No apology: Obama visits Hiroshima but won't rehash the past

When US President Barack Obama visits Hiroshima on Friday he will remember the victims of the US atomic bombing at the close of World War II and stress his commitment to a nuclear-weapons-free world, but there is one thing the White House says he will not do

JENNIFER LIND, a professor who specializes in Japan at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics, tells dpa Obama's stance is consistent with US popular opinion.

dpa: The debate about whether the US should have used nuclear weapons against Japan has been going on for decades. How does this visit fit into that debate and why is now a good time for a US president to visit Hiroshima?

Lind: US public opinion has evolved over time regarding the atomic bombings, but generally people believe that they brought a terrible war to a close, and actually saved lives on both sides as a result. Polls show that the public do not support an apology to Japan for the bombings. It's because of this political reality that the president — who wants to visit with a nuclear non-proliferation agenda in mind — has sought to describe the visit very carefully: not as an apology to Japan, but as a time to remember the terrible suffering caused by war and nuclear weapons.

dpa: How to you expect the visit to be perceived in the US? In Japan?

Lind: Because the White House has crafted this visit very carefully not as an apology to Japan but as part of an anti-nuclear agenda, the visit will have greater acceptance among the American people. People in the US value Japan as a friend and important security partner — increasingly important as China appears more powerful and more assertive in Asia.

On the Japan side, the Japanese also place a very high value on their partnership with the US for the same reason. Thus while many Japanese will be disappointed that the president is not offering an apology, they want to maintain the stability of the alliance. They are also pleased by the president's gesture (a historic first) to raise awareness about the suffering that the Japanese people experienced in the bombings.

dpa: How do you view the White House insistence that Obama will not offer an apology?

Lind: This was politically essential, given that most Americans (over 70 per cent polled) do not support an apology. Given that it's an election year, an apology to Japan could have exposed not just Obama but the Democrats to intense criticism. Conservatives have long been referring to Obama’s conciliatory diplomacy as an “apology tour,” and this would fit right into this meme. (They still will characterize the visit as such, despite the White House’s efforts.)

dpa: Will Obama’s focus on nuclear disarmament allow him to take the future-oriented outlook the White House hopes for rather than this being a visit about the past?

Lind: Yes, the narrative going into the visit is that this is less about looking back at World War II than about the tragedy of war and nuclear weapons, and the need to prevent such events from occurring in the future.

dpa: The Japanese government has been reluctant to apologize for its own actions during the war. Does this limit Japan’s ability to insist on an apology from the US? Is such an apology even necessary more than 70 years later? Lind: Japan is not insisting on an apology; some Japanese would like the president to apologize, but the government is very sophisticated and understands that US public opinion would not support this (and in an election year that would be a nonstarter). The most important factor causing Japan’s flexibility on this is how much the country values the relationship with the US: because they value it so highly, they want it to remain stable, and they know opening up an acrimonious debate about the war would not be helpful.

Last update: Tue, 28/06/2016 - 17:25

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