Simply by showing up at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in late May, he’ll be the first sitting American president to visit the site of the world’s first nuclear attack, which killed 140,000 people. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, wrote in a post on Medium that the president will not “revisit” the U.S.’s decision to drop an atomic weapon on the city on August 6, 1945, but will instead “offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.” Rhodes added, “This visit will offer an opportunity to honor the memory of all innocents who were lost during the war.”
As it happens, this is the primary function of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which Ian Buruma has described as the “center of the Hiroshima cult.” The focus on the loss of innocent life has historically been adopted by an array of Japanese political groups, right and left, to make a variety of questionable claims: that Japanese aggression in the war was justified; that the victims of Hiroshima were akin to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust; that the Japanese are in a unique position to advance the cause of peace against those who would defy the “Hiroshima spirit.” The memorialization of the attack has served as a kind of cloud over the historical record, obscuring Japan’s war crimes and abetting its longstanding reluctance to seriously address its culpability.
In advancing the cause of non-proliferation, it appears Obama wants to break a taboo that has prevented the world from truly appreciating the horror of nuclear weapons. Yet he doesn’t want to discuss the moral dimensions of dropping the bomb, nor the terrible context that made its use seem necessary at the time. He seems reluctant to pierce the historical amnesia in Japan that the U.S. helped inculcate, whether out of a desire to preserve stability or to avoid tough questions about its own conduct during the war. We’ll have to see what Obama actually says in Hiroshima before we can judge, but it’s just as likely that his presence there could obfuscate as much as it clarifies.