The visit that U.S. President Barack Obama paid to Hiroshima on Friday may contribute to an emotional reconciliation over the August 1945 atomic bombings by the United States in the final days of World War II. Obama became the first sitting president of the only country in history to have used atomic weapons in warfare to visit the first city to have experienced a nuclear attack. However, the significance of the historic visit will only remain symbolic unless it is followed by greater efforts to ensure that the devastation experienced by Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not repeated.
During his brief visit Friday evening accompanied by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama laid a wreath at a monument in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park honoring those killed by the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing of the city. In a statement he made as several aging atomic bombing survivors watched on, the U.S. president reflected on the horrors of war and said the memory of the day the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima “must never fade.” He called for a reduction in nuclear stockpiles and a move toward a world without nuclear arms. He shook hands with and embraced some of the survivors. He signed a guest book at the memorial, writing, “Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.”
Obama’s call for “a world free of nuclear weapons” in his April 2009 speech in Prague earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. But seven years on, the world is no closer to that goal. Unless serious efforts are made from now, the U.S. president’s historic tribute to Hiroshima will not change this situation.
The president’s visit to Hiroshima was made at a time when popular opinion remains divided not just between Japan and the United States but within the U.S. itself as to whether atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified. In America, the dominant view holds that the nuclear attacks that killed more than 200,000 were necessary to quickly end the war and save a greater number of American — and Japanese — lives that otherwise would have been lost. What prevented Obama’s predecessors from visiting Hiroshima had been a concern that a president’s visit to the city could be taken as an apology by the U.S. Washington emphasized that Obama would neither apologize or revisit the 1945 decision to drop the atomic bombs, while most Japanese polled in media surveys did not seem to desire an apology as they welcomed the president’s decision to pay the visit.
It may be impossible to settle the controversy over the 1945 bombings seven decades later. But that should not be an excuse for a lack of progress in the efforts today to reduce the number of and eventually completely eliminate nuclear weapons. In fact, the U.S. continues to believe in the strategic value of nuclear weapons, as in essence does Japan — the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack — which relies on the nuclear umbrella provided by its ally.
Obama’s famed speech in 2009, in which the president said the U.S. has a “moral responsibility to act” to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” may have raised expectations. But he also acknowledged in the same speech that the goal would not be reached quickly. Talks between the U.S. and Russia — which together hold most of the world’s nuclear weapons — for nuclear disarmament have lost momentum in recent years as relations between the two countries soured. While the U.S. may have reduced its nuclear stockpile, the process has slowed under the Obama administration and it is pursuing a massive program to modernize its nuclear arsenal.
Efforts toward banning nuclear weapons on grounds of the humanitarian consequences of their use have also made little progress — as both nuclear weapons states and countries that depend on the nuclear umbrella of their allies, including Japan, oppose holding negotiations on an international treaty to prohibit nuclear arms on grounds of the security role that these weapons play.
“We must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without (nuclear weapons),” Obama said during his Friday speech. “We may not realize this goal in my lifetime. But consistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe.” His tribute to the victims of the atomic attack on Hiroshima was a symbolic moment, but efforts must be made to turn it into catalyst for action.