This morning, I made a strange connection between two “historical” events. One is the announcement that President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, the first sitting U.S. president ever to visit the site of the first use of a nuclear weapon.
The other was my prom night.
Please don’t jump to conclusions. Just hear me out.
My prom tux was a deep brown, square cut, almost Western in appearance (a Stetson would have completed the effect). My shirt was yellow, the ruffled front trimmed in matching brown, the bow tie likewise brown.
My date’s dress (Cue the song, Yes, I Remember It Well) was in complementary colors and, as I recall, the primary fabric was gingham. I know that she was beautiful (trick of memory that I can “see her” without being able to see the details of her dress). And I remember that she wore flats so that she wouldn’t be taller than me. 😉
I remember nothing of the food. I remember two songs to which we danced: Colour My World and Poems, Prayers and Promises, the class song that I had proposed. I remember being thrilled just to be there with Sandy, with whom I had been in love since 7th grade (yeah, I know . . .), whom I had thought of as my girlfriend for most of high school. We’d had a falling out (or maybe it was just that I found out what had been true for her for a while), and only recently had we started spending time with each other again. We weren’t exactly “boyfriend/girlfriend” at that time . . . or were we? I know that later that year, we would be, and that it would end, definitively, during Christmas break.
I remember being embarrassed, not knowing at times how to act, but mostly just being grateful to spend this one evening with the girl I adored.
My memories of prom are mine, a mix of factoids and feelings simmered over four decades, seasoned with time and, most likely, some imaginative elements that may, or may not, actually have been there. My date’s memory may be very different, her recipe filled with different factoids, different emotions, producing different meanings.
Such is memory.
When President Barack Obama visits Hiroshima, he won’t be remembering his own experience of the war in which that city figured prominently. President Obama was born a decade and a half after Japan surrendered.
He certainly knows a few factoids, like the year the bomb was dropped and some sense of how destructive it was. He knows that his predecessor, President Harry Truman, was the one who ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and, a few days later, Nagasaki. He knows that those decisions remain controversial, both in terms of the military necessity and in terms of morality.
Those are the factoids we can be nearly certain are in the mix of President Obama’s “memory” of Hiroshima. What we don’t know is what he has made of them.
We know, from Obama’s words and actions over the last few years, that he has a certain passion for reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. It seems likely that Hiroshima is a touchstone for that commitment.
But what will touching that collective human memory stone mean for him? And what will he share of what it means?
The White House has promised that there will be no apology, no second-guessing of President Truman’s decision. That promise is in direct response to objections raised in some quarters to apologies President Obama made to some of our allies early in his first term. He offered those apologies out of an apparent sense (shared by our allies) that we as a nation had not dealt with them fairly. Some saw that as magnanimous and noble; others saw it as weak.
One’s perception of President Obama’s gestures, then and now, probably depends on one’s memories of how we, as a nation, have behaved given the power we have built up for ourselves militarily, economically and culturally. It also probably depends on how we think powerful leaders ought to act, of how power is best managed in relations with our partners.
That’s a question as relevant to a mayor or councilmember as it is to a president.
Some believe that those with power should remind others of that power on a regular basis, towering over them by force of their capacity to exercise force.
Others might suggest that, when it comes to dealing with our less powerful partners, it often is best to . . . well, wear flats.
You probably can guess which side I’m on. Because I remember.