After lifting bans to sell weapons to the Vietnamese, Obama headed over to Japan to tell the world to get their morality in order. Is there any irony in that?
President Obama came face to face with the horror of nuclear war Friday in a somber visit to Hiroshima, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to tour the site of the atomic bombing 71 years ago that killed tens of thousands in an instant and ushered in the nuclear age.
In a sweeping address that reflected on the obligations of humankind, Obama wrestled with the inherent contradiction that centuries of technical advancement have both made it easier to bind people together and given them the capacity for the carnage seen in this city. And he confronted the cold reality that his own goal of a world without nuclear firepower remains frustratingly out of reach.
Speaking slowly and solemnly, a tempo that seemed intended to underline his reach for history, the president noted that as battlefield weapons and tactics evolve, accompanying norms about whether to use them advances only in fits and starts.
“Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us,” Obama warned. “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.”
Obama did not apologize for the nuclear attacks here and in the city of Nagasaki, strikes he believes ended the perils of Japanese aggression and brought about the end of World War II.
But, as the leader of the only country ever to have deployed nuclear weapons, Obama said it is the duty of those who hold terrible power to accept the consequences of its use.
“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,” he said, using the Japanese term for survivors of the nuclear blasts.
The Peace Memorial park he visited Friday afternoon marks the darkest days of Hiroshima, where about 350,000 Japanese civilians and military personnel were living on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the bomb fell.
An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 people were killed instantly and tens of thousands more died from the effects of radiation in the months and years that followed. Among the dead were thousands of junior high school students mobilized to clear fire breaks in preparation for conventional bombings like those that had hit other Japanese cities in the weeks leading up to Aug. 6.
When the Enola Gay deployed the uranium bomb known as Little Boy over the city, though, it unleashed a blast thousands of times more powerful. Though only a fraction of its 110 pounds of fissile material actually underwent fission, its force nevertheless was equal to about 16,000 tons of more typical explosives.
Within a three-quarter-mile radius, virtually everyone died. Glass bottles melted and only a few concrete buildings remained standing.
On Friday, the president spent only a few minutes inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which features disturbing relics of the bombing, including singed and torn clothing worn by students burned in the bombing, and even nails and skin of a junior high school boy that were kept as relics by his mother after he died.
There he viewed a display for Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who survived the bombing and, while battling the leukemia she contracted as a result of radiation exposure, would fold paper cranes, a symbol of longevity in Japan.
A long-held belief among some Japanese is that by folding 1,000 paper cranes, one can achieve long life. Children present wreaths of paper cranes in the park in Hiroshima in Sadako’s memory; Obama gave two of his own to local schoolchildren, and then left two more alongside his inscription in the museum guest book.