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Obama’s Trip to Hiroshima Reminds Us He’s No Harry Truman


On Friday, Obama will make history by being the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, the site of one of the only two nuclear bombs ever used in a war. This move, long debated within the White House, has raised the question of whether the president will issue an apology for America’s wartime actions during his visit. He’s said he won’t.

Regardless, one thing is for sure: Obama has shown that he, unlike President Truman, wouldn’t be able to make the difficult decisions that are required in a time of war. And he certainly wouldn’t have been able to drop the bomb.

The White House is insisting that Obama’s trip isn’t meant as an apology, but it’s easy to see why it might be interpreted that way. The fact that he’s making sure to visit Hiroshima before the end of his term sends a strong message, given that no sitting president has ever done so. Taken together with his penchant for going on global apology tours, his visit at least hints toward American culpability.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest says the visit is meant to be a “forward-looking signal” of a world without nuclear weapons. This is ironic, given that Obama brokered a nuclear deal with Iran that seems certain to ensure that the Islamic Republic becomes a nuclear power, possibly sparking an arms race in the Middle East. But Obama rarely sees the inconsistencies between the policies he adopts and the symbolic actions he takes.

What Led Us to The Bomb

Regardless, if Obama wants his visit to symbolize moving forward to a nuclear-free age, it begs asking whether he would have been prepared to do what was necessary to end World War II, and what he thinks about doing it again if it becomes necessary. This requires looking at how we got to the point of using the atomic bomb in 1945, and what that terrible responsibility has demanded of our leaders ever since.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific events in the context of a massive world war. Between 129,000 and 226,000 people died, and many more were injured and poisoned from radiation. Everyone should pray that it never happens again, anywhere. But just because we can recognize that something is ghastly and hope it isn’t repeated, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t necessary—or that it might not be necessary again in the future.

When America decided to drop nuclear bombs on Japan, Germany had already capitulated. But the island nation was still fighting tooth and nail, ignoring calls from the allied nations for unconditional surrender. But surrendering would have gone against the Empire of Japan’s entire philosophy, which taught that surrender is shameful, even worse than death. Japanese soldiers, fueled by Bushido ethics, often opted to sacrifice themselves in kamikaze attacks or blow themselves up rather than be captured by American soldiers. Civilians, too, would throw themselves off cliffs, a baby in their arms, rather than be taken prisoner, as happened en masse in the Battle of Okinawa.

Imagine this kind of commitment to a death cult in the context of a large-scale invasion of mainland Japan. Some estimates of projected casualties are upward of 500,000, just for the Americans.

In an effort to save both sides from a drawn-out land invasion, President Truman made the difficult decision to drop a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The hope was that it would force Japan to surrender. It didn’t. So three days later, America bombed Nagasaki. Six days after that, accompanied by the Soviet Union’s declaration of war, Japan finally surrendered unconditionally, ending, at last, a war that had consumed the world.

Sometimes Leaders Have to Make Terrible Decisions

Whether dropping the bomb on Japan was ethical has long been debated, as has whether Japan would have surrendered without it. There have always been dissenters, those who say nothing justifies that kind of mass killing. And these are credible arguments.

Today, however, there is a tendency to project the worst motives on our military leaders and to assume there was an obvious alternative. But Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a last resort, not blood-lust or a desire for destruction. The bombing was an effort to stop the war and the killing. It was, in a way, a terrible act of mercy—and it certainly wasn’t taken lightly. On August 9, the day Nagasaki was bombed, Truman said: “I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb… It is an awful responsibility which has come to us… We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies…”

Truman understood the heavy weight that comes with being president of a powerful nation during a time of war. He knew that sometimes a leader is stuck between two bad choices. But Truman also recognized that awful decisions have to be made, no matter how much you wish it were otherwise.

These kinds of decisions aren’t easily made. Winston Churchill was often tormented by the choices he had to make during World War II that put soldiers’ lives in danger. He knew some of those decisions would result in the deaths of British soldiers. But he knew what had to be done for the larger aim of winning the war and stopping Hitler, and he accepted that he would have to live with those consequences.

In this way, Hiroshima symbolizes the heart of what Obama can’t do—make hard choices. He prefers a policy of “wait and see.” This is what he’s done in Syria, where he let Assad cross the now famous “red line” with no response. Four hundred thousand people have been slaughtered in that country’s civil war, in part because Obama refused to act.

In Iraq, where Obama withdrew most of our troops at the end of 2011, America’s absence created a vacuum that was soon filled by ISIS. Obama wouldn’t make the difficult and unpopular decision to keep troops in Iraq when they were needed, so now we are having to re-fight a war we had all but won.

When faced with two bad options, Obama takes neither. He has proven he’s not the kind of leader who can step forward and make sacrifices for the greater good. Despite acknowledging that leaders must make hard decisions in war time, he has seemed more concerned with his international vision of “leading from behind” during his presidency. So his message that America doesn’t apologize for Hiroshima falls flat.

Obama says he wants a nuclear-free world, and so should we all. But we don’t and most likely never will have one. Calls for a world without nuclear weapons must be balanced with the reality that someday we could find ourselves in a situation where a similar decision will need to be made. Let’s hope that if such a day comes, we have a leader in the White House who possesses the conviction and the courage to make the right decision.