President Barack Obama’s announcement that he would visit Hiroshima at the tail end of a two-day summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent ripples throughout the Japanese American community, and rightly so — he would be the first sitting president to stand at ground zero of the world’s first nuclear attack.
Those hoping that the president might revisit or even apologize for the decision to drop an atomic bomb on a major metropolitan area were quickly disappointed, however, by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. When asked whether President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima constituted an informal apology for the bombing, Earnest quickly replied, “If people do interpret it that way, they’ll be interpreting it wrongly.”
Ben Rhodes, the country’s deputy national security advisor and one of President Obama’s top aides, performed a similar stifling maneuver a few days later, writing on his personal blog that Obama “will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II.” “Instead,” the entry continues, “he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.”
These euphemisms like “forward-looking vision” are characteristic of Oval Office jargon — rhetorical waltzing that allows politicians to wriggle out of sticking to a particular stance, especially when that stance is contentious. Something like a “forward-looking vision” is pleasant to the ear, but what does it actually mean? Does it mean anything at all?
We might examine an editorial written by the president himself and published by the Washington Post in March for an explanation.
In the piece, Obama writes, “Even as the United States maintains a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal to deter any adversary and ensure the security of our allies, I’ve reduced the number and role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. I also have ruled out developing new nuclear warheads and narrowed the contingencies under which the United States would ever use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.”
While it is true that he has reduced the total number of nuclear weapons in the country’s arsenal, Obama neglected to mention that his administration has embarked on a massive campaign of “modernizing” the nuclear stockpile — refurbishing outdated missiles and warheads and improving their destructive capabilities — and is in the process of spending $1 trillion to do it.
In a 2014 study authored by John Wolfsthal, former nuclear advisor to VP Joe Biden, and published by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, an NGO partnered with Middlebury College, Wolfsthal writes, “Over the next 30 years, the United States plans to spend approximately $1 trillion maintaining the current arsenal, buying replacement systems and upgrading existing nuclear bombs and warheads.”
In light of this revelation, the total number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal does not matter nearly so much as the vastly increased capabilities of those weapons, and Obama’s claim that he is leading the fight for a nuclear-free world rings a bit hollow.
The White House’s refusal to even contemplate issuing an apology for dropping the bomb strikes me as odd, considering President Obama has fashioned himself as some sort of crusader for a nuclear-free world.
In a 2009 speech delivered in Prague, he stated, “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act”; in the aforementioned Washington Post editorial, he wrote, “Of all the threats to global security and peace, the most dangerous is the proliferation and potential use of nuclear weapons.”
How can you reconcile these convictions — that nuclear weapons represent the single greatest threat to human existence, that the world would be a better and safer place without them — with the continued insistence that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the right course of action, given the alternatives?
You can argue that Obama was not the one who made the decision to use the atomic bomb, that it was the doing of his predecessor some 70 years ago and there is nothing he can do about it now, nothing except visit the city that was reduced to dust in an instant and whose inhabitants vanished in a flash of light and get up on a podium and speak vaguely of “forward-thinking visions.”
But he can do much more than that. He can do more to further his aspirations for a nuclear-free world by revisiting and re-evaluating our country’s decision to use the bomb, instead of delivering euphemistic pats on the back that conceal sinister truths about his administration’s nuclear policy.
It’s time the U.S. owned up to its legacy as the only nation in human history to have used a nuclear weapon. Owning up does not necessarily equate to an apology, but it’s important for us to face the facts.
The facts are that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the stunning military feats that saved untold millions of U.S. servicemen’s lives that they are often made out to be. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilian centers, cities that were home to military headquarters, munitions factories and arms stockpiles, but also hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.
The world will be watching when Obama visits Hiroshima. Some want him to issue an apology; others find even the possibility of him doing so offensive.
The debate over the decision to use the bomb is about contentious and as bitter as debates get, and rightly so — it was a moment that changed history forever, the moment that existential dread on a planetary scale entered human consciousness. And a moment of such consequence should be approached with candor and lucidity.
We should demand that our leaders be straight with us about their nuclear policy. We should identify rhetorical smokescreens when we see them and hold our president to his promise to do all he can to ensure that Hiroshima never happens again.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.