You are here

Obama in Hiroshima: Betwixt spoken and the unspoken

Preeti Nalwa was Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • May 30, 2016

    Barack Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima on 27 May 2016. He did that after concluding the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations' summit meeting in Ise-Shima. In doing so, in addition to his saying in his April 2009 Prague speech that "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act", Obama has slightly changed America's approach to recognizing the devastation of the nuclear attacks on Japan. Contrary to the view of critics that an American presidential visit to Hiroshima is undesirable since it implies an 'implicit apology' for the atomic bombings thereby compromising the sacrifice made by American soldiers in winning the war and liberating Asia, Obama has demonstrated a "personal dignity" in visiting Ground Zero. In a solemn ceremony at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama laid a wreath on a cenotaph under an arched monument that honours those killed on 6 August 1945.

    Hiroshima is a polarised consciousness of 'remembering' and 'forgetting'. Historically, it is remembered as the site of the world's first nuclear destruction, perpetrated by America during WW II to end Japan's imperial expansion and imperialist atrocities. The incineration of thousands of victims on August 6, 1945 did not end in Hiroshima. The same destructive act was repeated three days later in Nagasaki, instantaneously vaporizing tens of thousands of more civilians. The horrific devastation devoured about 250,000, and polluted all the areas that were exposed to the mushroom cloud. The nightmare was far worse for those who survived, with ravaged bodies suffering radiation and slow painful death generation after generation.

    Ironically, despite a discourse in Japan about its 'victimisation', it has obliterated the construct of the US as the enemy/victimiser. For the present, Hiroshima is portrayed by Japan as a universal symbol of peace. It strongly disseminates the notion that atomic annihilation may occur in contexts historically different from Hiroshima, and envisages a world free of nuclear weapons. Japan has disassociated Hiroshima's identity as the A-bombed city from the apology politics that has become a norm between Japan and other Asian countries, which has prevented genuine reconciliation in East Asia. Rather than demand an apology from America for the most destructive act during WW II, Japan has premised the memorialisation of Hiroshima not upon the questioning of America’s responsibility for using nuclear weapons but upon "future-oriented remembering", i.e., eliminating nuclear weapons from the world while at the same time complicating the dynamics of nuclear disarmament by accepting the security of US-extended deterrence in its alliance partnership with it. It is creditable that US-Japan relations have moved beyond hatred even though, largely because of the contingencies of the evolving geo-strategic considerations, their bonding is incumbent upon the rationale of nuclear weapons. It is a case of remarkable engineering of the suspension of belief of the historical reality that the atomic bombings construed a war crime.

    In America, the narrative of its atomic bombing is premised upon an entrenched belief that the bombings were necessary to force Japan’s "unconditional" surrender, as demanded by President Roosevelt, and to spare more human lives. The notion that the use of the weapon was compelling at that time has been challenged by historians and analysts. However, firmly believing in the predominate narrative, America has disassociated itself from the discourse of having knowingly used "the most terrible weapon ever known in human history" – the description of the weapon by the then Secretary of War Henry Stimson to President Harry Truman who ordered the atomic bombing of the two cities. Stimson was of the view that Japan "must be administered a tremendous shock which would carry convincing proof of our power to destroy the empire. Such an effective shock would save many times the number of lives, both American and Japanese.” Unfortunately, however, Stimson and other distinguished members of the special committee set up to advise Truman could not visualise or comprehend the extent of the gravest inhumane act in their decision-making, for they collectively and unanimously recommended the expeditious bombing of Japan in their report submitted to President Truman on June 1, 1945.

    This American stance imparts legitimacy to its use of nuclear weapons, problematising the need to apologise which deprives the political drive of moral impetus for adequately 'shaming' the bomb. This legitimacy was further ingrained by orchestrating the secondary use of the destructive element as "Atoms for Peace" for producing nuclear energy; deflecting the world’s attention from the terrifying tribulations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Therefore, since the first use in 1945, instead of abandoning them, nuclear weapons have become a prominent feature in the military doctrines of nine nations – the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. According to a report by SIPRI, as of 2014, these countries collectively possess approximately 16,300 nuclear weapons. Instead of taking steps that indicate a genuine willingness to work towards the complete dismantlement of their nuclear arsenals, these states are undertaking modernization of nuclear weapons including redesigned nuclear warheads, introducing new nuclear bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles. The primary logic put forward for possessing and retaining nuclear weapons is 'deterrence' of a nuclear strike by another state. Japan has vowed never to possess nuclear weapons because of the soul-wrenching experience of Hiroshima-Nagasaki, yet it is opposed to any weakening of the nuclear umbrella especially because of recent Chinese aggressiveness in East China and South China Sea. Hence, 'remembering' Hiroshima is beset with multiple contradictions.

    Obama's visit to Hiroshima gave him an opportunity to disentangle some of these contradictions. But his speech at the Memorial Park refrained from reorienting the long due American reckoning with the atomic bombings in not even obliquely revisiting the decision to drop the bombs or condemning the act. He described the act thus: “Seventy-one years ago, on a bright, cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed." Nevertheless, he also added an emotionally moving credence to Japan's 'victim' experience. Some critics argue that placing too much emphasis on Japan's 'victimhood' obfuscates the reality of Japan as an imperialist 'victimiser'. At least, Obama distanced himself from making this connection. Japan still has outstanding apology issues with South Korea on 'comfort women' and with China regarding the 1937 'Nanjing Massacre'. An agreement that was reached on 28 December 2015 between PM Abe and the South Korean President Park Geun-hye, wherein Japan acknowledged the involvement of its military authorities in the exploitation of large numbers of women as sex-slaves resulting in dishonour of the Korean women, has met with strong dissatisfaction amongst the citizens of South Korea as a mere eyewash in view of the revisionist sentiments of some of the political leaders in Japan. Similarly, in the quietude of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, mourning the dead without immense regret was disquieting.

    Obama's politically correct speech was heavy on morality and devoid of specifics unlike his April 2009 speech in Prague. At Prague, Obama had chalked out a trajectory towards reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the US national security strategy, urged others to do the same, and made some promises. He won a huge diplomatic victory in arriving at an understanding between Iran and the P5+1 by putting into effect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) framework agreement reached in Vienna on 14 July 2015, whereby Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium and cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. In contrast, there is a stark disconnect between Obama's expressed intentions regarding the abolition of nuclear weapons at the Memorial Park and his recent nuclear policy earmarking USD 1 trillion for a new generation of nuclear weapons that is bound to fuel a new nuclear arms race. Derek Johnson, executive director of the international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons, called Global Zero, pointed out that "the world needs more than words.” Obama's words at Hiroshima are being carefully measured. He referred to the importance of words in his Prague speech, "Words must mean something." The conviction of his words at Prague won him the Noble Peace Prize. This time his words did not connect to the 'agency' of moral realm that goes beyond the alliance strengthening. In Iwakuni, Obama said that, "We see the strength of our alliance on display right here... "This base is powerful example of the trust and the cooperation and the friendship between the United States and Japan."

    Apology was not on Obama's agenda. But sometimes words are not important either. In holding hands with Sunao Tsuboi and listening to him, and quietly embracing Shigeaki Mori, the two survivors of the Hiroshima bombing present there, Obama created a poignant moment. His words might fall short of assuaging all but his visit to Hiroshima is a testimony of Obama being a leader of substance.

    Dr. Preeti Nalwa is a Non-Resident Kelly Fellow, Pacific Forum, CSIS and Assistant Professor (Guest Faculty) at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.