What Obama Really Needs to Say in Hiroshima

When the first sitting U.S. president visits the memorial, Obama needs to remember the man he was back in 2009.


President Barack Obama will soon become the first sitting U.S. president to go to Hiroshima, the White House announced on Tuesday. Obama will go on May 27, just after the G-7 summit, to visit the historic city where the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later, the United States dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. All told, more than 200,000 people perished, mostly civilians.

Secretary of State John Kerry visited Hiroshima on April 11, the first of his rank to do so, in part to test the waters for Obama. “Everyone in the world should see and feel the power of this memorial,” Kerry wrote in a guest book after touring the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

The president’s visit is almost as controversial as the bombing itself. Ten presidents before Obama have avoided a trip that raises uncomfortable questions. Was the U.S. action justified? Were there alternatives? Should the United States apologize?

Yes, the president should go. Not to look back, but to look forward to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again. “This isn’t about questioning America’s responsibility for using nuclear weapons,” Tomihisa Taue, the mayor of Nagasaki, recently said. “It’s important to think about how to rid nuclear weapons from the world.” As Obama’s tenure comes to a close, this may be one of his last opportunities to deliver a major policy speech on nuclear weapons — one of his signature issues.

As Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security advisor, explained on Medium, the president’s trip “will reaffirm America’s longstanding commitment — and the President’s personal commitment — to pursue the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

But this is no time to play it safe.

The president created high expectations with his 2009 speech in Prague, where he spoke not just of stepped-up nonproliferation efforts, but of a world free from nukes. “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War,” Obama said, calling for “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” In part based on the high hopes embodied in this speech, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

To be sure, Obama has achieved a great deal on nuclear weapons. He negotiated the 2010 New START treaty with Moscow, modestly cutting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. And his administration spearheaded the Nuclear Security Summits, which started a still unfinished effort to lock down nuclear materials so terrorists can’t get them. Most importantly, Obama clinched the nuclear deal with Tehran, preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb without using military force.

But in other key areas, Team Obama has not delivered. The GOP-controlled Senate has still not approved the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty; Russia is blocking further bilateral arms reductions; Pakistan has thwarted international talks to ban the production of weaponized nuclear materials; and North Korea continues to grow its arsenal. Obama can point to Republicans, Russians, and other obstructionists for blocking these efforts, but in one major area he has only himself to blame — the $1 trillion plan to maintain and rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which experts warn is already sparking a new arms race.

True, Obama did say in Prague that he would maintain a “safe, secure, and effective” arsenal as long as nuclear weapons exist, but his plans to build new nuclear-armed submarines, bombers, and missiles go way beyond that. “[W]e’re now in the process of building a whole new generation of nuclear weapons…the public is unaware,” former Secretary of Defense William Perry tweeted recently. Even Obama has admitted as much, worrying that the United States may be “ramping up new and more deadly and more effective systems that end up leading to a whole new escalation of the arms race.”

As the New York Times put it, “The buildups threaten to revive a Cold War-era arms race and unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half-century.”

This is Prague in reverse. Instead of leading the world away from nuclear weapons, Obama is running toward new, deadlier ones. With every new submarine, bomber, and missile the United States builds, it is giving Russia and China an excuse to do the same and creating new security threats. India, Pakistan, and North Korea will follow. And the more weapons there are, the more opportunities there will be for terrorists to seize nuclear materials.

If Obama wants to fulfill his promises to “put an end to Cold War thinking” and “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,” he must do more.

And he can, even as his time in office winds down. Obama is still the commander in chief of U.S. nuclear forces, weapons that can only be used under his authority. He can change operational procedures with the stroke of a pen. And he can take initial steps now toward longer-term goals for the next president to carry out.

Here are four practical ideas that should be part of Obama’s Hiroshima speech:

Support the test-ban treaty. The U.S. Senate will not approve the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty this year, but Obama could call for a United Nations resolution calling on all states to support the global moratorium on nuclear testing. The administration could accelerate its ongoing efforts to educate the U.S. public and the Senate on the treaty, to lay the groundwork for approval under the next president. The United States has not conducted a nuclear test for almost 25 years — and has no need to. If the United States does not act, it is only a matter of time until another state, such as Russia (which has long been a treaty signatory), resumes testing. Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to compel North Korea to stop its testing are weakened by America’s failure to ratify the test ban.

Reduce the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. After the New START treaty, which capped U.S. and Russian deployed strategic warheads at 1,550 each, Obama had planned another round of reductions with Moscow. In 2013, in Berlin, Obama said the United States could “maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent” and still reduce these weapons by up to one-third, to about 1,000. Obama, for political reasons, wanted to negotiate those cuts in tandem with Russia. President Vladimir Putin said “nyet.” But there is no security reason to wait. The United States could announce it will put about 500 warheads that are currently deployed into storage and challenge Russia to do the same.

Scale back the nuclear shopping spree. The United States does not need and cannot afford to rebuild the entire nuclear force as if the Cold War never ended. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, said on April 22 that “I think the area where we need to save money is on the nuclear modernization.… Do we really need the nuclear power to destroy the world six, seven times?” Obama should announce that he will cancel the planned $30 billion nuclear cruise missile, which is redundant, expensive, and destabilizing. He should also cancel the $60 billion replacement for the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and take all ICBMs off alert. These steps could be achieved quickly, before Obama leaves office. If we have to wait for the next president to act, it may be too late to stop these programs.

Retire all ICBMs. If he is feeling really bold, Obama could also announce that, in the longer term, the United States will retire all of its 400 deployed ICBMs. As former Defense Secretary Perry said recently, ICBMs are “not needed. Any reasonable definition of deterrence will not require that third leg,” of the so-called nuclear triad. Even without the ICBMs, the United States would still retain nuclear-armed submarines and bombers. If the United States were to reduce its arsenal by around 500 warheads, most of those could come off the retired ICBMs.

To keep the United States and the world safe from nuclear weapons, additional steps would be needed. North Korea must be brought, through coercive diplomacy, into the nonproliferation fold. States must continue to control and reduce their stocks of weapons materials to keep them off the terrorist black market. And this administration and future ones must keep a close eye on Iran to make sure it is complying with the terms of the agreement.

But now is the time for real action, and there’s no place better for a statement of intent. Obama should go to Hiroshima and boldly lead the world away from nuclear weapons. This may be his last chance to prevent a renewed race for nuclear arms and put the globe on the path to a nuclear-free future that he so eloquently launched in Prague. Mr. President, go to Hiroshima — and stick the landing.

Image Credit: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

Tom Z. Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC.

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