Antiwar activist Steven L. Leeper


In a sense, it is the ultimate irony: The man appointed to oversee the memorial to victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 by an American B-29 aircraft is . . . an American.

But antiwar activist Steven L. Leeper says that since his April appointment as the first foreigner to be chairman of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation — which operates the museums and memorials — residents of the world’s first city to experience nuclear warfare have welcomed him.

That is apart from some rightists who protested a May 31 article in the local newspaper that, Leeper says, inaccurately quoted some of his views.

However, when it comes to the question of whether the United States was justified in dropping the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima and “Fat Man” on Nagasaki three days later — together instantaneously claiming 210,000 lives — Leeper agrees with Japanese at both ends of the political spectrum that those attacks were inexcusable.

“Nuclear bombs are inhumane, inflicting vast destruction and indiscriminate slaughter in the span of an instant. Their use cannot be justified, regardless of the reasoning applied,” he is on record as declaring (in fluent Japanese).

Leeper, 59, was born in Illinois to a missionary father; his mother was an antiwar activist during the Vietnam War. He has lived in Japan both as a child and adult, working here for years as a translator and consultant to the automobile industry.

In 2002, Leeper became the U.S. representative to the U.N. nongovernmental organization Mayors for Peace, representing 1,698 cities in 122 countries seeking the abolition of nuclear weapons. In 2003, he became a special adviser to the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation.

The timing of our interview drove home just how raw the atomic bombings remain in the hearts of Japanese: On the same day, Fumio Kyuma resigned as defense minister after saying the bombings “could not be helped” — a statement widely deemed unacceptable in Japan.

How do you regard an American being appointed to this very symbolic role?

I think the main symbolic meaning is that the hibakusha (atomic-bomb survivors) have all along been saying that they are not interested in revenge or retaliation. What they are doing is sublimating all of the urge for revenge and anger into this pursuit of a world without war and nuclear weapons.

Ever since he became Hiroshima mayor, Tadatoshi Akiba has been talking about the need to reject the path of revenge and animosity and walk the path of reconciliation. And he is speaking for the hibakusha when he talks like that.

So I think my presence here as an American is evidence that this is in fact their attitude, and I have been warmly welcomed by everyone — especially the hibakusha, who have come to my office and welcomed me and wished me well.

Have you been criticized for occupying this role?

There has been a small outbreak. I need to be really, really careful about this — and I need to ask you to be careful about this — because I don’t want to be attacked for this again.

I made some comments that were reported wrongly in a local newspaper, which made it sound as if I was already deciding to put Koreans and Chinese onto a committee to redo the museum here. In response to that, there were a number of protests, but much of it seemed to be orchestrated by a certain very small group of radical rightwing people.

However, the whole thing died away very quickly. From almost everywhere, I was getting support during that. People were saying, “No, don’t worry about this. We’re behind you all the way.”

Do you personally feel there is a necessity to pool the opinions of Chinese and Koreans on how the new exhibit will look?

Yes. I think it’s important to get ideas from Koreans and Chinese, but not just Koreans and Chinese, also from leftwing and rightwing Japanese and Europeans and all kinds of people, because we’re really trying to create a museum that will have universal appeal.

One thing I have to point out, of course, is that we are not interested in the opinions of people who think the atomic bombing was a good idea or that nuclear weapons are necessary. That is part of the misunderstanding that happened. Some people were thinking that, as an American, I am going to be changing the message of this museum to somehow justifying the atomic bombings. That is not happening. This museum takes the position that these nuclear weapons should never have been used and they should never be used again. That is a non-negotiable message.

Will there be any kind of increased awareness-building of Japan’s aggression in Korea or China?

I really don’t know about that. That’s part of what I want to get everybody’s ideas on, about how we address this issue. If it were completely up to me — this is not the Peace Culture Foundation speaking, or the museum, or the Hiroshima city government; this is just Steve’s personal idea — if it was up to me, we would start at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945 [when the bomb was dropped]. I would not talk about previous history at all, because any talk about history opens a door to endless argument and that’s not my interest. My focus is: How do we keep it from happening again? How do we get from here to a world in which nuclear weapons are obviously not necessary?

What would you say is the status of Japan’s peace movement today?

As with a lot of peace movements around the world, we are under heavy attack. There’s a big backlash. Let me go into a little depth on this one.

Around here, a lot of us tend to think that we are — by “we” I mean human beings — we human beings are trying to graduate from a war culture to a peace culture. What that means, really, is that we are trying to make a big shift from a highly competitive approach to life to a highly cooperative approach.

This is not to say that we are totally against any kind of competition. But just that the balance right now is so heavily weighted on the competition side that it is impossible to cooperate at the level we need to cooperate to solve our problems. So what we’re trying to do is graduate from there.

A survivor of the Hiroshima bomb named Ichiro Moritaki was in a hospital after the attack, and he was thinking about the meaning of this new weapon. He came to the conclusion that it marked the end of what he called “the civilization of power” — and the beginning of the “civilization of love.”

What he meant by that was that we can no longer resolve our conflicts and decide whose side god is on by contests of all-out destructive power. So we now have to incorporate other methods of conflict resolution, like talking, negotiation, treaties, laws.

But right now there’s this big disconnect between the vast majority of people who really do see that the world is one, that we are all members of the human family, and those who see the world as a competition for survival. We are being forced into the former recognition by environmental issues. We have global warming to deal with: Our oceans are dying, the air is dirty, the land is dirty. We’ve got some serious environmental problems that we cannot solve through just free-market competition. This has to be addressed through international cooperation.

From Hiroshima’s point of view, the most important (issue) right now is the control of nuclear weapons and the prevention of any use of nuclear weapons in the next few years.

Wherever I go, I am constantly encountering people of all stripes who really understand that we just cannot continue to have wars and we certainly can’t start throwing nuclear weapons around if we intend to solve these other problems that we’re facing.

And yet our leaders, the leaders of most countries right now, are people who grew up through the war culture. Many of them derive directly from the military-industrial complex, many of them are weapons dealers or weapons manufacturers or get their money from manufacturers and dealers, so there’s this highly competitive, highly aggressive bunch of warriors who are leading the world when most of the people want peace.

So we’re in a transition phase from a world that is highly competitive and wants to see enemies here and there, compared to a world in which we are all Spaceship Earth and we’re trying to save our environment. We’re trying to make a world in which half of humanity is not living with less that $2 a day, and 24,000 people are not dying every day from hunger.

In the postwar period and up to maybe the 1970s and ’80s, there was a vibrant antiwar and anti-atomic bomb culture here. Do you think that it has subsided with the aging of the hibakusha?

Yes, definitely I do. The generation that really knew the war and, in Hiroshima, the generation that really knows what happened here at the time of the bombing, has moved out of power and is moving out of the world altogether. Therefore, that generation just does not have the influence that it used to have. That’s for sure.

And the young people seem to me to be kind of divided. . . . There are young people who have an extremely advanced consciousness when it comes to the environment and peace and making a better world and trying to live more like indigenous people to lighten their burden on the planet.

Then there’s the other kind that is just trying to succeed in the system as it has been. They’re really not thinking much about the world; they’re thinking about how they’re going to win in the competitive environment they’ve been placed in.

I think that one of the issues is that this highly competitive fervor has been fanned by terrorism, the threat of terrorism, the events of 9/11 and the general coming to power of the highly competitive and warlike people who are now running the United States and elsewhere.

One thing about a military-industrial complex is that it really must have an enemy, and now they’ve got terrorists as an enemy. Over here there’s been a lot of media given to the whole abduction program of the North Koreans, and the fear of rising Chinese economic dominance and power, and the fear of North Korean nuclear weapons and that sort of thing.

And so there are a lot of people here, even a lot who tend to be peace people against nuclear weapons, who are afraid of the North Koreans or the Chinese, or somehow they have this fear that they have to have some sort of military defense to protect them.

So do you think that Japan has the right to “normalize” war-renouncing Article 9 of its Constitution to counter perceived threats from abroad with its own missiles?

It certainly has the right to do that. It’s their country and they can do what they want to do with it. But to me, from the point of view of peace culture and from the point of view of the safety and stability of Japan, it seems that what they need to be investing in is a peaceful and stable world. Not a world with enemies and intense winner-take-all, cut-throat competition. They need a world that is highly cooperative.

If the Japanese were suddenly in a world where it was impossible to do any trading with China and the United States, an awful lot of Japanese would starve to death. They can’t even feed themselves without a lot of trading. So they need a stable, peaceful world. And that’s what they should be investing in.

Turning to the Article 9 situation, people around the world have generally had a very high regard for Japan because of this Article 9. The Japanese are widely seen as a force for peace and a kind of stabilizing force. A lot of countries see them as that, and it seems to me, from what I’ve heard directly from a lot of people around the world . . . that people are surprised by this new information that Japan has the third- or fourth-largest military budget in the world. A lot of Europeans were very shocked when Japan sent the Self-Defense Force people over to Iraq. It makes people stop and think about what Japan really stands for. What are they up to?

There is the question of whether the atomic bombings were necessary. Recently we’ve had this interesting comment from then-Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma. How do you regard his remarks that nothing could be done about the bombings?

I’m really not sure what he was meaning to say. It’s hard for me to imagine that he was really saying that it was OK or somehow perfectly understandable.

Shoganai (nothing to be done about it) could derive from a lot of different attitudes. But I can say for sure that it was definitely taken as a very offensive remark by people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it seemed to be implying that somehow the atomic bomb was necessary to end the war, or that it was an acceptable event in history and not any particular tragedy or error.

Do you, without qualification, denounce the view that there was any military purpose to the bombs?

I completely reject that it was necessary. All of the top military people of the United States at the time, from (U.S. Fleet Admiral William Daniel) Leahy and [then Gen., and later Pres. Dwight D.] Eisenhower (1890-1969) on down, everyone was against the use of that bomb at that time. The top brass thought it was unnecessary and a heinous act. I’m talking about the American military. The ones pushing for it were some civilian leaders and some of the military people actually involved in making the bomb. They really wanted to use it.

There are some who say it was not the last bombing of World War II; it was actually the first bombing of World War III, and that it was aimed at Russia and not at Japan. It was to warn Russia that we can do this to you if we want to — it was a threat, an effort to establish dominance in the postwar world. I am not enough of a historian to judge.

But as I imagine how people were thinking back then, the Japanese were the enemy. It’s perfectly natural to kill the enemy; you want to kill as many as you can. We had already totally bombed out, firebombed, 66 other cities in Japan and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. So another bomb and another 100,000 civilians was not a big deal for us at that time.

And I think we had gone to all the trouble to make this incredible new device, and the people who did that really wanted to use it and see what it would do. And they saved Hiroshima, they protected Hiroshima from any other bombing so they could really see what happened as a result of the bomb. They saved Hiroshima for an experiment.

It was totally unnecessary to win the war. Japan was defeated, had no ability to fight back, was running out of everything. We had them totally embargoed. There was no need to invade. There was no need to lose a million people in an invasion of Japan. All of that is myth that grew up around the bombing because we didn’t want to feel we had killed 100,000 people for no reason.

But even after the Nagasaki bombing, Japan still waited several days to surrender, and in that interval there was no apparent intention to capitulate. Weren’t the atomic bombings a cauterization of the war?

A means of burning the war to an end? I think you can look at it that way. And I suspect that it did cause the war to end a little earlier. But before we even used the bomb we could have ended the war two or three months earlier if we had just agreed to let them keep their emperor. That’s all we would have had to do, and they would have surrendered months earlier.

And we could have just waited. There were six guys who were deciding whether to fight or whether to surrender. Three were on one side and three were on the other side and that had been going on for a long time. And then the emperor stepped in partly because of the bombing and partly because Russia came in on the Allied side on August 8. There is considerable documentary evidence that the Russians’ coming in had a bigger effect than the bombings. Already Japan had lost 66 cities. Now they had lost 68. So what? It was not a big deal.

I understand you are planning a tour of the United States — each state, two locations — to take the Hiroshima exhibit there before . . .

We’re going to do 101 exhibitions, but it’s not that we’re taking one exhibition, or even one of the major exhibitions to all these 101 locations.

What we’re doing is sending out our poster exhibitions plus some CDs and DVDs. And at least for 50 percent of them, we’re hoping to send an A-bomb survivor to the opening ceremony or an associated event.

It sounds like a pretty ambitious project. I did note that it seems to be planned ahead of the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

That is accurate. We really want to get as much play as possible in the American media for nuclear weapons, and right now we are trying to figure out how we can, with very little money, be able to do a PR or media campaign using newspapers or community radio. But what we’re trying to do is make nuclear weapons an issue for the American public as they look to the elections.

We’re very disturbed right now, very concerned, because all of the leading candidates for president . . . have said that they are going to keep the nuclear option on the table. In other words, they are considering using nuclear weapons against Iran. In order to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, they will use one. And that is something we want the United States to think again about. [In fact last week, subsequent to this interview, it was reported that U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, appeared to condemn the use of nuclear weapons.]

In 2003, reports showed the Bush administration pushing ahead with a new generation of weapons called mini-nukes.

The indications are that they are lowering the threshold. They’re trying to make little nuclear weapons that can be used, and they are talking about them as if they could be used. They are making plans to use them to take out hardened bunkers in Iran and that sort of thing. The idea of using small nuclear weapons, or any kind of nuclear weapon, anywhere, is just anathema to Hiroshima and to the Peace Culture Foundation.

Let me ask you about Japan’s clear statement on reliance on nuclear power for its energy needs. Do you have a view on this?

That is a really hard question because we are not allowed even . . . I really cannot have an opinion about nuclear power. We are against nuclear weapons and we officially do not have a position on nuclear power.

Can you explain why there is no position on nuclear power?

My belief is that it would probably be because there would be so much economic weight on that side that we cannot afford to fight that fight.

Do you feel that Article 9 should be kept intact, in both its key clauses? The alternative most commonly stated is to keep the article forever rejecting war as a means of solving international disputes, while being more flexible in the matter of maintaining a military.

I am working here for the Peace Culture Foundation, which is trying to promote a world that has no need for the military. I do believe that any kind of move in that direction would be a step backward — a step backward for Japan and for the world.

In general, people have been very open and positive to Japan. I’m not just talking about peace people; I’m talking about people in the economic community. People have had their arms open to Japan and one of the factors in that openness is that Japan is perceived as a peaceful nation and this peace constitution is part of it.

So if they eliminate Article 9 and start sending their Self-Defense Forces around the world, they are going to be associated with one side in the war on terror.

They are going to lose their position as conciliators and mediators working for peace. They will be seen as protagonists, allied with the United States.

What is your top priority?

The overall goal that we’re all pursuing is, No. 1, to prevent any nuclear weapon from being used in Iran or Syria or Afghanistan in the next few years, and to get rid of all nuclear weapons by 2020. Human beings really are standing at a crossroads, deciding right now in the next two or three years whether we’re going to eliminate nuclear weapons or let everyone have one.

If we let everyone have one, one will be used. There will definitely be some idiot who will use one someday. And if everyone has one, it won’t stop with one.

Our economy will just plummet if any major city gets taken out because of all of the economic fallout from losing that city, plus the economic slowdown that will happen when all of the defense mechanisms are thrown into high gear and circulation of goods and people slows down.

In any case, it doesn’t take a genius to know that if we start throwing nuclear weapons around, we’re all in a lot of trouble. That is what we’re trying to prevent, and we’re pushing hard to build an international movement to get rid of nuclear weapons. The real block to that is the United States. Everyone else will do it if the U.S. does. It’s the U.S. that’s keeping it from happening.

The last vote [in the U.N., on the Renewed Determination toward the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons] was 169-3, last October, in the first committee. Then, 169 voted to get rid of nuclear weapons and three voted to keep them. Those were the U.S., India and North Korea. The North Koreans are already going to get rid of them and we could easily buy them off. The Indians long ago said they will get rid of their nuclear weapons any time America gets rid of theirs.

America, which is being the big superpower, is trying to hang on to that position. Maybe somebody is thinking nuclear weapons are going to help with that. The rest of the world is thinking, “No, we have to keep the war on terror from becoming nuclear.” That’s the kind of thing we’re working on at the U.N. level.

What I really want is for Japan to say very clearly to the United States, maybe openly or maybe in a back room somewhere, that you may not use nuclear weapons. If Japan, China and Germany were to say that to America, America could not ignore that message. Those are the three countries that own most of America these days.