POTUS Comes to Hiroshima
History was made one month ago when POTUS (President of the United States) Barack Obama landed in the city of Hiroshima, Japan — the first sitting American president to ever visit the site since it was destroyed by a single atomic bomb on August 6, 1945.
Depending on who you are and what your political views may be, the visit to Hiroshima by Obama was: (1) flawless, with one of the greatest speeches of all time (2) a good photo opportunity and little else (3) a great disappointment, since he didn’t apologize to the Japanese for anything (4) an insult to American war veterans for daring to go there in the first place (5) an obvious slight to the Japanese atomic survivors, since he didn’t listen to any of their stories of suffering (6) a missed chance at making a major anti-nuclear policy speech (7) or anything else you can think of.
Such is the sensitive and emotional nature of the issue of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the city of Nagasaki three days later on August 9, 1945, that POTUS Obama was stepping into a historical minefield before he even landed in Japan. But that is perhaps as it should be. Hiroshima has gone down in the history books as one of the most heinous acts of genocide on a mostly civilian population, with an estimated 150,000 people killed in Hiroshima and another 70,000 people killed in Nagasaki a few days later. Nothing any U.S. leader says or does will ever change those facts.
But that said, it was good that POTUS came to Hiroshima. He came, he laid flowers at the memorial located in the Hiroshima Peace Park, he spoke, he shook a few hands. It was all well planned and perfectly choreographed. But then, in a moment of spontaneity, POTUS embraced an elderly Japanese hibakusha atomic bomb survivor, with the survivor weeping in Obama’s arms. That will be the iconic image of the POTUS visit to Hiroshima for many years to come.
Be honest: It made your eyes fill with tears, didn’t it? Well, it did mine. I thought of all the suffering that the Japanese atomic bomb survivors had gone through over the years, and I know there were surely a lot of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors crying as they watched that emotional embrace on television on that day last month. Their pain and suffering were at least being acknowledged by the leader of the Free World.
And yet, I had some problems with the celebrated POTUS swing through Hiroshima.
“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,” Obama began his speech at Hiroshima. Motoko Rich, a New York Times reporter of Japanese-American descent who recently assumed the position of Tokyo bureau chief for the newspaper, had a similar take on her Facebook page: “Seventy-one years ago, two bombs fell on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Fell? Obama’s “Death fell from the sky” sounds so much more passive and neutral than: “Death was transported thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland and dropped from the sky over Hiroshima from a U.S. warplane by U.S. military personnel onto an unknowing Japanese civilian population.” Bombs don’t just “fall” from the sky — they are intentionally dropped by one side fighting another, with little regard for the victims below. That is the nature of bombs used in war, and certainly so when it came to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Then there was the image of a supposedly liberal U.S. president, Barack Obama, standing side by side with Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, that day in Hiroshima. Abe interrupted his ongoing campaign of trying to gut Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution long enough to get his picture taken alongside Obama. The ironies abounded: Here was the neo-fascist prime minister of Japan, who has made gutting Japan’s constitution the top goal of his administration, standing next to a liberal U.S. president literally on the ashes of the dead who covered the ground of Hiroshima in 1945, with both leaders talking about the need for peace in the world.
And that liberal president, Obama, is the first U.S. president in history to enter and leave office with his nation at war — the first true “war president” in U.S. history. This, despite that fact that he has received the Nobel Peace Prize while doing little actual work for peace in the world.
Obama, a constitutional law scholar, by all rights should have been scolding Abe for his ongoing actions to gut the no-war clause, Article 9, from Japan’s constitution. But Obama and his administration have been doing just the opposite in recent years: encouraging prime minister Abe in his plans to curtail civil rights in the name of strengthening the U.S.-Japan national security relationship. And of course, Obama himself has done quite a bit of damage on his own to citizens’ rights in the USA in the “war on terror” that he has dramatically expanded since he took office.
And then, there is the supreme irony of POTUS coming to Hiroshima at a time when the U.S. is embarking on a massive upgrade of its aging nuclear weapons arsenal, which in effect means that nuclear bombs will be smaller, faster and more capable of inflicting much greater damage than they did 71 years ago in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Yes, it was good that POTUS came to Hiroshima — someone had to do it sooner or later, and I suppose Obama would be the best choice for a first American president to set foot in the city. Obama spent less than two hours in Hiroshima that day, but he made history. He didn’t apologize for anything, nor was he expected to by the Japanese government. It was a symbolic visit more than anything else, and sometimes symbolic gestures are very important when it comes to healing the deep scars of past wars. But the POTUS stopover in Hiroshima could have been so much more meaningful and substantial with just a bit more foresight and planning on the part of the Obama administration.
Now that POTUS has been to Hiroshima and experienced the legacy of what U.S. bombs can do to the cities of its foreign enemies, let us hope that the next time Obama decides to approve a deadly drone strike against some perceived enemy in the Middle East or elsewhere, he stops and thinks twice: once for Hiroshima and once for Nagasaki. If a hesitation to launch military attacks in which innocent civilians may be killed is all that was achieved by Obama in his unprecedented visit to the atomic-bombed city in Japan last month, then maybe, just maybe, his visit to Hiroshima was worth it.