Why Obama Should Visit Hiroshima

Commentary | April 25, 2016

J. Berkshire Miller, EWI's Fellow for the China, East Asia and United States (CEAUS) Program, lists reasons why visiting the Japanese city next month will be the right call for U.S. President Barack Obama.

Next month, U.S. President Barack Obama will touch down in Japan to attend the G7 summit being held in Ise-Shima. A number of topics will be on the agenda including mounting tensions in the East and South China Seas, recent provocations by North Korea and the ongoing conflict in Syria.

On the sidelines of the summit, there has also been discussion about a potential visit by Obama to Hiroshima. Last week, the White House appeared to hint that such a visit might be in the works by tying it to Obama's commitment to disarmament and non-proliferation, noting: Symbolically, there's no more powerful illustration of that commitment [to disarmament] than the city that contained the victims of the first use of that weapon.

Indeed, Obama should visit Hiroshima and signal to the world the United States' commitment to his stated principles on non-proliferation and disarmament. This almost certainly would not be framed as a visit to express remorse or apology for U.S. actions in 1945, which would not be popular stateside.

Rather, the trip would reveal a common message about the abhorrent nature and consequences attached to the use of nuclear weapons.

Moreover, the visit would be historic and represent the first time that a sitting U.S. president toured the city that has been infamous due to the fact that it was the first place to experience a nuclear weapon attack.

An Obama visit to Hiroshima would also continue the progress already made by his administration as evidenced by sequential visits by Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy last year and Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month.

There are a number of other important reasons why such a visit would be important, beyond mere symbolism. First, the visit would be a natural follow-on to Obama's recent capstone Nuclear Security Summit held last month in Washington DC.

The summit process, which was initiated with an inaugural meeting in 2010, has been aimed at ensuring the security of vulnerable nuclear materials around the world through international cooperation and accountability.

The security of nuclear materials was a key element of Obama's speech at Prague in 2009 where he stressed that the U.S. had a moral responsibility to act towards the elimination of nuclear weapons.

A visit to Hiroshima would serve as a metaphorical bookend to the Prague speech and help dovetail and emphasize the importance of work done on nuclear security during Obama's tenure.

More importantly, however, this visit would give Obama a perfect venue to articulate the efforts that still need work, such as a fissile material cut-off treaty.

The visit would also be highly appreciated by Japan, one of Washington's long-standing and critical allies in the Asia-Pacific.

The U.S.-Japan alliance has blossomed in recent years with a host of security and defence reforms by Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe aimed at both bolstering Tokyo's own capabilities as well as its security partnership with Washington.

Tokyo has been cautious about openly pressuring Obama to include Hiroshima on his itinerary, but there is no question that such a gesture would be appreciated in Japan.

A final key benefit would be the powerful-albeit subtle-message of reconciliation the visit would demonstrate.

Of course, Japan and the United States have been largely reconciled since their conflict seven decades ago and have developed a mutually beneficial strategic partnership and alliance based on shared interests and common goals.

The ghosts of history however continue to constrain relations in Northeast Asia-especially between Japan and its neighbours (China, South Korea and North Korea). The image of Obama in Hiroshima-even without an apology-would give Washington more leverage and authenticity when it encourages its allies in the region to reconcile their historical differences.

Of course, there are constraints to such a visit as it would touch upon delicate sensibilities in the U.S., many of which view the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima-and Nagasaki three days later-as a necessary step to end a protracted and violent war.

According to polling done last year by Pew Research, the majority of Americans still believe that the atomic bombings were both appropriate and justified.

There are also political constraints and sensitivities during this election cycle in the United States. Nearly three quarters of Republican voters polled indicated support for the bombings, while only half of Democrats were supportive.

But, while these statistics are important, it is also critical to note that the trend of sentiments favouring the bombings has been shifting over the years.

For example, while 85 percent of Americans believed the bombings were appropriate in 1945, only 57 percent continued to believe that six decades later in 2005.

Similarly, the percentage of Americans believing that the bombings were justified, while still a majority, has also declined in recent years. A visit to Hiroshima would not come without criticism but it is the right call.


This article originally appeared here on Al Jazeera. Follow Miller on his Twitter.