Obama’s Hiroshima Trip Fuels Questions, Concerns From American Veterans

WWII service members stress American, Japanese lives saved by atomic bombs

Barack Obama
May 19, 2016

Barack Obama will become the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima later this month in an unprecedented move to push for a world without nuclear weapons.

The White House has cheered the move as an opportunity for the president to honor the dead of World War II, and more specifically those who died when the United States dropped the first deployed atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

But some retired U.S. veterans, including some from World War II, who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon about Obama’s forthcoming trip offered tepid if not critical perspectives of the move. Some characterized the trip as unnecessary and potentially damaging.

"I don’t see why he needs to go there, but if he does go there, I hope he does not apologize for anything President Truman did during World War II," said Clarence Bacon, who served as a chief storekeeper in the U.S. Navy during the war and was stationed in the Atlantic aboard Truman’s presidential yacht.

"President Truman made the decision to drop the bombs into two Japanese cities, and that resulted in killing a lot of Japanese people, but it also resulted in saving many, many, many more lives around the world, including American lives, because it quickly ended World War II," Bacon, a past national commander of the American Legion, said.

"I think he is just stirring up old wounds. He should let sitting dogs lie," Seaman 1st Class Martin Cody, who served in the Atlantic during the Korean War, said.

"The first impression was, ‘Oh my, don’t go there,’" said Col. Frank Cohen, who was drafted by the Army in 1943 and placed in an intelligence unit in Europe during World War II. He called the trip a "drastic step" and insisted that Obama face the challenge of communicating his points to the Japanese people in a "sensitive way."

Cohen also noted the possibility of the president "put[ting] his foot in his mouth."

"It’s an awfully difficult point to get across to people who got clobbered in World War II with the bombs," he said of Obama’s forthcoming reflections at the site, which are expected both to acknowledge the lives lost in the war and emphasize his commitment to eliminating the nuclear threat globally.

An atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and another over Nagasaki days later. The two bombs killed over 100,000 people instantly. About a week later, Japan announced its surrender.

Veterans who spoke to the Free Beacon stressed that the bomb saved many American lives by hastening the end of the war and eliminating the need for a U.S. military invasion of Japan. Many were averse to the idea of Obama apologizing for the bombing.

"As a soldier I would have been involved in any invasion of Japan in [World War II], had those two bombs not been employed [in Hiroshima and later Nagasaki]," said Lt. Gen. Julius Becton, Jr., who served in the Army for more than 40 years. "The loss of civilian lives is always regrettable; but the Japanese bear responsibility for initiating the hostilities. Hiroshima ultimately saved many lives—both military and civilian. I do not personally believe that a U.S. apology is appropriate."

Becton, who directed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Ronald Reagan, did indicate that he was supportive of Obama’s larger mission to discourage nuclear proliferation.

"While it killed thousands of people, it saved millions," Cohen said of the bomb. "It would have been a slaughter to invade Japan. … He can’t possibly apologize because it was the right decision."

Cohen stressed that the decision saved the lives not only of Americans but also of Japanese, who exhibited a "fight to the death" mentality during the conflict. "It was a trade off, but it’s awfully difficult to explain to people who lost relatives," Cohen said.

Even those who wholeheartedly support Obama’s visit to Hiroshima emphasized the enormous American and Japanese death toll that would have resulted had the United States invaded Japan.

"It was very clear that the Japanese were going to fight to the very end and would do it to a point of suicide. The feeling was this extended [to] more than just the military," said Col. Edward Burr, who was based in Normandy during World War II and whose Army outfit was being prepared for deployment to the Pacific before the bombs were dropped.

"Although causing enormous civilian casualties, they were nowhere near the civilian casualties that would have been caused if we had actually invaded their homeland."

When the White House announced the president's trip earlier this month, it emphasized that the visit to Hiroshima should not be interpreted as an apology.

"If people do interpret it that way, they’ll be interpreting it wrongly," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters last week. "The president intends to visit to send a much more forward-looking signal for his ambition of realizing the goal of a planet without nuclear weapons."

"The president certainly does understand the United States bears a special responsibility. The United States continues to be the only country to have used nuclear weapons," Earnest continued. "It means our country bears a special responsibility to lead the world in eliminating them."

While muted, calls for Obama to express regret persist. An association of South Korean atomic bomb survivors plans to send a letter to Obama asking him "to offer flowers at the monument, recognize the existence of survivors in South Korea, offer an apology, and provide compensation," according to Japan Today. The association, known as the Korea Atomic Bomb Victim Association, will also send a group of representatives to Hiroshima when the president visits, according to the report.

Obama will make the historic visit during travel to Vietnam and Japan between May 21 and 28, which will mark his 10th trip to Asia. Obama will also meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and participate in his final G-7 Summit.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said that Americans should be "proud" of what the president’s trip will symbolize—namely, the country's ability to "recognize history candidly" and move beyond the past.

"What I think he will do is he will have an opportunity to tour those grounds and reflect on what happened there," Rhodes said during a Tuesday event hosted by the Center for a New American Security. "Not only is he committed to a world without nuclear weapons, but he believes in the importance of looking squarely at history and learning from it."

"I think that the tremendous human cost of war in general … is something that he’ll want to reflect on," Rhodes said.

Some veterans expressed doubt that Obama’s renewed commitment to eliminating the nuclear threat will have any impact.

"How do you get to a world without nuclear weapons? You can’t get to it," Bacon said, mentioning the nuclear deal with Iran brokered last summer, which he labeled a "bad negotiation" and a "bad deal."

"They are a pretty aggressive nation and have threatened many, many times to attack Israel and destroy Israel," the Navy veteran added, expressing fear that tensions with Iran might eventually lead to a third world war.

"On the nuclear side, the genie is out of the bottle," Cohen said. "The genie can’t be put back in."