Sensitive to world opinion about the use of atomic weapons against Japan in 1945, no American president has ever visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki while in office. Except for Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former general, none of them has expressed any misgivings about the use of the bombs in 1945. Shortly after becoming president, however, Barack Obama took the surprising step of at least expressing a desire to go to the two cities.
Then, last year, for the first time, a US ambassador to Japan, John Roos, attended the annual August 6 commemoration in Hiroshima. And yesterday, for the first time ever, the United States sent an official representative to the annual memorial service in Nagasaki—the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Tokyo, James P. Zumwalt. He read a statement from Obama expressing hope to work with Japan for a world without nuclear weapons, a goal the president expressed early in his term but has made little progress on achieving.
“I was deeply moved,” Zumwalt told reporters after attending the ceremony. “Japan and the United States have the common vision for a world free of nuclear weapons, so it is important that the two countries make efforts to realize it.”
While many Japanese hailed the US move, some of the survivors of the bombing and their ancestors were skeptical. Katsumi Matsuo, who lost her mother in the attack, told the Mainichi Shimbun, “What is the point in him coming now, after 66 years? His visit will only be meaningful if it promotes a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Still, Obama has broken a sad record of total denial, which has accompanied the suppression of key evidence about the effects of the bombings (as chronicled in my new book and e-book Atomic Cover-up) dating back to the 1940s.
Of course, there was no way President Truman was going to make that visit, even telling an aide, after leaving the White House, that while he might meet with survivors of the bombing in the United States, he would “not kiss their asses.” President Eisenhower did not visit the atomic cities, but he famously expressed displeasure with the use of the bombs in 1945, saying we shouldn’t have hit Japan “with that awful thing.” Richard Nixon came to Hiroshima before becoming president. Reflecting on the visit in a 1985 interview with Roger Rosenblatt, he said the bombings saved lives, but noted that General Douglas MacArthur had told him it was a “tragedy” that the weapon was used against “noncombatants.”
Jimmy Carter visited Hiroshima after leaving office but did not take part in any ceremony or comment afterward. Ronald Reagan also invoked the notion that the bombings actually saved lives. When protests from conservatives and some veterans groups caused first the censorship, then shutdown, of a full exploration of the atomic bombings at the Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, in 1995, President Clinton backed the suppression.
So two cheers for Obama for at least marking what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next step: an honest American reappraisal and real progress on nuclear abolition.
Greg Mitchell’s new book is Atomic Cover-up: Two US Soldiers, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made.