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During Historic Hiroshima Visit, Obama Didn't Apologize, but Here's What He Could've Said

With President Obama's historic visit Friday to Hiroshima, he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Japanese city that was the target (some might say victim) of the first atomic bombing, in August 1945. Many Japanese, and most people in the world, consider Hiroshima to be a milestone in human history, a chilling symbol of how science and technology, capable of such creativity and creation, can also deliver terrible forms of destruction and cruelty. Of course, the bar for his speech, at the city's Peace Memorial Park, was set very high.


A legendary orator, President Obama is making a calculated attempt to forge a new narrative about Hiroshima, or at least revise and improve on an official U.S. government narrative that presents the bombing of Hiroshima as a necessary evil, if not a positive good. In America, more critical perspectives on Hiroshima remain widely held, but still carry an unofficial, and vaguely subversive feel: that the bombing was a demonstration, especially to the Russians, of American technological power; and that defeating Japan was likely with conventional means so use of the bomb succeeded only in igniting a global race for nuclear weapons.

With his soaring oratory, could Obama alter perceptions of Hiroshima? Perhaps. He could have even apologized for America’s atomic bombings, however belatedly. But he didn't. And he wasn't expected to. When Obama announced intentions to visit the hallowed ground of Hiroshima earlier this month, a spokesman ruled out an apology.

In his speech, Obama described the moment that opened a dark, new chapter in history: "Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself."

He talked about the violence of "the very first man," who "learned to make blades from flint and spears from wood used these tools not just for hunting but against their own kind."

He noted that, "Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill."

He pointed out that, "Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines."

"Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering," Obama said about "all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow."

"But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again," he said, calling for a "world without nuclear weapons."

He closed his speech by describing "a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening."

But what else might have Obama said, if not express regrets over America’s use of atomic weapons and its humbling status as the only nation ever to have used these weapons of mass destruction?

Addressing the question demands a brief history lesson. Coming at the end of a murderous world war in which millions of civilians were killed, often by bombings from the air, American leaders argued in 1945 that the vastly more powerful atomic weapon, designed and built by American scientists and engineers in a secret lab in New Mexico, would quickly force the Japanese government to capitulate. With a single bomb against Hiroshima, and another lone bomb three days later dropped on the city of Nagasaki, the U.S. killed anywhere from 115,000 to 250,000 people and injured 100,000 more.

President Harry Truman made the decision to bomb both cities, a decision never regretted and always defended. Truman said the bombing hastened an end to the war with Japan, which the Japanese had begun with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In an oft-quoted reply a few days after the bombings to a letter from a Christian group, Truman wrote: “I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.” Truman added, ominously: “When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”

Might Obama deliver a solemn remembrance of the event, a kind of masterful memorial for those killed and maimed that fateful day? Perhaps. But requiems for war casualties usually come quickly, while the embers of war still burn. The classic example: President Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s 276-word speech, considered a classic in political rhetoric, came merely four months after the famously bloody battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. Rather than celebrate the victory of his Union army, Lincoln tried to link together the fates of winner and loser, declaring:

“We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Lincoln quickly shifted ground, adding: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Lincoln’s identification of the "living” as his principal audience could provide Obama with a useful reminder of how we might today think about the meaning of Hiroshima, the challenge of a world where nuclear weapons remain an unstable and menacing technology. In this context, what special role if any does the U.S. have, especially in light of the simple fact that our country remains the only one ever to use nuclear weapons in war?

Obama might also recall how American anxieties over nuclear weapons rose in the years after Hiroshima. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test in 1949, Americans began to fear the experience of incineration and radiation (the lethal characteristics of the first atomic bombings). By the late 1950s, after Russia put a rocket into space—essentially demonstrating that one of its nuclear bombs could reach the U.S.—American anxieties grew to near-hysteria. In the Twilight Zone episode "The Shelter," which aired in September 1961, a routine drill turns ugly as the father of one suburban family with a well-built shelter refuses to share it with his neighbors, overruling his wife’s insistence that they must. One year later, Russia secretly placed nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida. President Kennedy considered a military response, which both sides feared would lead to a general nuclear war. When the Russians removed their missiles from Cuba in exchange for the U.S. doing the same in Turkey, the crisis was averted.

Lasting lessons were learned. Above-ground tests of nuclear weapons, which poisoned the environment with radioactivity in the 1950s and led to the rise of a global environmental movement, were banned. Worries about nuclear weapons quickly retreated, so much so that in 1964 director Stanley Kubrick could create a movie parody of nuclear war in which Americans could laugh at the rogue General Jack D. Ripper and the nuclear expert Dr. Strangelove who improbably predicted that a privileged elite would survive an all-out nuclear war.

That Obama has waited until the midnight hour of his presidency to address the American use of nuclear weapons suggests he either plans an important statement, or that having waited this long to address America’s troubling nuclear past, he will simply use the opportunity to make another pitch for his $1 trillion plan to “modernize” the country’s nuclear weapons.

While Obama might want to reinforce support for improving the arsenal, such a speech might seem to blaspheme the hallowed ground of Hiroshima, which has come to be viewed as a symbol. Just as Jews say they remember the Holocaust in order to promote the idea of “never again,” Japanese and others mark August 6, the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, in ways that highlight the pyrrhic nature of nuclear weapons. Everyone loses when these weapons are used, these anniversaries remind us.

Here’s a short list of things that should have been in Obama's speech. They amount to a list of reforms that critics of U.S. policies on nuclear weapons have supported, some for more than 50 years.

1. No first use.

Every U.S. president since Truman has reserved the right to use nuclear weapons, including Obama. He’s insisted that as president he needs flexibility to respond to shifting and only partially apparent threats. Yet freedom has its costs. Because the U.S. government won’t rule out using nuclear weapons in a “first strike,” other countries worry about being the target of an American nuclear attack, and as a result they may see the benefits of developing their own nuclear weapons. By embracing “no first use,” Obama might, even if only for the remainder of his presidency, set an important precedent—one that might influence his successor to do the same.

2. Give an honest account of the role of the Soviet Union in dropping the bomb.

Did the U.S. drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities to deny Russia (then the Soviet Union) time and opportunity to invade and perhaps occupy Japan? One perspective, long championed by the historian Gar Alperovitz, was that Hiroshima was a form of “atomic diplomacy,” whereby the U.S. sought to limit Russian influence in Asia. Might Obama bring more candor to the official narrative of American nuclear history by setting the record straight about the extent to which intimidating Russia factored into the decision to launch atomic bombs on Japan? According to Russian historical records painstakingly studied by David Hollinger, a historian at Stanford University, the effect of Hiroshima was likely the opposite: Stalin, then the Soviet dictator, immediately ordered accelerated work on atomic weapons after learning of the Hiroshima bombing.

3. Link the bombing of Hiroshima to the rise of the military-industrial complex.

Once the U.S. military possessed what historian Gregg Herken has called “the winning weapon,” the marriage between scientists and the military became permanent. By 1961, in his farewell address to the nation, outgoing President Eisenhower complained that science and the military had reduced the rest of the citizenry to captives in a techno-scientific race toward ever more destructive, if technically “sweet,” weaponry. While the military’s domination of scientific advancement is much less than 50 years ago, the specter of science and engineering dominated by security concerns remains.

4. Junk the $1 trillion plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Obama could express doubts, or even abandon his $1 trillion plan to modernize the country’s nuclear weapons. The plan seeks to reduce accidents and improve control over nuclear weapons by replacing old and clunky command-and-control computer systems. But the planned improvements, critics say, have caused Russia and China to openly talk about improving their nuclear arsenals. Recently, the New York Times argued for the existence of a new nuclear arms race, ignited by Obama’s plans.

5. Remember Nagasaki.

Obama mentioned Nagasaki twice in his speech, only fleetingly. But much more could have been said about the other city the U.S. destroyed with a single atomic weapon, three days after Hiroshima. Why did President Truman drop this bomb? While the Japanese emperor had not yet accepted American demands for surrender, he and his war cabinet were teetering on collapse when Nagasaki was hit on August 9. Historians are unequivocal about the senselessness of this atomic bombing. “Whatever one thinks about the necessity of the first A-bomb, the second dropped on Nagasaki… was almost certainly unnecessary,” historian Barton Bernstein wrote in 1995. He then asked, “Why not at least admit Nagasaki was a mistake?”

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