Looking back on President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, and nuclear issues, in 2016

by Kohei Okata, Staff Writer

“We must have the courage to pursue a world without nuclear weapons.” The solemn voice of the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima echoed over the city that was annihilated by an atomic bomb. On the evening of May 27, 2016, at the Peace Memorial Park, U.S. President Barack Obama made a profound appearance in the city of Hiroshima 71 years after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city.

During his first visit to Japan as president, in November 2009, Mr. Obama expressed his desire to visit the A-bombed cities out of a keen interest in nuclear issues. Initially, on August 6, 2010, he dispatched the U.S. ambassador to Japan to attend the annual Peace Memorial Ceremony in Hiroshima. Then, in April 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came to Hiroshima to take part in the G7 Foreign Ministers Meeting held in the city. So it seems that Mr. Obama made the decision to become the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima after giving the idea careful thought while closely watching reactions both at home and abroad.

No words of apology

Behind the U.S. government’s cautious attitude toward the president’s visit to Hiroshima was the deeply-rooted belief among the American people that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 71 years ago were justified. Therefore, after the announcement was made that Mr. Obama would be visiting Hiroshima, the Japanese and U.S. governments promptly emphasized that the president’s visit was intended to mourn for the victims who lost their lives to the atomic bombings. They also stressed the significance of a forward-looking approach, and thus sought to dispel concerns over the idea of apologizing for the A-bomb attacks.

When Mr. Obama appeared in the Peace Memorial Park on May 27, he offered flowers at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims and closed his eyes in observance. His poetic speech from the city, which he revised with his own hand, was a surprisingly lengthy 17 minutes. After he spoke, he interacted briefly with some representatives of the A-bomb survivors. The president’s humane and compassionate actions were well received by the people of Hiroshima, despite the fact no apology was offered.

In an exclusive interview with the Chugoku Shimbun in July, Ben Rhodes, the deputy assistant to the president and one of his closest aides, said that he helped incorporate into Mr. Obama’s speech “a moral mission out of the visit to Hiroshima to encourage the pursuit for nuclear disarmament.” He went on to say that he felt the president’s visit was a success. While it is true that this visit provided a valuable opportunity to raise awareness of the A-bombed cities and nuclear issues at home and abroad, the historic value of Mr. Obama’s appearance in Hiroshima remains uncertain due to the impasses in nuclear disarmament efforts.

Fear of a nuclear arms race

The speech Mr. Obama made in Hiroshima included no concrete measures for how the United States will reduce its own nuclear arsenal. Even so, A-bomb survivors’ hopes for nuclear abolition were raised when the U.S. media reported in July that the Obama administration was considering a no-first-use declaration, which limits the use of nuclear arms to a response against a nuclear strike. The thinking behind this involves a lower state of alert among the nuclear powers, which would thus reduce the risk of a nuclear missile being launched in error.

However, no such declaration was issued, and as a result of Republican Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, the chance of a no-first-use declaration being made by his administration is very slim. In addition, opposition that came from American allies, including Japan, who worry that the nuclear deterrent might be weakened, made the effort to issue the declaration unrealistic.

In October, the First Committee (on Disarmament and International Security) at the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution to begin negotiations on establishing “a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.” The United States, however, opposed this resolution and pressed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations to take this position, too. Japan also stood by the U.S. government in opposing the resolution. On December 22, Mr. Trump went to Twitter and posted a tweet about strengthening the U.S. nuclear arsenal, creating the possibility that the next U.S. administration may set off a new arms race with Russia.

Soon the Japanese leader and the American leader will appear together at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit is viewed as “reciprocating” Mr. Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. Amid these conditions, will the two leaders convey messages of pursuing a path toward the abolition of nuclear weapons and the attainment of lasting peace in the world? At the end of 2016, the people of Hiroshima are closely eyeing Mr. Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor.


U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima
U.S. President Barack Obama arrived at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park at 5:24 p.m. on May 27. In the Peace Memorial Museum’s East Building, he looked at personal effects of A-bomb victims and paper cranes folded by Sadako Sasaki, a girl who lost her life due to leukemia 10 years after she was exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb. President Obama handed paper cranes that he himself had made to an elementary school student and a junior high school student, one for each, then placed two other paper cranes next to the message he wrote in the museum’s guest book. After that, he offered flowers at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims. The speech he made subsequently, in front of the Cenotaph, was attended by some 100 people who were invited by the Japanese and U.S. governments. After gazing at the A-bomb Dome from the opposite side of the Motoyasu River, Mr. Obama left the Peace Memorial Park at 6:16 in the evening.

(Originally published on December 25, 2016)