President Obama’s Legacy and the Phantoms of 20th Century U.S. Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama has refused to let the gridlock in Congress taint his presidential legacy. Drawing on the large amount of executive power that presidents have over foreign affairs, President Obama is cementing his legacy as a Nobel Peace Prize winner by repairing relationships with the phantoms of 20th century U.S. history.

Since January, President Obama has been patching-up or developing relationships with enemies from World War II (WWII) and the Cold War. In January, the U.S. and five other major world powers reached an agreement with Iran to lift economic sanctions aimed at preventing the development of nuclear weapons. In April, President Obama visited Cuba, reestablishing diplomatic relationships with the communist country for the first time since 1961. Most recently, President Obama ended the arms embargo against Vietnam. And tomorrow, he will become the first sitting U.S. President to visit the site of the August 6, 1945, atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.

The President’s visits to and agreements with these ghosts of 20th century U.S. Foreign Policy have certainly stirred up their fair share of controversy. Not to disappoint, his visit to Hiroshima on Friday is also embroiled in controversy, with many asking whether or not he will apologize for President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb for the first time in world history over 60 years ago.

The President has reiterated twice now that he will not be apologizing for using nuclear weapons during WWII, and will instead celebrate the current relationship between the U.S.  and Japan and their bright future together. While President Obama received his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize somewhat because of his advocacy for nuclear non-proliferation, the President claimed that he believed the decision to drop the bomb is not for him to evaluate, stating,”It’s important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions, it’s a job of historians to ask questions and examine them.” The President’s non-stance on the issue, however neutral in intention, is still causing controversy in some circles.


Japanese man looking at the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now the site of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Source:

Those who are criticizing the President claim that his failure to apologize will only serve to bolster the narrative in Japan that they were the victims of WWII, not one of its major antagonists. Censorship in Japanese education is well-documented, and one of the major nationalistic historical fallacies is Japan’s WWII victim status. While attempts to correct the narrative have been made since the bombing, Japanese textbooks still portray the U.S. in a negative light and fail to recognize the Nanjing Massacre, among others. As a result, a recent poll showed that 80% of Japanese find fault with the use of atomic weapons to end WWII.

The controversy revolves around President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb. Critics claim that Truman was aware that Japan would have surrendered had the July 26, 1945, Potsdam Declaration made it clear that the Emperor would be allowed to remain in power if Japan surrendered. They also claim that use of the bomb was fueled by racial hatred towards the Japanese.

Alternatively, advocates claim the bomb saved more American and Japanese lives than a potential land invasion of Japan. Perhaps in poor taste, they also argue that the fire-bombing of Tokyo did as much or worse damage than the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They also refute the racial narrative, as the bomb was initially developed to be used in Europe, and point to the fire-bombings of Dresden as evidence of a relatively equal horrific method of warfare that targeted Europeans.

As a result, President Obama is understandably staying away from a very real debate still alive today. Instead of focusing on the use of the weapon, the President plans to reflect on the tragedies of war and the future bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Japan. In fact, he stated, “I think it is also a happy story about how former adversaries came together to become one of the closest partnerships and closest allies in the world.” While certainly a positive spin on the horrors of August 1945, President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima marks a historical moment in U.S. Foreign Relations. This visit is just one of many recent efforts on the part of the President to solidify his legacy during his final, “lame duck” year in office.


Calamur, Krishnadev. “The American Presidents Who Visited Hiroshima.” The Atlantic, May 10, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2016.

Crawford, Keith. “Re-visiting Hiroshima: The Role of Us and Japanese History Textbooks in the Construction of National Memory.” Asia Pacific Education Review 4, no. 1 (2003): 108-117.

Itasaka, Kiko. “Hiroshima 70th Anniversary: Nuclear Bomb ‘Should Never Be Used Again.'”, August 5, 2015. Accessed May 26, 2016.

“Iran nuclear deal: Key details.” BBC, January 16, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2016.

Lies, Elaine and Takenaka, Kiyoshi. “Obama: Hiroshima visit to emphasize current U.S. ties with Japan.” Reuters, May 22, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2016.

Northam, Jackie. “Now That Vietnam Can Buy U.S. Weapons, What Will It Want?”, May 24, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2016.

Renwick, Danielle. “U.S.-Cuba Relations.” Council on Foreign Relations. Last modified on March 24, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2016.



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