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Evaluating the Visit to Hiroshima

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What are we to make of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima? To my ear, President Obama’s speech was oddly unequal to the occasion – and not just because he signaled no new efforts to move in the direction of his aspirational goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama was obliged to repeat this goal at Hiroshima; offering nothing by way of recommitment was one of the reasons why his words fell flat.

Granted, this was not the time or place for a policy-oriented speech, but Administration officials have given no indication of renewed efforts to follow up on the President’s remarks. A president who insists on sprinting to the finish line of his second term on other agenda items appears to have run out of steam when it comes to reducing nuclear dangers and weapons. Perhaps he feels that the Iran nuclear deal and the Nuclear Security Summit during his last year are sufficient for his baton pass. Or perhaps he is ill-served by aides suffering from Battered Arms Controller Syndrome. One sure indicator of BACS is the defensive crouch that results from dealing with opponents who have succeeded in rolling back ambitious policy objectives and who now focus on dismantling hard-won gains. Having served in the Carter Administration, I know the feeling. Another signs of BACS is not communicating openly with domestic allies because there is no good news to convey.

When Mr. Obama truly rises to the occasion, his words soar and his spirit moves. His trip to Hiroshima was meaningful, but his words didn’t soar. Instead, I sensed a president fully aware of the painful irony of getting trapped in paying a very steep price for securing the Senate’s consent to extremely modest reductions in New START – a term that the Administration has tellingly backed away from.

President Nixon enthusiastically linked new starts in strategic offensive arms in return for reaching accords on strategic offensive and defensive systems. Successive presidents have felt obliged to engage in this domestic bargaining process, with the exception of Republican presidents in office during (or after) the precipitous decline and the fall of the Soviet Union. Democratic presidents have been especially unwilling prisoners of this dynamic – none more so than Mr. Obama. Convincing words at Hiroshima couldn’t be found without convincing actions to roll back programs that the Pentagon cannot afford. Mr. Obama seems unwilling to do this. Nor has he explained why.

President Obama sidestepped the apology at Hiroshima that some wanted and others could not abide. I approach this issue, as you might expect, from an institutional as well as a personal perspective. Henry L. Stimson was the Secretary of War who advised President Harry Truman to drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities. Stimson later wrote about his calculus of decision, calling it “the least abhorrent choice.” There were still twelve million U.S. servicemen in uniform at the time of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Three-quarters of a million soldiers were preparing to invade Honshu to secure Japan’s unconditional surrender. War hawks in the Imperial Cabinet refused to accept defeat. The brutal fighting on Okinawa, during which the first atomic bomb was being assembled on Tinian Island, resulted in 75,000 U.S. casualties, including 20,000 deaths.

During World War II, Stimson’s name was signed (by auto-pen, I believe) at the bottom of over 416,000 letters of condolence to the families of U.S. servicemen. I have one of these letters. It was sent to my grandmother for the son she lost during the Italian campaign at Anzio – the uncle I am named after. My father-in-law received two Purple Hearts for parachuting into close combat in the Philippines and New Guinea. I cannot imagine what trials these men and their brothers in arms experienced. Truman and Stimson had one priority above all others: to end the war as quickly as possible.

History does not heal deep wounds. Individuals heal wounds, with help from their leaders. Mr. Obama has taken an important step by visiting Hiroshima. The Japanese people received him with introspection and courtesy. I hope my fellow citizens will do the same when a Japanese Prime Minister has the courage to visit Pearl Harbor.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk, May 31, 2016.

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