On May 27, President Obama will become the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, where at the end of World War II the U.S. became the first and only country to drop an atomic bomb. The president will use the occasion to revive attention on the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
Immediately, the critics assailed the president for going on an “apology tour.” The White House sought to calm the furor, assuring reporters that the president would not use the word “sorry.”
“We said that this is not about issuing an apology,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Thursday.
Why not apologize? The president will visit the 30-acre Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, located directly under the spot where the bomb exploded, with a museum displaying the charred belongings of the 100,000 people who perished, as everything with one mile of the bomb blast was entirely wiped out. The short inscription on the park’s memorial arch reads, in part: “We shall not repeat the evil.”
The United States, thankfully, is the last country to have used nuclear weapons in wartime. We dropped them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki even as Japan was on the verge of surrender. That the bomb was dropped reflected the savagery of that war — from the secret attack on Pearl Harbor to the horrid battles in Okinawa and elsewhere. Massive firebombing had already devastated Tokyo, in the single most destructive bombing attack in history. Some scholars believe President Harry S. Truman made the decision less to bring Japan to its knees than to put the world — and particularly the Russians — on notice of America’s power. But you don’t have to see the bombing as criminal to agree that this evil must not be repeated — and to apologize that it should ever have been unleashed on humans in the first place.
But as Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word to say.” Rhodes, Obama’s much publicized deputy national security advisor for “strategic communications,” says that the president “will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II” but will instead “offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.”
The visit returns the president to the solemn pledge he made in Prague soon after coming to office. He reaffirmed “America’s commitment to a world without nuclear weapons,” arguing that their very existence posed a threat that they might once more be used. He pledged to make their elimination — complete and general nuclear disarmament — not just a wistful dream, but a central goal of our national security policy.
Under Obama, there has been some progress towards that goal. The 2010 START agreement with Russia limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to fewer than 2,000. The role of nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy was reduced. The historic 2015 agreement with Iran — which has already resulted in Iran’s surrender of nearly all of its nuclear material — gave new life to nonproliferation efforts. Obama helped organize pressure that succeeded in reducing the dispersal of bomb-grade nuclear fuel.
But now informed observers argue that the risks of a nuclear disaster are getting worse. Tensions are rising with both Russia and China, with the U.S. deploying forces near their borders. Nuclear stockpiles contain more than 15,000 warheads. As many as 1,000 remain on hair-trigger alert. U.S. security strategy still claims the right to use nuclear weapons first, a dangerous and dumb refusal to limit their use to actual deterrence. The U.S. just activated anti-ballistic missile system in Romania that the Russians say violates the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Agreement. President Obama has signed off on a modernization of both nuclear weapons and their delivery systems with a projected cost of $1 trillion over three decades that could very likely to trigger a new arms race.
“As the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons,” President Obama has argued, “the United States has a moral obligation to continue to lead the way in eliminating them.” With or without an apology, he should use the occasion of visiting Hiroshima to once more recommit to that goal, so that no one will ever again be victims of that evil.