Barack Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, the scene of the atomic bombing ordered 71 years ago.
But over those seven decades, many prominent figures, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa and rock legend Jimmy Page, have paid their respects, touched by the gravity of what such a weapon can do to mankind.
Carter visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in an unofficial capacity in May 1984 — three years after he left the White House.
Amid the Cold War nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Carter called for elimination of nuclear weapons, referring to the Hiroshima bombing as a lesson that should never be forgotten. He also called on Hiroshima’s citizens to raise their voices so the nuclear powers would heed their calls for disarmament talks.
Accompanied by his wife Rosalynn and daughter Amy, Carter, who later became the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, also visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where he made the following inscription in the guest book:
“This memorial must be a constant and permanent reminder for all people to work for peace and better understanding,” it read.
In September 2008, then-U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to the memorial site. She laid flowers along with other delegates of the Group of Eight house speakers’ summit held in Hiroshima, where they promised to strengthen efforts for nuclear nonproliferation.
Last month U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also paid his respects to Hiroshima, paving the way for Obama’s visit on Friday.
“It is a stark, harsh, compelling reminder not only of our obligation to end the threat of nuclear weapons, but to rededicate all our effort to avoid war itself,” Kerry wrote in a guest book at the peace museum.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also visited Hiroshima with his wife, Raisa, in April 1992, four months after he stepped down in December of 1991.
Known for his perestroika policy reforms, Gorbachev in 1987 was the first Soviet leader to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an agreement with the U.S. over eliminating nuclear arsenals.
Gorbachev’s visit to Hiroshima took place six years after the catastrophic Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in 1986, when he was head of state. He, too, laid a wreath at the memorial site in front of thousands of spectators.
Religious leaders have also paid their respects at Hiroshima while advocating for peace.
Pope John Paul II’s visit in February 1981 made headlines nationwide, a testament to the enthusiasm for the first papal visit to Japan, where St. Francis Xavier introduced the Roman Catholic faith in 1549.
Arriving at Hiroshima airport, he was presented with a lei of paper cranes folded by survivors of the atomic bombing and given bouquets by three children born of parents who were exposed to radiation from the explosion.
In front of some 25,000 people gathered at the memorial park, John Paul urged all governments and people to work for disarmament and the abolition of all nuclear weapons.
“Let us promise our fellow human beings that we will work untiringly for disarmament and the banishing of all nuclear weapons. Let us replace violence and hate with confidence and caring,” he said.
In November 1984, Mother Teresa traveled to Hiroshima to visit the A-bomb site.
“Let us love one another as God loves each one of us so that the terrible evil that had brought so much suffering to Hiroshima may never happen again. Let us remember works of love and prayer are works of peace,” the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner said in a message at the memorial museum.
The spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, paid his respects in March 1995, the year of the 50th anniversary of the Aug. 6, 1945, Hiroshima bombing.
Despite China’s warning that the Tibetan monk’s visit to Japan would affect bilateral relations, Tokyo issued a visa to the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner. In front of the memorial cenotaph, he gave a prayer for atomic bomb victims.
Political and spiritual leaders are not only the ones moved by the atomic bombing.
Led Zeppelin’s legendary guitarist Jimmy Page visited Peace Memorial Park twice — in September 1971 and last July. When he visited the memorial in 1971 for a concert tour, Page and other band members donated ¥7 million of the concert proceeds to the city to aid atomic bomb victims.
Having returned to Hiroshima after 44 years last year, Page offered flowers at the cenotaph and bowed his head for the war dead.
“The whole world has been under the shadow of the bomb. I know that all of us pray for peace,” he told reporters.
The late American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein visited Hiroshima in August 1985 to conduct for a concert to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bombing.
The maestro visited the memorial park with his fellow Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa, and sang a hymn for fallen victims.
Bernstein’s guest book inscription, “Too many words already — Not enough action!” continues to speak for many.