Summer of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima: Perspective of the nation that dropped the atomic bombs, Part 2

Part 2: Understanding about civilian victims is shown

by Yumi Kanazaki and Kohei Okata, Staff Writers

The United States dropped an atomic bomb on human beings for the first time in history on August 6, 1945. Scores of civilians were killed in the attack on Hiroshima. In the speech made by President Barack Obama in the A-bombed city on May 27, he alluded to this fact by mourning “over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans...”

In an exclusive interview on July 6, the Chugoku Shimbun asked Ben Rhodes, 38, deputy assistant to the president, the following question: “When crafting the speech, did you consider the possibility that President Obama’s remarks could be interpreted to mean that the use of the atomic bombs was an indiscriminate attack on civilians, which was already prohibited under international law in 1945, and therefore his words might be criticized in the United States?” Mr. Rhodes replied, “We didn’t review the nature of international law in 1945 and consider that possibility.”

Deeply-rooted justification for A-bomb attacks

Mr. Rhodes said he wanted the speech to stress that the leaders of the nations involved in World War II were pursuing actions that produced civilian deaths and that the atomic bombings were the most extreme use of the technology then available. “The combination of our impulse to engage in war and having this technology (of nuclear weapons) is going to lead back to the tragedy we saw in Hiroshima,” he said. He added that this is the reason Mr. Obama said in his speech that we need to abide by international law and continue to develop appropriate laws and institutions, but also that we need a moral awakening.

The argument that the atomic bombings were justified is deeply rooted in the United States. If Mr. Obama had suggested that the atomic bombings were against international law, the legacy of his visit to the A-bombed city would have come under criticism. Since the time Mr. Obama’s plan to visit Hiroshima was announced, the administration maintained the position of “not second guessing what our leaders did in those very difficult circumstances.”

Harry S. Truman, who was the U.S. president 71 years ago, issued a statement 16 hours after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. “An American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.” He praised the science that created the bomb that achieved “a revolutionary increase in destruction,” while avoiding the impression that civilians had been killed. Compared to this statement, Mr. Obama’s speech demonstrates that he seeks to understand the human tragedy of the event.

Both “have shown sensitivity”

The same can be said of what Mr. Rhodes remembers about the Hiroshima visit. On their route from Hiroshima Heliport to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, they saw crowds of people from their car windows, lining the streets to welcome the president. Mr. Rhodes said, “That brought on a flood of emotions.” He remembers a boy who was smiling and holding a sign that said, “Welcome to Hiroshima.” “You think about what would have happened to that boy 71 years ago,” he added.

“I think both Mr. Obama and Mr. Rhodes have shown sensitivity,” said Setsuko Thurlow, 84, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing who now lives in Toronto, Canada. She came to feel this way after she heard directly from Mr. Rhodes about how he felt in Hiroshima when she attended a meeting of an American think tank held in Washington D.C. on June 6, to which Mr. Rhodes was also invited.

She said to Mr. Rhodes, “I will accept the president’s apology if he makes one. But even if he doesn’t, I understand, considering the political environment in the United States.”

One month after that meeting, Ms. Thurlow told the Chugoku Shimbun why she, as a survivor, has emphasized the importance of an apology. She said, “By rights, the president should apologize. We should not forget our anger over this injustice done to human beings, which enables us to act with positive energy so that no one else will have to face the same kind of suffering.”

Excerpts from President Barack Obama’s speech in Hiroshima

Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.

And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.

In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die. Men, women, children, no different than us. Shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death.

Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

(Originally published on July 14, 2016)