President Obama to be first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima

President Barack Obama’s visit Hiroshima later this month is described by his aides as a futuristic look at a world free of nuclear weapons, but inevitably will reflect back in time to 1945 when President Harry Truman ordered the dropping of the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city.

The White House announced Tuesday that Obama will become the first American president to visit the exact site where in August 1945, a B-29 bomber piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets dropped what American scientists called the “gadget,” killing more than 100,000 people in a massive flash of light followed by a towering mushroom cloud.

Three days later, a second B-29 bomber named “Bock’s Car” by its crew – now on display at the Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton — dropped a second and more powerful atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 70,000 people.

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Forgotten history: Dayton, Ohio - where all nuclear bomb blasts begin

70 years later: Bomber changed history

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Within days, Japan surrendered to end World War II, a savage conflict in which 55 million people – including 407,000 Americans — died. Tibbets, who moved to Columbus after the war, defended dropping the bomb until his death in 2007, telling Columbus Dispatch columnist Mike Harden in 1995 that “morality in warfare is none of my business.”

Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy White House national security adviser, wrote in a blog post that Obama “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,”adding the visit will demonstrate Obama’s commitment “to pursue the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Historical perspective

But even as Obama intends to use the visit to shine a hopeful light on a new world, he clearly runs the risk of opening up a schism between those who believe Truman’s decision was indispensable to ending the bloodiest war in history and others who claim it was unnecessary blow against a country on the verge of surrender.

“As long as he puts the events in proper historical perspective, it could be OK,” said Peter Mansoor, who holds the Gen. Raymond E. Mason Jr. chair in military history at Ohio State University.

“But absolutely we should not apologize for dropping the bomb,” said Mansoor, who served as executive officer in Iraq to General David Petraeus. “These decisions are not always clear. Everyone likes a clear moral choice, but that’s not always the case in war.”

An overwhelming majority of Americans in 1945 approved of Truman’s decision to drop the two bombs in large part because their sons and brothers would not have to undertake a costly amphibious landing in Japan, an operation in which tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Japanese would have been killed.

But following the 1946 publication of John Hershey’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Hiroshima,” attitudes of Americans began to change.

Even at the time, others were queasy about using a device of such terrifying impact. Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower told then-Secretary of War Henry Stimson in July of 1945 he was convinced Japan was “seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of face,” and said “our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon” no longer needed to save American lives.

Yet Mansoor contended the “decision to drop the bomb was meant to act as a catalyst to shock the Japanese into surrender and I think it worked. Look at the alternatives — an invasion (of Japan) which would have caused hundreds of thousands of U.S. deaths and millions of Japanese deaths.”

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