Barack Obama’s Historic Hiroshima Visit

Politics Society

On the afternoon of May 27, 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, site of the world’s first atomic bombing. Accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, he laid flowers at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims. He then delivered a speech to an audience including hibakusha bomb survivors and the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, offering his prayers for all victims of World War II and reiterating his desire to pursue a world without nuclear weapons.

More than seven decades have passed since the bomb code-named Little Boy was dropped on the city on August 6, 1945, ushering in the nuclear age—one marked by the fear of this new type of weapon. Today’s visit to Hiroshima by the leader of the only nation ever to have used atomic bombs in war and his prayer offered to the dead represent, according to Hiroshima Mayor Matsui Kazumi, “a historic first step toward an international effort toward abolishing nuclear weapons, which is a wish of all mankind.”

From the Summit to the Cenotaph

US President Barack Obama speaks in Hiroshima on May 27, 2016. (© Jiji)

President Obama was in Japan for the Group of Seven summit meeting, which took place on May 26–27 in Ise-Shima, Mie Prefecture, some 400 kilometers to the east of Hiroshima. Following a Thursday morning visit to Ise Shrine, where Prime Minister Abe welcomed his counterparts to Japan, the leaders engaged in two days of meetings and working meals before wrapping up the summit with a joint statement focusing on the global economy, as well as regional security issues, climate change, and other challenges facing their countries.

President Obama flew from the summit venue to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, a short distance from Hiroshima, where he addressed the Marines briefly, thanking them for their defense of freedom and their disaster relief efforts following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku and the quakes last month in Kumamoto. The president and Prime Minister Abe then rejoined in Hiroshima, where they paid their respects together at the Cenotaph.

There Obama delivered a speech in which he stated: “We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.” Noting that the Hiroshima dead included “over 100,000 Japanese men, women, and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner,” he called on “the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies” as a stark reminder that humanity’s genius and scientific curiosity have all too often produced inhumanity as their result.

A Long-Awaited Visit

Reactions to Obama’s comments were warm, as has been the reaction to his early May announcement that he would become the first sitting US president to visit the city after wrapping up the G7 events. Hibakusha representatives who were on hand responded positively, and 91-year-old Tsuboi Sunao, a bomb survivor and cochair of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, spoke with the president for some moments following his speech, gripping his hand and embracing him before Obama left.

President Obama exchanges words with the hibakusha Tsuboi Sunao after his speech. (© Jiji)

The amateur historian Mori Shigeaki, who spent decades tracking down the families of 12 American prisoners of war who died in the Hiroshima bombing, was one of a small group of guests invited to hear Obama’s speech.

Hibakusha and historian Mori Shigeaki receives thanks for finding the families of American A-bomb victims and having their names inscribed on the list of hibakusha. (© Jiji)

“Few people in the United States know about their countrymen who died in Hiroshima,” Mori told on the morning before the president’s arrival. “When President Obama lays flowers at the memorial today, I hope it opens a path for more Americans to learn the truth about their own soldiers killed by the bomb.” Following the speech, the president thanked Mori for his tireless work to bring the truth about the American bomb victims to their families, embracing him as well.

Another Call for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons

Over the years Japan has stressed its status as the only country to come under nuclear attack, calling on world leaders to visit the bombed cities. From nuclear-armed states, Mikhail Gorbachev visited Nagasaki in 1991, during his term as president of the Soviet Union, and Hiroshima a year later, after leaving office. Former US President Jimmy Carter paid his respects at Hiroshima in 1984.

Japan was not looking for an official apology from President Obama during his visit today, and none was offered. Also left unmentioned in his speech at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was the question of whether the bombings had been justified.

One focus of his comments was rather on the threat to humanity posed by nuclear weapons and the need to find a path forward to doing away with them completely: “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.” In this he echoed his speech delivered in Prague in April 2009, just three months into his first term, when he stated “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” This stance, and his concrete steps toward nuclear arms reduction thereafter, won him the Nobel Peace Prize that year.

Obama’s Hiroshima visit today is the culmination of a willingness in recent years by US officials to attend ceremonies in the city. In 2010 John Roos became the first US ambassador to Japan to attend the annual remembrance ceremony held on August 6, the anniversary of the bombing. From 2012 onward the American ambassador has been a steady presence at the ceremonies held in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in April this year, Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Peace Memorial Park and toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum following the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting held in that city.

Below we carry the full text of President Obama’s remarks today.

Speech by US President Barack Obama

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.

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. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.

It is not the fact of war that sets Hiroshima apart. Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man. Our early ancestors, having learned to make blades from flint and spears from wood, used these tools not just for hunting, but against their own kind. On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war, whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold; compelled by nationalist fervor or religious zeal. Empires have risen and fallen. Peoples have been subjugated and liberated. And at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time.

The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. 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.

There are many sites around the world that chronicle this war—memorials that tell stories of courage and heroism; graves and empty camps that echo of unspeakable depravity. Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction; how the very spark that marks us as a species—our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our tool-making, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will—those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.

How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth. How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause. Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill. Nations arise, telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats, but those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds; to cure disease and understand the cosmos. But those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines.

The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. 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.

That is why we come to this place. We stand here, in the middle of this city, and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war, and the wars that came before, and the wars that would follow.

Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering, but we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again. Someday 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.

And since that fateful day, we have made choices that give us hope. The United States and Japan have forged not only an alliance, but a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war. The nations of Europe built a union that replaced battlefields with bonds of commerce and democracy. Oppressed peoples and nations won liberation. An international community established institutions and treaties that work to avoid war and aspire to restrict and roll back, and ultimately eliminate, the existence of nuclear weapons.

Still, every act of aggression between nations, every act of terror and corruption and cruelty and oppression that we see around the world, shows our work is never done. We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations—and the alliances that we have formed—must possess the means to defend ourselves. But 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. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. We can stop the spread to new nations and secure deadly materials from fanatics.

And yet that is not enough. For we see around the world today how even the crudest rifles and barrel bombs can serve up violence on a terrible scale. We must change our mind-set about war itself—to prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun; to see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition; to define our nations not by our capacity to destroy, but by what we build.

And perhaps above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race. For this, too, is what makes our species unique. We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story—one that describes a common humanity; one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.

We see these stories in the hibakusha—the woman who forgave a pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb because she recognized that what she really hated was war itself; the man who sought out families of Americans killed here, because he believed their loss was equal to his own.

My own nation’s story began with simple words: All men are created equal, and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Realizing that ideal has never been easy, even within our own borders, even among our own citizens.

But staying true to that story is worth the effort. It is an ideal to be strived for; an ideal that extends across continents and across oceans. The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious; the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family—that is the story that we all must tell.

That is why we come to Hiroshima. So that we might think of people we love—the first smile from our children in the morning; the gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table; the comforting embrace of a parent—we can think of those things and know that those same precious moments took place here 71 years ago. Those who died—they are like us. Ordinary people understand this, I think. They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life and not eliminating it.

When the choices made by nations, when the choices made by leaders, reflect this simple wisdom, then the lesson of Hiroshima is done.

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.

US President Barack Obama
May 27, 2016
Hiroshima, Japan

(Banner photo: US President Obama [right] shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō after laying flowers before the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims on May 27, 2016. © AP/Aflo.)
Further reading
The Japanese Historian Honoring Hiroshima’s American Dead New Documentary Film Portrays Mori Shigeaki’s Life Work Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park An introduction to the park that commemorates the bombing of the city with numerous monuments and facilities. World Heritage: Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (360° Panorama) Hiroshima as you’ve never seen it before—from the inside of the A-Bomb Dome, and much more.

Abe Shinzō Barack Obama Hiroshima atomic bomb G7