Editorial: U.S. President Obama to make historic visit to Hiroshima on May 27

The U.S. and Japanese governments have made the official announcement: U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima later this month. In the 71st year since the atomic bombing, his appearance in the A-bombed city will no doubt be a historic event.

Mr. Obama is scheduled to visit Hiroshima on May 27, the final day of the Group of Seven (G7) summit (Ise Shima summit). The news that the first sitting president of the nation that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would pay a visit to Hiroshima has been a top story worldwide.

Naturally, a visit to Hiroshima by a prominent world leader, whoever he or she might be, is a significant occasion. The news was welcomed by the people of Hiroshima, but Mr. Obama must not slight the mixed emotions felt by the A-bomb survivors.

Survivors have overcome bitterness

It is difficult to say that the devastation under the mushroom cloud has been sufficiently conveyed to the world, especially to the United States. The blinding flash and burning heat rays of the atomic bomb befell many innocent people. A frantic mother clutched her charred baby in her arms. Others fled the catastrophic conditions, forced to leave behind family members crying out for help amid the flames. The atomic bombing was utterly inhumane.

Even long after the war, the survivors have suffered from the aftereffects and their fears of succumbing to radiation-related illness. Meanwhile, they have felt lingering guilt, wondering why they survived when others did not.

As it sacrificed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States set a course toward becoming a nuclear superpower. Many of the survivors, though, have managed to swallow their bitterness since such emotion is unable to bring back lost family members and friends. Rather, they have channeled their energy into efforts to advance the abolition of nuclear weapons and a lasting peace in the world from the point of view that “No others should be made to endure the same kind of suffering.”

While not everyone in Hiroshima and Nagasaki seeks an apology from Mr. Obama for the atomic bombings, we hope he will give serious pause to their tremendous suffering and their sentiments.

Seeking a political legacy

Mr. Obama’s decision to visit Hiroshima is perhaps borne of several motivations. One of these is his desire to round out his diplomatic efforts by visiting the A-bombed city.

In 2009, Mr. Obama made a stirring speech in Prague, where he appealed for “a world without nuclear weapons,” and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The following year, the United States and Russia concluded the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), but after that the global trend of nuclear disarmament rapidly faltered, and Mr. Obama was even branded a disappointment.

The Obama presidency is set to end in January 2017. Despite possible opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress, his administration has been moving quickly to create a political legacy, which includes normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Another factor in Mr. Obama’s decision may be the trend of public opinion. Many Americans still believe that the atomic bombings were justified in bringing the war to a swift end. The general consensus seemed to be that his visit to Hiroshima would be difficult politically if pursued prior to the presidential election. However, the visit to Hiroshima in April by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was met by Americans with minimal criticism. Also, as he gauged the reactions of the A-bombed cities, Mr. Obama may have sensed that he would be welcomed favorably even if he offered no apology.

This welcome, though, will not be heartfelt if his visit to Hiroshima is motivated only by his own priorities.

Expressing his desire for abolition

Most important is what President Obama will say and how he will act. He must express deep mourning for the dead in front of the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims in the Peace Memorial Park as he reflects on the reality of 71 years ago. And to understand this reality keenly, he must listen to the voices of the A-bomb survivors.

Moreover, when he speaks in Hiroshima, he should candidly convey his thoughts about the devastation wrought by the atomic bombing and clearly express his strong desire to promote the abolition of nuclear arms.

In Prague, Mr. Obama sought to avoid attack by cautiously stating, “This goal [nuclear abolition] will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime.” On this occasion, he should squarely face the consequences of nuclear weapons and press the international community, including the United States, to take swift action. In doing so, he will fulfill the historic significance of this first-ever visit to Hiroshima by a sitting U.S. president.

(Originally published on May 11, 2016)