Vietnamese crowds cheer Obama (May 24th, White House Photo, Pete Souza)


As President Obama tours the Far East, he is attempting to recast history in light of new geopolitical realities on a number of fronts. In Vietnam he announced that the US will end an arms embargo that is a vestige of the Vietnam War. Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor who has been the point man in developing the talking points around several recent Obama visits, including Cuba, was quoted in the NY Times:

It does show how history can work in unpredictable ways,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser who spent time over the past two years luring Myanmar out of its shell. “Even the worst conflicts can be relatively quickly left behind.”

As Obama Heads to Vietnam, Current Events Overshadow History” NYT May 21, 2016

Yet history doesn’t just disappear. For new generations, the relationship to past events is always tenuous and needs to be re-thought. One agenda developed in the Press around Obama’s Hiroshima trip has to do with the idea of an apology. Since 2008, every international trip made by Obama has been branded an “apology tour” by the right; he is sensitive on the issue. All of the White House pronouncements include the notion that there will be “no apology” for the atomic bombings.

Obama is certainly as sophisticated as any American President in his understanding of the role of historical memory in national and international affairs, and his interest in addressing global historical understanding. A recent Politico article asks “why this President sees himself as a force for confronting complicated truths about the past.” The answer, suggests author Dovere, is that he needs to force the world to deal with the past in order to deal with the future, suggesting that “…he’s going to Hiroshima to deal with North Korea.”

Obama certainly has a complex agenda in his trip. One goal, stated in 2009, is that of eliminating nuclear weapons globally. Another is that of addressing the new geopolitical realities of the region, which include a China that is more interested in pressing territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea, and on the other, North Korea’s interest in developing its ability to deliver nuclear weapons.

So why go? The classic split for Americans of an older generation was the belief on the one hand that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to save American lives in the event of a land invasion. Opposed to that has been the understanding that the bombings were the obliteration of entire cities and their citizens using a terrible weapon, one that works in a way that has left a legacy of ruined lives in the seventy years since.

It is worth noting that we are at a moment, now 70 years after these events, when those who lived through World War 2, are fast disappearing. As many writers have noted, it is exactly veterans and survivors, those who understand the cost of war, who help keep nations out of new ones. In fact, one question about Obama’s trip is whether an meeting with survivors is on his agenda. Certainly, the timing for a visit seems appropriate.

In a recent online post, Rhodes both pays tribute to Americans who fought in WW2, and underlines Obama’s anti-nuclear agenda:

“The President’s time in Hiroshima also will reaffirm America’s longstanding commitment — and the President’s personal commitment — to pursue the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.


Rhodes goes on to note that the visit will also underline the strength of the US relationship with Japan. It is worth remember that, on this journey, Obama will not go alone, but will be accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe as a politician is well to the right of Obama. He has tried hard to undo the pacifist legacy that is written into Japan’s constitution. As Global Voices blogger Nevin Thompson put it recently:

After spending most of the past 20 years living in Japan, to me 2015 seemed like a turning point for the country. 70 years after the end of World War II, and despite massive demonstrations all over the country, in September 2015, Japan’s ruling coalition, led by Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), used cloture to force the implementation of new security laws that will allow Japan to engage in military action outside of the country. Thanks to this new legislation, Japan effectively renounced 70 years of pacifism and can now go to war again.


One scenario suggests that Abe, who is looking at elections for the Upper House in July that are critical to being able to push through some of the changes he needs, sees the Hiroshima visit as a way to polish his credentials as a “peace candidate,” while at the same time reinforcing some of the more muscular aspects of the historical relationship between the US and Japan and creating more space to move Japan away from its pacifist legacy.

These goals on the part of Abe are not in conflict with either the goal of highlighting a move toward getting rid of nuclear weapons, nor the one of getting more participation from East Asian nations in balancing out rising Chinese power.

Hence for both leaders, the irony is that the classic branding of Hiroshima as symbolizing peace is something that they will use, wrapping themselves in the paper crane, as it were, while at the same time trying to renegotiate what the “Peace” that the symbol signifies will mean for a new generation.

While the President’s goals of focusing on the future, especially a nuclear-free one, are admirable, there are risks to this recasting the meaning of historical events. For Americans it is clear that we still need to “see” Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While nuclear weapons are viewed with appropriate dread, it is impossible to understand our ability to use, and promote the use of, aerial bombardment as a means of war, whether declared or undeclared, without contemplating Hiroshima and the post-War development of US military power. For the last seventy years, the trauma surrounding the role of the bombings in “ending the war and saving lives” has meant discussions of aerial warfare tend to be morally opaque. Even during Obama’s current Asia trip, the President took time out to announce the killing of a Taliban leader (and the people with him in his car) in Pakistan by a US drone. This was billed as a message to Pakistan, a country we are not at war with. It isn’t that the killing is not justifiable as an act of war against a leader of the Taliban. But, to have killing take place remotely from the air simply doesn’t seem as consequential as other forms of killing that involve actually putting troops in another country, for instance. But it means war is both potentially everywhere, and also, since it is undeclared, endless. Bombing of targets where civilians die is regrettable, but not necessarily space for serious national reflection on the wars we are in, and the cost we and more particularly others, pay. It should rate a serious re-examination of the meaning of war in the contemporary world.


War Means Not Having to Say You’re Sorry | 2016 | Uncategorized