The President’s Hiroshima Strategy: Has the Pivot Begun?

“Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of the atom requires a moral revolution as well.”
— President Obama, Hiroshima, Japan. 27 May, 2016

Photo of what became later Hiroshima Peace Memorial among the ruins of Hiroshima. (Shigeo Hayashi)

Science and technology, and the morals that must accompany their progress, were foci of the historic speech given on Friday, May 27th, at Hiroshima, Japan, by U.S. President Barack Obama as part of his Asian tour that began earlier in the week. What was the underlying message with regard to the national security and foreign policy of the United States? And how will it change or effect relations and the region going forward? Whatever the effect, the effort was part of a longview campaign to refocus foreign policy attention on the region and refashion America’s position on the Asian stage.

The Hiroshima tour was historic as the first and only visit to the site by a sitting American president since the bombing almost 71 years ago. Richard Nixon visited four years before his election and Jimmy Carter laid a wreath at the Peace Memorial Park after leaving office. While the timing of each was unique and may seem merely symbolic, the commonality was significant: no American president, in office, including Obama, has questioned the choice of Harry Truman to drop the atomic bomb in 1945.

Former President Carter laying a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Park, 5 May 1984. (Katsumi Kasahara/AP)

Dwight Eisenhower, in his memoirs, renounced Mr. Truman’s decision as “completely unnecessary” because Japan was already defeated. Eisenhower, “disliked seeing the U.S. take the lead in introducing…something as horrible and destructive as this new weapon.”

Secretary of State John Kerry visited the site last year and the national and international reactions were highly scrutinized in the lead-up to Obama’s trip. Cynical observers will note this as another symbol of the Obama administration’s adherence to optics and opinion polls as well as proof of style over substance. However, there was nothing established in protocol or precedence requiring President Obama’s visit and it would have been easier for him to do as former presidents have; be absent, and not provide justification, apology, or comment.

In 2009, eleven days after his inauguration, President Obama was nominated for the Peace Prize and awarded it nine months later by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The citation for the award reads as aspirational versus triumphal—“for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” In accepting the award, a humble Obama acknowledged the dichotomy, yet the march toward Global Zero—an international movement focused on a nuclear-weapons-free world—has stuttered. For example, a newly released Pentagon census reveals that there has been a smaller nuclear warhead reduction in the two terms of Obama’s presidency than under any other U.S. president since the end of the Cold War. With half of his final year remaining, is President Obama feeling pressure to revive this part of his legacy? The choice to visit Hiroshima could start a new precedence, not of apology but acknowledgement, not of acquiescence to Japan but advancement of partnership that could not occur until the elephant in the room was addressed.

Public opinion regarding a Presidential visit to Hiroshima began to turn after the cold war and the idea was put forth in an op-ed in the LA Times in 1996 during heated public discussion about a possible “apology” from either President Clinton or presidential candidate Bob Dole, that “the nuclear threat can never be eradicated without first coming to terms with Hiroshima.” President Obama’s May 27th, 2016 visit may have been a first step in that direction. Perhaps no apology is necessary or appropriate—if the United States is to stick with the conviction that it was the right choice to save lives and end a war—and progress of alliances and stability through institutions hinges on accountability on the part of all actors. This was largely the theme Obama carried through the speech, without causing the current Japanese leadership to lose face, but also without seeking to appease them or let World War II Japanese leadership off the hook. The speech acknowledged those killed in the bombing: the Japanese, the Korean workers, the American prisoners of war. It also acknowledged the 60 million who died during the war, on all sides, through conventional warfare as well as atrocities and “unspeakable depravity.” The delicate balance of accountability levied on both sides came without capitulation or apology. Obama’s words at this significant occasion allowed for respect for the fearsome nature of the atomic weapon wielded against the Japanese which destroyed a city, ended 140,000 lives instantly, and reverberates through relationships today. However, his speech did not ignore the catalyst of the Japanese Empire’s actions, which ultimately led to the decision to drop the bomb in an act that many Americans believe shortened the war and saved lives on both sides.

Pivot Alone? Redefining Asian Relationships

President Obama’s overall trip consisted of what might be viewed as the beginning feint towards the long promised Asian Pivot. The attempt to redefine America’s goals and relationships in the region may have been a theme, but it is shared by others, as well. How the administration harnesses momentum shown by other Pacific powers may help determine the success or failure of other leaders.

Former "comfort woman" Lee Yong-soo (centre) protesting outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. (AFP)

President Obama followed the lead of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in recently acknowledging, to some degree, that his Asian neighbors were deeply affected by the actions of Imperial Japan. International relations are often truly tit-for-tat. Obama’s visit comes on the heels of concrete efforts by Prime Minister Abe’s government to foster more productive relations with other key Pacific allies. Tensions between Japan and South Korea have recently lightened as the result of Prime Minister Abe’s olive branch to the Republic of Korea’s President Park Geun-hye towards the end of last year regarding the sex slaves, or “comfort women,” taken from Korea by the Japanese during the war. Japanese Prime Ministers have been issuing regrets since 1992, the year after the first Korean woman stepped out of the shadows and publicly demanded acknowledgement of her victimization at the hands of the Japanese government. However, Prime Minister Abe has decided that the ground is now fertile for a more substantial outreach with Korea.

Filipino "comfort women" demand justice from Japan. (AP)

The impact of conversations between the US president and the regional aggressor of World War II is not bilateral or isolated; both are critical to the administration’s security strategy within Asia and Korea will be watching. It should also please the Chinese that Obama recognized the Japanese invasion that brutalized their nation through horrendous war crimes. It serves as a reminder that China and the U.S. were once allies. First, however, was a message that China has possibly overplayed its hand in the region. President Obama visited Hiroshima following the G-7 Economic Summit in Ise-Shima, Japan, on the heels of two days in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam. With an eye towards the once promised Asian Pivot, and taking advantage of a chill in relations between the two communist allies, President Obama announced the lifting of a decades-long weapons embargo against Vietnam during his first day in the region. There are fledgling discussions between the U.S. and Vietnam of increased military exercises as well as expanded military access to Cam Ranh Bay. With these small advancements and new potential for weapons interoperability with other allies in the region, the clear message to China is that Vietnam is viewed by the Obama administration as a key partner in the future orientation of the Asia-Pacific theater. The Vietnam portion of the visit could serve to strain tensions further, or cause Beijing to reassess its current aggressive tack.

President Barack Obama and Secretary Hu Jintao (Pete Souza)

With the exception of human rights observers and administration officials lobbying for the release of dissidents in the run-up to the visit to Hanoi, there was little opposition to that stop. Between one and four million civilians died during the Vietnam conflict as a result of conventional weapons. Less time has passed, and although there is a realization that Vietnam is still ostensibly communist and allied with China, the Vietnam of 2016 is not the same as North Vietnam of 1966, nor – back in Japan – is Prime Minister Abe the same as Hideki Tojo.

Likewise not as impactful on the world stage as Global Zero, but encouraging for the U.S. strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region, was Obama’s visit earlier in the day to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni (a joint military base only 25 miles from Hiroshima). U.S. marines and their counterparts in the Japanese Maritime Defense Force stood and listened together as President Obama spoke about “reaffirming one of the greatest alliances in the world.”

In essence, the Hiroshima site visit had little to do directly with the South China Sea, an Asia Pivot, or multilateral deals with China. As Press Secretary Josh Earnest said of the trip a week earlier, it was going to be about “sending a signal of his ambition for realizing the goal of a planet without nuclear weapons.” So, while Asian leaders were watching, Obama’s message was far more global. As the only nation on Earth to have utilized nuclear weapons in war, America’s leader was willing to stand in the only nation on Earth to have been on the receiving end of a nuclear weapon and declare that they should never again be used for conflict.

President Obama lays a wreath at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 27 2016.(Shuji Kajiyama/AP)

Critics will point out the hypocrisy in this message immediately following Obama’s announcement of the lifting of the weapons embargo against Vietnam. However, the message is consistent that in the interests of avoiding the horrors of war, former enemies can find common ground in acknowledging their own roles while not backing down from the use of military power to pursue peace. Indirectly, it was part of an effort to refocus foreign policy attention on the region and refashion America’s position on the Asian stage. More directly, it was to tell a story Obama apparently believes in, that of the potential success of liberal institutionalism through organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations, and other groups dedicated to anti-proliferation. President Obama’s reiteration in front of the world of America’s commitment to the importance of prioritizing Global Zero, the importance of international institutions as part of that goal, and cooperation with former enemies in furtherance of U.S. interests, is all the more relevant.

As innovation in service of survival can breed tools for devastation, so may redemption grow out of the seeds of destruction.

Marc Milligan is a U.S. Air Force officer and pilot. He holds an MSIR and has deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and multiple worldwide deployments as a combat aviation advisor and mission commander. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: President Obama speaking after a wreath-laying ceremony with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on 27 May 2016. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)