President Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, to pay somber tribute to the ghastly cost of war while standing firmly by President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs that ended World War II, the White House said Tuesday, announcing the first visit to the city by a sitting U.S. president since the attacks seven decades ago.
Obama's stop was tacked on to a long-planned tour of Vietnam and Japan later this month. The schedule change reflects internal White House wrestling over how to pull off the trip, certain to reawaken complaints that Obama's foreign policy is based on an attitude of apology for the use of American might.
Despite an itinerary that includes two former war zones, aides insisted, Obama is not looking backward to old grievances, either inflicted by the U.S. or adversaries. He is not seeking an apology for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the bombing that ushered the U.S. into the war that ended only when Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as fighting with Japan raged on past the end of war in Europe.
Nor will he offer apologies, lest he insult the generation that counts its sacrifices of World War II among the most significant contributions made to humanity.
"There's no diminishing the important contribution of the greatest generation of Americans, who didn't just save the United States, but rather saved the world from tyranny," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
If critics interpret as an apology Obama's visit to Hiroshima or to the site honoring victims of the bombs, said Earnest, "they'd be interpreting it wrongly."
Obama's historic visit comes more than 70 years after an American B-29 bomber delivered the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, killing 80,000 instantly and tens of thousands more who were poisoned by radiation. Three days later, the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb that killed an estimated 40,000 people in Nagasaki, leading the Japanese emperor to surrender to the devastation of what he called a "most cruel bomb."
A presidential visit to Hiroshima reflects a new level of maturity in relations between the U.S. and Japan, according to analysts. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have, over time, ceased to be too sensitive an issue for the allies to confront, said Mireya Solis, a senior fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy at the Brookings Institution.
"The president is not going to Hiroshima to apologize, nor do the people of Hiroshima want or expect him to do so," she said. "This visit is about the present and the future."
And at a time when Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has suggested it might be good for both Japan and South Korea to go nuclear, said Solis, Hiroshima offers "the best platform to highlight the value of U.S. alliances, the perils of nuclear proliferation, and the need for ongoing deterrence against rogue actors."
Republicans were unusually silent about the White House announcement but have long complained that Obama adopted too acquiescent a posture toward the rest of the world when he was first elected president. An early critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he quickly visited the Middle East after he took office to broadcast a new message about building partnerships in the region and adopting a multilateral approach to security decisions.
And recent visits to Hiroshima by U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and Secretary of State John F. Kerry drew warnings that the U.S. should not apologize for the atomic bombings.
"If he expresses regret for the horror that U.S. atomic weaponry wrought, as he surely would, he also should note the factors that led to it: a brutal imperial power refusing to surrender, and a president weighing atomic bombs against an invasion that would have killed many more on both sides," Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, wrote in U.S. News and World Report last month after Kerry's visit.
Japan likely doesn't even want an apology. A secret 2009 State Department cable made public by Wikileaks in 2011 suggested that Japanese officials worried an apology would only stir up anti-nuclear activists in the country.
In 2007, during Shinzo Abe's first term as prime minister, Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma called the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki "something that couldn't be helped."
Opposition leaders took issue with him, but the government's official stance was that it would be more meaningful for the U.S. and Japan to "aim for a peaceful and safe world without nuclear weapons."
Obama intends to emphasize such a position during his trip.
He will explicitly pay tribute to the victims of the attack by visiting Peace Memorial Park. The White House believes Obama can shine a spotlight on both the human toll of war and the fight against nuclear proliferation, one of his chief pursuits while in office. He helped broker a deal to limit Iran's nuclear program and has worked to press North Korea to engage in talks toward the same end.
He won't revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb, but rather will describe "a forward-looking vision," said Benjamin Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security advisor.
Most of the criticism came from those who want Obama to fight more stridently for nonproliferation.
"The president must do more than give another beautiful speech about nuclear disarmament," said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' global security program. "The world needs — indeed, is desperate for — concrete action."
Her group insists Obama can act without the approval of Congress or cooperation of the other large nuclear power, Russia, to reduce the world's nuclear capabilities. It has called on Obama to scale back plans to spend more than $1 trillion on a new generation of nuclear warheads, missiles, bombers and submarines and cancel commitments to a new nuclear-armed cruise missile.
Obama, though, is more likely to stick by goals he outlined in the four international nuclear security summits he has hosted, focused on taking steps along with other global powers to gradually and multilaterally reduce the role of nuclear weapons in defense.
Earnest gave a glimpse into the White House thinking on Tuesday in a defense of Truman's decision to drop the bombs.
"President Truman made a decision that he believed was consistent with our national security priorities," Earnest said. "He believed that lives on both sides of the conflict could be saved by dropping the bomb."
"President Truman did what presidents have to do," Earnest said. "He had to make a tough decision and he had to make that tough decision when the stakes were high."
Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.
4:48 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details, comments and background.
1:24 p.m.: The story was updated with a comment from the White House.
6:45 a.m.: The story was updated with details on the trip from the White House.