As expected, U.S. President Barack >Obama did not utter any apology on behalf of his country for dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. But such is the power of personal presence that by the simple act of laying a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on Friday, he sent out an uncommonly gripping message: you cannot truly commit yourself to preventing a repeat of an atrocity if you do not admit in the most candid manner that it in fact occurred. Mr. Obama did so with a gesture that will be one of the defining images not only of his presidency but also of the wider struggle to rid the world of nuclear weapons, when he embraced a survivor of the attack. The visit did not have the high emotionalism of Willy Brandt’s trip to Warsaw, when the West German Chancellor fell to his knees, but the drift of history that Mr. Obama was tugging at was different. He was walking through such a political minefield to make it to the memorial that it had not been certain till almost the last moment whether he would even meet the survivors, or > hibakusha . “Death fell from the sky,” Mr. Obama said of the Hiroshima bombing, and it showed that “mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.” The nearest any previous occupant of the White House had come to acknowledging the devastation caused by the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was Jimmy Carter, but only after he demitted office. Mr. Obama’s call for a “moral revolution” issued at Hiroshima makes the sober, and sobering, point that the wrongs of living memory cannot be evaded, no matter what the provocation, and he did dwell on wartime Japan’s excesses.
On a narrower time horizon, Mr. >Obama’s visit to Hiroshima can be viewed against the backdrop of his landmark address in Prague in 2009, when he laid bare his disarmament agenda. He declared that as the only country to have deployed the nuclear weapon, the U.S. had a moral responsibility to act. Those remarks earned Mr. Obama plaudits from the global peace movements, whereas hawks at home attacked him as an apologist President. But the pragmatist in Mr. Obama minced no words in Prague, in saying that as long as nuclear weapons were around, the U.S. would maintain a credible deterrent, even while striving for a reduction in the arsenals of Washington and Moscow. More recently, he made it clear that the point of the visit to Hiroshima was not to revisit Harry Truman’s decision. Therein lurks a hard-nosed, statesman-like approach to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In his two terms in the White House, Mr. Obama has made a modest beginning. Understanding his realism is critical to covering the long and arduous road ahead.