Summer of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima: Perspective of the nation that dropped the atomic bombs, Part 3

Part 3 : “Gap” between A-bombed sites and U.S. was hidden by stating disarmament mission without concrete measures

by Yumi Kanazaki and Kohei Okata, Staff Writers

On July 10, news from the United States made headlines around the world, with a report that U.S. President Barack Obama is considering a new nuclear policy before he leaves the White House in January 2017.

The central focus of the new policy is whether the United States will declare the “no first use” of nuclear weapons, a policy which limits the role of nuclear arms to be used only in response to a nuclear attack by another nation. If the U.S. government moves in this direction, domestic criticism, arguing that the new policy could weaken nuclear deterrence, would be fierce.

Making the Hiroshima visit a success

On July 6, a few days prior to this news, Jon B. Wolfsthal, the Senior Director of Arms Control and Nonproliferation for the National Security Council, stressed at the White House that they had persistently looked at ways to address the challenges cited by President Obama in the speech on nuclear weapons that he gave in Prague.

When Mr. Obama spoke in Prague, in April 2009, and advocated a world without nuclear weapons, he did not directly mention declaring the no-first-use policy. However, in an interview with the Chugoku Shimbun, Mr. Wolfsthal did not deny that such a declaration was one option for the new nuclear policy. He implied that they were making ongoing efforts to realize this intention.

Last May, however, when Mr. Obama spoke in Hiroshima, he made no references to concrete measures to advance nuclear disarmament. He reportedly made this decision because he did not want the opportunity to speak in Hiroshima to be used to explain new ideas for nuclear policy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe accompanied President Obama when he visited Hiroshima. If Mr. Obama had touched on any concrete measures, he could not have helped but include in his speech an assurance of the U.S. nuclear umbrella for Japan as well as criticism of North Korea’s nuclear development efforts, out of consideration for the Japanese government’s perspective. In order to make his historic visit to Hiroshima a success, Mr. Obama and his close advisers apparently felt it would be best not to refer to concrete measures involving nuclear policy when he spoke.

Mr. Wolfsthal has been engaged in nuclear issues, from a political perspective, for many years. With an understanding of Japan’s delicate stance, that it supports the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons but relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its security, he said the conclusion was reached that the president’s visit to Hiroshima could be effective not only in strengthening the Japan-U.S. security alliance but in promoting the vision of a reduced role for nuclear weapons.

As a result, the speech, lacking any concrete measures for nuclear abolition, was able to conceal the deep gap between the A-bombed sites and the United States regarding the means to eliminate nuclear arms. The U.S. government has continued to stick with the idea of pursuing nuclear disarmament in incremental steps, with the cooperation of other like-minded countries, while keeping an eye on its own national security. Meanwhile, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the A-bomb survivors, are appealing for a legal ban on nuclear weapons, alongside many of the non-nuclear nations.

Nuclear nations must have courage

If this is the case, what message did President Obama want to convey in his speech? Ben Rhodes, the deputy assistant to the president and his speech writer, said that Mr. Obama sought to make his visit to Hiroshima a moral mission for the world to continue to pursue nuclear disarmament. In concluding his speech, he said that, depending on the choice we make today, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.”

Mr. Rhodes said that he was affected by Mr. Obama’s thinking and has become more interested in nuclear disarmament issues. “There’s something about standing in the middle of the place that was completely destroyed, and envisioning what it was like to be there and thinking of the loss of life, that just makes you want to again come back and work harder.”

A-bomb survivors are now waiting for the next step that Mr. Obama will take to advance the abolition of nuclear weapons. The president said that the nations which hold nuclear stockpiles must have the courage to pursue a world without them. The survivors eagerly await the day when President Obama, the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima, puts his own words into practice.

Excerpts from President Obama’s speech in Hiroshima

Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them. We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe.

The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.

The entire transcript of the exclusive interview with Ben Rhodes, the deputy assistant to the president, is available here.

(Originally published on July 16, 2016)