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As Obama goes to Hiroshima, here are 3 principles for a successful visit (with no apologies)

Doves fly over Peace Memorial Park with Atomic Bomb Dome in the background in Hiroshima, Japan. (Reuters/Toru Hanai)

On Friday, President Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima. Some observers are asking whether Obama will — or should — apologize for the fact that the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb there in World War II. Will the visit backfire for Obama as well as for the Democrats in November? Will the visit hurt or help U.S.-Japan relations?

Going to Hiroshima is bold. But by looking at other cases of reconciliation, we can see that the White House has designed the trip to Hiroshima in a way that should go over well with both Americans and Japanese. Here are three principles for a successful visit.

1. Apologies are not helpful

Denying past violence is very damaging. Acknowledging what happened is essential to repairing relations between nations.

But apologies are not. Consider that after World War II, France and West Germany started to reconcile in the late 1950s — before the Germans began to apologize or remember their wartime atrocities in memorials and monuments. And though neither the U.S. nor Japan has ever apologized for the war, the two countries forged a warm friendship and close security alliance. Even the bitterest of adversaries have reconciled without apologies.

Apologies are as likely to worsen relations as improve them. That’s because they often trigger backlash — on both sides. In wars, both countries usually suffer tremendously. People in both countries are passionately convinced they fought in self-defense for a just cause. After war, people on both sides believe they deserve apologies for the various wrongs done them by the other. Both sides are thus quick to perceive their leader is being too soft — either for offering an apology, or for accepting one seen as insufficient.

Obama’s trip certainly risks criticism. Any hint that the president might apologize for the atomic bombings would infuriate many people — particularly conservatives, who see the president as fond of “apologizing for America,” and believe that the U.S. should be proud of defeating the terrible Japanese war machine and freeing Japan from imperial rule. A Pew survey showed that a majority of Americans feel the use of atomic weapons was justified, and that 73 percent of respondents said they did not support an apology to Japan.

The White House has carefully crafted the Hiroshima visit so to avoid backlash. The administration has sent a consistent message that the president is not going to “revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb,” as principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz and deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes both commented when the visit was first announced. Obama himself said in an interview with Japanese TV station NHK that he was not going to apologize, explaining that “in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions” and that “it’s a job of historians to ask questions and examine them.”

The White House has also worked to reassure and even appease those who might criticize the visit. Jan Thompson, head of a veteran’s group, said that when Obama visits Hiroshima, he “has to remember the POWs (who) made sacrifices, who died right there on that land that he’s stepping foot on, who were used as slave labor. To me, it’s unfathomable for him not to.”

To address such views, presidential spokesperson Josh Earnest said, “There’s also no diminishing the important contribution of the greatest generation of Americans who didn’t just save the United States, but saved the world, from tyranny.” National security adviser Susan Rice has met with veterans groups to discuss the visit, and told them that the president was trying to “honor the memory of all who lost their lives during World War II.”

Shinzō Abe, Japan’s prime minister and leader of the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), risks backlash at home too. After all, a majority of Japanese people view the atomic bombings as inhumane attacks — war crimes for which the United States has never been punished. One LDP member of the National Diet, Shizuka Kamei, who represents Hiroshima in the region, said that if Obama “is coming without an apology, he shouldn’t come at all.” And Terumi Tanaka, a survivor of the Nagasaki attack and leader of a survivors’ organization, said “I urge him to apologize to those who died, bereaved families and parents who lost their children.”

Leaders who agree to move forward with a former adversary often face domestic criticism for being too soft; for “selling out” the country’s interests.

Although vulnerable to backlash at home, the Japanese government has welcomed Obama’s visit on his terms. Abe has brushed aside questions from the Japanese press about whether Obama will apologize. The Japanese people broadly support the visit, saying an apology is not necessary.

Hiroshi Shimizu, head of another survivor’s organization, said “of course” he at first wanted a presidential apology. “However, by setting conditions we limit world leaders from visiting,” he noted, “so we decided to eliminate that. We would first like for them to come and stand on the grounds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and take a good look at what is in front of them and give it good thought.”

2. Moving forward requires shared strategic need

When can countries can compromise to this extent? Who will have leaders to offer respectful gestures such as Obama’s, and leaders who will not demand apologies, such as Abe?

The answer? Countries strongly motivated to get along, which usually means countries facing a shared security threat.

Again, consider France and West Germany after World War II, when they became allies against the Soviet Union. The two countries staged several meaningful commemorative events to emphasize their reconciliation. French leaders did not demand apologies from Germany, and their rhetoric about the war emphasized the two countries’ shared suffering. As Nicholas Sarkozy commented in 2009, “German orphans wept for their slain fathers in the same way as French orphans. German mothers felt the same pain as French mothers as they stood before the coffins of their fallen sons.”

Similarly, the United States and Japan are close strategic partners, highly motivated to strengthen their alliance against China’s increased military power and assertiveness in East Asia. Embroiled in a territorial dispute with China, and facing a hostile North Korea, Tokyo in particular sees its strategic environment worsening, and values alliance with the United States.

3. Ceremonies should take place at a location that highlights a shared message

A successful commemoration is held at a location of shared suffering, or at least, a site both sides can visit with dignity, which underscores a broadly common narrative. Ceremonies create important images of friendship that strengthen cooperation.

For instance, to symbolize their reconciliation, in 1984 François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl held hands not at a World War II site, but over the graves at Verdun, a World War I battlefield. The narrative accepted by both sides emphasized the triumph of European unity over the tragedy of anarchy and war in Europe.

Similarly, in 1989 West Germany and Poland celebrated reconciliation not at Auschwitz but at Krzyzowa: the site of an anti-Nazi resistance movement, which today houses a Polish-German youth center.

In his choice of location Obama is doing something different. Hiroshima is a decidedly one-sided location; the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Japan. At this setting one country is victim, the other assailant. Our blueprint would have steered clear of Hiroshima and sent Obama elsewhere — perhaps to Okinawa, where both armies fought and suffered.

At Hiroshima the United States and Japan cannot embrace a common narrative about World War II. The dominant narrative on the U.S. side blames the war on Japanese imperialism and believes that atomic weapons liberated Asia and saved lives on both sides. By contrast, the widespread Japanese narrative sees the war as defensive — holding off the threat of Western imperialism — and condemns the U.S. use of atomic weapons.

Hence the United States and Japan have not framed Obama’s visit to Hiroshima as a historical reckoning about World War II. The Japanese will appreciate the acknowledgement of their suffering, just as they appreciated it in April when Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Peace Park and described it as “gut-wrenching.”

However, from the outset the White House has emphasized that the purpose of the presidential visit was “to highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Obama also said that he wanted “reflect on the nature of war,” and that “part of my goal is to recognize that innocent people caught in war can suffer tremendously.” Abe framed the visit similarly: “Japan is the only country to be hit by a nuclear weapon, and we have a responsibility to make sure that terrible experience is never repeated anywhere.”

While this isn’t a shared narrative about World War II, it is a shared narrative — just as the French and Germans emphasized World War I rather than II. And maybe it’s enough, allowing Obama to send his nuclear nonproliferation message, to showcase the U.S.’s remarkable reconciliation with Japan, and to mollify critics at home.

Jennifer Lind is associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @profLind.