President Barack Obama is making a short tour of Asia as part of his last months in office. He is visiting Vietnam and then Japan, ostensibly to demonstrate the importance of the region in his foreign policy, the so called “shift to Asia.” Besides the geostrategic significance of the trip and its implications to counter the growing importance of China, the President will be dealing with the memories of the Vietnam War and Hiroshima.
Or will he?
Barack Obama is the third American president to visit Vietnam since the end of hostilities in 1975, a conflict that saw upward of a million Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans lose their lives. None of the three served in the war, referred to as the American War in Vietnam and the Vietnam War in the United States. Bill Clinton was given a rousing welcome in 2000 followed by the quieter visit of George W. Bush in 2006.
During the current visit, President Obama announced the end of an arms embargo imposed by the U.S. in 1984. The visit of Obama, following the visit of the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party to Washington last spring, indicates a normalization of relations and closer ties.
According to a recent poll, 78% of Vietnamese have a favorable opinion of the United States. This is understandable since half the population is under 30 years-of-age and never lived through the war. As the International New York Times headlined; “In Vietnam, Obama focuses on the future.” Vietnam has become an important strategic partner for the United States; it is the only developing country in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Keeping Vietnam out of China’s orbit is an obvious U.S. priority.
When President Clinton visited Vietnam in 2000, he spent time in a rice paddy looking for the remains of a lost pilot from the war with the pilot’s son. But there was no apology. When President Bush visited, he avoided any mention of the war. Mr. Obama is scheduled to meet with leaders, entrepreneurs, and civil society. No mention of the past is expected. As an Obama official noted, “Even the worst conflicts can be relatively quickly left behind.”
If President Obama’s visit to Vietnam “focuses on the future,” his visit to Hiroshima will be infused with the past. He will be the first sitting American president to visit the historic site of the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. According to an American official, the purpose of the visit will not be to apologize, but to “render homage to enormous suffering” and “the loss of innocent lives” during World War II. It will also give President Obama an opportunity to reiterate the necessity to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons.
In an interview with a Japanese TV network, President Obama said: “It is important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions, it’s the job of historians to ask questions and examine them. But I know, as somebody who’s now sat in this position for the last seven and half years, that every leader makes very difficult decisions, particularly during wartime,” he said.
So, President Obama’s Asian tour will have no apologies for the past. It will emphasize the positive relations between Vietnam, Japan and the United States. Obama will underline how former enemies have become allies. As he said in his interview with the Japanese TV: “Since I only have a few months left in my office, I thought it was a good time for me to reflect on the nature of war. Part of my goal is to recognize that innocent people caught in war can suffer tremendously.”
But that’s only half the equation. While innocent people certainly suffer in war, they suffer because someone is causing the suffering. Someone is responsible for the suffering. And someone should be held accountable. While it is complicated to go back in history to trace responsibility – the case of Georgetown University using money from selling slaves to keep itself solvent in the early 19th century is a good example – the refusal of President Obama to apologize for the Vietnam War or the atomic bomb poses a cause-and-effect dilemma. Innocent people suffered, but no one is responsible for their suffering. Someone is responsible for the war and should be held accountable. And even in times of war, there are rules of behavior. The World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul is being held to remind actors in conflicts to uphold international humanitarian law.
For President Obama to say that “people caught in war can suffer tremendously” is to elude responsibility for that suffering. It is, sadly, reminiscent of former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s comment about the looting following the fall of Baghdad that “stuff happens.” While we are not sure that even an apology by President Obama would have made a significant change in how people view the Vietnam War or the bombing of Hiroshima, his responses to what happened reflect an ahistorical perspective, and certainly not one worthy of a Nobel Prize winner.