Hiroshima Memo: Obama visit to Hiroshima would give impetus to nuclear disarmament and reconciliation between the U.S and Japan

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

U.S. President Barack Obama visits Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and lays flowers at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims. After offering a silent prayer to mourn the loss of lives due to the atomic bombing, the president stands before the Cenotaph and pledges that the U.S. will spearhead the effort to realize a peaceful world without nuclear weapons. He appeals to the governments and citizens of both nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states to work together for the total abolition of nuclear arms.

Could such a scenario soon come true? Mr. Obama has clearly stated that, with his nation being the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, “the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” If Mr. Obama believes that a visit to Hiroshima could serve to advance the aim of eliminating nuclear weapons and would be politically conducive, such an outcome is not impossible.

Over the past 64 years, scores of people from a range of nations, including the United States, have visited Hiroshima: politicians, diplomats, religious leaders, business executives, musicians, artists, students, and more. By touring Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and listening to the accounts of A-bomb survivors (hibakusha), they come to grasp not only the immediate devastation of the bombing, but also the unseen destruction of the bomb’s radiation, which continues to cause suffering even to this day.

Hiroshima has received more than a few notable guests from the United States, such as Norman Cousins (1915-1990), who promoted the campaign of “moral adoption” for A-bomb orphans and brought young Japanese women to the U.S. for operations on the keloid scars that plagued their faces and bodies; Floyd W. Schmoe (1895-2001), who sponsored the construction of “Houses for Hiroshima” in the ruined city after the bombing; and Barbara Reynolds (1915-1990), who was a source of encouragement to A-bomb survivors and funded her own international pilgrimage, with a group of hibakusha and Hiroshima citizens, to appeal to the nuclear weapon states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. Such efforts by Americans at the time of the city’s reconstruction helped mitigate the bitterness Hiroshima residents held toward the United States and foster reconciliation at a grassroots level. These three were later awarded the title of Honorary Citizen of Hiroshima.

Among former U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter was the first to visit Hiroshima. Mr. Carter visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park with his family in 1984, toured Peace Memorial Museum, and offered flowers at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims. Then, with the Cenotaph behind him, Mr. Carter issued a “Peace Appeal” to an audience of nearly 1,000.

Regarding the atomic bombing and the peril of nuclear weapons, Mr. Carter said: “As we remember the unprecedented devastation of Hiroshima, our most sobering thought is that the future can be much more horrible than anything we have ever known before. The risk of nuclear conflagration has not lessened: on the contrary, with the breakdown of United States-Soviet negotiations and the return of a cold war of vituperation and alienation, the danger is becoming greater.”

To avoid nuclear war, Mr. Carter stressed: “The prevention of a nuclear holocaust depends not just on the attitudes or actions of world leaders, but on the concerns and persistent demands of all of us as we struggle to preserve the peace.”

“The lessons of Hiroshima will never be forgotten,” he concluded.

At a press conference after his address, Mr. Carter explained why he came to Hiroshima: “As a former president of the United States, I visited Hiroshima to make a pledge to work for peace and human rights for the rest of my life.” And Mr. Carter has long upheld this commitment.

Ten years after Mr. Carter’s visit, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who died recently on July 6, came to Hiroshima in 1994. “It was an impressive and moving experience,” Mr. McNamara recalled with emotion. “I visited Peace Memorial Park four times during the two or three days I was there. By standing on the soil of Hiroshima and pondering the idea of peace, I realized that Hiroshima had altered the conception of “war” and “defense” as a result of the atomic bombing.”

As secretary of defense, Mr. McNamara had been party to fueling the nuclear arms race against the former Soviet Union. In his later days, though, he came to advocate the abolition of nuclear weapons.

In September 2008, the G8 Speakers’ Summit was held in Hiroshima, bringing Nancy Pelosi to the city. Ms. Pelosi is the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the third highest-ranking political figure in the United States after the president and vice president. Ms. Pelosi is said to have consulted former U.S. ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale, a heavyweight of the Democratic Party, and other Democrats about her attendance at the meeting.

Urged to attend, Ms. Pelosi decided to visit Hiroshima and had the opportunity to learn more deeply about the consequences of the atomic bombing through the testimony of A-bomb survivors and other activities. At the same time, she seemed moved by the warm welcome extended by the citizens of Hiroshima, including the children. “I’d like to bring my grandchildren the next time I visit Hiroshima,” Ms. Pelosi is reported to have told Yohei Kono, the speaker of Japan’s House of Representatives, who served as host of the meeting.

In his speeches, President Obama has called for changing the conventional wisdom and achieving peaceful coexistence by overcoming national, ethnic, and religious divisions. His address in Prague, where he pledged his commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons, reflects this outlook. It is understandable, then, that not only American citizens, but people all across the world, are hoping Mr. Obama can help bring about such change. In this light, the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including the A-bomb survivors, are hopeful that the president will decide to visit their cities.

The voices of the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the A-bomb survivors and youth of the two cities, have likely reached Mr. Obama. Ms. Pelosi, who is also a Democrat and works closely with Mr. Obama in her role as Speaker of the House, may have offered him her impressions of her own visit to Hiroshima. If the sitting president of the United States appears in Hiroshima, it would provide a powerful impetus for advancing nuclear disarmament. In addition, if the U.S. extends its condolences to the victims of the atomic bombings, this could lead to an official reconciliation between the United States and Japan over World War II.

However, the great majority of Americans have been taught that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved the lives of U.S. soldiers and hastened the end of the war. In this respect, there is significant resistance to the idea of a U.S. president visiting Hiroshima. Also, by promoting disarmament policy, Mr. Obama has stirred opposition.

To overcome these difficulties, deft leadership from Mr. Obama will be vital. At the same time, the attitude of the Japanese government will also be an important factor.

I propose that the Japanese prime minister visit Pearl Harbor, where the Pacific War broke out, and express his condolences for all the American lives that were lost in the war with Japan. No prime minister has ever visited Pearl Harbor and spoken words befitting reconciliation between the two countries. At the same time, Japan should clearly state a nuclear-free policy, one that does not rely on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” and spearhead a campaign to build popular opinion in the world against nuclear weapons, including in the United States and Russia.

As long as President Obama appeals for the elimination of nuclear weapons while, at the same time, contending that the “nuclear umbrella” must remain for Japan’s protection, the souls of the A-bomb victims will never rest in peace. By committing to a nuclear-free policy, Japan would bring this argument to an end and the message conveyed from Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the elimination of nuclear weapons could no longer be accused of lacking credibility.

Mr. Obama has been pursuing the abolition of nuclear weapons with sincerity. In this respect, the efforts of the U.S. president and the citizens of Hiroshima have much in common. The challenge lies in fulfilling this aim within the real world of international politics. And for this, cooperation with Russia, as well as with the other nuclear weapon states, is essential. Thus, I call on not only Mr. Obama, but the leader of every nuclear power to visit Hiroshima. With the Japanese government acting as intermediary, I hope a bilateral U.S.-Russian meeting or multilateral disarmament conference will be held in Hiroshima in the near future.

(Originally published on July 20, 2009)

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