The U.S. President Who Finally Went to Hiroshima

Why visiting where we dropped an atomic bomb in 1945 is the only way to grasp the depths of human cruelty that transpired there.

ISE, JAPAN - MAY 26:  (L to R) U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the Ujibashi bridge as they visit at the Ise-Jingu Shrine on May 26, 2016 in Ise, Japan. In the two-day summit, the G7 leaders are scheduled to discuss global issues including counter-terrorism, energy policy, and sustainable development.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
ISE, JAPAN - MAY 26: (L to R) U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the Ujibashi bridge as they visit at the Ise-Jingu Shrine on May 26, 2016 in Ise, Japan. In the two-day summit, the G7 leaders are scheduled to discuss global issues including counter-terrorism, energy policy, and sustainable development. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

I have visited Hiroshima every August for the past few years as part of a round table on disarmament, convened by the governor of Hiroshima. I usually start writing something about that experience while I am there. Inevitably, those words end with a call for the U.S. president to go to Hiroshima. And, on Friday, he will.

President Barack Obama should go — as should you — because Hiroshima has a sense of place to it. That sense of place diverges from the debate about Hiroshima in the United States, especially Washington — a debate that, frankly, is an awful one, full of bigotry and anger. Worst of all, our arguments here are rarely genuine. Instead, they are simply extensions of our own toxic political discourse. As I have written before, our debates about Hiroshima reduce the victims of 1945 to the role of extras in their own murders.

The historical debate in the United States over Hiroshima, as best I can tell, began as a debate over responsibility for the Cold War. Who started it? The Soviets? Or is there a shared responsibility? I agree with the canonical view that there were three causes of the Cold War: Stalin, Stalin, and Stalin. In this telling, the wary peacemaking of Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam gave way to the realities of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. The Western allies largely accommodated Joseph Stalin’s demands for a zone of influence, an accommodation met with Soviet efforts to expand that zone. In 1948, the Soviets initiated a yearlong blockade of Berlin, followed by North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950.

But there was another view, of course. Western policy was not without its flaws — this is where nuclear weapons enter the picture. Many scientists, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, had urged U.S. President Harry Truman to inform Stalin about the existence of the atomic bomb before using it and to urgently seek some system of international control before the world plunged into an arms race that invited the possibility of atomic catastrophe. Of these people who opposed using the atomic bomb against Japan, very few were concerned about the incredible catastrophe that would be visited upon innocents. The U.S. Army Air Corps was laying waste to Japan, intending to leave not one stone lying upon another. What the opponents worried about was the arms race to come. If the Americans used the atomic bomb, they feared, the frightened Soviets would unleash an arms race.

They were right about the arms race, though it was far too late. Stalin and the Soviets knew perfectly well what the United States was building, thanks to a network of spies. The debates about whether or not to tell the Soviets seem rather absurd in hindsight, since all sides rather naively assumed there was a secret to keep. Truman ultimately did agree to “tell” Stalin, though he merely mentioned that the United States was developing a “new weapon of unusual destructive force.” Stalin, according to Truman’s translator Charles Bohlen, “did not ask or show any special interest” regarding the bomb. Truman took Stalin’s response to mean he had not really understood. But Stalin knew perfectly well what the United States was doing and afterward ordered Soviet scientists to “speed things up.”

In the revisionist telling, best represented by scholars such as Barton Bernstein and Gar Alperovitz, this background informs a much more sinister idea — that Truman knew the war was over but wanted to use the atomic bomb to intimidate Stalin. In this version of events, which I don’t find terribly compelling, the responsibility for the Cold War is shared between two mass murderers.

There are any number of problems with the revisionist account. It’s not clear to me Truman had carefully thought through the implications of using the bomb or really understood that it might be a dramatic escalation from the enormous bombing campaign already underway. It is hard to assign simple motives to any large group of people, like “the United States.” Why “the United States” does anything is always a complicated story involving people working both with and against one other. In the case of Hiroshima, if anything, there was no decision to use the bomb, just an enormous amount of institutional momentum that rolled over haphazardly raised objections and qualms. I have a lot of objections to strategic bombing, and what John Hersey called the “material and spiritual evil” of total war, to say nothing of the racist propaganda required to facilitate killing on such a scale. But to postulate a geopolitical rationale for using the atomic bomb elides the awful human cruelty that was on display in 1945 and not just in Hiroshima.

And the revisionists have something else wrong, too. World War II was over — but it had not ended. If you study war and violence, you know that people continue killing each other even after the original justifications for the killing are obsolete. Japan’s leaders knew the war was lost, but that wasn’t quite enough to convince them to surrender. And Japan’s war cabinet was focused less on an imminent U.S. invasion than the more immediate problem of domestic subversion from the left if the conflict continued and from the right if it did not. The Japanese materials now available to scholars seem to show that Soviet entry into the war was the event that produced the biggest shock. And what turned the tide in Tokyo, which was divided over the issue of surrender, was the diplomatic note issued by U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes that slightly softened the terms of Japan’s “unconditional” surrender. Even then, the story is a Japanese one. The historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argues that Japanese leaders interpreted the Byrnes note in a certain way because the translation into Japanese from the Foreign Ministry had been deliberately phrased to emphasize the possibility that Emperor Hirohito would remain in power.

But that’s a funny interpretation of Japan’s surrender, emphasizing people, places, and, above all, chance. Truman had his friend Jimmy Byrnes send a vague note, and a pair of obscure bureaucrats put a little English on the translation, so to speak. And that’s why your granddad didn’t die on some god-forsaken beach code-named after a car. That kind of account doesn’t really satisfy us, does it? Grand decisions require equally grand reasons. We want the story of the bomb to match the stakes in our own debates about who started the Cold War or the role that nuclear weapons played in our security. That’s because our debates about Hiroshima aren’t about understanding Truman, or the Japanese Foreign Ministry, or even the people who died. They are about ourselves.

Over time, the debate about the meaning of Hiroshima has shifted from responsibility for the Cold War to the question of whether we should plan, indefinitely, to base our security on the threat of nuclear destruction. Ward Wilson, in particular, has argued that the account of Hiroshima plays a central role in our modern myths about deterrence and the bomb as the winning weapon. The earliest American view was that nuclear weapons were the latest, most modern weapon — what American financier and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch called “the winning weapon.” In his memoirs, Dwight Eisenhower wrote, “My feeling was then, and still remains, that it would be impossible for the United States to maintain the military commitments which it now sustains around the world (without turning into a garrison state) did we not possess atomic weapons and the will to use them when necessary.”

The other view, the one articulated by the nuclear scientists who pressed Truman to tell Stalin and explore some system of international control, is that nuclear weapons are so destructive that they require radically different political institutions. “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything,” Albert Einstein wrote in an appeal, “save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” The early atomic scientists were concerned that an arms race would, sooner or later, result in a catastrophic nuclear war. As it turns out, the Cold War lasted 50 years, and the United States and Russia to this day retain thousands of nuclear weapons. Yet deterrence seems to have kept the peace. So, what’s to worry about, right?

Living under nuclear deterrence wasn’t too fun. It is important to recall that a substantial part of the discourse about living with nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, from the work of Herman Kahn to Keith Payne, centered on the argument that there were still meaningful concepts of victory in nuclear war, particularly if casualties could be kept below 20 million. If that seems a little frightening now, let me tell you that it was frightening then. My childhood was marked by a genuine fear of nuclear war. And, at one point, hundreds of thousands of people turned out in Central Park to protest the arms race. It is hard to summon that sense of danger in a conference room on K Street. It’s much easier in a place like Hiroshima.

Making good-faith efforts to negotiate “general and complete disarmament under … international control,” as we are obligated to do under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, might seem fanciful. But is disarmament as fanciful as the idea that the threat of nuclear holocaust will keep the peace forever? Or as fanciful as the idea that we need never stop resorting to war to settle international disputes, because political leaders will always recoil at the horror of nuclear war before things spin out of control? Hiroshima might stand as a testament to the power of nuclear weapons, but it also testifies to the darkest possibilities in our institutions and in ourselves. Normally, I’d insert a joke at this point in the column — but this just isn’t funny.

And so, when I walk through the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, I think of these debates. But they seem strange and alien, as though they concern some other place. Wandering around the streets of Hiroshima, you might see a family pushing a stroller or someone rushing to work. If you do so at 8:15 in the morning, you might look up at the sky and imagine a lone bomber. And then look around. At that moment, you share a fate with all the people around you, because you share a place. That is the sense of place I am talking about — that sense of a shared fate, for all human beings, that makes the hostility and bigotry of the American debate over the bombing seem pathetic. That anger is, more than anything, a defense mechanism, a fearful refuge against the vulnerability that we all share as human beings. Even the reasoned examinations of the bombing seem to be an exercise in distancing, the clinical language its own kind of defense against how frail and fleeting our lives are. Our entire discourse avoids dealing with the central problem of the nuclear age.

We try to resist the idea that nuclear weapons represent a kind of turning point in human history, in which we have the capacity to destroy ourselves. What that means is that we pose a kind of shared danger to ourselves, one that compels us to set aside differences, adapt our political institutions, and work toward a common peace. That sounds ridiculous in a conference room, perhaps, but not in Hiroshima. Quite the opposite. It’s all the rest of it that feels ridiculous: the preening politicians, the talking heads with perfect teeth, the generals and admirals covered in medals. I always found those people and their pretensions a little absurd. But I never feel it quite as strongly as I do in Hiroshima. I wonder if President Obama will feel it, too.

Photo Credit: Chung Sung-Jun / Staff

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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