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Obama Walks Tricky Line In Visit To Hiroshima, Japan

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

On August 6, 1945, America dropped a new kind of bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. As President Truman told Americans that day, it was the first use of an atomic bomb.

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HARRY TRUMAN: We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.

MCEVERS: One-hundred-and-forty-thousand people died. Most of them were civilians. And tomorrow President Obama will become the first sitting American president to go to Hiroshima. He will lay a wreath in honor of the dead. To talk about this, we're joined by NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Hi there.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So Scott, the White House has been very clear that President Obama will not apologize for the bombing or second-guess President Truman. So what is he hoping to accomplish with this trip?

HORSLEY: You know, Kelly, the administration is acutely aware that this president has been wrongly accused by Republicans in the past of conducting apology tours, and they've gone out of their way to head that off. The President told Japanese broadcaster NHK it's appropriate for historians to ask questions about the decision to drop the atomic bomb, but in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions, and he's not going to try to put himself into President Truman's shoes.

Instead, Obama says, he wants to call attention to the fact that in war, generally, innocent people on all sides suffer. And he wants to bring some new urgency to his campaign against nuclear weapons.

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BARACK OBAMA: The job's not done in reducing conflict, building institutions of peace and reducing the prospect of nuclear war in the future.

MCEVERS: During his first visit to Japan seven years ago, President Obama said he would like to see Hiroshima. What took him so long from then to now?

HORSLEY: This is a dicey diplomatic challenge for the President. Most Americans approve the decision to bomb Hiroshima, but by an even larger majority in Japan, most people say the bombing was unjustified. So Obama is going to have sort of a fine line to walk here.

MCEVERS: A fine line, sure, but who is the tougher audience?

HORSLEY: Well, obviously the president doesn't want to offend his host, but of course it's American opinion that really counts. The administration is especially wary about offending veterans who fought in World War II and their families.

In fact, National Security Adviser Susan Rice sat down shortly after this trip was announced to talk with veterans groups and try to explain what the president is up to. We expect Obama will pay tribute to America's World War II veterans both in Hiroshima and again on Monday when he observes Memorial Day here at home.

MCEVERS: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be with Obama on this trip tomorrow. He will be there when Obama lays this wreath for the victims. What's he saying about the trip?

HORSLEY: The prime minister has said no apology is expected or needed here, but he welcomes the president's visit. Abe spoke about this through an interpreter earlier this week.

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SHINZO ABE: (Through interpreter) What does Japanese people suffering from the atomic bomb desiring is never to repeat such tragedy in the world. And I understand that the upcoming visit by President Obama to Hiroshima will no doubt create further powerful momentum toward realizing a world free of nuclear weapons.

HORSLEY: Abe and other Japanese leaders have been accused of minimizing their own country's conduct during World War II. The prime minister told reporters this week he has no immediate plans to visit Hawaii later this year for the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, but he did note that he visited the World War II Memorial here in Washington last year and pledged a wreath there in honor of all those who died during the war.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks so much, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Kelly.

MCEVERS: And in another part of today show, we will have the story of one woman who survived the bombing of Hiroshima. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.