Ben Rhodes, deputy assistant to President Obama, hopes future presidents will visit Hiroshima, too

by Yumi Kanazaki and Keiichiro Yamamoto, Staff Writers

On the morning of July 6, 2016 (before dawn on July 7, Japan time), the Chugoku Shimbun conducted an exclusive interview with Ben Rhodes, the deputy assistant to the president, about the visit to Hiroshima in May by U.S. President Barack Obama. Below are highlights from that interview.

How would you evaluate the visit to Hiroshima by President Obama?
I think it was a success. When the President came into office, I don’t think even the U.S. ambassador had gone to the memorial ceremony in Hiroshima. With this visit by the President of the United States, following after the visit by Secretary of State John Kerry, hopefully we’ve opened up the space for more natural interactions and conversations and future Presidents can go, too, future American officials can go, and we’ve kind of gotten over a certain hurdle. I also hope that it elevates the profile of Hiroshima in the United States. That would ultimately make his visit a success, if we just introduce more Americans to looking hard at that experience, meeting these people who have become such inspiring actors. Ultimately, it is only a success if it advances, in the long term, all these efforts to try to keep the world focused on reducing nuclear weapons and pursuing peaceful resolutions to conflicts.

Did President Obama talk to you about his impressions after his visit to the Peace Memorial Museum?
I know that the President was able to see a number of objects that survived the bomb blast, as well as some photographs. Different types of things gave a remembrance and demonstrated the destructive power of the weapon. But I think the President was particularly moved, he said, by the display of paper cranes. He remarked how beautiful it was and how inspiring it was that, out of such destruction, there was a symbol of such beauty that has so much meaning to the people of Hiroshima.

When you were involved in drafting the speech, did you learn about the experiences of the A-bomb survivors?
What happened was that the President would give me some of what he wanted to say, then I would go to a research team and ask for certain things. So in this case I did say to the research team, try to collect as many powerful stories of the survivors as you can that are different. So I did read a significant amount of accounts. I remember telling people that working on the speech was the most emotionally draining speech I think I have written.

You hear just awful stories that all have similarities. It’s almost eerie how everyone describes that day up to a certain point and then there’s a flash of light and they’re describing the day after that. So we researched the stories of the survivors and we also researched what some of them did with their lives afterward, including the gentleman that we were able to include who has helped identify the Americans (American prisoners of war who lost their lives because of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima). I read a lot of stories about survivors who devoted their lives to telling the story of Hiroshima and that’s I think what gave us the idea that we have to recognize that this extraordinary generation will someday pass. And that it is our job, not just the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but everybody, to tell those stories.

Why didn’t the speech touch on concrete measures for international nuclear disarmament?
If I were a hibakusha (A-bomb survivor), I would insist on the most ambitious, most aggressive action to get rid of nuclear weapons. And I am glad that they criticize us. We need pressure from people to move in this direction. But the moment (of his visit to Hiroshima) is so powerful. The President thought that the appropriate thing to do would be to describe the feelings of being there, and to mourn for the people who were lost, and make, not just policy ideas, but kind of a moral mission out of the visit to Hiroshima to continue to pursue disarmament.

A few media reports pointed out that the U.S. side was carrying the so-called “nuclear football” to Hiroshima. What are your thoughts on this criticism?
On this, I think that the point is simply that everywhere the President goes, he has the ability to engage in secure communications that deal with any situation that happens. It often kind of gets reduced to the “nuclear football,” but it’s more a matter of that. There is a large apparatus for the President that could allow him to respond to any situation. The fact is, the President has to have someone who can make sure that we can respond to a nuclear scenario with appropriate codes.

Why did you say that no apology was necessary in the Hiroshima visit?
I didn’t want there to be a lot of drama about this question. We felt that it was just simpler to say we are not going to second guess our leaders, nor are we going to take an accounting of all the aspects of this. We are just going to speak about this terrible event here and try to put in words what lessons we should learn from that.

Is there any chance President Obama will visit Nagasaki?
He will not be able to visit Nagasaki during his time in office. We have very limited time left to travel. I can’t speak for his future plans, but I’m sure he will be interested to visit.

(Originally published on July 8, 2016)