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Column: “Intellectual shift” in U.S. public opinion background to Obama’s Hiroshima visit

  • May 5, 2016
  • , Ryukyu Shimpo , p. 7
  • Translation

By Meiji University Associate Professor Satoshi Fujita

 

President Barack Obama will reportedly visit Hiroshima during the G7 Ise-Shima Summit in late May after Secretary of State John Kerry made his recent visit. If the visit indeed materializes, it will be the first visit by an incumbent U.S. president to the atomic bombed city. Why has this become possible? Obama’s personal conviction, as expressed in his speech in Prague, and the fact that he will be stepping down soon, are contributing factors.

 

However, shifts in U.S. public opinion are probably another reason. It would seem that this shift did not come about suddenly in the last one or two years.

 

A plan to exhibit the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the atomic bombs, at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington 22 years ago stirred up a major controversy.

 

Materials on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reflecting the findings of historical studies were also going to be displayed, but this part of the plan had to be abandoned due to criticism from veterans’ groups, Congress, and the media.

 

This episode easily illustrated how deeply the theory justifying the atomic bombings has taken root in America.

 

However, looking back, an “intellectual shift” in the public’s perception of the atomic bombings and World War II that occurred at a level that was not made apparent by the fact that the museum planned such an exhibit could be observed over the years.

 

American researchers began to disagree with the traditional theory legitimizing the atomic bombings from the 1960s. Some claimed that the war would have ended even without the atomic bombings, while others pointed out that motives related to postwar U.S.-Soviet relations were behind the decision to drop the atomic bombs.

 

From the 1970s, different interpretations of the decision to drop the atomic bombs began to appear in universities and in textbooks used for the Advanced Placement (AP) program for high school students.

 

These interpretations were also gradually incorporated into regular high school textbooks in the 1990s, and this trend has continued up to this date.

 

While it is improbable that textbooks would criticize the atomic bombings explicitly, the intellectual perception of the decision to drop the bombs has indeed been changing even at the textbook level.

 

Another innovative feature of the Enola Gay exhibit was that it looked at the atomic bombings in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear age. It attached historical significance to the bombings as the beginning of the Cold War era and the nuclear age. In that sense, the victims of the atomic bombings were not only victims of World War II but were also the first victims of the nuclear age. While this thinking might seem natural to the Japanese people, it was certainly not the most common view among Americans, and this is probably still true today. It is very rare, with only a few exceptions, for the atomic bombings to be seen in such a context.

 

Kerry’s visit to Hiroshima probably provided an opportunity for the American people to realize that the nuclear issue started with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was something the Enola Gay exhibit was not able to accomplish.

 

The “intellectual shift” seen in textbooks has slowly transformed U.S. public opinion, making it possible for an incumbent president to visit the atomic bombed city.

 

Obama’s political decision will also offer an opportunity to look at history from another angle and bring further changes to textbooks and museum exhibits through a process of mutual interaction.

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