Japanese Government Nixed Idea of Obama Visiting, Apologizing for, Hiroshima*

In September 2009, US Ambassador to Japan John Roos reported to the Obama administration that the Japanese government did not think it was a good idea for President Obama to visit Hiroshima to apologize for the US having dropped an atomic bomb on that city, a secret cable published by Wikileaks revealed.

Roos wrote the cable after his August meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka, reporting to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the Japanese government felt “the idea of President Obama visiting Hiroshima to apologize for the atomic bombing during World War II is a ‘non-starter.’ While a simple visit to Hiroshima without fanfare is sufficiently symbolic to convey the right message, it is premature to include such program in the November visit.”

A senior White House official asserts to ABC News that there was never any plan for the president to apologize for Hiroshima.  The cable does not state that the idea was from the U.S. Rather, Roos writes that Yabunaka thought that following President Obama’s call earlier that year for a world free of nuclear weapons, anti-nuclear groups would speculate as to whether he would visit Hiroshima.

Yabunaka recommended that President Obama’s November 2009 visit be focused mostly in Tokyo.

The cable was first reported by the Japan Times.

On August 6, 1945, the U.S. B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” — a 8,900-pound uranium bomb – 31,000 feet above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing up to 70,000 Japanese citizens immediately, with another 70,000 speculated to have died from injuries including exposure to radiation.

On August 9, the US dropped a similar device on the Japanese port city of Nagasaki.

Truman on that day delivered a radio address in which he said, “I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb. Its production and its use were not lightly undertaken by this Government. But we knew that our enemies were on the search for it. We know now how close they were to finding it. And we knew the disaster which would come to this Nation, and to all peace-loving nations, to all civilization, if they had found it first…Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.

“We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us…It is an awful responsibility which has come to us. We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”

Six days later, Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers.

Three years later, President Harry S Truman expressed misgivings about his decision to have dropped those bombs to Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission David Lilienthal, who recorded the conversation in his diaries, which were later published.

“I don’t think we ought to use this thing [the A-Bomb] unless we absolutely have to,” Truman told Lilienthal. “It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that, that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses.”

(This is from The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Volume II: The Atomic Energy Years 1945-1950, hat tip to Doug Long.)

The September 2009 Roos cable also reported that Yabunaka urged continued close communication between the US and Japanese governments, and that in his view the “Japanese public felt ‘betrayed’ by the Bush Administration’s decision to delist the DPRK” – the government of North Korea – “from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, seemingly without prior coordination with the Japanese government.”

-Jake Tapper

*This post has been updated with White House comment and clarification.