Dear Mr. Obama: Letters from Hiroshima and Nagasaki

by Kenji Namba, Senior Staff Writer

Democratic Senator Barack Obama, whose platform included a pledge to create a nuclear-free world, scored a landslide victory over Republican Senator John McCain in the United States presidential election. Will the first African-American president’s call for “change” extend to the superpower’s nuclear policy? I asked Mitsuo Okamoto, professor emeritus of Hiroshima Shudo University, and Hideo Tsuchiyama, former president of Nagasaki University, to write letters to Obama about the campaign, its outcome and future U.S. nuclear policy. I also interviewed Masako Usui, a freelance journalist based in the U.S., about the election during her recent visit to Hiroshima.

Let’s work together toward a nuclear-free world
Mitsuo Okamoto
Professor Emeritus, Hiroshima Shudo University

Dear Mr. Obama:

Congratulations on your election as president of the United States. I never imagined it would be such a landslide victory. And I was surprised you won in the state of Ohio. My wife lived in Dayton, Ohio for a while. Her neighborhood was predominantly white, while blacks lived across the river. Through your victory in Ohio, with its large white, middle-class population, I sensed the voters’ enthusiasm.

As many analysts have pointed out, the eight-year administration of President George W. Bush was certainly one of the main factors behind your victory.

As could be seen in the language and conduct of the neo-conservatives who led the administration, the U.S. was “king of the hill.” They thought they could do anything as long as they had overwhelming military strength. But that has not been the case in either Afghanistan or Iraq. So you pledged a prompt withdrawal from Iraq, while Republican candidate Sen. John McCain advocated boosting forces there. He said, “Will this nation's elected leaders make the politically hard but strategically vital decision to give General Petraeus our full support and do what is necessary to succeed in Iraq? Or will we decide to take advantage of the public's frustration, accept defeat, and hope that whatever the cost to our security, the politics of defeat will work out better for us than our opponents? For my part--for my part--I would rather lose a campaign than a war.” It seems the citizens of the U.S. have moved beyond that way of thinking.

In 1960, when I was 25, I went to the U.S. and spent four years living in the suburbs of Boston and in Philadelphia. At that time the country was segregated, and even churches displayed signs saying: “Whites Only.” Then the civil rights movement, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King began, and John Kennedy, a Catholic, was elected president. I thought to myself then, “What a great country America is!”

Americans are eager for the “change” you talk about, which represents the flip side of the difficult conditions the country faces today, including the circumstances of its citizens.

But just because you will be president, that doesn’t mean the U.S. will become a peaceful nation overnight or that the lives of U.S. citizens will suddenly improve. But, as a citizen of Hiroshima, I hope that you will hammer out impressive new policies to address peace and the problem of nuclear weapons.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and three other former top officials have said that a nuclear-free world would be safer. If all the nuclear weapons in the world were eliminated, we would no longer have to worry about them falling into the hands of terrorists. They may have figured, too, that the U.S. would still have an overwhelming military advantage in terms of conventional weapons.

Those of us in Hiroshima will continue to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons. We will work in solidarity with Kissinger and the others, because on the issue of nuclear weapons, we finally share the same stance. We would like to work with you as well.

The financial crisis has deepened to the point where we can no longer stand by and do nothing about the problems of poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor. It is time to take another look at nuclear weapons, which require a tremendous amount of money. The world has no choice but to move toward a nuclear-free future.

Mitsuo Okamoto
Born in Tochigi Prefecture in 1933. Former president of the Peace Studies Association of Japan. Currently serves as co-chair of the Hiroshima Alliance for Nuclear Weapons Abolition.

Focus will be on NPT review conference
Hideo Tsuchiyama
Former president of Nagasaki University

Dear Mr. Obama:

I have high hopes for the new direction in which you intend to move the country, but I think it will take time for you to realize your aims.

I asked a friend in the U.S. to send me a copy of some speeches you gave during the campaign.

You were the first U.S. presidential candidate to say you would work toward a nuclear-free world. This position was also set out in the Democratic Party’s platform. I believe this statement of yours was not a mere “performance,” because you were specific.

You said, “Here's what I'll say as president: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons. We will not pursue unilateral disarmament. As long as nuclear weapons exist, we'll retain a strong nuclear deterrent. But we'll keep our commitment under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty on the long road towards eliminating nuclear weapons.” That is a very positive statement. You delivered a clear message that you would work toward a nuclear-free world, not alone, but in concert with the other nuclear nations.

You also said, “We'll work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert, and to dramatically reduce the stockpiles of our nuclear weapons and material. We'll start by seeking a global ban on the production of fissile material for weapons. And we'll set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global.”

You have also said your priority is to “build bipartisan consensus behind ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty”; you “do not support a premature decision to produce the RRW [Reliable Replacement Warhead]”; you “will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems”; and you “will not weaponize space.”

How will you put these campaign promises into effect? The first real test will be what you say in your inaugural speech in January and the statements by the U.S. representative to the 2010 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review conference.

That covers nuclear weapons policy. The issue of security overall is another matter. Even if the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, if the war in Afghanistan goes on, it is likely that greater demands will be placed on Japan.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and three other former top officials have called for the abolition of nuclear weapons, but they have not said that all weapons must be eliminated. I believe they made a cool-headed judgment regarding the future security of the U.S. and considered which measures would be most effective.

Nonetheless, the goals of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the activities of the U.S., a nuclear superpower, now have something in common. Although it has taken a long time, in terms of the abolition of nuclear weapons, we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

What shall we do next? By getting our government moving, I would like to see us spread our influence to other nations of the world. Japan’s biggest problem is the inconsistency between our call for the elimination of nuclear weapons, as the only nation to suffer atomic bombings, and our position under the nuclear umbrella of the U.S.

I believe the quickest way to resolve that problem is to create a nuclear-free zone in Northeast Asia, including Japan.

Once Japan and South Korea and North Korea create this nuclear-free zone, there must be mutual agreement with the nuclear nations of the U.S., China, and Russia that they will not attack the three non-nuclear nations. In other words, a six-nation treaty. We will push the Japanese government to pursue this concept. As a citizen of Nagasaki, I offer this heartfelt plea for your support of our effort to create a world without nuclear weapons.

Hideo Tsuchiyama
Born in Nagasaki in 1925. Survivor of the atomic bombing. Member of the Committee of Seven for World Peace. Serves as chairman of the Organizing Committee of the Nagasaki Global Citizens' Assembly for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

How will the hopes of the citizens be realized?
Masako Usui
U.S.-based Journalist

As far back as the primary election campaigns, so many people turned out at gatherings in support of Obama that I wondered where they all came from. The outcome of this election can be likened to moving a mountain.

In listening to Obama’s speeches, there didn’t seem to be much difference between him and Sen. John McCain in terms of foreign policy. Like McCain, Obama talked about “a strong America” and “a strong president.” That rhetoric was even stronger in the final stage of the campaign.

Initially, many people pinned their hopes on Obama because he said he would take funding from the Iraq war and use it to address social services issues such as health care. But once he became the Democratic candidate, he said there was neither enough money nor troops to fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he suggested that in order to achieve victory effort should be focused on Afghanistan.

According to an economist I know, the defense industry supported McCain while financial institutions, insurance companies, and the real estate and service industries backed Obama. When Obama said he would expand the war in Afghanistan, I thought he must have made a deal with the defense industry as well.

Within the U.S. there is no debate about whether or not military intervention in other countries is a good idea. Peace activists believe military intervention is unacceptable, but ordinary citizens don’t question it. Basically, Americans believe that they are “Number One.” They are under the delusion that if they maintain military superiority, the world will be safe.

In this presidential election I sensed the limitations and drawbacks of the two-party system. Only Democratic and Republican candidates appeared on the nationally televised debates. There were other candidates, including Ralph Nader, who ran for president because he believes that the military-industrial complex that is behind U.S. nuclear policy is problematic. There was a Green Party candidate as well. But they were ignored by the news media and did not appear in the debates.

America won’t change just because Obama has been elected president. Rather, in order to keep all of his campaign promises, which will require a lot of money, he may try to shift some of the burden onto other countries.

But we must not forget the many people who have had their eyes opened by this election. How can the U.S. create a government that will realize the hopes of the citizens who overcame the obstacle of race to move a mountain? That can only be achieved when citizens are able to see through the smoke screen of the “war on terror” and recognize what is at the root of their hardships. Japan also must dispel the myth that if we merely tag along with the U.S. we will be safe.

Masako Usui
Born in 1954 in Fukushima Prefecture. Has lived in Minnesota since 2002. Author of “Sensonetsu Shokogun--Kizutsuku Amerika Shakai” [“War Fever Syndrome and the Harm to American Society”] and other works.

(Originally published on November 17, 2008)

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