My Thoughts on President Obama’s Visit to Hiroshima

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igawa headshotBy ITSUKI CHARLES IGAWA, Ph.D.

On April 5, 2009, President Obama delivered a major speech in Prague, Czechoslovakia, challenging the whole world to renew the effort toward realization of a nuclear-free world. I felt then, if his administration should continue for two terms, he would very likely end up visiting Hiroshima during his presidency.

So, I was not particularly surprised when the announcement was made from the White House that he would indeed visit Hiroshima during his trip to Japan in May. Be that as it may, I could not help but get emotional to see on the television screen President Obama actually being in Hiroshima as a sitting U.S president, visiting the Peace Memorial Museum, and presenting flowers to the cenotaph for the A-bomb victims.

To me, the fact that the president’s visit to Hiroshima was preceded by visits there by various high-ranking government officials, including both of his ambassadors to Japan — John Roos and Caroline Kennedy — and Secretary of State John Kerry, was easily comprehensible in terms of their respective purpose and timeliness, as well as for their collective significance and intended synergistic effects.

And, finally, the visit by president himself took place with the most opportune timing – assessment of which must have been done carefully by weighing various political factors, both domestic and worldwide.

Also, the thought on what implications there might be from such visit by Obama on his legacy as the 44th U.S. president must have been taken into consideration. After all, it was the first time ever for a sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima – the site of first ever A-bomb attack, which was approved by the commander-in-chief at the time, President Harry Truman.

Obama’s Hiroshima visit was an indispensable step in the process of building a momentum toward a nuclear-free world, which has been a major theme in his presidency; undoubtedly, it was a manifestation of his deeply held personal belief and conviction.

While his Hiroshima speech was a relatively short one, it emphatically underscored the horrors of war, specified that we must overcome the logic of fear, and urged the world to have the courage to amass the moral power needed for realization of a nuclear-free world. Obama thus reiterated his determination articulated in his Prague speech to lead the world toward such a global political reality.

President Obama reminded us that mankind has created nuclear weapons, and that, in the process, it has acquired the ability to totally annihilate itself. The president also noted that mankind continues to remain prone to conflicts, and reminded us that, because of such a reality, it is vitally important that we seek ways to destroy all nuclear weapons.

But, the president did not quote any specific number of nuclear weapons that exist, let alone the astronomical number that will be needed to describe the level of destructive capacity of the totality of all nuclear weapons existing on Earth today. Also, the president did not talk about the fact that the mankind does not possess the ability to really control the destructive capability of such weapons, and that there are no systematic orders by which to control all existing nuclear weapons.

In reality, in the aftermath of tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has been able to come up with only the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to control non-weaponry utilization of nuclear energy in 1957 and NPT (Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons), which is to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world, in 1970.

What it is that NPT aims to accomplish in reality aside, the number of nations that possess nuclear weapons has now increased to nine. There are on Earth today 15,375 nuclear warheads (as of March 2016), with the combined capacity of 2,300 megatons. This number equates to about 150,000 Hiroshima-size bombs. The destructive capability of these bombs combine would come to an astronomical scale. In the face of such immense destructive capability, NPT and/or IEAE are powerless.

While Obama’s Hiroshima speech was of a high-toned variety in which he had messages to the whole of mankind, he did not mention anything at all related to such specific realities as both Russia and the United States possessing nearly equal numbers of nuclear warheads, that combined they possess 93 percent of all nuclear warheads present on Earth, or that they made efforts through mutual agreements to reduce the respective number of the stockpiles, but the destructive capability of the nuclear weaponry has increased through various improvements made, and that the rate of U.S. reduction has slowed considerably under the Obama presidency.

In any event, the reality of the nuclear warheads held by the nine nations today is such that the responsibility in terms of averting any nuclear war is squarely on the shoulders of the presidents of two nations – Russia and the U.S. In that sense, what President Obama alluded to in his speech as the challenges to mankind are ipso facto those that the presidents of both nations must carry.

President Obama, as the commander-in-chief of the United States, did not mention anything in his speech that might have been perceived as an apology regarding the historic tragedies that befell Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a result of the A-bombs dropped over them. He talked at some length about the tragedies and all wrongs that wars bring, re-emphasizing the urgency of the need to make the choice of amassing all efforts to destroy all existing nuclear weapons.

To me, the most central thought and essence of President Obama as a humanist in visiting Hiroshima on May 27, 2016 was placed in those four little origami cranes he folded with his own hands and entrusted with the two representatives of the Hiroshima youths – the descendants of the A-bombed Hiroshima that represent the genuine hopes for today and tomorrow.

Itsuki Charles Igawa, 76, is a sociologist from Innoshima, Onomichi City, Hiroshima, and a 58-year resident of the U.S. A graduate of Cal State Los Angeles, University of Oregon and UC Irvine, he has taught at CSULA (political science), CSU Long Beach (political science and Asian American studies), and UCI (comparative culture).

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