-Japan relations, and poison an already bitter and polarizing presidential campaign. If something good might be expected of an apology for the cause of nuclear disarmament, it might still be justifiable as a profile in public courage by a departing president. Instead it would almost certainly be a major setback even to that worthy agenda.

The key question instead is whether Obama can leverage the historic visit to re-energize the agenda that he first outlined in Prague in April 2009, inspired the advocates of a sane nuclear-weapon-free world around the globe, but then saw his agenda fade into the sunset as geopolitical tensions flared in Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.

Obama could begin to educate the broad swath of American public that conventional wisdom on the role that the atomic bombing played in ending the war rests on shaky historical foundations. Based on a careful examination of the relevant chronology and historical record, professor Tsuyoshi Hasegawa concludes persuasively that the key decisive factor in Japanese decision makers’ minds was the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific War against the essentially undefended northern approaches, and the fear they would be the occupying power unless Japan surrendered to the U.S. first. The fear for the Emperor’s fate under Soviet occupation was especially powerful in their motivation.

The reason this is important is that the false, or at least the questionable, but deeply held and widely believed conviction that the bomb ended the war is the default response to the assertion by anti-nuclear activists about the fundamental lack of strategic utility of nuclear weapons. To be sure, they have some limited utility. They are so destructive that any course of action that could trigger an escalation spiral ending with a nuclear war imposes considerable caution on all decision makers.

But the bomb also poses a fundamental, irresolvable paradox. To deter the potential enemy, the threat of the decision to use it must be credible regarding both physical capability and political will. But if the threat is disregarded and the nuclear-armed enemy does launch a conventional or nuclear attack, a nuclear retaliation is irrational: Defeat by conventional armaments or limited destruction by one or two bombs is surely the lesser evil compared to the alternative of the destruction of all life on Earth that would result from a full-fledged nuclear war.

So while the limited utility of the bomb as a deterrent rests with the credibility of their use when needed, if deterrence fails they must in fact not be used. Against non-nuclear opponents, the moral, political and reputational costs of using them would vastly exceed any possible military gains on the battlefield. In other words, the biggest reason they have not been used again since 1945 is not deterrence, but the reality that they are not usable. Far from being realists, those who have faith in the total deterrence of these ultimate weapons, not the anti-nuclear advocates, are the deluded dreamers and romantics, investing nuclear weapons with quasi-magical powers quite divorced from the real world.

This is the conversation that Obama is better placed than anyone else in the world to start. His Prague agenda has been unceremoniously pushed aside by events. Even his one signature achievement, the four nuclear security summits, produced modest gains in the form of voluntary gift baskets from various leaders covering nuclear materials in their civilian programs — when 83 percent of all sensitive nuclear materials are under military control.

On the downside, the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia has been overshadowed by a trillion dollar U.S. nuclear modernization program over the next 30 years while Russia engages in nuclear saber-rattling around the edges of Europe. The risks of 1,800 U.S. and Russian bombs kept in a state of high alert, ready to fire within 30 minutes’ notice, could multiply if China decides to follow their example, as informed observers suggest Beijing is contemplating doing. The success in checking Iran’s weapon ambitions cannot compensate for North Korea’s expanding weapons and missile programs.

Asia has the sorry distinction of being the only continent where nuclear warhead numbers are growing, and growing in all four Asian nuclear weapons states. It is also the only continent where the bomb has ever been used as a weapon in war. While at one of those two sites, Obama can acknowledge the victims as truly universal victims of the horrors of war, pray for their souls to rest in peace, and resurrect the agenda to ban and eliminate the worst of the weapons created by man’s evil genius. He should pivot from the non-issue of an apology for the past, to an agenda for the future, to ensure we have a future.

Ramesh Thakur is co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN).

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