Obama faces complex moral issues in Vietnam, Hiroshima
As memories of the wars recede, the president charts a new course
President Barack Obama, who entered office vowing to end wars but who has now presided over U.S. military conflicts in a number of countries, arrives in Asia this week to confront aspects of America’s wartime past.
In a trip meant to further advance his Asia pivot, Obama is opting to embrace the historic symbolism of stops in Vietnam and Hiroshima, Japan — sites filled with complex moral lessons for an involuntary war president.
Born 16 years after the Hiroshima atomic blast – and himself only three years old when the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed Congress, advancing the war in Vietnam – Obama came of age outside the direct consequences of those decisions, unlike his most recent predecessors. In both Vietnam and Japan, the President is working to move past the scars of war to develop deeper economic, diplomatic, and even military ties.
But even as he pursues new openings in the region, Obama has also sought to ensure U.S. military decisions – made decades ago, but still casting a shadow over his foreign policy – are neither forgotten nor repeated. That mindset led Obama to determine the time was right for the first-ever presidential visit to Hiroshima, and a new era of military cooperation with Hanoi.
“I think it demonstrates the ability to recognize history candidly,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “You don’t have to be imprisoned by that past. That is central to the president’s whole view of the world, that we can move beyond difficult and complicated histories and find these areas of common interest.”
Lessons from Hiroshima
During a stop planned in Hiroshima on Friday, Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit the site of the first atomic bomb attack in history, a charged decision that comes seven decades after the blast.
Officials said Obama won’t apologize for President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the bomb, explaining that he’s not traveling to Hiroshima to “re-litigate” the choice.
Most Americans believe the bombing helped end World War II, according to polls, though the number who say the Hiroshima attack was justified has declined over the years. A Pew Research Center survey from 2015 found 7-in-10 Americans over the age of 65 believed the use of nuclear weapons on Japan was justified, while 47% of 18- to 29-year-olds held the same view. In Japan, vast majorities say the U.S. actions in 1945 weren’t justified.
The differing views between the two countries, coupled with other festering grievances about the war, had long prevented a presidential visit to the site. At the beginning of his term, Obama was advised by Japanese officials against paying his respects in Hiroshima, despite his stated desire to travel there.
Time passed, however, and views shifted. Steps by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make amends for his country’s use of Korean sexual slaves during World War II were heralded by the White House as courageous, and as a sign that wartime disputes were entering a phase of reconciliation.
The next step in that process could come in December, when the United States plans to mark 75 years since Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack in Hawaii. Abe is weighing whether to attend the commemoration ceremony on Oahu, though Rhodes said that decision would be considered separately from Obama’s own stop in Hiroshima.
“He believes that it’s important to acknowledge history; it’s important to look squarely at history; it’s important to have a dialogue about history,” Rhodes said in explaining Obama’s thinking. “And every leader has to make their own choices about how they will do that.”
For Obama, Hiroshima also holds symbolic significance for his longstanding goal of nuclear disarmament, a policy that’s seen only modest success over his two terms in office. While he was successful in brokering a deal aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, other areas of arms control have stalled. And critics of his policy accuse the administration of hypocrisy, pointing to a trillion-dollar effort to modernize America’s own stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
With that in mind, Obama doesn’t plan a major address at the Hiroshima Peace Park; instead, he’ll offer reflections about his experience and broader thoughts about the impact of war – nuclear and conventional.
“In a way, the less he says, the better,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and a former White House director of Asian affairs under President George W. Bush.
“It’s not normally this President’s style to avoid an opportunity for historic speeches,” Green added, “but this is one where I think going and a very simple statement would be more powerful than trying to wrap it in his own legacy or politics.”
Reckoning with Vietnam
Obama arrived in Vietnam Sunday intent on nurturing ties to an increasingly important trade and military partner. The third sitting U.S. president to visit the country since ties were normalized in 1995, Obama is the first who was too young to have been eligible to serve in the Vietnam War (though his two predecessors avoided the draft).
That distance from the war’s direct impact, however, hasn’t lessened its shadow on Obama’s foreign policy. Critics of his military strategy both in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq have made comparisons to Vietnam, using fraught terms like “quagmire” and “slippery slope” to link his decisions to those of an earlier era. That type of appraisal has drawn angry rebukes from the president and his aides.
“You never step into the same river twice,” Obama insisted during an interview with The New York Times in 2009. “Afghanistan is not Vietnam.”
But the juxtapositions were nonetheless unavoidable. Even Obama and his aides seemed determined to avoid turning their inherited wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into a Vietnam-style morass, evidenced by a copy of the book “Lessons in Disaster” — which chronicled President Lyndon B. Johnson’s management of Vietnam — that circulated the West Wing during the early days of Obama’s presidency.
Driving the President’s interest: a determination to avoid the military pitfalls which so sharply divided the nation during the Vietnam War.
“Let us resolve that when America sends our sons and daughters into harm’s way, we will always give them a clear mission; we will always give them a sound strategy,” Obama said during 2012 remarks at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, making the now-accepted argument that Vietnam-era leaders had failed to provide that guidance during the war.
Lacking direct experience in the war himself, Obama has relied on counsel from those who know the conflict firsthand: Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who’d served as a diplomat in Vietnam during the war; and Sens. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who later became an Obama defense secretary, and John Kerry, who now serves as secretary of state.
“I think he understood the lesson of Vietnam, and more,” Kerry said of his boss during a panel discussion about the conflict in April. “My sense is that we also are living in a different world, different set of choices.”
Those choices included on Monday announcing an end to the longstanding arms embargo with Vietnam, a move that could help the United States counter China’s maritime aggression in the region.
A decade ago such a decision would have inspired angry rebukes from those who remembered Vietnam as a ruthless enemy. The decision now is supported by many Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, a veteran who was imprisoned in Vietnam for five-and-a-half years.
While Obama is likely to reference the United States’ history in Vietnam during his stop, including announcing new efforts to scrub remnants of Agent Orange, officials say it’s not his main focus. The President instead hopes to look ahead, promoting his trade plan and bolstering security ties.
“If you look at the stage of bilateral ties between the United States and Vietnam, the amount of progress since normalization has been truly enormous,” said Richard Fontaine, the president of the Center for a New American Security and a former adviser to McCain.