A young girl folds her hands in prayer as Japanese paper lanterns are floated down Motoyasu River, near ground zero, for the atomic bomb victims of Hiroshima August 6, 2002.
Eriko Sugita / Reuters

In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama made a speech in Prague in which he advocated “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Since then, many Japanese have wondered whether Obama might become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima. In May, he will travel to Japan to attend the G-7 summit in Ise-Shima, which has fueled speculation that he might visit the atomic-bombing site during his trip. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in Japan this month for the G-7 foreign ministers’ meetings, will visit Hiroshima along with the other delegates. Does this historic visit by a U.S. secretary of state herald an Obama visit to follow? Although it’s just a short train ride from Ise-Shima, a presidential visit to Hiroshima would be a complex and controversial journey.

Some commentators argue that a U.S. reckoning with the atomic bombings is long overdue. For example, Christian Appy, a historian at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, has questioned whether the United States will ever really absorb how the bombs “instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero? Will it finally come to grips with the ‘black rain’ that spread radiation and killed even more people—slowly and painfully—leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?”

Many in Japan would see a U.S. presidential visit as encouraging such a reckoning. Tokyo has welcomed visits by former U.S. Ambassador John Roos (in 2010, he was the first U.S. official to attend the August 6 Peace Memorial ceremony in Hiroshima) and by the current U.S ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. The White House has received thousands of letters from civic leaders, disarmament activists, schoolchildren, and others urging a presidential visit. A “Letters to Obama” campaign, organized by a Hiroshima broadcasting company, collected invitations from scores of Japanese. Letters were written on paper recycled from some of the ten million origami cranes that people all over the world send to Hiroshima each year. 

A member of a Philippine solidarity group waves Japanese paper cranes while welcoming the arrival of the SS Oceanic cruise ship from Japan at the port of Manila, April 13, 2011.
A member of a Philippine solidarity group waves Japanese paper cranes while welcoming the arrival of the SS Oceanic cruise ship from Japan at the port of Manila, April 13, 2011.
Cheryl Ravelo / Reuters
Nikkei Asian Review journalist Hiroyuki Akita told me that a presidential visit would “be welcomed by a majority of the Japanese public as a symbolic action, which shows a strong resolve to overcome the war memory and further strengthen the U.S.-Japan[ese] alliance.” It would be a respectful gesture akin to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s in Washington last April, when he honored the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers in his speech to a joint session of Congress and laid a wreath at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. 

Although some Japanese want an official apology for the bombings, many advocates of a presidential visit say that is not the point. The Hiroshima broadcaster Hideaki Miyama notes that in the “Letters to Obama” campaign, “messages do not refer to any apology . . . they are mostly proactive and positive.” Japan’s people, he says, want a “future-oriented visit.” Hiroshima City Mayor Kazumi Matsui agrees: “Having the President express his resolve for nuclear abolishment from a bomb site would make up for the past and lead towards a nuclear-free world, more than an apology would.” 

Indeed, Obama’s visit to Hiroshima would hold symbolic value for the nuclear disarmament movement. U.S. supporters of a visit join Japanese voices on this theme. John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus, and Alexis Dudden, associate professor at the University of Connecticut, argue that an Obama visit “would give him and the United States credibility to move forward in setting the tone for discussions of nuclear nonproliferation, weapons reduction, and, ultimately, their abolition.” 

Obama, who received the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize in part for his discussions of nuclear disarmament, may indeed value a Hiroshima visit as a symbol to strengthen that agenda. Writes Politico’s Peter Canellos, “A lot of the world wants and expects that kind of vivid, symbolic leadership from him.” This May would be an opportune time for just such a gesture: the kind that a president in the last months of his presidency might make. 

Yet ten U.S. presidents have avoided Hiroshima, and Obama may well become the 11th.  Last year, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, poured cold water on the idea of a visit. “I think the fact that he didn’t go to either Hiroshima or Nagasaki on his three or four previous visits to Japan,” he said, “does give you an indication of where the president and his team ultimately came down on this.”

A presidential visit would unleash a backlash in the United States. Conservatives frame an Obama visit to Hiroshima as an apology to Japan—which they would see as another case of Obama “apologizing for America.” They have referred to Obama’s speeches in Strasbourg and Cairo (and more recently in Latin America) as an “apology tour” and have said that such gestures weaken the country in the eyes of others. As one-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote in his memoirs, “Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined.” The title of Romney’s memoirs? No Apology. 

When the White House previously considered a visit to the atomic-bombing site, the National Review editor Jonah Goldberg wrote, “Obama wanted to apologize for Hiroshima,” and Victor David Hanson criticized Obama’s “empty apologetics.” Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney equated Roos’ 2010 visit with an apology for the bombings, which McInerney said was inappropriate because by expediting the end of the war, they saved millions of lives on both sides.

Other critics would object to what a Hiroshima visit would say to the United States’ allies, which rely on U.S. security guarantees. Dartmouth’s Daryl Press, an expert on nuclear deterrence (and, full disclosure, my husband), argues that several countries, notably South Korea and Japan, have tied their decisions to stay out of the nuclear club to the existence of a credible U.S. nuclear guarantee. Press told me, “If the president of the United States implies that in retrospect we shouldn’t have dropped the atomic bombs on Japan—even though it was the worst war in history, even though it was a life-or-death struggle against authoritarianism, even though Japan had attacked the U.S. homeland—then how could U.S. allies possibly be confident that the same president would use nuclear weapons to protect them today—in wars involving far lower stakes for the U.S.?” A gesture to help eliminate nuclear weapons, in other words, could actually encourage their spread.

Another problem is that although Obama might see a visit as a good-faith gesture to promote historical reconciliation, he could end up stumbling into East Asia’s complex history problems. Many people in neighboring countries—particularly South Korea—would look askance at a U.S. presidential visit to what many see as ground zero of Japan’s victimhood narrative. Neighbors have been dismayed and angered by Japan’s preoccupation with its own World War II suffering; for decades they prodded Japan to acknowledge the violence it inflicted on millions of Chinese, Koreans, and others. Over the years, Japanese leaders have increasingly done so. But Abe has angered critics at home and abroad by glossing over human rights violations and by encouraging national pride. People who seek a more thorough reckoning of Japan’s past actions worry that a Hiroshima visit would encourage the opposite.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, with the Washington Monument in the background April 27, 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, with the Washington Monument in the background April 27, 2015.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Despite these downsides, in a world of growing Chinese power and U.S. “rebalancing” to Asia, the U.S.-Japanese alliance is more important than it has ever been. Thus one might think that the costs of a presidential visit would be worth paying, because the gesture would be so appreciated by the United States’ partners in Tokyo.

One might think so, yet a U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks showed that when Obama debated visiting in 2010, the Japanese government advised against it. Recently I spoke with several Japanese officials (who preferred to remain anonymous) about the prospect of a presidential visit in May. They remain apprehensive. As one official told me, Japan’s government was “not particularly enthusiastic about such a trip—the push is more on the U.S. side.” Given “the domestic political climate in the United States at the moment,” the official said, “the Japanese government is sensitive to the impact such a visit could have on U.S.-Japan[ese] relations.” The official noted that of course if Obama decided to visit, Japan’s government would welcome the gesture and would encourage a “forward-looking” visit emphasizing nuclear nonproliferation.  

Another Japanese official described complex feelings on the subject. He noted that many Japanese are angry, “even anguished,” by the mainstream U.S. view that justifies the atomic bombings. At the same time, he notes, the Japanese have “kept their emotions under tight control” and have “come a long way to gradually build the nation so that the former enemies could prosper together and indeed protect each other.” The official noted that Abe’s speech to Congress was a gesture to “close the history book” for both countries. “Abe did not by any means wish that POTUS should come to Hiroshima,” the official said. “We have come a really long way. There is no reason to reopen the history book.”

Thus, despite Hiroshima’s enthusiastic mayor, despite thousands of sincere, recycled-origami letters to Obama, the reasons not to visit are already piling up. And then there is the election. Democratic Party strategists would likely argue that a Hiroshima visit would be a gift to a currently self-destructing GOP. It would bring conservatives together to condemn another stop on the Obama “apology tour”; it also risks angering many voters—not just conservative ones.  It’s a lot of noise for a president in a quiet moment, standing before a wreath laid against stone.

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  • JENNIFER LIND is Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics.
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