- U.S. president, Japan’s leader Abe visit Hiroshima bomb site
- Leaders lay wreaths, urge countries to cut nuclear weapons
Nearly 71 years after U.S. forces dropped a devastating nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, President Barack Obama used the backdrop of the city’s memorial peace park to call for a world without such weapons.
“That is a future we can choose,” Obama said in a speech on Friday after laying a wreath at the site, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by his side. “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.”
While not apologizing for America’s use of atomic weapons during World War II, Obama expressed remorse for the human toll of that war, and others throughout human history. He said the souls of the innocents who died “speak to us” and call for introspection about how to restrict the use of defense technology.
The Aug. 6, 1945 bombing of Hiroshima decimated 90 percent of the city and killed 80,000 people on the spot. More died later from the effects of radiation, bringing the death toll to 140,000.
Obama called on countries like the U.S. that have nuclear weapons to “have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.”
After his speech, the president spent several minutes talking with survivors of the bombing. Obama held the hand of 81-year-old Sunao Tsuboi, who survived the blast as a college student. Tsuboi is the chairman of the Hiroshima Prefectural Confederation of A-bomb Sufferers Organization.
“We have known the agony of war,” Obama wrote in the guest book at the memorial site. “Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.”
Obama and Abe both used their speeches to praise the Japan-U.S. relationship, saying the countries had forged a strong friendship. Japan is one of the biggest U.S. allies in Asia, and a buffer against the expanded military reach of China in the region.
Abe also called for countries to work harder to get rid of nuclear weapons, saying the Hiroshima experience must not be repeated anywhere.
“Not only the people of Hiroshima, but all Japanese people hoped for this historic visit, and I welcome it from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “I want to express my respect for the decisiveness and courage shown by President Obama in engraving a new page in the history of the reconciliation, trust and friendship between Japan and the U.S.”
After a peak in the 1980s of more than 60,000 warheads stockpiled worldwide, the number has been on a downward trajectory. It declined by about 2,000 since Obama became president in 2009 to a low of 9,920 in 2014, the most recent year available, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The U.S. is the biggest stockpiler of nuclear weapons, followed by Russia.
“He seeks to give momentum to his retirement agenda on non-proliferation and disarmament by reminding everyone what is at stake, as is vividly and excruciatingly on display in Hiroshima,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo, referring to Obama. “Where better to find inspiration for his quest?”
China, which has a tense relationship with neighbor Japan over history and territorial matters, said beforehand it hoped the visit would lead Japan to reflect on the causes of World War II.
“We should always keep in mind that it is the war of aggression waged by the Japanese militarists that inflicted grave sufferings on the Asian people and put the Japanese people including those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in untold misery,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Thursday at a briefing.
With the threat of North Korea and Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and U.S. allies looking for defense, Obama may have a hard time accomplishing his goal. In 2009 in Prague, he called for a world without such bombs.
A nuclear-free world is less likely now than when Obama took office, said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security. “Right now disarmament measures between the United States and Russia are not terribly conceivable,” he said.
The U.S. will be refurbishing its nuclear weapons and rebuilding its delivery systems, he said. “And then the future of the nuclear security summits, which has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s efforts, are very much in doubt and whether that will continue past the Obama administration is anybody’s guess.”