Kerry's Visit to Hiroshima Nuclear Site Tests Waters for Obama

  • He becomes top-ranked U.S. official to visit atomic bomb site
  • Kerry, G-7 ministers make call for nuclear disarmament

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, is shown the way by Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida after laying a wreath at the Memorial Cenotaph for the 1945 atomic bombing victims in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on April 11, 2016.

Photographer: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP via Getty Images

Seventy-one years after a U.S. atomic bomb devastated the city of Hiroshima, John Kerry become the first incumbent Secretary of State to pay tribute to the tens of thousands of victims in the western Japanese city.

Kerry, the highest-ranked U.S. official to visit the site, placed a wreath of white flowers at a monument in the city’s peace memorial park on the sidelines of a meeting of the Group of 7 foreign ministers. His British and French counterparts also paid their respects -- the first time that serving foreign ministers of nuclear powers will commemorate one of the final acts of World War II. The ministers also toured the peace museum, which features graphic images of the aftermath of the bombing.

“It is a gut-wrenching display, it tugs at all of your sensibilities as a human being, it reminds everybody of the extraordinary complexity of choices in war and what war does to people, communities, to countries, to the world," Kerry said later in the day.

Kerry may be testing the water for a potential trip to the city by President Barack Obama when he visits Japan for a G-7 leaders summit in late May. The bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later, is widely seen in the U.S. as having prevented a bloodier land battle and hastening the end of the Pacific War. A trip by the president could stir controversy at home and trigger debate among the candidates seeking to become his successor.

"Kerry’s visit, following visits by U.S. ambassadors and other officials, suggests that a presidential visit is increasingly inevitable," said Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence. "But the fact is that the president going to the memorial and, presumably, offering a statement could have unpredictable consequences at home, given that the politics of the U.S. atomic bombings is still fraught."

Kerry said that he planned to tell Obama “how important it is at some point to come here.” Obama wanted to visit the site if his schedule permits, Kerry said. Obama hasn’t been to Hiroshima on any of his previous three visits to Japan as president.

‘Hiroshima Declaration’

At their meeting, the G-7 foreign ministers issued a “Hiroshima Declaration” calling for creating a “world without nuclear weapons in a way that promotes international stability.”

Japan sees momentum toward nonproliferation as slowing, and the government was keen to use the Hiroshima meeting to put the issue at the top of the G-7 agenda. 

About 80,000 people were killed instantly when the Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber, dropped the device on Hiroshima. Tens of thousands more died from injuries and exposure to radiation, with many surviving victims of the attack still receiving government support today. The subsequent strike on Nagasaki killed an estimated 40,000 people and led to an unprecedented radio address six days later by then Emperor Hirohito in which he announced Japan’s unconditional surrender, citing the devastating power of a “new and most cruel bomb.”

U.S.-Japan Alliance

In the aftermath of World War II, Japan became a stalwart ally of the U.S. in the region and is currently home to about 50,000 U.S. troops, the military’s biggest foreign deployment. Japan serves as headquarters for the Seventh Fleet and served as a staging area for U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam and during the Korean War.

Anti-nuclear and pacifist sentiment are strong in Japan, where passions ran high last year when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed through parliament legislation to expand the role of the country’s military. While covered by the U.S.’s so-called nuclear umbrella, Japan in 1967 adopted three non-nuclear principles that state the country shall not possess, produce nor permit the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japanese territory.

"Maybe Obama and the U.S. would understand the devastation that nuclear weapons cause if he came here," said Seiji Tsuji, 74, a representative of the atomic bomb survivors who volunteers at Hiroshima’s peace museum. "It’s not for us to point fingers at the U.S. but to make a contribution to world peace."

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, a native of Hiroshima, said Monday that while momentum is slowing on disarmament, the declaration was an important step toward a nuclear-free world.

Kerry used the Hiroshima trip to offer an olive branch to North Korea, saying the U.S. was willing to negotiate a peace deal for the Korean Peninsula and offer economic aid to the government in Pyongyang in return for nuclear disarmament. “We are waiting for that opportunity,” he said.

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