Barack Obama hasn't learned much in his seven years (and counting) in the White House, but he might have learned a little. He bowed to his Vietnamese hosts on arrival in Hanoi, but it wasn't the infamous back-breaking 180-degree bow he gave to the despots of the Islamic world in Cairo.
He followed that with an apology, for what it was never quite clear, perhaps for being an American, a professed Christian or a friend of Israel. Or maybe it was an apology in behalf of the American people for not being as obsequious as he is when addressing Muslims. The president's constituents cringe every time he goes abroad, for fear of whom he might apologize to next, and for what.
He apparently escaped from Vietnam, the scene of American sacrifice in defense of the freedom of the Vietnamese who didn't want to be Communists, without falling to his knees. For that the nation can be grateful for large favors. Then it's on to Japan, with a visit to Hiroshima, and nobody quite knows what to expect.
"He's probably one of the most inexperienced presidents we've had," Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense whom the president more or less sacked, tells Politico, the political daily. "He's driven a lot by his own intuition, his own instincts, his own intellect. He'll listen to people, and he likes to, but he's driven by his instincts."
Alas, these are not the intuitions and instincts of most Americans, who have never thrilled to the evening call to Muslim prayer, which Mr. Obama calls "the prettiest sound on earth." There may be more Southern Baptists than Arabs in Vietnam, but his senior aides never know who the president might find to apologize to, or for what, and they recall that they tried to warn him against the Cairo speech, that he would make trouble for himself "by making such a naked appeal to the Arab world in his Cairo speech, but that he insisted on going through with it." His teleprompter is no doubt loaded with apologies to a wide selection of other nations, filed under A (for Andorra) to Z (for Zanzibar).
We can be grateful that the president did not climb to the roof of the old American embassy in Saigon (now officially Ho Chi Minh City but almost nobody in Saigon calls it that unless a government agent is listening), and apologize for the American sacrifice in Vietnam. The president is too young to remember much about that war, but he no doubt absorbed from his mentors of the radical left the gloating about how America had finally lost a war, the American military finally being put in its place. But it wasn't a war lost but a war abandoned, at just the time it was about to be won. The myths of politics die hard.
World War II was a different kind of war, led by a different kind of American president. Nobody would have mistaken Lyndon Johnson for Franklin D. Roosevelt or Harry S. Truman. Nobody faulted the Americans for breaking anyone's dishes in the Allied dash across France and Germany in the winter of '44 and the spring of '45, and neither did they decry President Truman's decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and, three days later, on Nagasaki. The decision saved a million lives, many of them Japanese. The atomic bomb followed the macabre sacrifice of hundreds of thousands in the island-hopping campaign from Guadalcanal to Tokyo Bay.
Even after the second bomb on Nagasaki, the Japanese, who had fought fiercely and valiantly, were not finished. Only when Emperor Hirohito overruled the war lords was unconditional surrender agreed to, and even then copies of the recording of the emperor's announcement were taken to the radio station by messengers using alternate routes, lest the recordings be intercepted. The speech was delivered in a classic court dialect that few ordinary Japanese understood, and what they missed was one of the understatements of any war: "The war situation," the emperor said, "has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage."
The White House insists that the president is not dreaming of making an apology at Hiroshima, but one never knows. We have only the word of Ben Rhodes. But the president has been warned. "The president needs to be very careful with the words he uses," says Zalmay Khalizad, an ambassador to Japan in the George W. Bush administration. "There is no real apology for what we did. I have no problem with [his] going there. It's what [he might] say that's tricky." No tricks, no treats. Just hold his tongue and come home.
• Wes Pruden is editor-in-chief emeritus of The Times.