In one of the most symbolic moments of his presidency, on May 27, 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. chief executive to visit Hiroshima, Japan, the site of the world’s first nuclear strike, where the United States had dropped an atomic bomb at the end of World War II that resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Japanese. Accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Obama went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which is dedicated to the victims of the atomic bombing, and laid a wreath before the eternal flame there. In his speech, the president pointedly did not apologize for the bombing or call into question then U.S. president Harry Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons. Instead, he sought to emphasize the importance of a future without nuclear weapons “in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.” After his address Obama shook hands with one survivor of the bombing and embraced another.
Obama’s solemn appearance in Hiroshima came at the end of a roughly weeklong trip to Asia that began with a visit to another former wartime adversary of the United States, Vietnam. He was the third sitting U.S. president to journey to Vietnam (Bill Clinton went in 2000; George W. Bush went in 2005) since the end of the Vietnam War and the first to have been too young at the time of the conflict to have been involved. In Hanoi Obama announced an end to the more than 50-year embargo on sales of U.S.-made weapons to Vietnam. Activists complained that he had done so without taking the Vietnamese government to task for human rights violations, but the president noted that the full normalization of relations with Vietnam removed a lingering vestige of the Cold War. He also emphasized that the end of the embargo and forthcoming cooperative efforts between the Vietnamese and American military had nothing to do with actions by China in the region, though few observers missed the implications of the actions for Vietnam’s resistance to its longtime ally China’s expansionist efforts in the South China Sea, most notably its construction of artificial islands.
After leaving Vietnam, Obama attended the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Japan. There he emphasized the importance of responding to the serious midterm threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons buildup. At the same time, he highlighted the beneficial effect of the nuclear agreement reached between Iran and P5+1 (the United States and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council [China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom], along with Germany), which he called “a big piece of business.”
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