Was Obama Planning to Apologize For Hiroshima?


An article published in the Japan Times on September 28 is beginning to generate some buzz on our side of the Pacific, as it suggests Obama wanted to stage some apology theater at the A-bomb craters in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Japanese government said no:

A senior official of Japan’s Foreign Ministry told the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo it would be premature for U.S. President Barack Obama to visit the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima during his November 2009 trip to Japan, according to a secret U.S. cable recently released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

The cable indicates the Japanese government was then effectively discouraging Obama from visiting Hiroshima despite growing expectations over it following his call for a world free from nuclear weapons in a speech in Prague in April 2009.

This actually sounds more pre-emptive than a polite refusal of any request from Obama.  The Japanese were worried that anti-nuke groups will expect Obama to follow up on his Prague rhetoric and put on a little show at the Fat Man and Little Boy blast sites.  (This was early 2009, remember.  People still occasionally expected Obama to follow up on his rhetoric, in areas that didn’t involve passing taxpayer money to his campaign contributors or increasing his own power.)

The cable, dated Sept. 3, 2009, and sent to U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton, reported Japan’s then Vice Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka telling Ambassador John Roos on Aug. 28 that antinuclear groups would speculate over whether the president would visit Hiroshima in light of his Prague speech on nuclear nonproliferation.

“He underscored, however, that both governments must temper the public’s expectations on such issues, as the idea of President Obama visiting Hiroshima to apologize for the atomic bombing during World War II is a ‘non-starter’,” said the cable.

It also quoted Yabunaka as saying, “While a simple visit to Hiroshima without fanfare is sufficiently symbolic to convey the right message, it is premature to include such program in the November visit.”

(Emphases mine.)  The Japanese government occasionally offers some rhetorical support for the anti-nuke movement, but they’d rather taken a mulligan on actually sinking that putt, because they can see Kim Jong-Il giggling and waving at them over his warhead collection.  They might change their minds after the first big anti-nuclear demonstration in Pyongyang, which is scheduled for the first Tuesday after hell freezes over.

In the end, Ambassador Roos made a low-key visit to Hiroshima to mark the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing in August 2010.  This was still seen as an unspoken apology by some, including James Tibbets, son of the Enola Gay’s pilot:

James Tibbets, son of Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., says Friday’s visit to Hiroshima by U.S. Ambassador John Roos is an act of contrition that his late father would never have approved.

“It’s an unsaid apology,” Tibbets, 66, told from his home in Georgiana, Ala. “Why wouldn’t it be?  Why would [Roos] go? It doesn’t make any sense.

“I know it’s the anniversary, but I don’t know what the hell they’re trying to do. It needs to be left alone. The war is over.”

Tibbets, whose father died in 2007 at the age of 92, said he receives dozens of calls from veterans every year around this time thanking him for his father’s service.

An editorial at Investors Business Daily points out that Obama has a dismal history of giving inappropriate apologies – most recently his Administration’s disgraceful apology to the family of a terrorist who richly deserved the Hellfire missile he got – but doesn’t offer a fair characterization of the WikiLeaks cables:

Leaked cables show Japan nixed a presidential apology to Hiroshima and Nagasaki for using nukes to end the overseas contingency operation known as World War II. Will the next president apologize for the current one?

That’s not what the leaked cables show, unless there’s more to the story than we have seen thus far.  Japan was politely choking off the possibility of a potentially controversial Presidential visit, not denying Obama’s eager request to engage in some brisk aerobic bowing and forelock-tugging at Hiroshima.  There are plenty of good reasons to criticize Barack Obama without castigating him for something he might have done.  

Update: Jake Tapper of ABC News says “a senior White House official” asserted “there was never any plan for the President to apologize for Hiroshima.”