What President Obama should say at Hiroshima

By Hugh Gusterson | April 13, 2016

The White House is reportedly trying to decide whether President Obama should visit Hiroshima before he leaves office. He should go. And, since he is a very busy man, I’ve written his speech for him:

History is etched deeply into certain places. Seeking to discern the lessons of history, we come to these places to reflect and learn. Hiroshima is such a place.

Standing in this busy, prosperous metropolis today, it is hard to fully grasp what happened here 70 years ago. On August 6, 1945, a lone American B-29 flew over Hiroshima armed with a single bomb. It was 8:15 in the morning, and the streets were full of people on their way to work, children making their way to school. The bomb that was dropped, the world’s first atomic bomb, was, at around 16 kilotons, small by the standard of today’s nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, it destroyed most of the city, killing about 70,000 people immediately and about twice that number in the fullness of time. Buildings within a mile were crushed by the blast like matchwood under a hammer. Fires raged over four square miles. Those who looked at the bomb’s flash—described by one witness of an atomic explosion as “brighter than a thousand suns”—were instantly blinded. Those at ground zero simply disappeared, leaving behind only shadows burned into concrete.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once said that after a nuclear war, “the living will envy the dead,” and surely many of those still alive after the immediate explosion suffered greatly. The American writer John Hersey described a brave survivor trying to rescue others who had fled to the river to cool their burns. “They did not move and he realized they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces … he lifted the slimy living bodies out and carried them up the slope away from the tide. He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, ‘these are human beings.’”

In my time as a senator and then as president, I have learned a lot about war. I have learned that it is easier to start a war than to end one. I have learned that leaders often start wars to demonstrate their control over events, but that the violence of war, once unleashed, cannot easily be controlled. I have learned that “surgical” strikes are surgical only to those who carry them out. And I have learned how easy it is, when convinced that one’s cause is just, to let the ends justify the means.

In 1941, Japanese leaders took what seemed like a rational calculated risk. Convinced that growing American sea power threatened their regional dominance, they attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor out of the blue, hoping thereby to keep the United States out of Asia. Over 2,400 Americans died in that surprise attack, including 68 civilians. Just as 9/11 made the American people resolve to strike back against those who had attacked them, so 12/7 united the American people in war against Japan. Instead of keeping the United States out of Asia, the attack on Pearl Harbor opened a second front in the Second World War, bringing an unprecedented rain of ruin upon the Japanese people and bringing about the complete defeat of the regime that had taken that fateful calculated risk. In that war without mercy, the United States firebombed 67 Japanese cities and at least two and a half million Japanese died. In 1939, responding to Nazi bombing raids, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made a powerful speech in which he said, “the ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population…has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity." But the logic of war soon impelled him to follow suit. War is easy to start, but hard to control.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and before the attack on Hiroshima, as American and Japanese troops fought to the death across the Pacific, another drama was quietly unfolding, unknown to the world, in a secret laboratory in the high desert of New Mexico. At Los Alamos, some of the most brilliant scientists in the world were working on a bomb with unprecedented destructive power—an atomic bomb. As they embarked on this project, it never occurred to them that this weapon would be used on Japan. These scientists, some of them refugees from Nazi Germany, were motivated by fear that Nazi physicists would develop the Bomb first and use it to achieve global domination. But, with a test of their gadget in sight, when Germany surrendered in 1945, most never stopped to ask if they should continue their work. Their scientific quest had become all-consuming. Not for the last time, the Bomb showed its power to produce a kind of hypnotic tunnel vision.

For 70 years, historians have debated what would have happened had the United States not dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Would the Japanese regime, seeing that it was defeated, have surrendered anyway? Would an American land invasion have been necessary? Would more or fewer people have died in the end? And, without the suffering of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would the Americans and the Soviets have underestimated the power of these weapons and stumbled into a nuclear war that would have killed tens of millions?

History moves in mysterious ways, and I do not have answers to these questions. For me, the lesson of this place, the meaning that we can take from the suffering of those who died here on that terrible day, the greater wisdom that we owe them in return for that suffering, concerns the future, not the past. The lesson to be learned here is not like a math problem that, if solved correctly, tells us whether more people would have died if the war ended with or without the atomic bomb. Nor is the lesson a simple morality tale with innocent victims on one side and evildoers on the other.

The first lesson of Hiroshima is that these weapons are so terrible that they must never be used again. Many American presidents and other world leaders have said words to this effect over the years, but far from seeking to eliminate the weapons, they have relied on them for a dangerous security. While saying that nuclear weapons must never be used, they have commissioned new ones and upgraded old ones. While saying that a nuclear war could never be won and must never be fought, they have instructed their militaries to rehearse nuclear attacks on other countries and hinted that they would use these weapons if they had to. They rationalize these contradictions by invoking “deterrence” as if it were an infallible law of nature rather than a precarious achievement of only-too-fallible human leaders.

Which brings me to the second lesson of Hiroshima. That lesson is that those who start wars cannot control how they will unfold; those who create weapons cannot foresee how they will be used; and those who undertake what appear to be rational risks may end up being destroyed by them. Human beings and nuclear weapons cannot coexist forever without the world experiencing an accident, a tragic miscalculation, or the dangerous act of a reckless and untrustworthy leader. And if we continue to rely on these weapons as a crutch, those who survive a future calamity will rightly demand to know why we did not learn the lessons of this place where the voices of the dead cry out, “never again!” We owe it to them, and to future generations, to eliminate these weapons from the face of the Earth. If, after the terrible bloodletting between our two nations in the 1940s, the United States and Japan can now embrace each other as close allies today, then surely the nations of the earth can come together to eliminate the single greatest threat to the planet they share.

Together, we make the world safer.

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