Inviting Obama to Hiroshima: High expectations and imposing obstacles

by Junji Akechi, Staff Writer

The global nuclear abolition movement has gained momentum since U.S. President Barack Obama proclaimed his desire “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” in a speech in Prague in April. As a result, there is a growing call from many corners of Hiroshima to invite Mr. Obama to the city as a step toward this goal. What would be the significance of a visit to Hiroshima by the sitting president of the nation that dropped the atomic bomb on the city? What should Hiroshima do to bring this about?

"Moral responsibility" statement boosts nuclear disarmament movement

During his speech in Prague, Mr. Obama said, “…as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.”

It was the first time a U.S. president alluded to the nation’s “moral responsibility,” and since then the leaders of nations around the world have issued statements in support of nuclear disarmament and abolition.

A meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty was held at United Nations headquarters in New York in May. During the session, many participating nations expressed their hope that the U.S. would take the lead in the nuclear disarmament effort. In a statement released following the G-8 Summit in July, the participants said, “Building on the recent developments in U.S.-Russia relations on disarmament, leaders underscored the central importance of the regime established by the NPT and the commitment to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.”

In light of this trend, there has been growing interest in inviting Mr. Obama to visit Hiroshima. This effort is unique in that it has attracted a wide range of people including not only atomic bomb survivor groups, peace organizations and politicians but also individual survivors and junior high and high school students.

In the past, U.S. presidents have justified the atomic bombings by saying that the lives of many U.S. troops were saved as a result, and no sitting president has visited Hiroshima. On the other hand, many people are hopeful that if Mr. Obama, who has emphasized the need to shift to a dialogue-oriented diplomacy, would listen to the accounts of survivors’ experiences and visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, he would take concrete action toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Justification of bombing poses obstacle

Mr. Obama has reached tentative agreement with Russia to negotiate a new disarmament treaty that will lead to cuts in the nuclear arsenals of both countries, and he has declared his intention to work toward ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to strengthen the NPT framework.

At the same time, while alluding to the “moral responsibility” of the U.S. in his Prague speech, he also said, “As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.” And with regard to nuclear abolition, he said, “This goal will not be reached quickly--perhaps not in my lifetime.”

Looking at his remarks more closely, while he referred to “moral responsibility,” he did not clearly state that the atomic bombings were wrong or offer an apology for them.

While a student at Columbia University, Mr. Obama wrote an essay for a campus magazine in which he described his vision of a “nuclear-free world.” At the same time, many Americans are said to still hold the belief that the bombings were justified. This may make it difficult for Mr. Obama, as U.S. president, to hammer out policies that are not in line with public opinion.

Motofumi Asai, president of the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, said, “There are certainly circumstances under which a visit to Hiroshima by Obama could be regarded as an apology for the bombings. Such a decision could cost him his political career. There’s no way he will come to Hiroshima any time soon.”

In fact, an editorial in The Wall Street Journal had harsh criticism for Mr. Obama’s declaration of “moral responsibility.” “That barely concealed apology for Hiroshima is an insult to the memory of Harry Truman, who saved a million lives by ending World War II without a bloody invasion of Japan,” the paper said. The U.S. public is touchy about any admission of guilt, and this will present a major obstacle to a visit to Hiroshima by Mr. Obama.

How should the message of Hiroshima be conveyed?

With regard to Mr. Obama’s current stance, Mr. Asai said, “He’s caught in the middle of a political tug-of-war between the doctrine of deterrence and nuclear abolition.” He added, “The role of Hiroshima is to use logic to persuade Obama from the standpoint of nuclear abolition and make him aware that deterrence is not an option as a policy. As for inviting Obama to Hiroshima, concrete actions to overcome the obstacles are needed, such as persuading the American public.”

At the same time, Mr. Asai expressed irritation with Hiroshima’s blind faith in Mr. Obama’s ability to further the cause of nuclear abolition. “If his visit is made into a circus, it will set back rather than advance nuclear abolition,” he said.

And the Japanese government’s plea to the international community to abolish nuclear weapons while at the same time relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its own security has been criticized as a double standard. It is unclear whether or not the Japanese government will actively promote a visit to Hiroshima by Mr. Obama.

In order to create an environment conducive to a visit to Hiroshima by Mr. Obama, Hiroshima must rework its assertions, starting with its fundamental proposition that nuclear weapons must never be used again. Now, while the momentum toward nuclear disarmament is growing, Hiroshima must make an effort to carefully explain to the Japanese government and the international community that nuclear abolition is not an empty dream for the distant future but a realistic option.

Though he has advocated “a world without nuclear weapons,” the reality is that, as the policy-maker for a nuclear superpower, Mr. Obama also maintains a policy of nuclear deterrence. Hiroshima’s call for nuclear abolition should have the power to turn Mr. Obama’s vision into reality, and a visit to Hiroshima could provide that opportunity.

Main activities of individuals and groups seeking a visit to Hiroshima by U.S. President Barack Obama

Seven organizations of atomic bomb survivors: Entrusted a letter of invitation to Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio in February

Akihiro Takahashi, former director of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum: Entrusted letters of invitation to Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, in January and April

Hiroshima Alliance for Nuclear Weapons Abolition: Sent a letter to Obama via the U.S. embassy in January asking that he visit Hiroshima and support U.S. ratification of the CTBT

Keiji Nakazawa, author of the manga series "Barefoot Gen": Plans to send a card bearing messages from various people, including Hiroshima citizens, and a copy of the English language edition of the manga to the Obama family via a church in Washington

The Chugoku Shimbun publication Peace Seeds, a children’s newspaper produced by teens in Hiroshima: In November 2008 solicited letters to Obama and received a total of 335, which were translated into English and entrusted to Rep. Dennis Kucinich

The No Nuke Network: Students of Hiroshima Against Nuclear Weapons: This organization of junior high and high school students in Hiroshima is researching how to go about sending a message to Obama

Tadatoshi Akiba, mayor of Hiroshima: Visited officials of the U.S. State Dept. and Democratic members of the House of Representatives in May and asked for cooperation in encouraging Obama to visit Hiroshima. Also has launched an “Obamajority Campaign” to boost support for nuclear abolition.

Five organizations of atomic bomb survivors: Sent a joint letter to Obama in January via the U.S. embassy

The Organizing Committee of Nagasaki Global Citizens’ Assembly for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons: In late June launched a petition drive to get Obama to visit Nagasaki. They hope to gather 50,000 signatures by the end of August.

The 10,000 High School Students’ Signatures Campaign: In January solicited messages to Obama from people on the street and sent them to him via the U.S. embassy. In April wrote a letter to Obama asking him to visit Nagasaki and gave it to Mayor Tomihisa Taue to deliver to Obama when he visited the U.S.

Tomihisa Taue, mayor of Nagasaki: In November 2008 entrusted a letter of invitation to the mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, Nagasaki’s sister city. Went to the U.S. with Mayor Akiba in May and sought the cooperation of Democratic members of the House of Representatives and others.

(Originally published July 20, 2009)

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