WASHINGTON (AP) — In a moment seven decades in the making, President Barack Obama this month will become the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb during World War II, decimating a city and exploding the world into the Atomic Age.
Obama will visit the site with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a previously scheduled trip to Japan, the White House announced Tuesday.
The president intends to “highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Obama will not apologize for the bombing, the White House made clear. And Abe said none was expected nor necessary, suggesting the visit itself would send a powerful message.
“The prime minister of the world’s only nation to have suffered atomic attacks, and the leader of the world’s only nation to have used the atomic weapons at war will together pay respects for the victims,” Abe told reporters late Tuesday. “I believe that would be a way to respond to the victims of the atomic bombings and the survivors who are still in pain.”
The president’s visit has been widely anticipated since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to the Hiroshima memorial in April. Kerry toured the peace museum with other foreign ministers of the Group of Seven industrialized nations and participated in an annual memorial service just steps from the site’s ground zero.
Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui praised Obama’s plan to visit as a “bold decision based on conscience and rationality,” adding that he hopes Obama will have a chance to hear the survivors’ stories. He also expressed hope the visit would be “a historic first step toward an international effort toward abolishing nuclear weapons, which is a wish of all mankind.”
The U.S. attack on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, in the final days of World War II, killed 140,000 people and badly burned many thousands more. While it scarred a generation of Japanese, both physically and mentally, many Americans believe the bombing, along with another Aug. 9 on the city of Nagasaki, hastened the end of the war and saved countless other lives. Japan announced it would surrender on Aug. 15.
Diverging views about an act that forever changed war have made a visit from a sitting U.S. president a delicate and arguably politically risky move. Former President Jimmy Carter did visit, in 1984, three years after he left office.
It took 65 years for a U.S. ambassador to attend the annual memorial service. In the U.S., officials remain wary that a presidential visit could be perceived as an apology for an act believed to have saved American lives.
Sunao Tsuboi, 91, a survivor of the bombing and head of a survivors’ group in the western Japanese city, welcomed the decision.
“The day has finally come,” Tsuboi told Japan’s NHK national television.
“We are not asking for an apology,” Tsuboi said. “All we want is to see him lay flowers at the peace park and lower his head in silence. This would be a first step toward abolishing nuclear weapons.”
Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue said he respected Obama for what he saw as a tough decision.
“I expect that the president will send a powerful message, in his own words, toward achieving a world without nuclear weapons,” Taue said in a statement.
Kevin Martin, president of Peace Action, a U.S.-based group, said Obama should use the visit to announce specific steps to “bring the world closer to being free of nuclear weapons,” such as reducing the number of nuclear warheads in reserve.
“Obama will look insincere if his words espouse ridding the world of nuclear weapons while at the same time his administration continues its plan to spend a trillion dollars over 30 years to upgrade nuclear weapons,” Martin said in a statement.
Early in his presidency, Obama said he would be honored to make the trip, and the White House has said it often considered a visit on previous trips to Asia. It has not explained why a visit there has never come together.
Asked last week whether the president believes an apology is warranted, Earnest was direct: “No, he does not.”
In a statement posted as the visit was announced, a senior White House official added that the president does not intend to wade into past debates.
“He will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II. Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said. “The United States will be eternally proud of our civilian leaders and the men and women of our armed forces who served in World War II for their sacrifice at a time of maximum peril to our country and our world. Their cause was just, and we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.”
Obama will be in Japan to attend the Group of 7 economic summit, part of a weeklong Asia tour that will also include a stop in Vietnam.