Summer of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima: Perspective of the nation that dropped the atomic bombs, Part 1

Part 1: True nature of tragedy cannot be conveyed in words

by Yumi Kanazaki and Kohei Okata, Staff Writers

Prior to the 71st anniversary of the U.S. A-bomb attack on Hiroshima, Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit the city on May 27. The intentions of his visit were to mourn the victims of the atomic bombing and to express to the world his determination to pursue a world without nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama spent a total of 52 minutes at the Peace Memorial Park. How did he seek to accomplish these aims through this brief visit? The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed Ben Rhodes, 38, the deputy assistant to the president, and other presidential aides, to capture the true picture of Mr. Obama’s presence in Hiroshima.

Speech rewritten many times

“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed.”

“That was the first line, which he wrote completely on his own. The line I had written was much less beautiful, and he made it better,” said Mr. Rhodes in an exclusive interview with the Chugoku Shimbun held at the White House in Washington D.C. on July 6. According to Mr. Rhodes, who also wrote the speech Mr. Obama made in Prague in 2009, Mr. Obama wrote his own words in the margin of the draft, and the opening sentence was completed.

Mr. Obama is known as a powerful speaker. He rewrote the draft of his Hiroshima speech many times, which he does not normally do, said Mr. Rhodes. By opening his speech with this poetic phrase, he was able to immediately draw in his audience.

Mr. Obama described the moment after the bomb exploded as “A flash of light and a wall of fire.” Mr. Rhodes, in referring to the many accounts of A-bomb survivors that he read, gathered by Mr. Obama’s research team, felt that all the stories were different and that what happened that day could “never really be described.” Thus, Mr. Obama seemed to believe that the enormity of the moment should be captured in more general terms.

But the speech did not expressly say that it was the United States that dropped the atomic bomb. Asked about this point, Mr. Rhodes said, “I think that everybody knows who dropped it. The president wanted to reach for more poetic language and phrasing.”

During his short time in the Peace Memorial Museum, Mr. Obama was apparently most impressed by the artifacts he saw, including a beautiful display of paper cranes.

Symbol of inhumanity of nuclear weapons

Mr. Obama spent 10 minutes in the museum. Only a few of those minutes were spent looking at specially-selected personal effects and photos of victims in the lobby on the first floor of the museum’s east building. Among these displays, Mr. Obama was said to be especially moved by the paper cranes and remarked how beautiful they were. The cranes were made by Sadako Sasaki, who was two years old at the time of the bombing and died of A-bomb-induced leukemia 10 years later. Mr. Obama was impressed by the paper cranes she folded in her sickbed while praying for a recovery. He then surprised those who were present by giving origami cranes he had made to a local elementary school student and a junior high school student at the museum.

But those beautiful paper cranes are also a symbol of the inhumanity of nuclear weapons. Despite the fact that some people survived the atomic bombing, their genes were damaged by radiation, forcing them to suffer for years. In his speech, Mr. Obama did not mention this aspect of the consequences of using nuclear weapons.

But the White House sought to make this visit an opportunity “to encounter the different parts of the story,” even though time was short. For this reason, after delivering his speech, Mr. Obama walked over to the A-bomb survivors who were seated in the front row, among the audience, and briefly interacted with them. These survivors were Sunao Tsuboi, 91, a co-chairperson of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations, and Shigeaki Mori, 79, a local historian.

“They both felt a great deal of responsibility to speak for the larger group of survivors,” said Mr. Rhodes. “We reaffirmed their opposition to nuclear weapons.” A month and a half after his visit of May 27, the people of Hiroshima have not yet gained a clear sense of how Mr. Obama interpreted the significance of this city through his experience seeing what the victims left behind and exchanging words with some survivors of the attack.

Excerpts from President Barack Obama’s speech in Hiroshima

Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.

Some day, the voices of the hibakusha will no longer be with us to bear witness. But the memory of the morning of August 6, 1945, must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change.

(Originally published on July 13, 2016)