Obama: Visit Hiroshima

President Obama has talked a lot about ridding the world of nuclear weapons. He won a Nobel Peace prize largely on the strength of those words. Now, he needs to translate words into actions and vindicate the Nobel committee’s decision. When he goes to Japan this month, the president should make an unprecedented visit to Hiroshima.

For over six decades, no sitting American president has visited Hiroshima or Nagasaki, much less apologized for dropping the bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. Former President Jimmy Carter visited the city, but he waited until he was out of office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is the highest-ranking American to go to Hiroshima, but she remained publicly silent while there. When the new U.S. ambassador to Japan recently visited Hiroshima, the city’s mayor conveyed an invitation to Obama to come when he travels to Japan on November 12. The president should accept.

In visiting Hiroshima, Obama wouldn’t question the service and sacrifice of American veterans. The purpose wouldn’t be to make America or Americans feel guilty about the past. Rather, he could begin putting into action his talk of a world free of nuclear weapons. Hiroshima is a stark reminder of the incomparable destruction wrought by nuclear weapons. Americans still believe that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was good and necessary. This misleading account surrounds nuclear weapons with an aura of usefulness. We must instead focus on the consequences of the bomb’s use—in civilian lives lost and ruined.

Obama is ideally suited to alter the conversation on Hiroshima. He has changed America by reintroducing hope into the political and social conversation during a time of financial crisis and war. We continue to expect him to challenge issues—racial politics in America, relations with the Muslim world—that no leader in recent memory has dared address. He can add to this already remarkable record by honestly confronting America’s use of nuclear weapons.

A failure to do so would weaken our attempts to lead discussions of nuclear nonproliferation, and persuade countries like Iran and North Korea to give up their programs. By paying his respects to those who died in Hiroshima, Obama can show both Japan and the rest of the world that Americans take this history seriously, that we say in one voice “never again.”

The U.S. president can also help inaugurate a new era in relations between Washington and Tokyo. The new Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, stood at the United Nations last month and invited leaders to understand the need for a world free of nuclear weapons from the perspective of those who were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Hatoyama did so not to blame Americans for this history, but rather to articulate Japan’s responsibility as the only country to be devastated by such bombs: Others must never know such suffering. The new Japanese prime minister is also promising a forthright examination of Japan’s role in World War II. It’s time for President Obama to make this a joint endeavor.

As the president wrestles with the intricacies of Afghanistan’s future, recognizing America’s past history should be fairly straightforward by comparison. His visit would give him and the United States credibility to move forward in setting the tone for discussions of nuclear nonproliferation, weapons reduction, and, ultimately, their abolition. We can only focus on this future if we deal honestly with the past.

Put differently, if Mr. Obama cannot visit Hiroshima, why would the leader of any other country believe he or any American could turn words about a non-nuclear world into action?

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Alexis Dudden is an associate professor of history and Director of Humanitarian Studies at the University of Connecticut, currently on leave in Japan on a Fulbright fellowship. She’s the author of Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States (Columbia University Press, 2008).