In late May, during a trip to Asia for normal diplomacy, President Obama has a rare opportunity to elevate two acute moments in history into useful lessons for the future. He will become the first sitting American president to visit the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the site of the first wartime use of an atomic bomb 71 years ago. And he will travel to Vietnam, making him only the third president to do so since the United States pulled its troops out of a war there 43 years ago.
Both historians and the people who lived through those events still differ over their purposes and effects. Were they necessary or unnecessary tragedies? Could either one have been prevented? How are we to judge either one fairly in hindsight with the wisdom gained from them?
Mr. Obama says he will not use the Hiroshima visit to second-guess the US decision in 1945 to drop the bomb. And Japanese officials have long said they are not expecting an apology. Rather, the visit will be forward-looking, a chance to highlight one major goal of the Obama presidency and of postwar Japan: moving humanity toward a future with no nuclear weapons.
The president’s visit to Vietnam is also aimed at building a better future, based on a key lesson from the war that ended there in 1975: Nations must be humble and cautious in how they perceive threats and how they respond to them.
Indeed, the US and Vietnam are trying to work together now for what they perceive as a common threat: the expansion of China’s security forces into islands near Southeast Asian nations. The US is expected to provide more military equipment to Vietnam to curb Chinese encroachments. It is doing so despite a poor record by the ruling Communist Party in Hanoi in repressing dissidents.
A famed American historian, John Lewis Gaddis, once wrote that society should use history to see beyond the limits of its senses. History is “the basis across time, space, and scale, for a wider view,” he stated. History must be both respected and held accountable, used not to uproot but to retrofit society toward a moral sense.
How Obama uses history during these visits could itself be historic, if he helps others see the clear and enduring lessons of the Hiroshima bombing and the Vietnam War.