President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe together scattered petals on the waters of Pearl Harbor on Tuesday in a symbolic act aimed at laying to rest the enmity of the Japanese attack 75 years ago that drew the U.S. into World War II.
In a moment consumed with history, both leaders were fixed on the future, concerned that the lessons of the war might be forgotten amid a shifting world order and the anti-internationalist sentiment that has swept over politics around the globe, most notably with the ascendance of President-elect Donald Trump.
“There is more to be won in peace than in war,” Obama said. “Even when hatred burns hottest … we must resist the urge to turn inward. We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.”
The ceremony was conceived of as an affirmation of close U.S. relations with Japan, once a bitter wartime enemy, and both Obama and Abe underscored the importance of close alliances and the risks of slipping into isolationism. Their remarks appeared to be warnings for Trump, whose divisive campaign took aim at stalwart alliances and harsh rhetoric about immigrants and minority groups was repeatedly condemned.
“Ours is an alliance of hope that will lead us to the future,” Abe said, speaking to World War II veterans after paying tribute at the Pearl Harbor memorial. “What has bonded us together is the power of reconciliation, made possible through the spirit of tolerance.”
Both during the campaign and since his election, Trump has challenged assumptions about U.S. commitments to the security of Asia.
He has obliterated long-established protocols, for instance by talking with the leader of Taiwan despite the U.S. policy of officially acknowledging no Chinese government other than the one in Beijing. And when he met with Abe last month in New York, Trump brought not a battalion of Asia experts but rather his daughter Ivanka.
Trump promised last week to expand America’s nuclear arsenal after more than three decades of a deliberate shrinking of the American and Russian stockpiles.
“Let it be an arms race,” he told an MSNBC host, unnerving leaders in Asia, where North Korea and China are growing more aggressive.
Seven months ago, Obama made a historic visit to the Japanese city of Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped one of the two nuclear bombs that ended the war.
In a reciprocal gesture, Abe said shortly after that he would visit Pearl Harbor and the memorial to the war dead of the USS Arizona battleship, attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, killing 2,403 people and thrusting the U.S. into World War II.
Under a bright sunny sky, Abe and Obama rode a small boat to the white memorial building in the harbor that looks out over the sunken remains of the Arizona. Abe laid a wreath in honor of the dead.
World War II veterans gathered across the harbor to hear Obama and Abe deliver brief speeches.
Among those in the crowd was Sterling Cale, 95, a sailor at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack.
Of those killed that day, 1,177 were crew members of the Arizona. It was Cale’s job to pull bodies from the burning battleship.
He recalled watching ashes rising from the deck of the ship. He and his crew were able to remove about 100 bodies.
He did not come hoping to hear Abe apologize, he said.
“‘Sorry’ is just a word,” Cale said. “What matters more is the action of coming here and going out there with our commander in chief. That says more than words.”