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“Words of A-bomb survivors powerful;” former President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in 2016

Decision made a week before the trip, persuaded by Ambassador Kennedy


On May 27 last year, U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Hiroshima, becoming the first incumbent U.S. president to visit the city. In early May, about a week before the trip was officially announced, Obama, despite cautious arguments within the White House, made the final decision at a meeting in the Oval Office with his aides, including National Security Council (NSC) staffers, sources revealed on Aug. 2. Caroline Kennedy, then U.S. ambassador to Japan, played a key role in persuading the president to visit Hiroshima, the sources said. Obama visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where he saw photo panels showing the city of Hiroshima before and after it was atomic bombed, and he also saw a Buddhist statue blown off its pedestal in the explosion, with its front side melted in flames. This was disclosed by former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and other U.S. government insiders ahead of Aug. 6 to mark the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Rhodes said that Kennedy was “passionate” about this issue and “played a significant role as a driving force.” He also said Obama gave his impressions after visiting Hiroshima, quoting him as saying his meeting with two A-bomb survivors “was the most powerful event of the visit.” The following is an interview with Rhodes:


Former President Obama who visited Hiroshima in May last year as the first sitting U.S. president has a long history of addressing the issue of nuclear weapons. He became interested in nuclear disarmament when he was a student. As a senator, he exerted efforts to protect and preserve nuclear substances across the world. During his presidential campaign, Obama advocated a policy of pursuing “a world without nuclear weapons.” 


Obama decided to make the nuclear issue the top priority during his first trip abroad after he was sworn in as president. This was because the momentum for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation remained stagnant at that time in 2009.


In his address delivered in Prague in April 2009, Obama focused on having people recognize the threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. As Iran was about to become a nuclear power at that time, Obama made two points in his speech – the enhancement of a nonproliferation posture and the conclusion of a nuclear disarmament treaty between the U.S. and Russia to set an example.


Obama said: “As the only country that used nuclear weapons, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We will seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” This part of the speech was Obama’s own idea. Although former President Kennedy and former President Reagan also called for a world without nuclear weapons, the phrase disappeared from their speeches thereafter.


Behind the words “moral responsibility,” there is an idea that the U.S. as the first and only nation that used a nuclear weapon is more “responsible” than other countries for taking the lead in the abolition and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. In light of what actually happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the issue of nuclear weapons is not only a security matter but also a moral issue. Obama apparently focused on the factor of morality.


Visiting Hiroshima first became a subject for consideration when President Obama’s visit to Japan was scheduled for November 2009. As this was a short visit, the president’s visit to the city was not planned for this trip but he showed us his interest in visiting Hiroshima and indicated he wouldn’t close “the door of possibility.” 


To my surprise, the United States had not sent a delegation to the annual Peace Memorial Ceremony held in Hiroshima (on Aug. 6). In 2010, then-Ambassador Roos visited Hiroshima. After that, Ambassador Kennedy and Secretary of State Kerry visited there to pave the way for President Obama’s visit. There was such a sequence for the president’s actual visit to Hiroshima.


Every time a U.S. president visited Japan, a visit to Hiroshima was considered. When the decision for Japan to host the 2016 G-7 summit meeting was made, the president’s visit to Hiroshima became a subject of discussion. Some voiced concerns, with one of them saying “the president’s visit could invite criticism or become a point of political contention in the U.S.”


However, what advanced the process was that President Obama kept indicating his interest in visiting the city, saying “I am interested in visiting Hiroshima.” Obama thought that he would willingly accept criticism and was not as cautious as other politicians about facing history. Ambassador Kennedy played a significant role as a driving force on this matter. She was passionate about this issue.


The reason why the president did not apologize is that he thought that showing his respect to A-bomb survivors and bereaved families was the purpose of his visit to Hiroshima. The issue of apology would have become controversial (as to whether dropping an atomic bomb was right or wrong), which would have touched a nerve of the American people.


After the visit, President Obama said his meeting with two A-bomb survivors was the most powerful event. One of them told the president that he had been waiting for a U.S. president’s visit throughout his life, and his words were especially powerful, I heard.


If people lose interest in what Hiroshima presents, mankind will use a nuclear weapon again. In light of technological advancement, unless we maintain our commitment to abolish nuclear weapons, we will end up arriving at “another Hiroshima.”


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