Of course Barack Obama will go to Hiroshima. If there is any cause for surprise, it is that it has taken him seven years to work up his nerve. A trip to where America killed some 100,000 Japanese subjects of the Emperor Hirohito—no one knows the exact death toll—in order to call for “a world without nuclear weapons” is so natural a gesture for this president.
The visit is an implicit act of historical contrition, even if the president never utters the words “America is sorry.” It is sure to upset conservatives—always a plus. As a symbol, it will call for right-thinking people everywhere to envision a world where nation states mean less, where hope defeats fear, and where problems are solved with dialogue, not war. Why can’t it be possible? After all, here’s the leader of the (sotto voce) biggest bully of them all, the U.S.A., showing the way.
Maybe it is an ungenerous thought, but I can’t help wondering how many of the people who will watch the president’s speech—Japanese and American—would not be alive today if Truman hadn’t dropped the Bomb, because their grandparents would have been killed in the invasion of Japan. The combined death toll of those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is stunning, but Operation Downfall would have been far, far worse. My own father (born in 1924) had just survived the war as a young soldier in Europe, and like millions of others in his situation (yes, millions) would have been en-route to the Pacific to join those already fighting there. It is likely that the president's maternal grandfather, also a veteran of the European theater, would have been in the same situation—though perhaps it is more on Obama's mind that his grandmother spent part of the war working at a plant that produced B-29s, the kind of bomber used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Another figure that requires speaking in terms of millions: the number of Germans who died as the Allies invaded and occupied their country—though, again, no one knows exactly how many. It is likely that Americans would have treated Japanese civilians somewhat better than the Soviets treated German noncombatants; it is also likely that the Japanese would have resisted more bitterly than the Germans. Either way, the death toll in Japan would have demonstrated the obsolescence of phrases like “biblical proportions.”
When Americans tell pollsters in reportedly increasing numbers that they believe the bombings were wrong, they should try to see the decision as Truman must have seen it: a terrible choice, but one in which there was an option which promised to shorten the war. Which is to say, it was really no choice at all. The further irony of our increasing discomfort with Truman’s decision, and of Obama’s campaign for a world without nuclear weapons, is that the very horror of the bombings in Japan contributed to seventy years and counting without a full-scale war between the globe’s major powers.
Prescient as he was, George Orwell predicted as early as the fall of 1945 that this long peace might happen, though in his dyspeptic analysis he envisioned a world where competing tyrannies achieved a working détente with one another as they exploited their own enslaved populations—a vision that he later converted into the fiction of 1984. Some on the left have long believed that Orwell's vision is basically what happened, and wafting off of the news of Obama’s visit there is the powerful scent of moral equivalence—yes, Imperial Japan was bad, but how much better were we, dropping bombs on civilians as we did? And how much better was America than the Soviet Union, anyway, inasmuch as both were complicit in holding the world hostage in a tense nuclear standoff?
My question for the progressive bros in the White House comms shop who apparently run our foreign policy (it is no surprise that the president’s visit was announced in a post on Medium.com penned by the now infamous Ben Rhodes) and for their enablers in the echo chamber is this: How, exactly, is this nuclear-zero plan meant to work? Assuming it is not just easy moral preening—not a safe assumption, I grant—do any of us really expect regimes like Putin’s Russia or Communist China simply to give up their weapons because well-meaning American liberals ask them to? If we just lead the way, and hope that they follow, do we think the world will be better if they have nukes and America does not? And, granting that the prospect of armageddon is disconcerting, how do we plan to sustain the peace that nuclear weapons have, in fact, produced, if these terrible arsenals were somehow to disappear from the earth?
It may seem paradoxical that the existence of these weapons has led to such a static result, but here we are. In the face of such a fact, it seems best to manage the dangerous situation and to restrict possession of the weapons to responsible states, when we can. Calling for their elimination with no realistic plan for achieving it, or dealing with the violence that would be sure to follow, while implying that everyone who opposes you is a thoughtless warmonger… well, it’s many things, but it isn’t responsible statecraft.
Perhaps we should just be grateful that the president’s visit really is mostly preening—because if the thought behind it were ever to gain traction in Congress, this is a case where hope and change could get us all killed.