News analysis

Obama hits all the right notes during Hiroshima visit

Despite right wing's criticism, US President's trip was moving, struck right balance: Analysts

US President Barack Obama (right) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk in front of a cenotaph after they laid wreaths at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. PHOTO: REUTERS

In making his historic visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, United States President Barack Obama faced the difficult challenge of trying to send an emotional message while making it clear he was not apologising for the US' decision to use the atomic bomb in World War II.

As Mr Obama returned to the US from his Asia visit on Friday, analysts in Washington said he largely succeeded in striking that balance - notwithstanding the attacks from the right wing.

"I think he did very well," said Ms Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"It could have been a very sterile visit but it wasn't. It was a very personal visit. To my mind, as someone who has worked in nuclear disarmament for a few decades, that personal engagement is very critical."

Mr Richard Fontaine, president of the Centre for a New American Security agreed, saying Mr Obama's remarks and the overall tone of the visit hit the right emotional notes.

"The visit was deeply moving in many ways and the President's speech dealt with the past delicately, and in a way that will resonate well among our Japanese allies," he said.

Mr Obama called for a moral revolution on the matter of nuclear proliferation during brief remarks in Hiroshima.

He also shook hands and hugged several survivors of the 1945 bombing.

There were concerns from certain quarters in the US that Mr Obama's actions would amount to a de facto apology.

The President did not apologise but observers said the current political climate in the US meant that Mr Obama's mere presence was going to be greeted with criticism, anyway.

"It's almost a no-win situation. There will be a lot of unhappy people on a lot of different sides and I think that that was the reason why he made his message somewhat personal," said Ms Squassoni.

And indeed, while the trip received broad approval from analysts, the President's political opponents took a different view.

At a rally for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in California, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin told the audience that Mr Obama's visit amounted to "dissing our vets".

She said: "Our commander-in- chief suggesting - actually, lying in suggestions - to the world that we were wrong to prove that we would eradicate evil in World War II, that America was wrong to respond to unprovoked deadly attacks on Pearl Harbour that killed thousands..."

Along the same lines, Mr John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations under former president George W. Bush, called the visit "shameful".

He argued that Mr Obama's visit sends the signal that the US shares equal responsibility for the war.

"Even without an express apology, there will likely be moral equivalence like: Japan bombed Pearl Harbour and we bombed Hiroshima. We're all guilty, but let's put it behind us," he wrote in an op-ed in the New York Post.

"Undeniably, World War II is history, and further strengthening the US-Japan alliance is profoundly important. But there is no moral equivalence here."

Beyond the nature and tone of Mr Obama's visit, there were also questions in Washington on whether the President's message on nuclear non-proliferation would move the needle very much on the issue.

On this score, observers said Mr Obama's calls for a moral revolution risked falling flat, given the US' continued investment in its own nuclear arsenal.

Democratic Senator Ed Markey, writing in the Boston Globe, said: "If the United States wants other countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals and restrain their nuclear war plans, it must take the lead. It cannot preach nuclear temperance from a bar stool.

"Instead of wasting billions of dollars on dangerous new nuclear weapons that do nothing to keep our nation safe, Obama should scale back his nuclear weapons expansion plan."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Obama hits all the right notes during Hiroshima visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe