Barack Obama will become the first US President to visit Hiroshima in Japan later this month but he will not apologise for the United States’ dropping of an atomic bomb on the city at the end of World War Two, the White House said on Tuesday.
Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize early in his presidency in 2009 in part for making nuclear non proliferation a center piece of his agenda, Obama on May 27 will tour the site of the world’s first nuclear bombing with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
With the end of his last term in office approaching in January, Obama will “highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”, the White House said in a statement.
“He will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II. Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focussed on our shared future,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, wrote in a separate blog.
The visit comes as part of a May 21-28 swing through Asia, which will include a Group of Seven summit in Japan and his first trip to Vietnam. The Asia trip seeks to reinforce his geopolitical “pivot” towards the region, though friends and allies there have sometimes questioned Washington’s commitment.
The Hiroshima tour will symbolise a new level of reconciliation between former wartime enemies who are now close allies. It will also underscore Obama’s efforts to improve US-Japan ties, marked by an Asia-Pacific trade pact as well as cooperation against China’s pursuit of maritime claims and the nuclear threat from North Korea.
On the final day of the summit in Japan, Obama and Abe will visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park near the spot where a US warplane dropped an atomic bomb 71 years ago.
White House debate
The decision to go to Hiroshima was hotly debated within the White House. There were concerns a US presidential visit would be heavily criticised in the United States if it were seen as an apology.
The bomb dropped on August 6, 1945 killed thousands of people instantly and about 140,000 by the end of that year. Another was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, and Japan surrendered six days later.
The majority of Americans view the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as justified to end the war and save US lives. Most Japanese see it as unjustified.
Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest said it was “an entirely legitimate line of inquiry for historians” when asked why the White House had decided not to use his Hiroshima visit to issue an apology.
He told reporters that while Obama understands the United States “bears a special responsibility” as the only country to use nuclear weapons in wartime, the President will emphasise Washington’s responsibility “to lead the world in an effort to eliminate them”.
Abe, speaking to reporters in Tokyo, said he hoped “to turn this into an opportunity for the US and Japan to together pay tribute to the memories of the victims” of the nuclear bombing.
“President Obama visiting Hiroshima and expressing towards the world the reality of the impact of nuclear radiation will contribute greatly to establishing a world without nuclear arms,” Abe added.
Obama’s visit will be a symbolic capstone for the nuclear disarmament agenda he laid out in a landmark speech in Prague in 2009. His aides tout last year’s Iran nuclear deal as a major piece of his foreign policy legacy.
But Obama has made only modest progress towards securing the world’s loose nuclear materials and there is no guarantee his White House successor will keep the issue a high priority.
Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, said Obama must “do more than give another beautiful speech” and should announce concrete action on nuclear disarmament when he visits Hiroshima.
After US secretary of state John Kerry visited Hiroshima last month, survivors of the bombing and other residents said that if Obama visits, they hope for progress in ridding the world of nuclear weapons, rather than an apology.