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Hiroshima Legacies

the cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where President Obama is expected to deliver his remarks on May 27.
Photo by Ryan Poplin.

My family would be celebrating my father’s 90th birthday next week if he were still alive. In a way, I’m glad he’s not.

His birthday would have come just after President Obama’s scheduled legacy-building visit to Hiroshima. I am not unalterably opposed to having a sitting American president visit that historically freighted place, but I don’t think anybody who – like my father – served in the American armed forces during World War II ought to be forced to witness that spectacle in their lifetimes. There will be plenty of time for symbolic visits after that generation is gone.

But of course there is not enough time in Obama’s waning presidency to wait. So the chief hails himself.

We will not hear too much next week about the attack on Pearl Harbor that drew America into the war. We will hear even less about the Japanese atrocities that preceded and followed it in places like Nanking, Luzon, Burma and so many others. Short shrift will be given to the brutal fighting on Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal and Okinawa, which persuaded U.S. leaders that millions of lives, both Allied and Japanese, would be lost in the event of a ground assault on Japan’s home islands. The official divinity of the Emperor, abandoned only after surrender under American pressure, and how that idea fed the Japanese drive to protect him at all costs is unlikely to be mentioned in most press accounts and is unknown to most Westerners born after the baby boom.

Still, there is no need to belabor those abundantly documented historical truths. I don’t hold a personal grudge against today’s Japanese, although untold millions of their Asian neighbors understandably do. For the past seven decades, Japan has been a card-carrying member of the club of responsible nations, whose disagreements are settled diplomatically and commercially rather than violently.

We will hear plenty next week about how the president’s visit is not an apology, how it is meant to promote his dream of a nuclear-free world, how it is somehow a capstone to the arms control goals of his presidency. Your reaction to such positions can probably be predicted by your reaction to his nuclear arms agreement with Iran, or to his assertions that each mass killing event in the United States demonstrates the need for stricter gun control laws. Most of us are unpersuadable in our views on these matters, whatever they happen to be, so there is no need to belabor the point.

My father dropped out of high school to join the Navy as soon as he turned 17, in May 1943. After basic training in Newport, Rhode Island, he shipped out to Europe. He manned one of the boats that was offshore of Normandy on D-Day. Once the invasion of Europe began, he returned briefly to the United States, where he happened to be on leave in his hometown of New York City on Halloween 1944. That, in fact, is why you are reading this column; my parents met at a party that night.

Then there was a cross-country train trip to San Diego and a new posting in the Philippines, which Allied forces had recently retaken from the Japanese. My father served out the remainder of the war in relative safety, far from the bitter fighting that the Marines conducted against the Japanese elsewhere. But he was part of the mass of forces assembled in the western Pacific for the eventuality of an invasion of Japan. Thanks only to what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that invasion never happened. Quite possibly thanks to those same awful bombings (and that Halloween party), I did.

I personally see Obama’s visit to Hiroshima next week as a fitting capstone to his presidency, as he apparently does, although hardly for the same reasons. I think it perfectly fits his egocentric, self-deluded view of himself as a statesman and historical figure, and it captures his ignorance of the history and insensitivity to the feelings and stories of the people he represents.

Until his death in 2010, my father proudly wore a cap commemorating his naval service. I have not asked my mother, a loyal Democrat, how she feels about Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. Maybe she supports it or doesn’t care. Maybe she feels as I do, that it shows a lack of respect to the men and women who served in that terrible war, and to the millions of families who sacrificed in its name. Maybe she thinks it fails to take into account all the lives that were saved at the time, as well as the ones – like mine – that came into being later, because of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those bombs were dreadful, and the decision to deploy them – while probably tinged with the racism that was endemic in that era – was not taken lightly. In the end, however, the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended a war this country did not start and did not want to join, and they surely saved more lives than they cost.

Like so much else in his political and economic calculus, this president seems only capable of seeing one side of an equation at a time, never both.

Anyway, happy birthday Dad, and thanks for everything your generation did to make the life my generation enjoyed possible. Here, and in the Pacific too.

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