This article appears in slightly different form in the Financial Times.
In his final year in office, an American president inevitably focuses on his legacy, recasting his accomplishments and making 11th-hour decisions with the potential to outlive him. For Bill Clinton, this meant a torrent of new legislation, national monuments, and trade agreements. For George W. Bush, it was constructing a case that the U.S. had finally turned a corner in his disastrous war in Iraq.
It is characteristic of Barack Obama, whose original ambition of constructive dialogue with Republicans was so decisively thwarted, that the theme of his last stretch as president should be reconciliation. Instead of making peace with the Republicans, which proved impossible, he has turned his hand to resolving longstanding conflicts with other countries; his final sprint has included restoring relations with Iran and with Cuba, which had been severed since 1980 and 1961, respectively.
Obama’s visit to Hiroshima this month will open another door, one that has remained closed since 1945. His critics have been quick to decry the visit as another stop on what they call his “global apology tour.” This is a doubly bogus idea—first because Obama has not been an especially prolific apologist, and second because of the premise that the U.S. never has anything to apologize for. In fact, the president has been doing something far more interesting than regretting past American misdeeds. He has been trying to construct bridges across troubled waters.
Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, has made clear that the Hiroshima visit will not feature any apologies. But merely visiting the city’s Memorial Peace Park with Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, will challenge a powerful American taboo. In 1995, the Smithsonian Institution attempted to mount an exhibition around the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The National Air and Space Museum planned to feature photographs and oral histories from victims and survivors. Under pressure from veterans’ groups that thought the exhibition too sympathetic to the Japanese, the museum first sanitized then canceled it. Newt Gingrich, then the speaker of the House of Representatives and now bidding to become Donald Trump’s presidential running mate, charged that Americans were “sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.” The director of the museum was forced to resign amid the furor.
Among historians the debate about the use of nuclear weapons against the Japanese has remained very much alive. Why did President Harry Truman decide to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 people? And was he justified in doing so?
Gar Alperovitz, a left-wing scholar, has long argued that the bombs were unnecessary to end the war in the Pacific, and that Truman knew it. Alperovitz believes the bombs were intended as a demonstration to the Soviet Union of U.S. capability at the dawn of the Cold War. Even some of those who defend Truman’s decision acknowledge that use of a weapon of mass destruction against civilian populations is a war crime.
Others point out that Japanese hardliners opposed surrender even after Nagasaki, and that dropping the atomic bombs was ultimately a humanitarian act. By ending the war the U.S. probably saved many more lives than it destroyed, including those of war-weary American soldiers deployed on Okinawa in preparation for Operation Downfall, innumerable Japanese soldiers and civilians trained to die for the emperor in an apocalyptic last battle, and victims of the barbaric Japanese occupation throughout Asia. Without Emperor Hirohito’s capitulation after the second bomb was dropped, grotesque suffering might have continued for many more months.
Obama’s purpose is not to challenge this patriotically correct narrative, or affirm a politically correct one, or to reconsider Truman’s choice. He understands that an American president cannot and should not try to adjudicate on this kind of historical debate. Rather, his focus is on opening an impassable topic as a necessary adjunct to addressing contemporary issues.
The president hopes that acknowledging the horror that took place at the dawn of the nuclear age will spur the conversation he wants to have about nuclear proliferation and disarmament in the 21st century. He aspires to serve as a conciliator on the painful history that still divides the U.S. from its most important Asian ally.
There remains plenty of history that even Obama dare not reopen. In deference to Turkey, he has declined to use the term genocide to describe the massacre of Armenians in 1915. In 2014, he acknowledged that “we tortured some folks” during his predecessor’s administration. But he has stopped short of holding accountable those who chose torture as a policy during the Bush years. Obama’s historical bravery is admirable. It also remains subject to clear political limits.