Studying Obama’s speech: Yasuhiro Inoue, Hiroshima professor, on the president’s promising revision of Washington’s official view

by Yasuhiro Inoue, professor at Hiroshima City University

The speech made by U.S. President Barack Obama during his visit to Hiroshima has met with mixed reactions. Many have expressed disappointment that he offered no apology for the atomic bombings or that he did not present concrete ideas for advancing nuclear disarmament. But his speech also contains an important aspect that has not been highlighted.

In his address, Mr. Obama clearly stated how many were killed in the atomic bombings, who the bombs killed, and what they destroyed, revising the official view that had been adopted by the U.S. government. Allow me to discuss the importance of this point, which leads to disproving the myth that the atomic bombings were justified acts.

In the official view of the United States, the death toll of the Hiroshima bombing was 71,379, based on information provided by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. The figure 84,673, claimed to be the total number of victims of the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is often wrongly given as the death toll in Hiroshima.

These inaccurate figures, or those close to them, are often used not only by the media but also in academic papers by historians and political scientists in the United States and other parts of the world.

Where does this lead? Such numbers are frequently trotted out to diminish the damage of the atomic bombings: “This death toll was lower than the 100,000 deaths in the fire bombing of Tokyo, and the scale of the destruction was smaller as well.” “The Hiroshima bombing cannot compare with the siege of Leningrad.”

I study how the atomic bombings have been covered by the media in the United States and the rest of the world and how this has affected the public’s perception of these attacks. I also analyze factors behind the decision to drop the bombs as well as the manipulation of information.

Whenever I see figures like “70,000 people” or “80,000 people” in reference to the death toll in Hiroshima, in newspaper articles or academic papers, I sigh and say to myself, “Oh no, not again!” Then if the article or paper goes on to underestimate the scale of the damage, I feel sad and furious, though I am a researcher.

But in his speech in Hiroshima, Mr. Obama clearly states that “over 100,000” were killed. Within the U.S. government, including the White House, there must have been some debate over this number, and they seem to have decided on the figure “over 100,000,” which does not contradict the true death toll of around 140,000.

The number itself cannot express the real picture of the damage caused by the atomic bombing. Still, the reality is that the figure long given was designed to manipulate the truth and downplay the actual damage of the bombing. Therefore, it is significant that the inaccuracy of “70,000 people” was corrected in Mr. Obama’s speech.

Even more important than this number is whose lives were taken by the atomic bomb and what this weapon destroyed.

At the heart of the argument for justifying the A-bomb attack on Hiroshima is a speech made by President Harry S. Truman, who authorized the atomic bombings.

Mr. Truman said, “The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.”

From here, the U.S. government continued to manipulate information and the myth, or rather, deception, was thus created: “The atomic bomb destroyed Japan’s military and munitions factories, which led to its surrender. As a result, the lives of more than one million American soldiers, as well as the lives of many more Japanese people, were saved.”

Mr. Obama became the first U.S. president to say that the atomic bombs destroyed the lives of civilians, referring to the “women and children” who also became victims. In addition, he did not call the city “a military base.” This may be the first time that the U.S. government has taken this stance and such phrasing will appeal to the conscience of the American people.

This is significant in that Mr. Obama’s speech serves to rebut and revise Mr. Truman’s speech, the starting point for the A-bomb myth. Speeches and statements made by presidents are considered official and they live on, carrying weight forever if they are not corrected.

One example is the “Reconciliation Speech” made by President George Bush on December 8, 1991 (Japan time), which he said, “I have no rancor in my heart...none at all.” This speech recast the content of the “Infamy Speech” made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which called for “absolute victory” in response to Japan’s “dastardly” attack on Pearl Harbor.

“President Bush’s speech made a big difference,” said Daniel Martinez, an official historian at the U.S. National Park Service. “It changed the theme of Pearl Harbor from ‘infamy’ to ‘reconciliation.’” Previously, the film shown to visitors expressed bitterness toward Japan, but the current film emphasizes mourning for the war dead.

The exhibits at the museum involve mainly the history that led to the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan. Another symbol of reconciliation is the paper crane, folded by Sadako Sasaki, that was put on display at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center in 2013.

It will take time, but I believe President Obama’s speech now offers official evidence for doing away with the A-bomb myth and the justification for these attacks.


Yasuhiro Inoue
Born in the city of Yamaguchi, Yamaguchi Prefecture. Served as a reporter for the Mainichi Newspapers. Completed a Ph.D. program at Michigan State University. Began working at Hiroshima City University in 2001, became a professor in the faculty of international studies in 2007. Specializes in politics, media, U.S. journalism, and the Internet and society. Served as a visiting research fellow at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for one year starting in April 2013. His books include Media Literacy.

(Originally published on June 1, 2016)